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Provider-Backed Health Data Interoperability Organization Launches

Posted on April 12, 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.

In 1988, some members of the cable television industry got together to form CableLabs, a non-proft innovation center and R&D lab. Since then, the non-profit has been a driving force in bringing cable operators together, developing technologies and specifications for services as well as offering testing and certification facilities.

Among its accomplishments is the development of DOCSIS (Data-over-Cable Service Interface Specification), a standard used worldwide to provide Internet access via a cable modem. If your cable modem is DOCSIS compliant, it can be used on any modern cable network.

If you’re thinking this approach might work well in healthcare, you’re not the only one. In fact, a group of powerful healthcare providers as just launched a health data sharing-focused organization with a similar approach.

The Center for Medical Interoperability, which will be housed in a 16,000-square-foot location in Nashville, is a membership-based organization offering a testing and certification lab for devices and systems. The organization has been in the works since 2011, when the Gary and Mary West Health Institute began looking at standards-based approaches to medical device interoperability.

The Center brings together a group of top US healthcare systems – including HCA Healthcare, Vanderbilt University and Community Health Systems — to tackle interoperability issues collaboratively.  Taken together, the board of directors represent more than 50 percent of the healthcare industry’s purchasing power, said Kerry McDermott, vice president of public policy and communications for the Center.

According to Health Data Management, the group will initially focus on acute care setting within a hospital, such as the ICU. In the ICU, patients are “surrounded by dozens of medical devices – each of which knows something valuable about the patient  — but we don’t have a streamlined way to aggregate all that data and make it useful for clinicians,” said McDermott, who spoke with HDM.

Broadly speaking, the Center’s goal is to let providers share health information as seamlessly as ATMs pass banking data across their network. To achieve that goal, its leaders hope to serve as a force for collaboration and consensus between healthcare organizations.

The project’s initial $10M in funding, which came from the Gary and Mary West Foundation, will be used to develop, test and certify devices and software. The goal will be to develop vendor-neutral approaches that support health data sharing between and within health systems. Other goals include supporting real-time one-to-many communications, plug-and-play device and system integration and the use of standards, HDM reports.

It will also host a lab known as the Transformation Learning Center, which will help clinicians explore the impact of emerging technologies. Clinicians will develop use cases for new technologies there, as well as capturing clinical requirements for their projects. They’ll also participate in evaluating new technologies on their safety, usefulness, and ability to satisfy patients and care teams.

As part of its efforts, the Center is taking a close look at the FHIR API.  Still, while FHIR has great potential, it’s not mature yet, McDermott told the magazine.

A Tool For Evaluating E-Health Applications

Posted on April 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.

In recent years, developers have released a staggering number of mobile health applications, with nearly 150,000 available as of 2015. And the demand for such apps is rising, with the mHealth services market projected to reach $26 billion globally this year, according to analyst firm Research 2 Guidance.

Unfortunately, given the sheer volume of apps available, it’s tricky to separate the good from the bad. We haven’t even agreed on common standards by which to evaluate such apps, and neither regulatory agencies nor professional associations have taken a firm position on the subject.

For example, while we have seen groups like the American Medical Association endorse the use of mobile health applications, their acceptance came with several caveats. While the organization conceded that such apps might be OK, it noted that such approval applies only if the industry develops an evidence base demonstrating that the apps are accurate, effective, safe and secure. And other than broad practice guidelines, the trade group didn’t get into the details of how its members could evaluate app quality.

However, at least one researcher has made an attempt at developing standards which identify the best e-Health software apps and computer programs. Assistant professor Amit Baumel, PhD, of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, has recently led a team that created a tool to evaluate the quality and therapeutic potential of such applications.

To do his research, a write-up of which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Baumel developed an app-rating tool named Enlight. Rather than using automated analytics, Enlight was designed as a manual scale to be filled out by trained raters.

To create the foundation for Enlight, researchers reviewed existing literature to decide which criteria were relevant to determine app quality. The team identified a total of 476 criteria from 99 sources to build the tool. Later, the researchers tested Enlight on 42 mobile apps and 42 web-based programs targeting modifiable behaviors related to medical illness or mental health.

