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Electronic health record functionality needed to better support primary care

Alex H Krist , John W Beasley , Jesse C Crosson , David C Kibbe , Michael S Klinkman , Christoph U Lehmann , Chester H Fox , Jason M Mitchell , James W Mold , Wilson D Pace , Kevin A Peterson , Robert L Phillips , Robert Post , Jon Puro , Michael Raddock , Ray Simkus , Steven E Waldren
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/amiajnl-2013-002229 764-771 First published online: 1 September 2014


Electronic health records (EHRs) must support primary care clinicians and patients, yet many clinicians remain dissatisfied with their system. This article presents a consensus statement about gaps in current EHR functionality and needed enhancements to support primary care. The Institute of Medicine primary care attributes were used to define needs and meaningful use (MU) objectives to define EHR functionality. Current objectives remain focused on disease rather than the whole person, ignoring factors such as personal risks, behaviors, family structure, and occupational and environmental influences. Primary care needs EHRs to move beyond documentation to interpreting and tracking information over time, as well as patient-partnering activities, support for team-based care, population-management tools that deliver care, and reduced documentation burden. While stage 3 MU's focus on outcomes is laudable, enhanced functionality is still needed, including EHR modifications, expanded use of patient portals, seamless integration with external applications, and advancement of national infrastructure and policies.

  • Primary Care
  • Electronic Health Records
  • Meaningful Use


The adoption and use of electronic health records (EHRs) holds the promise of improved care and better patient outcomes.13 To ensure that all Americans enjoy benefits, national legislation charged the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) with defining national EHR meaningful use (MU) objectives and measures.4 ,5 Adherence to MU is being reinforced by US$27 billion in incentives.6 ,7 While MU is intended to encourage clinician use of existing EHR features, it has effectively directed the energies and innovations of EHR vendors as well.8

MU is divided into three stages. Stage 1 focused on promoting data capture and sharing (2011), stage 2 on promoting exchange of health information (2014), and stage 3 on improving outcomes (2016).911 Throughout, CMS and ONC have sought input from experts, clinicians, and the public.12

Many have questioned whether EHR design and MU support promising new care models, such as the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) and Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH).1315 A useful evaluation, which has not been previously made, is how well EHR functionality supports primary care. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) asserts that ‘primary care is the logical foundation of an effective health care system because it can address the large majority of health problems in the population.’16 This is supported by evidence demonstrating that primary care extends life span, reduces morbidity, increases satisfaction, reduces disparities, and is cost effective.17 It is also where the majority of people receive care.18 ,19

Primary care has embraced EHR adoption and MU. Online appendix A describes the phases of how practices achieve MU. In 2011, 57% of office-based physicians reported using any EHR, and, in 2013, more than half had received MU incentives.20 ,21 Yet clinicians commonly report EHR dissatisfaction.2225

This article presents a consensus statement from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM), and North American Primary Care Research Group. It identifies gaps in current EHR functionality and makes enhancement recommendations to better support primary care. The IOM attributes of primary care were used to define primary care needs, and stage 2 MU eligible provider objectives were used to define EHR functionality. Steps to reach consensus included (1) assigning each MU objective to the primary care attribute it supported,16 ,26 (2) identifying unmet needs within each attribute, and (3) obtaining iterative input from organization members and 148 practicing clinicians. Initial work was carried out by the 43 members of the NAPCRG Health Information Technology (HIT) working group (primary care HIT leaders from 38 institutions internationally). Practicing clinicians were identified from four practice-based research networks and included family physicians (n=78), internists (n=16), pediatricians (n=18), mid-level providers (n=12), nurses (n=15), and informatics staff (n=9) from 15 states in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Participant consensus was sought during each step.

Primary care attributes

The IOM defines primary care as ‘the provision of integrated, accessible health care services by clinicians who are accountable for addressing a large majority of personal health needs, developing a sustained partnership with patients, and practicing in the context of family and community.’16 Central to primary care is the patient–clinician relationship, established with the mutual expectation of continuation over time and predicated on the development of mutual trust, respect, and responsibility. Family and community provide context, and an integrated delivery system provides the means for delivery of care.16 The IOM indentifies seven attributes that characterize primary care (figure 1), 16 which are echoed in the Chronic Care Model, PCMH, and ACO design.2730 EHRs that meet the needs of primary care will meet the needs of these care models, specialists, and hospital-based clinicians.

