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Medical Groups Struggling To Collect Payments Promptly

Posted on August 18, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Particularly as patients assume responsibility for more of the costs of care, it’s getting harder for providers to collect on outstanding bills.

My recent look at a dashboard created by the Medical Group Management Association certainly underscores the point. The story it tells is a grim one. Despite their best efforts, few practices are succeeding at meeting RCM challenges.

The MGMA intends the dashboard, which focuses on the number of days bills spend in Accounts Receivable, to give medical groups some benchmark RCM data. It relies on data from the group’s 2016 DataDive Cost and Revenue study, and allows users to view (at no cost):

  • Mean percentages of accounts receivable aged 0-30 days, 31-60 days, 61-90 days, 91-120 days and over 120 days
  • Mean days gross fee-for-service charges in A/R
  • Meeting days adjusted fee-for-service charges in A/R

It also allows users to select a specialty group type, including primary care, nonsurgical, surgical and multispecialty practices and look at their specific profile.

For example, the dashboard reveals that roughly 50% of accounts held by primary care practices spent a mean of 0-30 days in A/R, 11.2% of accounts were aged 31-60 days, 6.9% were at 61-90 days, 6.2% stayed in A/R for 91-120 days and 25.4% for 120+ days in A/R.

The MGMA page also stated that primary-care groups had an overall average of 61.86 adjusted days in A/R and 35.60 gross days in A/R.

Does that sound depressing? Well, it should. What’s more, other specialties’ performance was nearly as bad in some categories and even worse in others.

Look at the performance of nonsurgical groups. Only 44.7% of nonsurgical groups’ revenue came in within 30 days in A/R or less, almost 13% of accounts averaged 31-60 days before being paid, and almost 15% of accounts spent between 61 and 120 days in A/R. Twenty-eight percent of accounts had a mean 120+ days in A/R before being satisfied.

The other stats were even worse. For example, nonsurgical groups’ accounts spent a mean of 88 days in A/R and 46.2 gross days in A/R. Not very encouraging.

Even well-paid surgeons weren’t exempt from this problem. Most of the account aging stats were distributed similarly to the other specialty areas, and only 28.2% of accounts in this area spent more than 120 days in A/R. However, adjusted days in A/R came in at 136.7 and gross days in A/R at 54.

Meanwhile, the tally for multispecialty groups was a bit better, but not much. Account aging benchmarks were very similar to primary care practices, and adjusted days in A/R came in at 69.4.

Most of you probably had an idea that medical groups were facing these kind of collection problems, even if you didn’t have these benchmark numbers in hand. The thing is, they were even worse than I feared. (An acquaintance working in medical billing called the results “comical.”)

I don’t know what percentage of the accounts in question were self-pay, but given that self-pay is becoming a steadily higher proportion of medical practice revenue, these stats are pretty bad news. Something’s gotta give eventually. Plus, we’ll have to keep tracking how this data trends over time.

Amazon Attacking Health IT Opportunities

Posted on August 17, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Getting a footing in the health IT industry is more challenging than it looks. After all, even tech giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google haven’t managed to take over despite their evident interest in the field.

Apparently, that hasn’t daunted Amazon. The retail giant has pulled together a secret team dedicated to exploring new healthcare technology opportunities, according to a CNBC report. And unlike other companies attacking the space from outside, Amazon has a history of sliding its way into unexpected markets successfully.

According to CNBC the new team, which is named 1492, is working to find an easier way to extract data from EMRs as well as push data into them. In doing so, Amazon is going up against a very wide field of competitors ranging from small startups to the healthcare arms of giant tech vendors and consulting firms.

What distinguishes Amazon’s approach from its competitors is that the online retailer hopes to aggregate that data and make it available to consumers and their doctors, sources told CNBC. The story doesn’t say whether Amazon plans to sell this data, and I don’t know what’s legal and what isn’t here, but my bet is that if it can, Amazon will pitch the data to pharmaceutical companies. And where there’s a will there’s a way.

