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Sorting Through HIT’s Cultural Revolutions

Posted on June 15, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

HIT is a small ship in the large IT sea. Whether we like it or not whatever stirs IT will rock HIT’s boat – to stretch an analogy. Sometimes it’s a tidal change in how we do business. Dial up modems, for example, gave way to high speed lines revolutionizing all that they touched.

Sometimes these revolutions – to switch analogies are much welcome and undeniable. No one is going back to MS-DOS or parallel interfaced printers. Sometimes, though, IT gets caught up in cultural revolutions (CRs) that eventually fade and disappear, but take a toll before their done and gone.

Chinese Cultural Revolution Poster

Chinese Cultural Revolution Poster. Source: chineseposters.net

By cultural revolutions I don’t mean the extremes of Chairman Mao’s creation, with Red Guards who destroyed everything and everyone in their path. We’re far more kinder and gentler than that. The CRs I’m talking about are organizational or technical fads noted for their promoters’ evangelical zeal. Heavily promoted they soak up organizational time and effort often with little to show.

To be sure IT’s not the only organizational sphere with fads. DOD’s Program, Performance Budgeting System (PPBS) is a famous 1960s example. It promised an almost mechanical solution to DOD’s major logistical, operational and performance review problems. It didn’t. Little changed. That doesn’t mean PPBS didn’t have some practical aspects, or that it didn’t leave behind some improvements. However, little justified its over blown hype and massive organizational disruption.

IT and HIT have had their share. Six Sigma, CMMI, and ISO 9000 quickly come to mind. I would add XML and Big Data. Advocates pushed these in the name of curing many woes or reaching new heights by adopting a new way of thinking or doing. However, CRs almost always just put old beer in new bottles.

Spotting a Cultural Revolution

Each day brings something new in IT/HIT. Here some ways to determine if what you’re facing is a fad or not:

  • Advocates. Who’s promoting it? Who certified them and what did that entail?
  • Analogues. Who’s implemented the CR and can you speak to them freely?
  • Client Demand. What do your clients think? Do they want you to adopt the new ways?
  • Effort. What effort will it take to adopt the CR? What are the opportunity costs?
  • Focus. Does the CR require your staff to stop what it’s doing and attend lengthy, expensive seminars?
  • Jargon. Do the advocates speak terms you know, or do they promote a whole new language you’ll have to master?
  • Organizational Fit. How well does the CR fit into your current way of doing things?
  • Payoff. What are the CR’s specific, definable advantages?
  • Segments. Does the CR give you a menu of choices or is it an all or nothing approach?
  • Sponsors. Who’s the CR author? Is it a standards organization, a movement by knowledgeable users or a self referencing group?

CRs aren’t a simple matter of useful or not. Sometimes even fads can bring a useful approach wrapped up in hyperbole.  For example, XML advocates claimed it would change everything. After that promotional tide receded, XML became another tool. The challenge, then, is being able to see if the current CR really offers anything new and what it really is.

Two Worth Reading

Posted on April 6, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

HIT is a relatively small world that generates no end of notices, promotions and commentaries. You can usually skim them, pick out what’s new or different and move on. Recently, I’ve run into two articles that deserve a slow, savored reading: Politico’s Arthur Allen’s History of VistA, the VA’s homegrown EHR and Julia Adler-Milstein’s take on interoperability’s hard times.

VistA: An Old Soldier That May Just Fade Away – Maybe

The VA’s EHR is not only older than just about any other EHR, it’s older than just about any app you’ve used in the last ten years. It started when Jimmy Carter was in his first presidential year. It was a world of mainframes running TSO and 3270 terminals. Punch cards still abounded and dialup modems were rare. Even then, there were doctors and programmers who wanted to move vet’s hard copy files into a more usable, shareable form.

Arthur Allen has recounted their efforts, often clandestine, in tracking VistA’s history. It’s not only a history of one EHR and how it has fallen in and out of favor, but it’s also a history of how personal computing has grown, evolved and changed. Still a user favorite, it looks like its accumulated problems, often political as much as technical, may mean it will finally meet its end – or maybe not. In any event, Allen has written an effective, well researched piece of technological history.