Once tested, researchers rolled out the tool. Enlight asked participants to score 11 different aspects of app quality, including usability, visual design, therapeutic persuasiveness and privacy. When they evaluated the responses, they found that Enlighten raters reached substantially similar results when rating a given app. They also found that all of the eHealth apps rated “fair” or above received the same range of scores for user engagement and content – which suggests that consumer app users have more consistent expectations than we might have expected.

That being said, Baumel’s team noted that even if raters like the content and found the design to be engaging, that didn’t necessarily mean that the app would change people’s behaviors. The researchers concluded that patients need not only a persuasive app design, but also qualities that support a therapeutic alliance.

In the future, the research team plans to research which aspects of app quality do a better job at predicting user behaviors. They’re also testing the feasibility of rolling out an Enlight-based recommendation system for clinicians and end users. If they do succeed, they’ll be addressing a real need. We can’t continue to integrate patient-generated app data until we can sort great apps from useless, inaccurate products.

E-Patient Update: Doctors Need To Lead Tech Charge

Posted on April 7, 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.

Doctors, like any other group of people, vary in how comfortable they are with technology. Despite the fact that their job is more technology-focused than ever before, many clinicians use tech tools because they must.

As a result, they aren’t great role models when it comes to encouraging patients to engage with portals, try mobile apps or even pay their healthcare bills online. I too am frustrated when doctors can’t answer basic tech questions, despite my high comfort level with technology. I like to think that we’re on the same page, and I feel sort of alienated when my doctors don’t seem to care about the digital health advantage.

This needs to change. Given the extent to which technology permeates care delivery, physicians must become better at explaining how basic tech tools work, why they’re used and how they benefit patients.

Below, I’ve listed three tools which I consider to be critical to current medical practices, based on both my patient experiences and my ongoing research on health IT tools. To me, knowing something about each of them is unavoidable if doctors want to keep up with trends and improve patient care.

The top three tools I see as central to serving patients effectively are:

  • Patient portals: This is arguably the most important technical option doctors can share with patients. To get the most value out of portals, every doctor – especially in primary care – should be able to explain to patients why accessing their data can improve their health and lives.
  • Connected health: For a while, connected health/remote monitoring solutions were a high-end, expensive way to track patient health. But today, these options are everywhere and accessible virtually anyone. (My husband bought a connected glucose monitor for $10 a few weeks ago!) If nothing else, clinicians should be able to explain to patients how such devices can help tame chronic diseases and prevent hospitalizations.
  • Mobile apps: While few apps, if any, are universally trusted by doctors, there’s still plenty of them which can help patients log, measure and monitor important data, such as medication compliance or blood pressure levels. While they don’t need to understand how mobile apps work, they should know something of why patients can benefit from using them.

Of course, this list is brief, but it’s a decent place to start. After all, I’m not suggesting that physicians need to get a master’s in health IT to serve patients adequately; I’m just recommending that they study up and prepare to guide their patients in using helpful tools.

Ultimately, it’s not as important that clinicians use or even have a deep understanding of digital health tools, health bands, smartwatches, sensor-laden clothing or virtual reality. They don’t have to understand cybersecurity or know how to reboot a server. They just have to know how to help patients navigate the healthcare world as it is.

By this point, in fact, I’d argue that it’s irresponsible to avoid learning about technologies that can help patients manage their health. Bear in mind that even if they don’t act like it, even confident, experienced patients like me truly admire our doctors and take what they say seriously. So if I am enthusiastic about using tech tools to manage my health, but my doctor’s eyes glaze over when I talk about them, even I feel a bit discouraged. So why not learn enough to encourage me on my journey?

Do Vendor Business Models Discourage EMR Innovation?

Posted on April 4, 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.

Despite the ever-mounting levels of physician frustration, in some ways EMRs have changed little from their mass-market rollout. EMR interfaces are still counterintuitive, data sharing possibilities are limited, important information still lives in isolated silos and endless data entry is the rule rather than exception.

