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By Supporting Digital Health, EMRs To Create Collective Savings of $78B Over Next Five Years

Posted on December 1, 2014 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 the news EMR proponents have been insisting would emerge someday, justifying their long-suffering faith in the value of such systems.  A new study from Juniper Research has concluded that EMRs will save $78 billion cumulatively across the globe over the next five years, largely by connecting digital health technologies together.

While I’m tempted to get cynical about this — my poor heart has been broken by so many unsupportable or conflicting claims regarding EMR savings over the years — I think the study definitely bears examination. If digital health technologies like smart watches, fitness trackers, sensor-laden clothing, smart mobile health apps, remote monitoring and telemedicine share a common backbone that serves clinicians, the study’s conclusions look reasonable on first glance.

According to Juniper, the growth of ACOs is pushing providers to think on a population health level and that, in turn, is propelling them to adopt digital health tech.  And it’s not just top healthcare leaders that are getting excited about digital health. Juniper found that over the last 18 months, healthcare workers have become significantly more engaged in digital healthcare.

But how will providers come to grips with the floods of data generated by these emerging technologies? Why, EMRs will do the job. “Advanced EHRs will provide the ‘glue’ to bring together the devices, stakeholders and medical records in the future connected healthcare environment,” according to Juniper report author Anthony Cox.

But it’s important to note that at present, EMRs aren’t likely to have the capacity sort out the growing flood of connected health data on their own. Instead, it appears that healthcare providers will have to rely on data intermediary platforms like Apple’s HealthKit, Samsung’s SAMI (Samsung Architecture for Multimodal Interactions) and Microsoft Health. In reality, it’s platforms like these, not EMRs, that are truly serving as the glue for far-flung digital health data.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that on reflection, my cynical take on the study is somewhat justified. While they’ll play a very important role, I believe that it’s disingenuous to suggest that EMRs themselves will create huge healthcare savings.

Sure, EMRs are ultimately where the buck stops, and unless digital health data can be consumed by doctors at an EMR console, they’re unlikely to use it. But even though using EMRs as the backbone for digital health collection and population health management sounds peachy, the truth is that EMR vendors are nowhere near ready to offer robust support for these efforts.

Yes, I believe that the combination of EMRs and digital health data will prove to be very powerful over time. And I also believe that platforms like HealthKit will help us get there. I even believe that the huge savings projected by Juniper is possible. I just think getting there will be a lot more awkward than the study makes it sound.

Open Source Electronic Health Records: Will They Support the Clinical Data Needs of the Future? (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on November 10, 2014 I Written By

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

Open source software missed out on making a major advance into health care when it was bypassed during hospitals’ recent stampede toward electronic health records, triggered over the past few years by Meaningful Use incentives. Some people blame the neglect of open source alternatives on a lack of marketing (few open source projects are set up to woo non-technical adoptors), some on conservative thinking among clinicians and their administrators, and some on the readiness of the software. I decided to put aside the past and look toward the next stage of EHRs. As Meaningful Use ramps down and clinicians have to look for value in EHRs, can the open source options provide what they need?

The oncoming end of Meaningful Use payments (which never came close to covering the costs of proprietary EHRs, but nudged many hospitals and doctors to buy them) may open a new avenue to open source. Deanne Clark of DSS, which markets a VistA-based product called vxVistA, believes open source EHRs are already being discovered by institutions with tight budgets, and that as Meaningful Use reimbursements go away, open source will be even more appealing.

My question in this article, though, is whether open source EHRs will meet the sophisticated information needs of emerging medical institutions, such as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). Shahid Shah has suggested some of the EHR requirements of ACOs. To survive in an environment of shrinking reimbursement and pay-for-value, more hospitals and clinics will have to beef up their uses of patient data, leading to some very non-traditional uses for EHRs.

EHRs will be asked to identify high-risk patients, alert physicians to recommended treatments (the core of evidence-based medicine), support more efficient use of clinical resources, contribute to population health measures, support coordinated care, and generally facilitate new relationships among caretakers and with the patient. A host of tools can be demanded by users as part of the EHR role, but I find that they reduce to two basic requirements:

  • The ability to interchange data seamlessly, a requirement for coordinated care and therefore accountable care. Developers could also hook into the data to create mobile apps that enhance the value of the EHR.

  • Support for analytics, which will support all the data-rich applications modern institutions need.

