Our Uncontrolled Health Care Costs Can Be Traced to Data and Communication Failures (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on April 12, 2016 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.

A host of scapegoats, ranging from the Affordable Care Act to unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies, have been blamed for the rise in health care costs that are destroying our financial well-being, our social fabric, and our political balance. In this article I suggest a more appropriate target: the inability of health care providers to collaborate and share information. To some extent, our health care crisis is an IT problem–but with organizational and cultural roots.

It’s well known that large numbers of patients have difficulty with costs, and that employees’ share of the burden is rising. We’re going to have to update the famous Rodney Dangerfield joke:

My doctor said, “You’re going to be sick.” I said I wanted a second opinion. He answered, “OK, you’re going to be poor too.”

Most of us know about the insidious role of health care costs in holding down wages, in the fight by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker over pensions that tore the country apart, in crippling small businesses, and in narrowing our choice of health care providers. Not all realize, though, that the crisis is leaching through the health care industry as well, causing hospitals to fail, insurers to push costs onto subscribers and abandon the exchanges where low-income people get their insurance, co-ops to close, and governments to throw people off of subsidized care, threatening the very universal coverage that the ACA aimed to achieve.

Lessons from a ground-breaking book by T.R. Reid, The Healing of America, suggests that we’re undergoing a painful transition that every country has traversed to achieve a rational health care system. Like us, other countries started by committing themselves to universal health care access. This then puts on the pressure to control costs, as well as the opportunities for coordination and economies of scale that eventually institute those controls. Solutions will take time, but we need to be smart about where to focus our efforts.

Before even the ACA, the 2009 HITECH act established goals of data exchange and coordinated patient care. But seven years later, doctors still lag in:

  • Coordinating with other providers treating the patients.

  • Sending information that providers need to adequately treat the patients.

  • Basing treatment decisions on evidence from research.

  • Providing patients with their own health care data.

We’ll look next at the reports behind these claims, and at the effects of the problems.

Why doctors don’t work together effectively

A recent report released by the ONC, and covered by me in a recent article, revealed the poor state of data sharing, after decades of Health Information Exchanges and four years of Meaningful Use. Health IT observers expect interoperability to continue being a challenge, even as changes in technology, regulations, and consumer action push providers to do it.

If merely exchanging documents is so hard–and often unachieved–patient-focused, coordinated care is clearly impossible. Integrating behavioral care to address chronic conditions will remain a fantasy.

Evidence-based medicine is also more of an aspiration than a reality. Research is not always trustworthy, but we must have more respect for the science than hospitals were found to have in a recent GAO report. They fail to collect data either on the problems leading to errors or on the efficacy of solutions. There are incentive programs from payers, but no one knows whether they help. Doctors are still ordering far too many unnecessary tests.

Many companies in the health analytics space offer services that can bring more certainty to the practice of medicine, and I often cover them in these postings. Although increasingly cited as a priority, analytical services are still adopted by only a fraction of health care providers.

Patients across the country are suffering from disrupted care as insurers narrow their networks. It may be fair to force patients to seek less expensive providers–but not when all their records get lost during the transition. This is all too likely in the current non-interoperable environment. Of course, redundant testing and treatment errors caused by ignorance could erase the gains of going to low-cost providers.

Some have bravely tallied up the costs of waste and lack of care coordination in health care. Some causes, such as fraud and price manipulation, are not attributable to the health IT failures I describe. But an enormous chunk of costs directly implicate communications and data handling problems, including administrative overhead. The next section of this article will explore what this means in day-to-day health care.