In theory, we could do better if we had a reasonable vision of what should come next. For example, I was intrigued by ideas proposed by Dr. Robert Rowley of Flow Health. He describes a model in which EMRs draw on a single, external data source which isn’t confined to any one organization. Providers would access, download and add data through a modern API.  Given such fluid access to data, providers would be able to create custom front-ends based on a collection of apps, rather than rely on a single vendor-created interface.

Unfortunately, EMR vendors are unlikely to take on a completely different approach like Rowley’s, for reasons inherent to their business model. After all, they have little reason to develop new, innovative EMRs which rely on a different data architecture. Not only that, the costs associated with developing and rolling out a completely new EMR model would probably be very high. And what company would take that chance when their existing “big iron” approach still sells?

Not only that, EMR vendors would risk alienating their customers if they stray too far off the ranch. While an innovative new platform might be attractive to some buyers, it might also be incompatible with their existing technology. And it would probably require both providers and vendors to reinvent workflows and transform their technical architecture.

Meanwhile, in addition to finding a way to pay for the technology, providers would have to figure out how to integrate their existing data into the new system, integrate the platform with its existing infrastructure, retrain the staff and clinicians and cope with reduced productivity for at least a year or two. And what would become of their big data analytics code? Their decision support modules? Even data entry could be a completely new game.

Smaller medical practices could be pushed into bankruptcy if they have to invest in yet another system. Large practices, hospitals and health systems might be able to afford the initial investment and systems integration, but the project would be long and painful. Unless they were extremely confident that it would pay off, they probably wouldn’t risk giving a revolutionary solution a try.

All that being said, there are forces in play which might push vendors to innovate more, and give providers a very strong incentive to try a new approach to patient data management. In particular, the need to improve care coordination and increase patient engagement – driven by the emergence of value-based care – is putting providers under intense pressure. If a new platform could measurably improve their odds of surviving this transition, they might be forced to adopt it.

Right now, providers who can afford to do so are buying freestanding care coordination and patient engagement tools, then integrating them into their existing EMRs. I can certainly see the benefit of doing so, as it brings important functions on board without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And these organizations aren’t forced to rethink their fundamental technical strategy.

But the truth is, this model is unlikely to serve their needs over the long term. Because it relies on existing technology, welding new functions onto old, clinicians are still forced to grappled with kludgy technology. What’s more, these solutions add another layer to a very shaky pile of cards. And it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to support data interoperability, either.

Ultimately, the healthcare industry is going to be bogged down with short-term concerns until providers and vendors come together and develop a completely new approach to health data. To succeed at changing their health IT platform, they’ll have to rethink the very definition of key issues like ease of use and free data access, care coordination, patient engagement and improved documentation.

I believe that’s going to happen, at some point, perhaps when doctors storm the executive offices of their organization with torches and pitchforks. But I truly hope providers and vendors introduce more effective data management tools than today’s EMRs without getting to that point.

MACRA Success Calls For Team Effort – MACRA Mondays

Posted on April 3, 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.

A new study suggests that the common-sense approach to handling MACRA issues – getting everyone on your team engaged with issues that arise – is popular among medical practices.

According to Stoltenberg Consulting’s Fifth Annual Health IT Industry Outlook Survey, which polled a mix of IT professionals and executives at HIMSS17, the industry is still struggling to begin their MACRA process. In fact, 64 percent of respondents said that they were unprepared or very unprepared to handle MACRA.

On the other hand, many have a good idea of how they’ll proceed. The survey found that 68 percent of respondents said that practices should bring together clinical, financial and IT staffers when tackling MACRA challenges.

Even so, respondents had some significant concerns about their capabilities. Thirty-one percent of respondents said that revising data management and reporting processes to meet new reporting requirements was their biggest Quality Payment Program challenge. Almost tied was the need to motivate the entire organization to work together towards MACRA goals.

In its commentary, Stoltenberg expands on these themes. “Successful MACRA QPP reporting will take more than just passive submission of claim data,” the report states. “MACRA QPP success requires a defined, focused team which includes IT, clinical and operational departments all led by an executive representative. By combining their expertise, team members can better capture, maintain and analyze data that demonstrates program requirement achievement.”