Eventually, I would also hope that EHRs accept patient-generated data, which may be stored in types and formats not recognized by existing EHRs. But the clinical application of patient-generated data is far off. Fred Trotter, a big advocate for open source software, says, “I’m dubious at best about the notion that Quantified Self data (which can be very valuable to the patients themselves) is valuable to a doctor. The data doctors want will not come from popular commercial QS devices, but from FDA-approved medical devices, which are more expensive and cumbersome.”

Some health reformers also cast doubt on the value of analytics. One developer on an open source EHR labeled the whole use of analytics to drive ACO decisions as “bull” (he actually used a stronger version of the word). He aired an opinion many clinicians hold, that good medicine comes from the old-fashioned doctor/patient relationship and giving the patient plenty of attention. In this philosophy, the doctor doesn’t need analytics to tell him or her how many patients have diabetes with complications. He or she needs the time to help the diabetic with complications keep to a treatment plan.

I find this attitude short-sighted. Analytics are proving their value now that clinicians are getting serious about using them–most notably since Medicare penalizes hospital readmissions with 30 days of discharge. Open source EHRs should be the best of breed in this area so they can compete with the better-funded but clumsy proprietary offerings, and so that they can make a lasting contribution to better health care.

The next installment of this article looks at current support for interoperability and analytics in open-source EHRs.

Which Comes First in Accountable Care: Data or Patients?

Posted on September 30, 2014 I Written By

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

The headlines are stark and accusatory. “ACOs’ health IT capabilities remain rudimentary.” “ACOs held back by poor interoperability.” But a recent 19-page survey released by the eHealth Initiative tells two stories about Accountable Care Organizations–and I find the story about interoperability less compelling than another one that focuses on patient empowerment.
Read more..

ACO by ACO Savings and Payments Report

Posted on September 26, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

One of my favorite former CMS people, Travis Broome, recently shared a link to the ACO Savings and payment report. It provides an interesting view into the year 1 results of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (Medicare ACO program if you prefer).

It’s interesting to see which ACOs and other organizations got paid, but probably even more interesting to see ones that didn’t get paid at all. My guess is that many of them dropped out. If I’m reading the report properly, I could only find one organization that incurred a loss. It seems that Dean Clinic and St. Mary’s Hospital ACO in Wisconsin owes $3.96 million. Looks like they took the high risk-high reward option and lost. I’d love to talk to someone from that organization and hear what happened.

Travis Broome offered a number of other insights into the ACO report:

What do you think of the ACO program? I think it’s a bad sign that so many organizations fell out of the program. However, the trend and move towards this reimbursement is going to happen. I really don’t see how it could stop.

Are Limited Networks Necessary to Reduce Health Care Costs?

Posted on September 10, 2014 I Written By

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

Among the dirty words most hated by health care consumers–such as “capitation” and “insufficient medical necessity”–a special anxiety infuses the term “out-of-network.” Everybody harbors the fear that the world-famous specialist who can provide a miracle cure for a rare disease he or she may unexpectedly suffer from will be unavailable due to insurance limitations. So it’s worth asking whether limited networks save money, and whether they improve or degrade health care.
Read more..

Could Population Health Be Considered Discrimination?

Posted on August 19, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

Long time reader of my site, Lou Galterio with the SunCoast RHIO, sent me a really great email with a fascinating question:

Are only the big hospitals who can afford the very expensive analytics pop health programs going to be allowed to play because only they can afford to and what does that do to the small hospital and clinic market?

I think this is a really challenging question. Let’s assume for a moment that population health programs are indeed a great way to improve the healthcare we provide a patient and also are an effective way to lower the cost of healthcare. Unfortunately, Lou is right that many of these population health programs require a big investment in technology and processes to make them a reality. Does that mean that as these population health programs progress, that by their nature these programs discriminate against the smaller hospitals who don’t have the money to invest in such programs?

I think the simple answer is that it depends. We’re quickly moving to a reimbursement model (ACOs) which I consider to be a form of population health management. Depending on how those programs evolve it could make it almost impossible for the small hospital or small practice to survive. Although, the laws could take this into account and make room for the smaller hospitals. Plus, most smaller hospitals and healthcare organizations can see this coming and realize that they need to align themselves to survive.

