We’re Just Getting Started with an Internet of Healthy Things (Part 1 of 3)

Posted on November 24, 2015 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The release of Joseph Kvedar’s book The Internet of Healthy Thingscoincided with the 15th annual symposium on Connected Health, which he runs every year and which I reported on earlier. Now, more than ever, a health field in crisis needs his pointed insights into the vision widely shared by all observers: collaborative, data-rich, technology-enabled, transparent, and patient-centered.

The promise and the imminent threat

A big part of Dr. Kvedar’s observations concern cost savings and “scaling” clinicians’ efforts to allow a smaller team to treat a larger community of patients with more intensive attention. As I review this book, shock waves about costs are threatening the very foundations of the Affordable Care Act. Massive losses by insurers and providers alike have led to the abandonment of Accountable Care Organizations by many who tried them. The recent bail-out by UnitedHealth was an ominous warning, eagerly jumped on by Fox News. Although other insurers issued assurances that they stay with the basic ACA program, most are reacting to the increased burden of caring for newly signed up patients by imposing insufferably high deductibles as well as extremely narrow networks of available providers. This turns the very people who should benefit from the ACA against the system.

There is nothing surprising about this development, which I have labeled a typical scam against consumers. If you sign up very sick people for insurance and don’t actually make them better, your costs will go up. T.R. Reid averred in his book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care that this is the sequence all countries have to follow: first commit to universal healthcare, then institute the efficiencies that keep costs under control. So why hasn’t that happened here?

Essentially, the health care system has failed us. Hospitals have failed to adopt the basic efficiency mechanisms used in other industries and still have trouble exchanging records or offering patients access to their data. A recent study finds that only 40% of physicians shared data within their own networks, and a measly 5% share data with providers outside their networks.

This is partly because electronic health records still make data exchange difficult, particularly with the all-important behavioral health clinics that can creat lifestyle changes in patients. Robust standards were never set up, leading to poor implementations. On top of that, usability is poor.

The federal government is well aware of the problem and has been pushing the industry toward more interoperability and patient engagement for years. But as health IT leader John Halamka explains, organizations are not ready for the necessary organizational and technological changes.

Although video interviews and home monitoring are finding footholds, the health industry is still characterized by hours of reading People magazine in doctors’ waiting rooms. The good news is that patients are open to mobile health innovations–the bad news is that most doctors are not.

The next section of this article will continue with lessons learned–and applied–both by Dr. Kvedar’s organization, Partners Connected Health, and by other fresh actors in the health care space.