In addition to looking at data management opportunities, 1492 members are scouting out ways of repurposing Amazon’s existing technology for use in healthcare. As another article notes, some healthcare organizations have already begun experimenting with delivering routine medical information and even coaching surgeons on safety protocols using Amazon voice-based assistant Alexa.  The new group, for its part, will be looking for healthcare applications for existing Amazon products like the Echo and Dash Wand.

The 1492 group is also preparing to build a telemedicine platform. Your first thought might be that the industry doesn’t need another telemedicine platform, and generally speaking, you would probably be right.  But if Amazon can get its healthcare IT bona fides in order, and manages to attract enough doctors to its platform, it could be in a strong position to market those services to consumers.

Make no mistake: We should take Amazon’s health IT effort seriously. At first glance, healthcare may seem like an odd arena for a company best known for selling frying pans and socks and discount beauty supplies. But Amazon has expanded its focus many times over the years and has typically done better than people expected. It may do so this time as well.

By the way, the retailer is apparently still hiring people for the 1492 initiative. I doubt it’s easy to find the hiring manager in question, but if I were you I’d inquire. These jobs could pose some interesting challenges.

ONC To Farm Out Certification Testing To Private Sector – MACRA Monday

Posted on August 14, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

This post is part of the MACRA Monday series of blog posts where we dive into the details of the MACRA Quality Payment Program (QPP) and related topics.

EHR certification has been a big part of the meaningful use program and is now part of MACRA as well. After several years of using health IT certification testing tools developed by government organizations, the ONC has announced plans to turn the development of these tools over to the private sector.

Since its inception, ONC has managed its health IT’s education program internally, developing automated tools designed to measure health IT can compliance with certification requirements in partnership with the CDC, CMS and NIST. However, in a new blog post, Office of Standards and Technology director Steven Posnack just announced that ONC would be transitioning development of these tools to private industry over the next five years.

In the post, Posnack said that farming out tool development would bring diversity to certification effort and help it perform optimally. “We have set a goal…to include as many industry-developed and maintained testing tools as possible in lieu of taxpayer financed testing tools,” Posnack wrote. “Achieving this goal will enable the Program to more efficiently focus its testing resources and better aligned with industry-developed testing tools.”

Readers, I don’t have any insider information on this, but I have to think this transition was spurred (or at least sped up) by the eClinicalWorks certification debacle.  As we reported earlier this year, eCW settled a whistleblower lawsuit for $155 million a few months ago;  in the suit, the federal government asserted that the vendor had gotten its EHR certified by faking its capabilities. Of course the potential cuts to ONC’s budget could have spurred this as well.

I have no reason to believe that eCW was able to beat the system because ONC’s certification testing tools were inadequate. As we all know, any tool can be tricked if you throw the right people at the problem. On the other hand, it can’t hurt to turn tool development over to the private sector. Of course, I’m not suggesting that government coders are less skilled than private industry folks (and after all, lots of government technology work is done by private contractors), but perhaps the rhythms of private industry are better suited to this task.

It’s worth noting that this change is not just cosmetic. Poznack notes that with private industry at the helm, vendors may need to enter into new business arrangements and assume new fees depending on who has invested in the testing tools, what it costs to administer them and how the tools are used.

However, I’d be surprised if private sector companies that develop certification arrangements will stay tremendously far from the existing model. Health IT vendors may want to get their products certified, but they’re likely to push back hard if private companies jack up the price for being evaluated or create business structures that don’t work.

Honestly, I’d like to see the ONC stay on this path. I think it works best as a sort of think tank focused on finding best practices health IT companies across government and private industry, rather than sweating the smaller stuff as it has in recent times. Otherwise, it’s going to stay bogged down in detail and lose whatever thought leadership position it may have.

Should EMR Vendors Care If Patients Get Their Records?

Posted on August 11, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Not long ago, Epic CEO Judy Faulkner and former Vice President Joe Biden reportedly butted heads over whether patients need and can understand their full medical records. The alleged conversation took place at a private meeting for Cancer Moonshot, a program with which Biden has been associated since his son died of cancer.