But creating a team isn’t enough, the consulting firm notes. To move forward, the team must become thoroughly familiar with MACRA QPP and its subtleties. Then, the team will be equipped to evaluate the group’s existing reporting mechanism, decide which reporting gaps exist and figure out how to close them.

Then, the team should create a multi-year roadmap for meeting QPP requirements, including a look at alternative QPP paths they could take and what the impact on reimbursement might be, the report recommends. “A  roadmap will allow a healthcare organization to quickly adapt its MACRA program from year to year, preparing for more stringent requirements in future reporting years or transition from one reporting path to another.”

In addition to addressing MACRA issues, the researchers looked at issues in staffing healthcare IT departments. Fourty-four percent of respondents said that their department wasn’t fully staffed because they lacked the budget to do enough hiring.

Meanwhile, 43 percent said they hadn’t encountered enough qualified, experienced job candidates to fill their open positions. Also, 54 percent said that finding qualified health IT staff and support was difficult, and 28 percent said it was very difficult.

To close these hiring gaps, Stoltenberg recommended that healthcare organizations consider investing in training high-potential IT staffers with less experience, and pair them with advisors who can help them grow their skills.

Be sure to check out all of our MACRA Monday blog posts where we dive into the details of the MACRA Quality Payment Program.

ACP Offers Recommendations On Reducing MD Administrative Overload

Posted on March 30, 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.

As everyone knows, physicians are being overwhelmed by outsized levels of administrative chores. As if dealing with insurance companies wasn’t challenging enough, in recent years EMRs have added to this burden, with clinicians doing double duty as data entry clerks after they’re seen patients.

Unfortunately, streamlining EMR use for clinical use has proven to be a major challenge. Still, there are steps healthcare organizations can take to cut down on clinicians’ administrative frustrations, according to the American College of Physicians.

The ACP’s recommendations include the following:

  1. Stakeholders responsible for imposing administrative tasks – such as payors, government and vendors – should analyze the impact of administrative tasks on physicians. If a task is found to have a negative effect on care quality, needlessly questions a clinician’s judgment or increases costs, it should be challenged, fixed or removed.
  2. If an administrative task can’t be cut, it must be reviewed, revised, aligned or streamlined to reduce stakeholders’ burden.
  3. Stakeholders should collaborate with professional societies, clinicians, patients and EMR vendors to develop performance measures that minimize needless clinician burden and integrate performance reporting and quality improvement.
  4. All key stakeholders should collaborate in reducing, streamlining, reducing and aligning clinicians’ administrative tasks by making better use of health IT.
  5. As the US healthcare system shifts to value-based payment, stakeholders should consider streamlining or eliminating duplicative administrative demands.
  6. The ACP would like to see rigorous research done on the impact of administrative tasks on healthcare quality, time and cost; on clinicians, staff and healthcare organizations; patient and family; and patient outcomes.
  7. The ACP calls for research on best practices for cutting down on clinicians’ administrative tasks within both practices and organizations. All key stakeholders, including clinician societies, payors, regulators, vendors and suppliers, should disseminate these evidence-based best practices.

It appears that even the federal government has begun to take these issues to heart. According to Modern Healthcare, late last year CMS announced a long-term initiative intended to reduce physicians’ administrative burdens.  Then-acting CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt said the initiative would hopefully make it a bit easier for practices to meet the requirements of the Quality Payment Program under MACRA.

But other sources of administrative frustration are likely to linger for the foreseeable future, as they’re deeply ingrained in stakeholder business processes or simply difficult to change.

For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians notes that some of the biggest aggravations and time wasters for its members include the need to get prior authorizations from health plans and outdated CMS documentation guidelines for E/M services which don’t leverage EMR capabilities. Sadly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for either of those problems to be solved.

Still, it seems some healthcare organizations want to take on the administrative overhead problem. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has launched an initiative aimed at reducing the number of computer-related tasks doctors have to perform. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, UPMC is partnering with Microsoft to minimize physicians’ need to do electronic paperwork. Executives with the two organizations say this effort should result in tools for both doctors and patients.