Figure 1

Seven Key Primary Care Attributes Defines by the Institute of Medicine.

MU objectives and primary care attributes

Stage 1 and 2 MU objectives were finalized on July 13, 2010 and August 23, 2012, respectively, and stage 3 will be finalized in 2015.6 ,31 Two groups of participants are eligible to receive incentives—eligible providers and hospitals. This article focuses on stage 2 provider objectives.

MU objectives are defined by specific reportable measures and targets to achieve.32 Stage 1 has 15 core objectives and 10 additional objectives—five of which clinicians select to report. Stage 2 consists of 17 core and six additional objectives—of which clinicians report three.10 The assignment of each MU objective by the primary care attribute it best supports is presented in table 1. As the MU objectives were not specifically designed around the IOM primary care attributes, some objectives do not clearly support any primary care attribute, and others support multiple primary care attributes. For this perspective, each objective was categorized by group consensus as supporting only one attribute.

View this table:
Table 1

Stage 1 and stage 2 meaningful use (MU) objectives categorized by primary care attribute

Primary care needs and EHR enhancements

As demonstrated in table 1, the content of stage 2 MU objectives appears to inadequately support primary care attributes. MU has driven EHRs to better support the coordinated and integrated attributes, but they do less to promote the accessible, sustained, partnership, and person-centered attributes. For the variety, complexity, and comprehensiveness of primary care to be captured, a fundamental shift is needed from the documentation of episodic and procedural care to the evidence-based personalization of longitudinal whole-person care with active patient and care team participation. Specific EHR enhancements to address unmet primary care needs are outlined in box 1 and in the text below.

View this table:
Table 2

Electronic health record (EHR) and information technology enhancements not addressed by meaningful use (MU) and needed to better support primary care


To increase clinician accessibility, EHRs need to reduce documentation burden, help clinicians move beyond visits to deliver care, and allow clinicians to evaluate, monitor, and improve accessibility. Current EHRs essentially add a ‘third party’ to the examination room, competing with patients for clinician attention.33 ,34 This effect is greater when information is difficult to access or when documentation is time consuming.

If EHRs could easily aggregate and accept structured clinical data from external sources, they might reduce documentation workload, allowing the clinician to be fully present for the patient. Objectives require the ability to view, download, and transmit health information, but not update a clinician's EHR.35 To extend care outside visits, clinicians need enhanced electronic communication tools coupled with capacity for patients to electronically share health information (eg, pictures, device data). Interactions with patients could expand beyond messaging and include video conferencing, yet clinicians report that EHRs lack even basic communication functions.36


Clinicians need EHRs that can coordinate and track care delivery across all clinical settings. Stage 2 MU objectives advance the creation and use of information exchanges, an important prerequisite for coordinating care. While the ability to exchange information must exist in all certified EHRs, they often require the creation of individualized and costly interfaces. As a result, clinicians in small to medium sized practices are largely excluded.37 ,38 Practices need access to ‘out of the box’ information exchanges that can easily send and receive a patient's health information. To have this functionality, EHRs need to adopt standard data models, coding systems, and vocabularies; clinicians need to adopt standardized methods for recording and tracking patient data.

Through PCMH and ACO initiatives, practices are expanding staff roles, creating care teams, and partnering a growing cadre of ancillary services.2730 Clinicians will need EHRs that allow the electronic formation of teams with defined member roles, mechanisms to distribute tasks, processes for communication, and tools to track patient progress. These functions will need to extend beyond individual practices to integrate a range of clinicians and services in multiple healthcare settings and the community. Such functionality is essential to support clinical–mental health and primary care–public health integrations.39

A more fundamental deficiency for supporting coordination is EHRs' focus on information documentation rather than extraction. Clinicians need a dashboard that synthesizes and prioritizes information across clinicians and settings to clearly show what has happened to a patient or what is happening within a panel of patients. A patient dashboard might show the sequence of clinicians that have seen the patient, changes in medications and diagnoses, and results from tests and procedures. A panel dashboard might show urgent messages or a list of patients seen in an acute care facility or admitted to the hospital.

