Over the next three years, meaningful use policy will be instituted in stages, and medical providers are required to prove their qualification or face penalties as early as 2015. While these penalties, or “adjustments,” are over two years away, the time for penalty-avoidance footwork is now.

Why the new legislation? Meaningful use in relation to electronic health records provides a safer health database with greater accessibility to patients and medical professionals. With properly-used electronic health records, patients can look forward to improved quality and efficiency, with a decrease in health disparities, improved care coordination, an increase in patient and family member engagement, and maintenance of privacy and security of patient health information.

The objectives for meaningful use are outlined in three stages, to be achieved over the next three years:

– Stage 1: (2011-2012) Data capture and sharing.

– Stage 2: (2013) Advance clinical processes.

– Stage 3: (2015) Improved outcomes.

With incentives provided by the Obama Administration’s Health IT program available to medical providers, professionals are well-advised to begin their documentation and reporting of efforts now to support the attestation process, during which they attest or prove their appropriate use of EHR.

With Stage 1 currently defined, participants have a clear picture of what actions are required, and should consistently document and report the following efforts:

– Process medication orders using computerized entry.

– Implement checks for drug-drug and drug-allergy interactions.

– Electronically generate and transmit permissible prescriptions.

– Record demographics.

– Maintain and update a list of current and active diagnoses.

– Maintain lists of active medications and active medication allergies.

– Record and chart vital signs changes.

– Record smoking status for patients 13 years old or older.

– Implement one clinical decision support rule.

– Report ambulatory quality measures to CMS or the States.

– Upon request, provide patients with an electronic copy of their health information.

– Provide patients with clinical summaries for each office visit.

– Exercise capability to exchange clinical information electronically between providers and patient authorized entities.

– Protect the privacy of electronic health information.

Because the 2015 penalties apply only to Medicare, medical providers in the Medicare EHR Incentive Program must attest that during a 90-day reporting period (the first 90 days of consecutive meaningful use), they used a certified EHR and met the above Stage 1 criteria. By providing this diligence, users go a long way in avoiding the potential penalties.

While current legislation states that penalties will not apply to Medicaid providers, their meaningful use of electronic health records still requires attestation. In the case of both Medicare and Medicaid, Incentive Program attestation requirements may vary, and providers should seek specifics relating to their first 90 days of reporting.

Providers who wish to avoid penalties must begin their attestation process no later than July 3, 2014. However, the safest way to avoid the 2015 penalty is to demonstrate meaningful use in 2013. For the best outcome, providers should verse themselves and their employees in the new legislation and make documentation an office routine.