According to a piece in Becker’s Health IT & CIO Review, Faulkner asked Biden why patients actually needed their full medical records. “Why do you want your medical records? They’re a thousand pages of which you understand 10,” she is said to have told Biden.

Epic responded to the widely-reported conversation with a statement arguing that Faulkner had been quoted out of context, and that the vendor supported patients’ rights to having their entire record. Given that Becker’s had the story third-hand (it drew on a Politico column which itself was based on the remarks of someone who had been present at the meeting) I have little difficulty believing that something was lost in translation.

Still, I am left wondering whether this piece had touched on something important nonetheless. It raises the question of whether EMR vendor CEOs have the attitude towards patient medical record access Faulkner is portrayed as having.

Yes, I suspect virtually every EMR vendor CEO agrees in principle that patients are entitled to access their complete records. Of course, the law recognizes this right as well. However, do they, personally, feel strongly about providing such access? Is making patient access to records easy a priority for them? My guess is “no” and “no.”

The truth is, EMR vendors — like every other business — deliver what their customers want. Their customers, providers, may talk a good game when it comes to patient record access, but only a few seem to have made improving access a central part of their culture. In my experience, at least, most do what medical records laws require and little else. It’s hard to imagine that vendors spend any energy trying to change customers’ records practices for the better.

Besides, both vendors and providers are used to thinking about medical record data as a proprietary asset. Even if they see the necessity of sharing this information, it probably rubs at least some the wrong way to ladle it out at minimal cost to patients.

Given all this background, it’s easy to understand why health IT editors jumped on the story. While she may have been misrepresented this time, it’s not hard to imagine the famously blunt Faulkner confronting Biden, especially if she thought he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Even if she never spoke the words in question, or her comments were taken out of context, I have the feeling that at least some of her peers would’ve spoken them unashamedly, and if so, people need to call them out. If we’re going to achieve the ambitious goals we’ve set for value-based care, every player needs to be on board with empowering patients.

USAA Tapping EHR To Gather Data From Life Insurance Applicants

Posted on August 10, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

I can’t believe I missed this. Apparently, financial giant USAA announced earlier this year that it’s collecting health data from life insurance applicants by interfacing with patient portals. While it may not be the first life insurer to do so, I haven’t been able to find any others, which makes this pretty interesting.

Usually, when someone applies for life insurance, they have to produce medical records which support their application. (We wouldn’t want someone to buy a policy and pop off the next day, would we?) In the past, applicants have had to push their providers to send medical records to the insurer. As anyone who’s tried to get health records for themselves knows, getting this done can be challenging and is likely to slow down policy approvals.

Thanks to USAA’s new technology implementation, however, the process is much simpler. The new offering, which is available to applicants at the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, allows consumers to deliver their health data directly to the insurer via their patient portal.

To make this possible, USAA worked with Cerner on EHR retrieval technology. The technology, known as HealtheHistory, supports health data collection,  encrypts data transmission and limits access to EHR data to approved persons. No word yet as to whether Cerner has struck similar deals elsewhere but it wouldn’t surprise me.

USAA’s new EHR-based approach has paid off nicely. The life insurer has seen an average 30-day reduction in the time it takes to acquire health records for applicants, and though it doesn’t say what the average was back in the days of paper records, I assume that this is a big improvement.

And now on to the less attractive aspects of this deal. I don’t know about you, but I see a couple of red flags here.

First, while life insurers may know how to capture health data, I doubt they’re cognizant of HIPAA nuances. Even if they hire a truckload of HIPAA experts, they don’t have much context for maintaining HIPAA compliance. What’s more, they rarely if ever have to look a patient in the face, which serves as something of a natural deterrent to provider data carelessness.

Also, given the industry’s track record, is it really a good idea to give a life insurer that much data? For example, consider the case of a healthy 36-year-old woman with no current medical issues who was denied coverage because she had the BRCA 1 gene. That gene, as some readers may know, is associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The life insurer apparently found out about the woman’s makeup as part of the application process, which included queries about genetic information. Apparently, the woman had had such testing, and as a result had to disclose it or risk being accused of fraud.