Sustained care

To promote sustained care, MU only mandates that EHRs have reminders and generate registries. More is needed to promote both continuity and longitudinality. Continuity requires establishing and defining relationships and tracking how well relationships are maintained. EHRs need to allow patients to identify their clinicians. Clinicians need to define and track their patient panel size.

Clinicians need EHRs that have evolved beyond merely linking data according to data type (laboratory results, medications) or units of service (visits) in support of fee-for-service billing to provide the capacity to view episodes of care and display the chronological progression of signs and symptoms.4042 For chronic conditions, EHRs could make it easy, within the same graphic representation, to see a timeline of laboratory results, medication changes, and symptom/disease evolution.


MU has begun to advance data acquisition and documentation, basic decision support, and outcome tracking, but objectives remain process- (eg, record smoking status) and disease-focused. Primary care addresses the entire health spectrum and will need EHRs with more robust decision support to address all of prevention, acute care, chronic care, and mental health.43 ,44 To provide comprehensive care, clinicians need accurate health information. Beyond medication reconciliation, no objectives address information accuracy. EHRs could be configured to automate resolution of outdated information, identify data inconsistencies, and allow patients to participate in the reconciliation process.

Partnership with patients

Care needs to be tailored to each individual through shared decision-making and patient and family engagement.45 Objectives do little to support this, beyond sharing clinical summaries, providing basic educational resources, and documenting advanced directives. Contextual factors that influence decision-making (eg, goals, values, preferences, priorities, resources) need to be included in EHRs. EHRs need to clarify how decisions are made, initiate delivery of decision-support material, and integrate use of materials into encounters.46 ,47 The record should capture and document a patient's readiness to change unhealthy behaviors and also appropriately provide tailored prompts and materials to clinicians, patients, and families to better motivate and support change.47 Integrated health risk appraisals and other prioritization tools completed by patients can further help to move beyond disease-oriented care to goal-directed care.48 ,49


An understanding of the patient is central to creating long-term partnerships. The current objectives of recording demographics and family history do not support addressing whole-person care in the context of family and community. Person-centered care requires integration of social, cultural, and community context, biomedical, behavioral, and social risks, and personal goals and preferences.50 A person-centered summary, or ‘patient profile,’ should be available as a dashboard in the EHR, and decision-support tools should be tailored on the basis of these factors. Through patient portals, patients should be able to enter and edit their own information to improve accuracy and ease of data collection.


Clinicians need EHRs to serve as the information backbone across all primary care attributes throughout a clinician's practice, community, and career.14 ,2730 Clinicians will need more robust clinical decision support that facilitates integration of all aspects of evidence-based guidelines, including high-risk individuals, guideline exceptions, influence of comorbidities, and patient preference.51 Current decision support is too simplistic, resulting in inaccurate prompts, alert fatigue, and inappropriate care.52 ,53 Greater federal coordination is needed to ensure that decision supports are implemented consistent with, and prioritized to, national needs.5456

At the practice level, clinicians need more effective population-management tools. They need to be able to generate their own quality reports on demand, tailor reports to individual needs, and seamlessly move from population measures to initiating care delivery for patients in need of services.57 Important clinical outcomes, such as death, hospitalization, quality of life, and satisfaction with care, need to be systematically documented, tracked, and benchmarked. Given that information and patient needs vary between clinicians, EHRs need to allow local tailoring of functionality and content while maintaining standardization.

Throughout their careers, clinicians must maintain competencies and core skills, demonstrated through board (re)certification and maintenance of certification. To support this process, clinicians need tools embedded in EHRs to measure, trend, and benchmark performance, conduct knowledge assessments based on practice behaviors, and support continuous quality improvement.58


Providing primary care is an important but daunting task, and designing EHRs to support primary care is equally challenging. The systematic process of comparing the stage 2 MU objectives with the IOM core attributes of primary care demonstrates that EHRs are not being required to consistently support all attributes of primary care.