The other side of the discrimination coin comes when you start talking about the patient populations that organizations want to include as one of their “covered lives.” When the government talks about population health, they mean the entire population. When you start paying organizations based on the health of their patient population, it changes the dynamic of who you want to include in your patient population. Another possible opportunity for discrimination.

Certainly there are ways to avoid this discrimination. However, if we’re not thoughtful in our approach to how we design these population health and ACO programs, we could run into these problems. The first step is to realize the potential issues. Now, hopefully we can think about them going forward.

Hospital M&A Cost Boosted Significantly By Health IT Integration

Posted on August 18, 2014 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.

Most of the time, hospital M&A is sold as an exercise in saving money by reducing overhead and leveraging shared strengths. But new data from PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests that IT integration costs can undercut that goal substantially. (It also makes one wonder how ACOs can afford to merge their health IT infrastructure well enough to share risk, but that’s a story for another day.)

In any event, the cost of integrating the IT systems of hospitals that merge can add up to 2% to the annual operating costs of the facilities during the integration period, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. That figure, which comes to $70,000 to $100,000 per bed over three to five years, is enough to reduce or even completely negate benefits of doing some deals. And it clearly forces merging hospitals to think through their respective IT strategies far more thoroughly than they might anticipated.

As if that stat isn’t bad enough, other experts feel that PwC is understating the case. According to Dwayne Gunter, president of Parallon Technology Solutions — who spoke to Hospitals & Health Networks magazine — IT integration costs can be much higher than those predicted by PwC’s estimate. “I think 2% being very generous,” Gunter told the magazine, “For example, if the purchased hospital’s IT infrastructure is in bad shape, the expense of replacing it will raise costs significantly.”

Of course, hospitals have always struggled to integrate systems when they merge, but as PwC research notes, there’s a lot more integrate these days, including not only core clinical and business operating systems but also EMRs, population health management tools and data analytics. (Given be extremely shaky state of cybersecurity in hospitals these days, merging partners had best feel out each others’ security systems very thoroughly as well, which obviously adds additional expenses.) And what if the merging hospitals use different enterprise EMR systems? Do you rip and replace, integrate and pray, or do some mix of the above?

On top of all that, working hospital systems have to make sure they have enough IT staffers available, or can contract with enough, to do a good job of the integration process. Given that in many hospitals, IT leaders barely have enough staff members to get the minimum done, the merger partners are likely costly consultants if they want to finish the process for the next millennium.

My best guess is that many mergers have failed to take this massive expense into account. The aftermath has got to be pretty ugly.

Population Health Polls

Posted on August 11, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

I was thinking about population health today. It’s become a hot topic of discussion now that a lot more healthcare data is available for population health management thanks to EHR adoption. Although, in many ways, the various value based reimbursement and ACO programs are a form of population health. I guess, for me I classify all of these efforts to improve the health of a population as population health.

I just wonder how many organizations are really working on these types of solutions and how much of the population health is just talk. Let’s find out in the poll below.

I’ll be interested to hear how organizations are approaching population health. Also, let’s do another poll to see how much people will be working on population health in the future.

I’d love to hear more details to your responses in the comments. If you are working on population health, what programs are you doing and what IT solutions are you using to support it?

Farzad Mostashari Launches New Startup Company Aledade – A Physician-Led ACO in a Box

Posted on June 18, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

I know when I first heard that Farzad Mostashari landed at the Brookings Institution after leaving his position as National Coordinator, I couldn’t imagine it being Farzad’s long time home. However, it was a really smart short term landing spot that would give him the opportunity to prepare for his next adventure.

We just learned that Farzad is now entering the startup world with the launch of a new company called Aledade which partners with primary care doctors to form ACOs. In a blog post introducing the startup, Farzad said “The world of start-ups may not be the usual path for those leaving a senior federal post, but it’s the right decision.” I’m not sure the career path of former senior federal employees, but I think the startup world is going to fit Farzad really well. Plus, who would you rather have leading your ACO efforts than Farzad?

Maybe we should have been able to predict this move if we’d listened closely to Neil Versel’s interview with Farzad Mostashari at HIMSS. As Neil comments, “Always the champion of the little guy in healthcare, Mostashari also brought up the notion of physician-led ACOs, or, as he called it, the “Davids going up against the Goliaths.””

Aledade has received $4.5 million in investment from Venrock and the company is targeting four areas of the country: Delaware, Arkansas, Maryland and the metro New York area (not surprising considering Farzad’s past connection to NYC).