While the insurer in question may have the right, legally, to make such decisions, their doing so falls into a gray area ethically. What’s more, things would get foggier if, say, it decided to share such information with a sister health insurance division. Doing so may not be legal but I can easily see it happening.

Should someone’s genes be used to exclude them life or health insurance? Bar them from being approved for a mortgage from another sister company? Can insurers be trusted to meet HIPAA standards for use of PHI? It’ll be important to address such questions before we throw our weight behind open health data sharing with companies like USAA.

A Model For Fostering Health Data Sharing

Posted on August 8, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Sometimes, I’m amazed by what Facebook’s advertising algorithm can do. While most folks get pitches for hot consumer devices, shoes or casual wear, I get pitched on some cool geek stuff.

Most recently, I got an interesting pitch from data.world, a social networking site that helps members share and discover open datasets. The site is free to join, and if there’s a paid “premium” setting I haven’t found it. From what I’ve seen, this is a pretty nifty model which could easily be adapted for use by health IT organizations.

The site, which looks and feels something like Facebook, features data from a wide range of industries, tilted heavily toward government databases. For example, when I checked in, a front-page column listing the most commonly used tags includes “GIS,” “Homeland Security,” “police,” “SBA” and “DC” (which lead the pack with 688 mentions).

And there’s plenty of healthcare industry data to grab if you’d like. If you search for the term “healthcare” some useful datasets pop up, including a list of last year’s hospital HCAHPS ratings, California-specific data from 2005 to 2014 on the number and rates of preventable hospitalizations for selected medical conditions and New York state data on payments it made under its Medicaid Electronic Health Record Incentive Program. (You’ll have to become a site member to access these records.)

What makes the site truly interesting is the data sharing mechanism it offers. As a member, you have a chance to both upload open datasets, download datasets, post a project or join someone else’s project already in progress. Want help crunching the data on preventable hospitalizations in California? Let other site members know. There’s at least a chance you’ll find great project partners.

Of course, I’m not here to shill for this particular venture. My point in writing about its features is to draw your attention to what it does.

I think it’s more than time for healthcare organizations to collaborate on shared data projects together, and this is perhaps one mechanism for doing so. True, most of the data health systems work with is proprietary, but perhaps it’s possible to work past this issue.

Some healthcare organizations have already decided that sharing otherwise proprietary data is worth the risk. For example, late last year I wrote about a project undertaken by Sioux Falls, SD-based Sanford Health, in which the health system shared clinical data with a handful of academic researchers.  Benson Hsu, MD, vice president of enterprise data and analytics for the system, told Healthcare IT News this “crowdsourced” approached helped Sanford predict risk more effectively and improved its chronic disease management efforts.

Admittedly, Sanford’s approach won’t work for everyone. Today, healthcare organizations aren’t in the habit of cooperating on clinical data analytics projects, and anyone who suggests the idea is likely to get some serious pushback. Yes, in theory we all want interoperability, but this is different. Sharing entire clinical data repositories is a big deal. Still, how are we going to tackle big problems like population health management if we aren’t open to data analytics collaboration?

Sometimes new initiatives happen because people learn to understand each other’s needs, and decide that the prospect of mutual gain is worth the risk. I think a community devoted to data analytics could do much to foster such relationships.

Before Investing In Health IT, Fix Your Processes

Posted on August 2, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Recently, my colleague John Lynn conducted a video interview with healthcare consultant and “recovering CIO” Drex DeFord (@drexdeford) on patient engagement and care coordination. During the interview, DeFord made a very interesting observation: “When you finally have a process leaned out to the point where [tech] can make fewer mistakes than a human, that’s the time to make big technology investments.”

This makes a lot of sense. If a process is refined enough, even a robot may be able to maintain it, but if it remains fuzzy or arbitrary that’s far less likely. And by extension, we shouldn’t automate processes until they’re clearly defined and efficient.