Adler-Milstein: Interoperability’s Not for the Faint of Heart

Adler-Milstein, a University of Michigan Associate Professor of Health Management and Policy has two things going for her. She knows her stuff and she writes in a clear, direct prose. It’s a powerful and sadly rare combination.

In this case, she probes the seemingly simple issue of HIE interoperability or the lack thereof. She first looks at the history of EHR adoption, noting that MU1 took a pass on I/O. This was a critical error, because it:

[A]llowed EHR systems to be designed and adopted in ways that did not take HIE into account, and there were no market forces to fill the void.

When stage two with HIE came along, it meant retrofitting thousands of systems. We’ve been playing catch up, if at all, ever since.

Her major point is simple. It’s in everyone’s interest to find ways of making I/O work and that means abandoning fault finding and figuring out what can work.

Health IT End of Year Loose Ends

Posted on December 13, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

In that random scrap heap I refer to as my memory, I’ve compiled several items not worthy of a full post, but that keep nagging me for a mention. Here are the ones that’ve surfaced:

Patient Matching. Ideally, your doc should be able to pull your records from another system like pulling cash from an ATM. The hang up is doing patient matching, which is record sharing’s last mile problem. Patients don’t have a unique identifier, which means to make sure your records are really yours your doctor’s practice has to use several cumbersome workarounds.

The 21st Century Cures Act calls for GAO to study ONC’s approach to patient matching and determine if there’s a need for a standard set of data elements, etc. With luck, GAO will cut to the chase and address the need for a national patient ID.

fEMR. In 2014, I noted Team fEMR, which developed an open source EHR for medical teams working on short term – often crises — projects. I’m pleased to report the project and its leaders Sarah Diane Draugelis and Kevin Zurek are going strong and recently got a grant from the Pollination Project. Bravo.

What’s What. I live in DC, read the Washington Post daily etc., but if I want to know what’s up with HIT in Congress, etc., my first source is Politico’s Morning EHealth. Recommended.

Practice Fusion. Five years ago, I wrote a post that was my note to PF about why I couldn’t be one of their consultants anymore. Since then the post has garnered almost 30,000 hits and just keeps going. As pleased as I am at its longevity, I think it’s only fair to say that it’s pretty long in the tooth, so read it with that in mind.

Ancestry Health. A year ago September, I wrote about Ancestry.com’s beta site Ancestry Health. It lets families document your parents, grandparents, etc., and your medical histories, which can be quite helpful. It also promised to use your family’s depersonalized data for medical research. As an example, I set up King Agamemnon family’s tree. The site is still in beta, which I assume means it’s not going anywhere. Too bad. It’s a thoughtful and useful idea. I also do enjoy getting their occasional “Dear Agamemnon” emails.

Jibo. I’d love to see an AI personal assistant for PCPs, etc., to bring up related information during exams, capture new data, make appointments and prepare scripts. One AI solution that looked promising was Jibo. The bad news is that it keeps missing its beta ship date. However, investors are closing in on $100 million. Stay tuned.

 

Hospitals and General Grant Have a Lot in Common

Posted on October 20, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

A few weeks ago, I was having a bad dream. Everything was turning black. It was hard to breath and moving was equally labored. It wasn’t a dream. I woke up and found myself working hard to inhale. Getting out of bed took determination.

I managed to get to our hallway and call my wife. She called 911 and DC’s paramedics soon had me on my way to Medstar’s Washington Hospital Center’s ER. They stabilized me and soon determined I wasn’t having a heart attack, but a heart block. That is, the nerve bundles that told my heart when to contract weren’t on the job.

A cardiology consult sent me to the Center’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Suite (EP Clinic), which specializes in arrhythmias. They ran an ECG, took a quick history and determined that the block wasn’t due to any meds, Lime disease, etc. Determining I needed a pacemaker, they made me next in line for the procedure.