E-Patient Update: Give Us Patient Data Analytics

Posted on March 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.

The other day, I sat down with my husband to check out the features of his new connected glucose monitor. My husband, a Type 2 diabetic, had purchased the Accu-Chek Aviva Connect, which when synched with a computer, displays readings data on the web.

After synching up his results with his desktop via Bluetooth, he entered a web portal and boom! There was a two-week history of his readings, with data points organized by what times they were taken. As part of its dashboard, the portal also displayed the highest and lowest readings taken during the time period, as well as citing the average difference between high and low readings (the size of the delta).

By going over this data, we were able to learn a few things about his current disease management efforts. For example, we saw that virtually all of the highest readings were taken between 6PM and 9PM, which helped him identify some behaviors that he could change.

Of course, for the professionals reading this, none of these features are all that impressive. In fact, they’re practically kid’s stuff, though I imagine his endocrinologist will get at least some benefit from the charts.

But I’m here to tell you that as patient data management goes, this is off-the-charts cool. After all, neither of us has had a chance to track key health metrics and act on them, at least not without doing our own brute number crunching with a spreadsheet. As you can imagine, we greatly prefer this approach.

Unfortunately, few patients have access to any kind of analytics tools that put our health data in context. And without such tools most of us don’t get much benefit out of accessing the data. It’s time for things to change!

Upgrade the portal

One of the most common ways patients access their health data is via a provider portal. Most commonly, portals display the results of diagnostic tests, including lab tests and the text of imaging results.

Sharing this data is a step in the right direction, but it’s not likely to empower patients on its own. After all, even an experienced clinician would find it difficult to make sense of dozens (or in the case of chronically-ill patients like me, hundreds) of test results.  Even if the portal provided educational material on each test, it may be too much information for a patient to absorb.

On the other hand, patients could do a lot with their data if it was displayed in a patient-friendly manner. The possibilities for improving data display are manifold. They include:

  • Displaying tests relating to specific concern (such as thyroid levels) in sequence over time
  • Offer a chart comparing related data points, such as blood pressure levels and cardiac functioning or kidney functioning paired with blood glucose levels
  • Display only outlier test values, along with expected ranges, and link to an explanation of what these values might mean
  • Have the portal auto-generate a list of questions patients should ask their doctor, based on any issues suggested by test data

By provider standards, these displays might be fairly mundane. But speaking as a patient, I think they’d be very valuable. I am compulsive enough to check all of my health data and follow up with questions, but few patients are, and any tools which helped them decide what action to take would represent a big step forward.

It would be even more useful if patients could upload results from health bands or smartwatches and cross-reference that data with testing results. But for the short term, it would be enough to help patients understand the data already in the system.

Giving patients more power

At first, some providers might object to giving patients this much information, as odd as it may sound. I’ve actually run into situations where a practice won’t share test data with a patient until the doctor has “approved” the results, apparently because they don’t want patients to be frightened by adverse information.

But if we want to engage patients, providers have to give give patients more power. If nothing else, we need a better way to look at our data, and learn how we can respond effectively.

To be fair, few providers will have the resources in-house to add patient data analytics tools to portals. Their vendors will have to add upgrades to their portal software, and that’s not likely to happen overnight. After all, while the technical challenges involved are trivial, developers will need to decide exactly how they’re going to analyze the data and what search capabilities patients should have.

But there’s no excuse for letting this issue go, either. If providers want patients to engage in their healthcare process, helping them understand their health data is one of the most important steps they can take. Expecting patients to dive in and figure it out themselves is unlikely to work.

GAO: HHS Should Tighten Up Its Patient Data Access Efforts

Posted on March 23, 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 Government Accountability Office has issued a new report arguing, essentially, that while its heart is in the right place, HHS isn’t doing enough to track the effectiveness of patient health data access efforts. The report names ONC as arguably the weakest link here, and calls on the HHS-based organization to track its outreach programs more efficiently.

As readers know, CMS has spent a vast sum of money (over $35 billion at this point) to support health IT adoption and health data access. And while these efforts have spilled over to some patients, it’s still an uphill battle getting the others to access their electronic health information, the GAO report says.