Honestly, as I see it this is just common sense. If the way things are done doesn’t work well, who wants to embed them in their IT infrastructure? Doing so is arguably worse than keeping a manual process in place. It may be simpler — though not easy — to change how people work than to rewrite complicated enterprise software then shift human routines.

Meanwhile, if you do rush ahead without refining your processes, you could be building dangerously flawed care into the system. Patients could suffer needless harm or even die. In fact, I can envision a situation in which a provider gets sued because their technology rollout perpetuated existing care management problems.

Unfortunately, CIOs have powerful incentives to roll ahead with their technology implementation plans whether they’ve optimized care processes or not.

Sometimes, they’re trying to satisfy CEOs pushing to get systems in gear no matter what. They can’t afford to alienate someone who could refuse to greenlight their plans for future investments, so they cross their fingers and plunge ahead. Other times, they might not be aware of serious care delivery problems and see no reason to let their implementation deadlines slip. Or perhaps they believe that they will be able to fix workflow problems during after the rollout. But if they thought they could act first and deal with workflow later, they may get a nasty surprise later.

Of course, the ultimate solution is for providers to invest in more flexible enterprise systems which support process improvements (including across mobile devices). To date, however, few big health IT platforms have strayed much from decades-old computing models that make change expensive and time-consuming. Such systems may be durable, but updating them to meet user needs is no picnic.

Eventually, you’ll be able to adjust health IT workflows without dispatching an army of developers. In the meantime, though, providers should anything they can to perfect processes, especially those related to care delivery, before they’re fixed in place by technology rollouts. Doing so may be a bit disruptive, but it’s the kind of disruption that helps rather than hurts.

Few Providers Are Covering All Bases In Patient Collection Efforts

Posted on July 27, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

If the following is any indication, providers have a pretty good idea of what they need to do if they want to collect more from patients. The thing is, many providers aren’t doing it, or least not doing enough. I find this a bit surprising, given that while putting all of them into place may be intimidating, there’s many smaller things they can do to make progress. For whatever reason, though, even the smaller things aren’t happening.

That at least, is the conclusion that leapt out at me when I looked at data from a recent survey on the subject of patient collections. I could be missing something, but it looks as though providers are blowing many opportunities to collect a higher percentage of what patients owe.

The study, which was sponsored by Navicure and conducted by HIMSS Analytics, draws on data from two groups, patients and providers, including 1,000 patients and 553 healthcare industry respondents with revenue cycle management or RCM technology knowledge.

In formulating the survey, researchers sought to compare patient attitudes about provider billing with the providers’ actual behavior.  If the results are any indication, patients are considerably more cutting-edge than providers when it comes to getting the bills paid.

One thing I took away from the survey results was that while patients seem fairly willing to adopt provider-friendly billing options, many providers aren’t accommodating them.

For example, while 52% of patients told researchers that they’d prefer electronic billing over paper statements, and 79% of patients say they are comfortable being billed via email, 89% of providers said they still send out statements via postal mail. I know rethinking billing procedures is hard and all, but making this change seems like it’s worth the effort.

Another striking example of where providers could step up is the use of “credit card on file” programs. Medical practices who seem to be getting a lot of results from CCOF programs, under which patients allow the practice to bill the card for smaller charges.

Despite patient acceptance levels, only a minority of providers said they had gotten on board with CCOF as of yet. In fact, though 78% of patients said they were comfortable with CCOF payments, only 20% of providers said that they such a program in place. That’s another big gap between patient attitudes and provider willingness to follow through.

Then there’s patient concerns about preparing for bills. Admittedly, providers are ahead of patients on this one. Seventy-five percent reported being able to provide a cost estimate, but only 25% of patients said they had requested an estimate on the last visit.

Still, consumers  are catching up with providers quickly, with 56% reporting that they expect to ask for cost of care estimates in the future. Even better, the estimates don’t have to be perfect. In fact, more than two thirds of patients said they would find either any estimate or an estimate that came in within 10% or less of their actual costs to be helpful.

Yes, getting all of these strategies into place together is clearly easier said than done. But given what’s at stake for providers, anything short of impossible is worth a try.