Afterwards, my next stop was the cardiac surgery floor. Up till then, my care was by closely functioning teams. After that, while I certainly wasn’t neglected, it was clear I went from an acute problem to the mundane. And with that change in status, the hospital system’s attention to detail deteriorated.

This decline led me to a simple realization. Hospitals, at least in my experience, are much like Ulysses Grant: stalwart in crisis, but hard pressed with the mundane. That is, the more critical matters became in the Civil War, the calmer and more determined was Grant. As President, however, the mundane dogged him and defied his grasp.

Here’re the muffed, mundane things I encountered in my one overnight stay:

  • Meds. I take six meds, none exotic. Despite my wife’s and my efforts, the Center’s system could not get their names or dosages straight. Compounding that, I was told not to take my own because the hospital would supply them. It couldn’t either find all of them or get straight when I took them. I took my own.
  • Food. I’d not eaten when I came in, which was good for the procedure. After it, the EP Clinic fed me a sandwich and put in food orders. Those orders quickly turned into Nothing by Mouth, which stubbornly remained despite nurses’ efforts to alter it. Lunch finally showed up, late, as I was leaving.
  • Alarm Fatigue. At three AM, I needed help doing something trivial, but necessary. I pressed the signaling button and a nurse answered who could not hear me due to a bad mike. She turned off the alert. I clicked it on again. Apparently, the nurses have to deal with false signals and have learned to ignore them. After several rounds, I stumbled to the Nurses’ Station and got help.
  • Labs. While working up my history, the EP Clinic took blood and sent for several tests. Most came back quickly, but a few headed for parts unknown. No one could find out what happened to them.
  • Discharge. The EP Clinic gave me a set of instructions. A nurse practitioner came by and gave me a somewhat different version. When we got home, my wife called the EP Clinic about the conflict and got a third version.
  • EHR. The Hospital Center is Washington’s largest hospital. My PCP is at the George Washington University’s Medical Faculty Associates. Each is highly visible and well regarded. They have several relationships. The Center was supposed to send GW my discharge data, via FAX, to my PCP. It didn’t. I scanned them in and emailed my PCP.

In last five years, I’ve had similar experiences in two other hospitals. They do great jobs dealing with immediate and pressing problems, but their systems are often asleep doing the routine.

I’ve found two major issues at work:

  • Incomplete HIT. While these hospitals have implemented EHRs, they’ve left many functions big and small on paper or on isolated devices. This creates a hybrid system with undefined or poorly defined workflows. There simply isn’t a fully functional system, rather there are several of them. This means that when the hospital staff wants to find something, first they’ll look in a computer. Failing that, they’ll scour clipboards for the elusive fact. It’s like they have a car with a five speed transmission, but only first and second gear are automatic.
  • Isolated Actors. Outside critical functions, individuals carry out tasks not teams. That is, they often act in isolation from those before or after them. This means issues are looked at only from one perspective at a time. This sets the stage for mistakes, omissions and misunderstandings. A shared task list, a common EHR function, could end this isolation.

The Hospital Center is deservedly a well regarded. It’s heart practice is its special point of pride. However, its failure to fully implement HIE is ironic. That’s because Medstar’s National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare isn’t far from the Hospital.

The problems I encountered aren’t critical, but they are troublesome and can easily lead to serious even life endangering problems. Most egregious is failure to fully implement HIT. This creates a confusing, poorly coordinated system, which may be worse than no HIT at all.

I’m Now a Thing on the Internet of Things

Posted on October 11, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

Thanks to a Biotronik Eluna 8 DR-T pacemaker that sits below my clavicle, I’m now a thing on the internet of things. What my new gizmo does, other than keeping me ticking, is collect data and send it to a cell device sitting on my nightstand.

biotronik-eluna
Once a day, the cell uploads my data to Biotronik’s Home Monitoring website, where my cardiologist can see what’s going on. If something needs prompt attention, the system sends alerts. Now, this is a one way system. My cardiologist can’t program my pacemaker via the net. To do that requires being near Biotronik’s Renamic inductive system. That means I can’t be hacked like Yahoo email.

