Practice Fusion touts growth of 'free' EMR

You've no doubt heard of Practice Fusion by now. That's the San Francisco vendor that provides a free, advertising-supported EMR to a roster of physicians that the company says numbers 43,000.

But does that model represent the future of EMRs, and is "free" really free? Practice Fusion's business partner sure thinks so.

"Advertising is a natural fit in the healthcare sector," Bill Jennings, CEO of Good Health Media, which serves up targeted, mostly pharmaceutical advertising to Practice Fusion users, says in a press release. "Doctors get it; they're comfortable with discreet advertising inside their medical practice. The advertising programs give a small medical practice the chance to add a time-saving, life-saving technology solution for free. It's a benefit for the advertiser, the doctor and the patient."

Practice Fusion says online ad spending by pharmaceutical companies will grow by more than 10 percent this year, based on an estimate from IAB, a group representing the interactive advertising industry. The company now has enough of a user base to schedule its first-ever user conference in November.

The free product also can save practices tens of thousands of dollars while potentially qualifying them to earn Medicare or Medicaid bonus payments for "meaningful use" of EMRs starting next year.

Some physicians may be uncomfortable with that kind of arrangement, though. "As with free email, the price of an ad-based EMR could be a tradeoff that some healthcare providers are willing to make, especially those that don't have a lot of capital floating around to sink into EMRs, regardless of possible incentive payments," writes CMIO editor Mary Stevens. "If EMRs follow the same track to ubiquity and the web, vendors must screen potential advertisers with an eye toward HIPAA privacy and security considerations."

For the record, Practice Fusion says its product is HIPAA-compliant and that the EMR will be certified by an authorized testing and certification body. But Stevens wonders if an EMR can truly be free, and is asking readers to comment. After all, anyone can request a copy of the VA's open-source VistA EMR for a nominal fee, but you still have to license a commercial database and pay your own implementation costs.

To learn more:
- read this Practice Fusion press release
- take a look at this CMIO commentary
- see the announcement of Practice Fusion's first user conference