Common EMR Implementation Issue – EHR Performance Issues

Posted on August 24, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

We’re back again with our ongoing series on Common EMR Implementation Issues. Seems like readers really liked my first entry in the series about Unexpected EHR Expenses. To be quite honest, I was really happy with how that post turned out myself. It’s one of the most comprehensive and useful posts I’ve written in the 5.5+ years I’ve been writing about EMR and EHR. Hopefully we can continue that trend.

Today’s Common EMR Implementation Problem: EHR Performance Issues

I have to admit that this is a really tough problem to crack. However, it’s also incredibly common. The symptoms for this problem usually are described as, “THIS EHR IS SOOOOOO SLOW!” (This is appropriate use of ALL CAPS since they are often yelling this.) Followed by a *huff* and an angry doctor or nurse leaving their computer in a fit of rage. Other symptoms might include drumming fingers on the desk while staring blankly at the screen, lots of mouse clicks that get progressively longer and more emphatic, or the sitting back in your chair staring at the screen hoping that something will happen.

Once you’ve identified that there’s a problem with EHR slowness, then begins the fun and exciting (that was written in the sarcasm font) journey to identify the real issue. The biggest challenge with identifying the slowness is that there are a multitude of places that could be the bottleneck that’s causing your slowness. Some of which you can fix, and others you have to rely on your EHR vendor to fix.

To assist you in the ugly process of improving EHR performance issues, here’s a list of possible reasons you could have a slow EHR.

EHR Slowness You’re Responsible For
Slow Computers and/or Laptops – I’ve heard of a few EHR vendors offering free iPad’s with their EHR, but for the most part, you’re responsible for buying the computers and laptops for your EHR implementation. See my “EHR Speed Suggestion – Don’t Skimp on Hardware” below for more info on buying the right hardware. Needless to say, I’ve seen many slow computers be replaced and the EHR went a lot faster.

Slow Local Internet – Your local internet (or LAN as it’s often referred) could be the cause of your EHR slowness. I could have split this point into a half dozen possible issues. Some of them might include: Bad network card, bad cabling, bad switch, bad router, bad routing configuration, bad DNS configuration, overwhelmed network, etc etc.

Of course, in most cases you’ll probably have to call your IT service provider to solve these issues. They should be able to easily test most of the above issues and prove that it works for other internet applications and so it must be some other issue causing your EHR slowness.

Slow ISP (external internet connection) – If you’re using an in house EHR server, you won’t have to worry about this as much (except for interfaces, or EHR updates). If you’re using a SaaS EHR, then this could be a major bottleneck. Good thing is that it’s easy to test your ISP speed. If you’re speed is great to other sites, but not your EHR then you can move on to another issue. If you’re speed is bad for all sites on the internet, you need to see if your ISP can make some changes to provide the speed you’ve purchases from them. Otherwise, you might just need a bigger ISP connection than you have and you’ll be able to get your EHR running much faster.

Also, be sure you don’t have employees using up all your bandwidth downloading illegal (or legal) music or videos. That can eat up your bandwidth really quickly. There’s a reason Netflix uses up 20% of bandwidth on the internet. Movie downloads/watching might be using up your internet connection as well.

Memory on Server – I see this issue most often when a clinic tries to re-provision an old server for their new EHR or when they don’t follow the suggested specs of their EHR vendor. It can also happen when you start your EHR with 1 doctor and then grow your practice to 5 doctors. More users usually requires more memory on the server. There are good tools on servers for analyzing how much memory is being used so you’ll know if this is the problem or not.

Hard Disk Space on Server – This definitely shouldn’t happen in a fresh EHR install, but often can happen over time. Servers don’t like to run out of hard disk space and can do all sorts of crazy and unexpected things if they do. Other things that cause a hard disk to run out space might be backups or large log files. I’ve also seen where the IT administrator takes a 500 GB hard drive and divides it into multiple partitions. One partition for the O/S and one partition for the data. Often they misjudge how much to give to one partition versus the other. So, the one partition runs out of space while the other one has TONS of space left.

Good planning and regular maintenance will avoid these issues.

CPU on Server – I believe this is pretty rare these days since memory is usually the bottleneck instead of CPU. However, if the EHR software isn’t written correctly, this could be an issue. Particularly on older boxes.

Complex Workstation Setup – Your IT service provider might have told you all the great benefits of a thin client setup or some sort of virtualized desktop software solution. When done right, these solutions can work fantastic and save you a LOT of money. When done wrong, they can cause you all sorts of slowness and heartache.

EHR Slowness Your EHR Vendor Must Fix
Slow Server Configuration – There are lots of ways to tweak a server to go faster with less resources. Unfortunately, most of these tweaks are likely going to have to come from your EHR vendor. In a larger hospital implementation, you might be able to work with your EHR vendor to implement some of these tweaks. In a small clinic, you’re basically at the mercy of your EHR vendor to configure the server to run fast.

Slow Server (SaaS EHR) – Yes, SaaS EHR vendor servers can go slow too. The good thing is that your EHR vendor likely has monitoring tools that are watching for any slowness so they can proactively fix it. The problem is that then you’re at their mercy to fix the slowness. Needless to say, an EHR vendor’s server support staff rarely feel the end user pain of EHR slowness. At least the pain isn’t nearly as poignant.

Of course, a chorus of calls from EHR users to the EHR support line will help them understand better and fix the slowness. One call about your in house server doesn’t resonate quite as loud.

Slow or Overwhelmed Data Center Connection – Data Center internet connections are generally quite robust and built with a lot of redundancy. However, since data centers usually host many many different systems, they can also get overwhelmed. Sometimes through spikes of traffic, but more often through other nefarious attacks on the systems in the data center. Often, it’s not even your EHR software that’s causing the issue, but it might suffer the consequence. Not very common, but possible.

A little more common could be an EHR vendor that’s growing so rapidly that they can’t keep up with the demand for their EHR software. Other times the EHR vendor just did a poor job planning to expand their EHR data center services.

Poor EHR Code – Not all code is created equal. Some programmers are good at creating code that will execute quickly, but most are not. Fixing speed issues aren’t trivial. Particularly if you have a large code base that’s been created over a long period of time.

Poor EHR Design – The design of an EHR software often determines how fast it work. Designing for speed from the beginning is crucial. Otherwise, a poorly structured EHR can almost never be made fast.

Related to this is EHR software built on old technology. To use a car analogy, you can only make a pinto go so fast without gutting the engine. Too many EHR vendors are built on engines that can only go so fast. They can keep squeezing a bit more speed out of the engine, but eventually you have no other speed benefits because of the legacy technology limitations.

I’m sure there are other possible bottlenecks. Let me know of any I missed in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

EHR Performance Finger Pointing
Another big problem with the complex list above is that it often leads to a bunch of finger pointing. Yes, sometimes it will feel like you’re back in Kindergarten again. Your EHR vendor will point the finger at your IT setup. Your IT service provider will point the finger at the EHR vendor. Then, the EHR vendor will point the finger at the hardware vendor. You’ll never be able to talk to a person at the hardware vendor and so you’ll have to use other tricks to prove it’s not them.

Needless to say the finger pointing can get really tiring really quick. Not to mention it can be very expensive as you spend money proving to your EHR vendor that it really is their problem and not your setup.

I’ll follow up this post with another on how to avoid EHR Performance Issues during the EHR selection process. I’ll link to that post once it’s up.

Side Note: This post was much longer than expected. I guess I did have a lot to say about this issue.