The pacemaker collects and sends two kinds of data. The first set shows the unit’s functioning and tells a cardiologist how the unit is programmed and predicts its battery life, etc. The second set measures heart functioning. For example, the system generates a continuous EKG. Here’s the heart related set:

  • Atrial Burden per day 

  • Atrial Paced Rhythm (ApVs) 

  • Atrial Tachy Episodes (36 out of 48 criteria) 

  • AV-Sequences 

  • Complete Paced Rhythm (ApVp)
  • Conducted Rhythm (AsVp) 

  • Counter on AT/AF detections per day 

  • Duration of Mode Switches
  • High Ventricular Rate Counters
  • Intrinsic Rhythm (AsVs) 

  • Mode Switching
  • Number of Mode Switches 

  • Ongoing Atrial Episode Time
  • Ventricular Arrhythmia

Considering the pacemaker’s small size, the amount of information it produces is remarkable. What’s good about this system is that its data are available 24/7 on the web.

The bad news is Biotronik systems don’t directly talk to EHRs. Rather, Renamic uses EHR DataSynch, a batch system that complies with IEEE 11073-10103, a standard for implantable devices. EHR DataSynch creates an XML file and ships it along with PDFs to an EHR via a USB key or Bluetooth. However, Renamic doesn’t support LANs. When the EHR receives the file, it places the data in their requisite locations. The company also offers customized interfaces through third party vendors.

For a clinician using the website or Renamic, data access isn’t an issue. However, access can be problematic in an EHR. In that case, the Biotronik data may or may not be kept in the same place or in the same format as other cardiology data. Also, batch files may not be transferred in a timely fashion.

Biotronik’s pacemaker, by all accounts, is an excellent unit and I certainly am glad to have it. However, within the EHR universe, it’s one more non-interoperable device. It takes good advantage of the internet for its patients and their specialists, but stops short of making its critical data readily available. In Biotronik’s defense, their XML system is agnostic, that is, it’s one that almost any EHR vendor can use. Also, the lack of a widely accepted electronic protocol for interfacing EHRs is hardly Biotronik’s fault. However, it is surprising that Biotronik does not market specific, real time interfaces for the products major EHRs.

MGMA Blames Rise in HIT Costs on Fed’s Regs

Posted on September 15, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

MGMA’s released a study of 850 member’s practices showing HIT costs up by more than 45 percent in the last six years. MGMA puts much of the blame on federal regulations. It’s concerned that:

Too much of a practice’s IT investment is tied directly to complying with the ever-increasing number of federal requirements, rather than to providing better patient care. Unless we see significant changes in the final MIPS/APM rule, practice IT costs will continue to rise without a corresponding improvement in the care delivery process.

There may be a good case that the HITECH act is responsible for the lion’s share of HIT growth for these and other providers, but MGMA study doesn’t make the case – not by far.

What the study does do is track the rise in HIT costs since 2011 for physician owned, multispecialty practices. For example, MGMA’s press release notes that IT costs have gone up by almost 47 percent since 2009.

In fairness, MGMA also notes that costs may have also gone up do to other costs, such as patient portals, etc. However, the release emphasizes that regulations are at great fault.

Here’s why MGMA’s case falls flat:

  • Seeing Behind the Paywall. If you want to examine the study, it’ll cost you $655 to read it. Many similar studies that charge, provide a good synopsis and spell out their methodology. MGMA doesn’t do either.
  • Identifying the Issue. It’s one thing to complain about regulations. It’s quite another to identify which ones specifically harm productivity without compensating benefit. MGMA cites regulations without so much as an example.
  • Lacking Comparables. MGMA’s press release notes that total HIT costs were $32,000 per practitioner. However, this does not look at non HIT support costs, nor does it address comparable support costs from other professions.
  • Breaking Down Costs. The study offers comparable information to practitioners by specialty types, etc. However, all IT costs are lumped together and called HIT.
  • Ignoring Backgrounds. MGMA notes that HIT costs rose most dramatically between 2010 and 2011, which marked MU1’s advent. It doesn’t address these practices’ IT state in 2009. It would be good to know how many were ready to install an EHR and how many had to make basic IT improvements?
  • Finessing Productivity. Other than mentioning patient portals, MGMA ignores any productivity changes due to HIT. For example, how long did it take and what did it cost to do a refill request before HIT and now? This and similar productivity measures could give a good view of HIT’s impact.