As detailed in box 1, this analysis suggests that primary care needs additional EHR functions, but some are more critical than others. High-priority items per group consensus include:

  1. Enhancing the extraction, interpretation, and prioritization of critical health information for individual patients and a clinician's patient panel;

  2. Advancing information exchange to coordinate care across clinicians and settings;

  3. Greater patient engagement;

  4. Population-management tools to deliver care;

  5. Reduction in documentation burden;

  6. Better integration of care across settings.

It will be tempting for ONC and EHR vendors to discount these suggestions, stating that the issue is one of implementation and not development. However, clinician input and review of this article, as well as the literature, reveal that major advances in EHRs are needed. Take for example the objective to ‘view, download, and transmit health information’; an EHR can meet this requirement without being functional by merely having the capability to assemble and send information.59 ,60 This does not require data integration, update EHR content, provide care coordination, or even provide an easy transfer mechanism.

The approach used in this article of comparing the stage 2 MU objectives with the IOM core attributes of primary care has several limitations. First, while MU has incentivized EHR advances, EHRs have functionality not defined by MU objectives. Second, neither MU objectives nor EHR functionality were explicitly designed around primary care attributes. Although categorizing existing objectives and desired EHR additions is a useful and systematic approach, it is a subjective process. Third, the recommendations made in this article are not prescriptively detailed. Many EHR additions and enhancements will require innovative and novel ideas and solutions. This article purposefully focuses on what primary care clinicians think they need and not what can easily be done. Fourth, the stage 3 MU objectives currently under review may address some of the deficiencies identified in this article. Finally, just because there is a gap in EHR functionality does not mean that adding the functionality will improve outcomes. Research is needed to ensure that functions work and do not introduce unintended consequences.

More is outlined in this article than can be accomplished by MU or EHR developers alone. Years of effort, from many entities, are needed to improve EHR functionality. Some functions will be technically difficult; others may require fundamental EHR redesign. Some functions may be delivered best through external applications that are easily integrated into EHRs. Finally, some functions will require infrastructure development, new business models, and policy changes outside the control of EHR developers, such as health information exchange advancement, data standardization, privacy and security regulatory reform, and integration of national guidelines and priorities.


All listed authors substantially contributed to the conception and design of the framework to generate recommendations, development of the manuscript's recommendation, initial drafting and/or revision of the manuscript, and review and final approval of the manuscript for publication.

Competing interests


Provenance and peer review

Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.


This publication was reviewed and endorsed by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM), and North American Primary Care Research Group (NAPCRG). This work was partially supported by CTSA Grant Number ULTR00058 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). We would like to thank all the participants who provided meaningful input into the content of this article and its recommendations including the NAPCRG's Health Information Technology Committee, AAFP National Research Network (NRN), Oklahoma Physicians Resource/Research Network (OKPRN), OCHIN, Virginia Ambulatory Care Outcomes Research Network (ACORN), Robert Bernstein PhD MDCM, Brendan Delany MD, Elias Brandt, Emily Eaton, Kurtis Elward MD, Thomas Ehrlich MD, Roland Grad MD CM MSc, Sarah Gwynne AM, John Hughes MD, Samuel Jones MD, Thomas Kuhn MD, Susan Lin DrPh, John Machado, David Mehr MD MS, Zsolt Nagykaldi PhD, Kevin Pearce, Michael Raddock MD, Vanessa Short MPH, Alexander Singer MD, Karen Tu MD MSc, Edward Zimmerman MS. We would also like to especially thank Laura Nichols MS for organizing and coordinating writing activities. A modified version of this article was submitted to the Office of the National Coordinator's Health Information Technology Policy Committee (HITPC) as a joint policy statement from AAFP, AAP, ABFM, and NAPCRG to inform stage 3 MU Recommendations on January 14, 2013.


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