As you’ve likely heard many times before, the Medicare program offers up to $44,000 in financial incentives per provider, and the Medicaid program offers up to $64,000 in financial incentives per provider—if you start reporting meaningful use by 2012. Since 2012 is practically tomorrow, health care providers nationwide are biting their nails and doing all sorts of mental gymnastics as they calculate how quickly they can set up a new EHR system so they can start reporting right away. But is rushing into the reporting phase really a worthwhile endeavor? Probably not, say the seasoned pros that share this and other wise advice in “Meaningful Use from the Trenches.”

Consider optometrist Richard Driscoll’s practice in Keller, Texas. Total Eye Care had been paperless for more than a decade, yet they still do not qualify for the meaningful use incentives as described by the federal Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. Why? Despite the staff’s comfort level with EHRs, they are not fulfilling enough of the meaningful use measures as dictated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Rather than jump right in and start their 90-day reporting period, Dr. Driscoll and his staff have chosen to proceed slowly and do their homework first, so when they begin reporting next month, they’ll know they’re getting it right—without creating unnecessary chaos in the practice. What’s more, Dr. Driscoll has learned a lot during these past few months of preparation and one thing is clear: “I wouldn’t want to start EHR and meaningful use at the same time,” he says.

Optometrist Ryan Wineinger, of Shawnee, Kans., agrees. “Don’t get lost in meaningful use if you are a new user,” he says. He recommends that you first get accustomed to your system—then, educate yourself on meaningful use. Dr. Wineinger was one of the first optometrists to report meaningful use.

The first preliminary step to getting ready for meaningful use is making sure that you are running approved software. Some packages, including ones that you may already be running, do not carry the stamp of approval from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC). “You must use the certified software to meet each of the meaningful use objectives as they are described,” says AOA Health and Information Technology Committee member Jay W. Henry, O.D., M.S. It is imperative that you check your software to make sure the exact version (not brand) that you are using is certified.

There are 15 meaningful use core measures and 10 menu set measures of meaningful use. They don’t all apply to optometry and you may be eligible for some exemptions. So, again, do your homework upfront. Dr. Henry shares a helpful step-by-step approach to getting started, and contributing editor, Jane Cole, includes a list of helpful resources.

If you get on board with meaningful use sooner rather than later, you won’t run the risk of being penalized with a Medicare payment adjustment. But, rushing through the process carries penalties of its own. So, as the saying goes, “Take your time … just not too much time.”

Amy Hellem