It’s popular to beat up on HITs in general and EHRs in general. Lord knows, EHRs have their problems, but many of the ills laid at their doorstep are just so much piling on. Or, as is this case, are used to make a connection for the sake of political argument.

Studies that want to get at the effect HIE and EHRs have had on the practice of medicine need to be carefully done. They need to look at how things were done, what they could accomplish and what costs were before and after HIT changes. Otherwise, the study’s data are fitted to the conclusions not the other way around.

MGMA’s a major and important player with a record of service to its members. In this case, it’s using its access to important practice information in support of an antiregulatory policy goal rather than to help determine HIT’s real status.

Is Interoperability Worth Paying For?

Posted on August 18, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

A member of our extended family is a nurse practitioner. Recently, we talked about her practice providing care for several homebound, older patients. She tracks their health with her employer’s proprietary EHR, which she quickly compared to a half-dozen others she’s used. If you want a good, quick EHR eval, ask a nurse.

What concerned her most, beyond usability, etc., was piecing together their medical records. She didn’t have an interoperability problem, she had several of them. Most of her patients had moved from their old home to Florida leaving a mixed trail of practioners, hospitals, and clinics, etc. She has to plow through paper and electronic files to put together a working record. She worries about being blindsided by important omissions or doctors who hold onto records for fear of losing patients.

Interop Problems: Not Just Your Doc and Hospital

She is not alone. Our remarkably decentralized healthcare system generates these glitches, omissions, ironies and hang ups with amazing speed. However, when we talk about interoperability, we focus on mainly on hospital to hospital or PCP to PCP relations. Doing so, doesn’t fully cover the subject. For example, others who provide care include:

  • College Health Systems
  • Pharmacy and Lab Systems
  • Public Health Clinics
  • Travel and other Specialty Clinics
  • Urgent Care Clinics
  • Visiting Nurses
  • Walk in Clinics, etc., etc.

They may or may not pass their records back to a main provider, if there is one. When they do it’s usually by FAX making the recipient key in the data. None of this is particularly a new story. Indeed, the AHA did a study of interoperability that nails interoperability’s barriers:

Hospitals have tried to overcome interoperability barriers through the use of interfaces and HIEs but they are, at best, costly workarounds and, at worst, mechanisms that will never get the country to true interoperability. While standards are part of the solution, they are still not specified enough to make them truly work. Clearly, much work remains, including steps by the federal government to support advances in interoperability. Until that happens, patients across the country will be shortchanged from the benefits of truly connected care.

We’ve Tried Standards, We’ve Tried Matching, Now, Let’s Try Money

So, what do we do? Do we hope for some technical panacea that makes these problems seem like dial-up modems? Perhaps. We could also put our hopes in the industry suddenly adopting an interop standard. Again, Perhaps.

I think the answer lies not in technology or standards, but by paying for interop successes. For a long time, I’ve mulled over a conversation I had with Chandresh Shah at John’s first conference. I’d lamented to him that buying a Coke at a Las Vegas CVS, brought up my DC buying record. Why couldn’t we have EHR systems like that? Chandresh instantly answered that CVS had an economic incentive to follow me, but my medical records didn’t. He was right. There’s no money to follow, as it were.

That leads to this question, why not redirect some MU funds and pay for interoperability? Would providers make interop, that is data exchange, CCDs, etc., work if they were paid? For example, what if we paid them $50 for their first 500 transfers and $25 for their first 500 receptions? This, of course, would need rules. I’m well aware of the human ability to game just about anything from soda machines to state lotteries.