What’s also interesting is that Aledade is building their financial model on a performance model. They aren’t requiring any up-front cost to physicians and instead are opting to make money when the physicians realize savings. I’ll be really interested to see how this works out in practice. Many of the savings that ACOs have realized could be considered fuzzy math. Although, maybe Aledade will just take a percentage of the additional ACO payments the physician ACO receives.

I’ll be interested to see what technologies come out of Aledade. I can’t imagine them launching a full EHR and so they’ll have to integrate whatever they do with dozens of EHR companies. This will be a tremendous challenge. Will they build the technology in house or just partner with an outside vendor?

I’ve heard Farzad say that the move towards value based reimbursement was happening quicker than most of us realize and that the fee for service and value based reimbursement models can’t happen at the same time. The launch of Aledade is a great example that he’s not just paying lip service, but he’s fully committed to this change.

How Technological Backwardness Wastes Health Care Money

Posted on May 23, 2014 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Andy Oram, writer and editor at O’Reilly Media.

A rather disconcerting report on the state of health care payments has been released by InstaMed, a billing network that connects payers, health care providers, patients, and third-party billing services. (You can download the report after just filling out a few fields or watch some of the report details in this video.)

I think we all know that the adoption of computing technology to coordinate treatment and payments in health care lags behind most industries. This report reveals the progress it has made along with the substantial distance it has yet to go–and the effects of the lag on all of us. Patients and doctors are all suffering financially by a continued reliance on paper.

We should be charitable: the field is making progress. Half of insurers conform (p. 11) to meeting federally mandated standards covering the complex dance by which doctors request payments, insurers report back the status of the request (Electronic Remittance Advice), sometimes repeatedly over many months, and–when the doctor wins the jackpot and gets the procedure approved–insurers remit payment (Electronic Funds Transfer). Moreover, when the survey was conducted in 2013, 86 percent of health providers accepted payments by credit card or similar mechanisms (p. 9), although fewer than half of their payments actually come in that way (p. 5).

Huge amounts of time and effort are still being wasted, though. Even as patient responsibility for payment rises–because plans have been increasing copays and deductibles–there is still a tremendous lack of transparency. “In 2013, 72 percent of consumers said that they did not know their payment responsibility during a provider visit.” (p. 14) Perhaps, even worse, “42 percent of providers said that they did not know patient responsibility during the patient visit.” (p. 7)

What is the result? Providers get fewer payments at the time of visit, and have to send multiple bills to the patient by snail mail, and often even make phone calls (p. 17). About one third of the time, providers couldn’t collect payment when the service was provided because of “patient resistance,” (p. 9) probably a way to blame the victim because the patient was broke. But another third of the time, the provider admitted it didn’t know how much to charge the patient.

All this adds up to large costs for the provider. Moreover, patients can’t make intelligent choices. (We’ll leave aside for now the larger destructive consequences of fee for service.) It’s worth noting that the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association recently recommended that doctors consider costs when recommending treatments for heart problems–certainly a harbinger of a trend. None of this can happen with the Byzantine payment systems in place.

I mentioned earlier half of payers follow standards to accept electronic payments. Well, that means that half don’t. The use of paper or fax adds an extra tax to negotiations that sometimes take months, as invoices go back and forth and payers reject invoices for a blank space or miscoding in a single field.

InstaMed recommendations include: “payers and providers must work together to help consumers take control of their healthcare payments–or risk further consumer dissatisfaction and lost revenue.” (p. 16) This is an audacious enough agenda, but I go much deeper in my call for change:

  • Publish open data on costs, hospital errors, and outcomes for common procedures. We already know that no correlation exists between cost and quality.

  • Collect detailed data about outcomes, deidentified in the best manner we know, in order to supplement clinical trials, which suffer from their own distortions. Find out where we’re wasting money just by assigning the wrong treatments.

  • Create better interfaces for submitting doctors’ bills, to eliminate the absurd ritual of multiple submissions that get rejected repeatedly by payers and create an entire third-party market just to get invoices right. Standardize billing procedures across payers. (I’m not taking on the issue of single-payer here.)

  • Eliminate fee-for-service and complete the payers’ current trend toward paying for outcome. This requires a lot more of the data mentioned in the second item, so we know what illnesses actually should cost to treat.