Moreover, even patients that are accessing data face some significant challenges, including the inability to aggregate their longitudinal health information from multiple sources into a single, accessible record, the agency notes. (In other words, patients crave interoperability and data integration too!)

Unfortunately, progress on this front continues to be slow. For example, after evaluating data from the 2015 Medicare EHR Program, GAO researchers found that few patients were taking a look at data made available by their participating provider. In fact, while 88 percent of the program’s hospitals gave patients access to data, only 15 percent of patients actually accessed the information which was available.  When professionals provided patients with data access, the number of patients accessing such data climbed to 30 percent, but that’s not as big a delta as it might seem, given that 87 percent of such providers offered patient data access.

Patient reluctance to dive in to their EHI may be in part due to the large number of differing portals offered by individual providers. With virtually every doctor and hospital offering their own portal version, all but the most sophisticated patients get overwhelemed. In addition to staying on top of the information stored in each portal, patients typically need to manage separate logins and passwords for each one, which can be awkward and time-consuming.

Also, the extent of data hospitals and providers offer varies widely, which may lead to patient confusion. The Medicare EHR Program requires that participants make certain information available – such as lab test results and current medications – but less than half of participating hospitals (46 percent) and just 54 percent of healthcare professionals routinely offered access to clinician notes.

The process for sharing out patient data is quite variable as well. For example, two hospitals interviewed by the GAO had a committee decide which data patients could access. Meanwhile, one EHR vendor who spoke with the agency said it makes almost all information available to patients routinely via its patient portal. Other providers take the middle road. In other words, patients have little chance to adopt a health data consumption routine.

Technical access problems and portal proliferation pose significant enough obstacles, but that’s not the worst part of the story. According to the GAO, the real problem here is that ONC – the point “man” on measuring the effectiveness of patient data access efforts – hasn’t been as clear as it could be.

The bottom line, for GAO, is that it’s time to figure out what enticements encourage patients to access their data and which don’t. Because the ONC hasn’t developed measures of effectiveness for such patient outreach efforts, parent agency HHS doesn’t have the information needed to tell whether outreach efforts are working, the watchdog agency said.

If ONC does improve its methods for measuring patient health data access, the benefits could extend beyond agency walls. After all, it wouldn’t hurt for doctors and hospitals to boost patient engagement, and getting patients hooked on their own data is step #1 in fostering engagement. So let’s hope the ONC cleans up its act!

Encouraged By Political Changes, Groups Question ONC Functions

Posted on March 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.

Riding on an anti-regulation drive backed by the White House, groups unhappy with some actions by ONC are fighting to rein it in. President Trump has said that he would like to see two regulations killed for every new reg, and the groups seemingly see this as an opening.

One group challenging ONC activities is HealthIT Now, a coalition of providers, payers, employers and patient groups.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Tom Price, Health IT Now argues that ONC exceeded its authority last year, when it backed an oversight rule designed to boost the certification process by evaluating vendor interoperability capabilities.

The 2016 rule also holds health IT vendors accountable for technology flaws that could compromise patient safety, an approach which, HITN argues, steals a move from federal agencies such as the FDA. The group also contends that ONC has not been clear about its criteria for critiquing HIT solutions for safety problems.

Meanwhile, a group of medical societies and specialties is asking federal health officials to hold off on 2015 EHR certification requirements, which providers are expected to start using January 2018, for at least one year. The group notes that since ONC released its final 2015 Edition requirements, few vendors – in fact, just 54 of 3,700 products currently certified – have fully upgraded their systems.

Given this situation, rushing to deploy the latest certification requirements could create big problems, including a major disruption to medical practices’ business, the coalition argues.

If they’re forced to choose from the small number of systems which have upgraded their platforms, “physicians may be driven to switch vendors and utilize a system that is not suitable for their specialty or patient population,” the group said in a letter to CMS acting administrator Patrick Conway, MD, and acting ONC national coordinator Jon White, MD.

In addition to addressing certification concerns, there’s much the federal government can do to support health IT improvement, according to attendees at HIMSS17.