HHS Office of Inspector General Plans To Review $1.6 Billion In Incentive Payments – MACRA Monday

Posted on July 24, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

This post is part of the MACRA Monday series of blog posts where we dive into the details of the MACRA Quality Payment Program and related topics.

The HHS Office of Inspector General has announced plans to review the appropriateness of a walloping $14.6 billion of incentive payments made to providers over a five-year period.  The upcoming report, which follows on a GAO study naming improperly issued incentive checks as the biggest threat to the Medicare EHR incentive program, addresses payments made between by CMS between January 2011 and December 2016.

The OIG’s current audit plans follow on research it previously conducted which estimated that the incentive program had wrongfully paid out $729 million incentive payments between just May 2011 and June 2014.

To conduct that review, the OIG sampled incentive payment records for 100 eligible providers, then used the level of erroneous payments found among them to extrapolate the total amount paid out wrongly by CMS during those three years.

This time around, the watchdog organization plans to audit all payments made during the entire past life of the incentive program, an exercise which could generate some even more dramatic numbers. If the prior research is any indication, the OIG could conclude that roughly 10 % to 12% of the entire $14.6 billion in incentive payments it issued shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

Of course, looked at one way this effort could be seen as closing the incentive door after the horses have left. Meaningful Use, by all accounts, is giving way to incentives under MACRA, which will apply distinctive criteria to its incentive payment formulas. Also, while I’m no numbers whiz, seems to me that you can’t really model the entire meaningful use program effectively using just 100 sample cases.

That being said, it does seem likely that the audit will find more situations in which physicians hadn’t submitted he right self-attestation data or couldn’t prove what they asserted, and if the federal auditor has any role to play, this research is probably a good idea

Sure, nobody wants to be audited, particularly when your healthcare organization has jumped through many hoops to comply with meaningful use rules. Even if you can afford to pay back your incentive money, why would you want to do so? And particularly if you’ve already played by the rules, you certainly wouldn’t want to prove it again. But since the audit is going to happen anyway, perhaps it’s best to get any possible pain it may generate out of the way.

To date, I haven’t read anything suggesting that CMS has immediate plans to claw back incentive payments from providers. My assumption, though, is that they will eventually do so. Governments need money to get their job done, and audits theoretically offer the added benefit of tightening up important initiatives like this one.

As someone who has worked exclusively in the civilian world, I have often made fun of the plodding pace at which federal and state government agencies operate. In this case, though, a slow, deliberate process — such as a gradually-widening payment review — is likely get the job done most effectively. Let’s establish carefully which incentive payments may have been issued inappropriately and clear the decks for MACRA.

Bringing Zen To Healthcare:  Transformation Through The N of 1

Posted on July 21, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

The following essay wasn’t easy to understand. I had trouble taking it in at first. But the beauty of these ideas began to shine through for me when I took time to absorb them. Maybe you will struggle with them a bit yourself.

In his essay, the author argues that if providers focus on “N of 1” it could change healthcare permanently. I think he might be right, or at least makes a good case.  It’s a complex argument but worth following to the end. Trust me, the journey is worth taking.

The mysterious @CancerGeek

Before I share his ideas, I’ll start with an introduction to @CancerGeek, the essay’s author. Other than providing a photo as part of his Twitter home page, he’s chosen to be invisible. Despite doing a bunch of skillful GoogleFu, I couldn’t track him down.

@CancerGeek posted a cloud of interests on the Twitter page, including a reference to being global product manager PET-CT; says he develops hospital and cancer centers in the US and China; and describes himself as an associate editor with DesignPatient-MD.

In the essay, he says that he did clinical rotations from 1998 to 1999 while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center, working with Dr. Minesh Mehta.

He wears a bow tie.

And that’s all I’ve got. He could be anybody or nobody. All we have is his voice. John assures me he’s a real person that works at a company that everyone knows. He’s just chosen to remain relatively anonymous in his social profiles to separate his social profiles from his day job.