If pay incentives were tried, they’d have to start slowly and in several different settings, but start they should. Progress, such as it is, is far too slow and isn’t getting us much of anywhere. My nurse practitioner’s patients can’t wait forever.

ONC’s Budget Performance Measure Dashboards Makes Goal Tracking Easy

Posted on August 9, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

I recently wrote a post how it’s not easy to compare ONC’s spending plans with what it actually did. That’s not the case with ONC’s Budget Performance Measures. Its Performance Measure dashboard makes those comparisons easy and understandable. For example, you can look up EHR adoption among office based physicians.

Here’s how to use it. On the dashboard page, Figure I, select a general area using the radio buttons. Depending on your choice, the system will list specific issues. You select the one you want from the drop down menu on the right. You can also adjust the period covered. Right clicking a graph downloads it.

Figure I – ONC Dashboard Menu

ONC Dashboard Menu

It’s in the graph that the dashboard excels. It clearly shows targets and results. For example, Figure II shows that while office EHR adoption has grown over the years, it’s running below ONC’s goals. If you’d only saw the actual – which is the case with ONC’s budget — you’d only see adoption going up. You’d have no clue ONC’s goal wasn’t met.

Figure II – ONC Primary Care Adoption

Office Based Primary Care Doc Adoption

These dashboards give the public a way to understand what ONC wants to do and how well — or not so well — its done toward its goals. In doing so, ONC has given us a scoreboard that not only measures what it’s doing, but it also allows the public to focus on benchmarks. ONC’s fiscal reporting isn’t the clearest, but with these dashboards they’ve done themselves well.

ONC’s Budget: A Closer Look

Posted on August 3, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

When HHS released ONC’s proposed FY2017 budget last winter, almost all attention focused on one part, a $22 million increase for interoperability. While the increase is notable, I think ONC’s full $82 Million budget deserves some attention.

ONC’s FY2017 Spending Plan.

Table I, summarizes ONC’s plan for Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017. The first thing to note is that ONC’s funding would change from general budget funds, known as Budget Authority or BA, to Public Health Service Evaluation funds. HHS’ Secretary may allocate up to 2.1 percent of HHS’ funds to these PHS funds. This change would not alter Congress’ funding role, but apparently signals HHS’s desire to put ONC fully in the public health sector.

Table I
ONC FY2017 Budget

fy2017-budget-justification-onc

What the ONC Budget Shows and What it Doesn’t

ONC’s budget follows the standard, federal government budget presentation format. That is, it lists, by program, how many people and how much money is allocated. In this table, each fiscal year, beginning with FY2015, shows the staffing level and then spending.

Staffing is shown in FTEs, that is, full time equivalent positions. For example, if two persons work 20 hours each, then they are equivalent to one full time person or FTE.

Spending definitions for each fiscal year is a little different. Here’s how that works:

  • FY2015 – What actually was spent or how many actually were hired
  • FY2016 – The spending and hiring Congress set for ONC for the current year.
  • FY2017 – The spending and hiring in the President’s request to Congress for next year.

If you’re looking to see how well or how poorly ONC does its planning, you won’t see it here. As with other federal and most other government budgets, you never see a comparison of plans v how they really did. For example, FY2015 was the last complete fiscal year. ONC’s budget doesn’t have a column showing its FY2015 budget and next to it, what it actually did. If it did, you could see how well or how poorly it did following its plan.

You can’t see the amount budgeted for FY2015 in ONC’s budget, except for its total budget. However, if you look at the FY2016 ONC budget, you can see what was budgeted for each of its four programs. While the budget total and the corresponding actual are identical -$60,367,000, the story at the division level is quite different.