According to HITN, attendees would like policymakers to address interoperability, in part by reviewing Meaningful Use and the ONC Voluntary Certification programs; to focus on improving patient identification systems, and avoid imposing barriers to private market solutions; to clarify the role of the ONC in the marketplace; and to encourage the use of real-world evidence in healthcare and health IT deployment.

As I see it, these ideas veer between close-in detail and broad policy prescriptions, neither of which seem likely to have a big effect on their own.

On the one hand, while it might help to clarify ONC’s role, authority and process, the truth is that the health IT market isn’t living or dying on what it does. This is particularly the case given its revolving door leaders with too little time to do more than nudge the industry.

Meanwhile, it seems equally unlikely that the federal government will come up with generally-applicable policy prescriptions which can solve nasty problems like achieving health data interoperability and sorting out patient matching issues.

I’m not saying that government has no role in supporting the emergence of health IT solutions. In fact, I’m fairly confident that we won’t get anywhere without its assistance. However, until we have a more effective role for its involvement, government efforts aren’t likely to bear much fruit.

Paper Records Are Dead

Posted on March 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.

Here’s an argument that’s likely to upset some, but resonate with others. After kicking the idea around in my head, I’ve concluded that given broad cultural trends, that the healthcare industry as a whole has outgrown the use of paper records once and for all. I know that this notion is implicit in what health IT leaders do, but I wanted to state this directly nonetheless.

Let me start out by noting that I’m not coming down on the minority of practices (and the even smaller percentage of hospitals) which still run on old-fashioned paper charts. No solution is right for absolutely everyone, and particularly in the case of small, rural medical practices, paper charts may be just the ticket.

Also, there are obviously countless reasons why some physicians dislike or even hate current EMRs. I don’t have space to go into them here, but far too many, they’re hard to use, expensive, time-consuming monsters. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that doctors that have managed to cling to paper are just being contrary.

Still, for all but the most isolated and small providers, over the longer term there’s no viable argument left for shuffling paper around. Of course, the healthcare industry won’t realize most of the benefits of EMRs and digital health until they’re physician-friendly, and progress in that direction has been extremely slow, but if we can create platforms that physicians like, there will be no going back. In fact, for most their isn’t any going back even if they don’t become more physician firendly. If we’re going to address population-wide health concerns, coordinate care across communities and share health information effectively, going full-on digital is the only solution, for reasons that include the following:

  • Millennial and Gen Y patients won’t settle for less. These consumers are growing up in a world which has gone almost completely digital, and telling them that, for example they have to get in line to get copies of a paper record would not go down well with them.
  • Healthcare organizations will never be able to scale up services effectively, or engage with patients sufficiently, without using EMRs and digital health tools. If you doubt this, consider the financial services industry, which was sharing information with consumers decades before providers began to do so. If you can’t imagine a non-digital relationship with your bank at this point, or picture how banks could do their jobs without web-based information sharing, you’ve made my point for me.
  • Without digital healthcare, it may be impossible for hospitals, health systems, medical practices and other healthcare stakeholders to manage population health needs. Yes, public health organizations have conducted research on community health trends using paper charts, and done some effective interventions, but nothing on the scale of what providers hope (and need) to achieve. Paper records simply don’t support community-based behavioral change nearly as well.
  • Even small healthcare operations – like a two-doctor practice – will ultimately need to go digital to meet quality demands effectively. Though some have tried valiantly, largely by auditing paper charts, it’s unlikely that they’d ever build patient engagement, track trends and see that predictable needs are met (like diabetic eye exams) as effectively without EMRs and digital health data.

Of course, as noted above, the countervailing argument to all of this is the first few generations of EMRs have done more to burden clinicians than help them achieve their goals, sometimes by a very large margin. That seems to be largely because most have been designed — and sadly, continue to be designed — more to support billing processes than improve care. But if EMRs are redesigned to support patient care first and foremost, things will change drastically. Someday our grandchildren, carrying their lifetime medical history in a chip on their fingernail, will wonder how providers ever managed during our barbaric age.