The N of 1 concept

Though we don’t know who @CancerGeek is, or why he is hiding, his ideas matter. Let’s take a closer look at the mysterious author’s N of 1, and decide for ourselves what it means. (To play along, you might want to search Twitter for the #Nof1 hashtag.)

To set the stage, @CancerGeek describes a conversation with Dr. Mehta, a radiation oncologist who served as chair of the department where @CancerGeek got his training. During this encounter, he had an insight which helped to make him who he would be — perhaps a moment of satori.

As the story goes, someone called Dr. Mehta to help set up a patient in radiation oncology, needing help but worried about disturbing the important doctor.

Apparently, when Dr. Mehta arrived, he calmly helped the patient, cheerfully introducing himself to their family and addressing all of their questions despite the fact that others were waiting.

When Dr. Mehta asked @CancerGeek why everyone around him was tense, our author told him that they were worried because patients were waiting, they were behind schedule and they knew that he was busy. In response, Dr. Mehta shared the following words:

No matter what else is going on, the world stops once you enter a room and are face to face with a patient and their family. You can only care for one patient at a time. That patient, in that room, at that moment is the only patient that matters. That is the secret to healthcare.

Apparently, this advice changed @CancerGeek on the spot. From that moment on, he would work to focus exclusively on the patient and tune out all distractions.

His ideas crystallized further when he read an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that gave a name to his approach to medicine. The article introduced him to the concept of N of 1.  All of the pieces began to began to fit together.

The NEJM article was singing his song. It said that no matter what physicians do, nothing else counts when they’re with the patient. Without the patient, it said, little else matters.

Yes, the author conceded, big projects and big processes matter still matter. Creating care models, developing clinical pathways and clinical service lines, building cancer centers, running hospitals, and offering outpatient imaging, radiology and pathology services are still worthwhile. But to practice well, the author said, dedicate yourself to caring for patients at the N of 1. Our author’s fate was sealed.

Why is N of 1 important to healthcare?

Having told his story, @CancerGeek shifts to the present. He begins by noting that at present, the healthcare industry is focused on delivering care at the “we” level. He describes this concept this way:

“The “We” level means that when you go to see a physician today, that the medical care they recommend to you is based on people similar to you…care based on research of populations on the 100,000+ (foot) level.”

But this approach is going to be scrapped over the next 8 to 10 years, @CancerGeek argues. (Actually, he predicts that the process will take exactly eight years.)

Over time, he sees care moving gradually from the managing groups to delivering personalized care through one-to-one interactions. He believes the process will proceed as follows:

  • First, sciences like genomics, proteomics, radionomics, functional imaging and immunotherapies will push the industry into delivering care at a 10,000-foot population level.
  • Next, as ecosystems are built out that support seamless sharing of digital footprints, care will move down to the 1,000-foot level.
  • Eventually, the system will alight at patient level. On that day, the transition will be complete. Healthcare will no longer be driven by hospitals, healthcare systems or insurance companies. Its sole focus will be on people and communities — and what the patient will become over time.

When this era arrives, doctors will know patients far more deeply, he says.

He predicts that by leveraging all of the data available in the digital world, physicians will know the truth of their experiences, including the food they eat, the air they breathe, how much sleep they get, where they work, how they commute to and from work and whether they care for a family member or friend, doctors will finally be able to offer truly personalized care. They’ll focus on the N of 1, the single patient they’re encountering at that moment.

The death of what we know

But we’re still left with questions about the heart of this idea. What, truly, is the N of 1? Perhaps it is the sound of one hand clapping. Or maybe it springs from an often-cited Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Do what you’re doing right now – focus and stay in the present moment. This is treating patients at the N of 1 level, it seems to me.

Like Zen, the N of 1 concept may sound mystical, but it’s entirely practical. As he points out, patients truly want to be treated at the N of 1 – they don’t care about the paint on the walls or Press Ganey scores, they care about being treated as individuals. And providers need to make this happen.

But to meet this challenge, healthcare as we know it must die, he says. I’ll leave you with his conclusion:

“Within the next eight years, healthcare as we know it will end. The new healthcare will begin. Healthcare delivered at the N of 1.”  And those who seek will find.