                                   Table II
                    ONC FY2015 Budget v Actual
                                    000s

Division

FY2015 Budget $ FY2015 Actuals $ Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 12,474 13,112 638
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 15,230 15,425 195
Adoption and Meaningful Use 11,139 10,524 (615)
Agency-wide Support 21,524 21,306 (218)
Total 60,367 60,367

 

Table II, shows this by comparing the FY2015 Enacted Budget from ONC’s FY2015 Actuals for its four major activities. While the total remained the same, it shows that there was a major shift of $638,000 from Meaningful Use to Policy. There was a lesser shift of $195,000 from Agency Support to Standards. These shifts could have been actual transfers or they could have been from under and over spending by the divisions.

Interestingly, Table III for staffing shows a different pattern. During FY2015, ONC dropped 25 FTEs, a dozen from Policy Development and the rest from Standards and Meaningful Use. That means, for example, that Policy Development had less people and more money during FY2015.

Table III
ONC FY2015
Budget v Actual Staffing FTEs
Division FY2015 Budget FTEs FY2015 Actuals FTEs Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 49 37 (12)
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 32 26 (6)
Adoption and Meaningful Use 49 42 (7)
Agency-wide Support 55 55
Total 185 160 25

 

To try to make sense of this, I looked at the current and past year’s budgets, but to no avail. As best I can tell is ONC made great use of contracts and other non personnel services. For example, ONC spent $30 Million on purchase/contracts, which is $8 million more than it did on its payroll.

ONC’s budget, understandably, concentrates on its programs and plans. It puts little emphasis on measuring its hiring and spending abilities. It’s not alone, budgets government and otherwise, are forecast and request documents. However, if we could know how plans went – without having to dig in last year’s weeds  – it would let us know how well a program executed its plans as well as make them. That would be something worth knowing.

Dallas Children’s Health and Sickle Cell Patients: Cobbling Together a Sound Solution

Posted on June 23, 2016 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

Sickle cell anemia (SCA) is a genetic, red blood cell condition, which damages cell walls impeding their passage through capillaries. Episodic, it is often extremely painful. It can damage organs, cause infections, strokes or joint problems. These episodes or SCA crises can be prompted by any number of environmental or personal factors.

In the US, African Americans are most commonly susceptible to SCA, but other groups can have it as well. SCA presents a variety of management problems in the best of circumstances. As is often the case, management is made even more difficult when the patient is a child. That’s what Children’s Health of Dallas, Texas, one of the nation’s oldest and largest pediatric treatment facilities faced two years ago. Children’s Health, sixty five percent of whose patients are on Medicaid, operates a large, intensive SCA management program as the anchor institution of the NIH funded Southwestern Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center.

Children’s Health problem wasn’t with its inpatient care or with its outpatient clinics. Rather, it was keeping a child’s parents and doctors up to date on developments. Along with the SCA clinical staff, Children’s Chief Information Officer, Pamela Arora, and Information Management and Exchange Director, Katherine Lusk, tackled the problem. They came up with a solution using all off the shelf technology.

Their solution? Provide each child’s caregiver with a free Verizon smartphone. Each night, they extracted the child’s information from EPIC and sent it to Microsoft’s free, vendor-neutral HealthVault PHR. This gave the child’s doctor and parents an easy ability to stay current with the child’s treatment. Notably, Children’s was able to put the solution together quickly with minimal staff and without extensive development.

That was two years ago. Since then, EPIC’s Lucy PHR has supplanted the project. However, Katherine Lusk who described the project to me is still proud of what they did. Even though the project has been replaced, it’s worth noting as an important example. It shows that not all HIE projects must be costly, time-consuming or resource intense to be successful.

Children’s SCA project points out the value of these system development factors:

  • Clear, understood goal
  • Precise understanding of users and their needs
  • Small focused team
  • Searching for off the shelf solutions
  • Staying focused and preventing scope creep

Each of these proved critical to Children’s success. Not every project lends itself to this approach, but Children’s experience is worth keeping in mind as a useful and repeatable model of meeting an immediate need with a simple, direct approach.

Note: I first heard of Children’s project at John’s Atlanta conference. ONC’s Peter Ashkenaz mentioned it as a notable project that had not gained media attention. I owe him a thanks for pointing me to Katherine Lusk.