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The Sexiest Data in Health IT: Datapalooza 2017

Posted on May 15, 2017 I Written By

Healthcare as a Human Right. Physician Suicide Loss Survivor. Janae writes about Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Data Analytics, Engagement and Investing in Healthcare. twitter: @coherencemed

The data at this conference was the Best Data. The Biggest Data. No one has better data than this conference.

The sexiest data in all of healthIT was highlighted in Washington DC at Datapalooza April 27-28, 2017.  One of the main themes was how to deal with social determinants of health and the value of that data.  Sachin H. Jain, MD of Caremore Health reminded us that “If a patient doesn’t have food at home waiting for them they won’t get better” social data needs to be in the equation. Some of the chatter on the subject of healthcare reform has been criticism that providing mandatory coverage hasn’t always been paired with knowledge of the area. If a patient qualifies for Medicaid and has a lower paying job how can they afford to miss work and get care for their health issues?
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Rural areas also have access issues. Patient “Charles” works full time during the week and qualifies for Medicaid. He can’t afford to miss a lot of work but needs a half a day to get treatments which affect his ability to work. There is no public transportation in his town to the hospital in a city an hour and a half away. Charles can’t afford the gas or unpaid time off work for his treatment.

Urban patient “Haley” returns to her local ER department more than once a week with Asthma attacks.  Her treatments are failing because she lives in an apartment with mold in the walls. As Craig Kartchner from the Intermountain Healthcare team responded to the #datapalooza  hashtag online- These can be the most difficult things to change.

The 2016 report to Congress addresses the difficulty of the intersection between social factors and providing quality healthcare in terms of Social Determinants of Health:

“If beneficiaries with social risk factors have worse health outcomes because the providers they see provide low quality care, value based purchasing could be a powerful tool to drive improvements in care and reduce health disparities. However, if beneficiaries with social risk factors have worse health outcomes because of elements beyond the quality of care provided, such as the social risk factors themselves, value based payment models could do just the opposite. If providers have limited ability to influence health outcomes for beneficiaries with social risk factors, they may become reluctant to care for beneficiaries with social risk factors, out of fear of incurring penalties due to factors they have limited ability to influence.”

Innovaccer just launched a free tool to help care teams track and monitor Medicare advantage plans. I went to their website and looked at my county and found data about the strengths in Salt Lake where I’m located. They included:

  • Low prevalence of smoking
  • Low Unemployed Percentage
  • Low prevalence of physically inactive adults

Challenges for my area?

  • Low graduation rate
  • High average of daily Air pollution
  • High income inequality
  • High Violent crime rate per 100,000 population

Salt Lake actually has some really bad inversion problems during the winter months and some days the particulate matter in the air creates problems for respiratory problems. During the 2016-2017 winter there were 18 days of red air quality and 28 days of yellow air quality. A smart solution for addressing social determinants of health that negatively impact patients in this area could be addressing decreasing air pollution through increased public transportation. Healthcare systems will see an increase in cost of care during those times and long term population health challenges can emerge. You can look at your county after you enter your email address on their site. This kind of social data visualization can give high level insights into the social factors your population faces.

One of the themes of HealthDataPalooza was how to use system change to navigate the intersection between taking care of patients and not finding way to exclude groups. During his panel discussion of predictive analytics, Craig Monson the medical director for analytics and reporting discussed how “data analytics is the shiny new toy of healthcare.”    In addition to winning the unofficial datapalooza award for the most quotes and one liners – Craig presented the Clinical Risk Prediction Initiative (CRISPI).  This is a multi variable logistic regression model with data from the Atrius health data warehouse. His questions for systems to remember in their data analysis selection are “Who is the population you are serving? What is the outcome you need? What is the intervention you should implement?”

Warning- Craig reminds us that in a world of increasing sexy artificial intelligence coding a lot of the value analysis can be done with regression. Based on that statement alone I think he can be trusted. I still need to see his data.

CRISPI analyzed the relative utility of certain types of data, and didn’t have a large jump in utility when adding Social Determinant Data. This data was one of the most popular data sets during Datapalooza discussions but the reality of making actionable insights into system improvement? Craig’s analysis said it was lacking. Does this mean social determinant data isn’t significant or that it needs to be handled with a combination of traditional modeling and other methods?  Craig’s assertion seemed to fly in the face of the hot new trend of Social Determinants of Health data from the surface.

Do we have too much data or the wrong use of the data? Most of the companies investing into this space used data sources outside the traditional definition to help create solutions with social determinate of health and Patient outcomes. They differed in how they analyzed social determinant data. Traditional data sources for the social determinants of health are well defined within the public health research.  The conditions in which you work and live impact your health.

Datapalooza had some of the greatest minds in data analytics and speakers addressed gaps in data usefulness. Knowing that a certain large county wide population has a problem with air quality might not be enough to improve patient outcomes. There is need for analysis of traditional data sources in this realm and how they can get meaningful impact for patients and communities. Healthcare innovators need to look at different data sources.  Nick Dawson, Executive director of Johns-Hopkins Sibley Innovation Hub responded to the conversation about food at home with the data about Washington DC.  “DC like many cities has open public data on food scarcity. But it’s not part of a clinical record. The two datasets never touch.” Data about food scarcity can help hospital systems collaborate with SNAP and Government as well as local food programs. Dawson leads an innovation lab at Johns Hopkins Sibley where managers, directors, VPs and C Suite leaders are responsible for working with 4 innovation projects each year.

Audun Utengen, the Co Founder of Symplur said “There’s so much gold in the social media data if you choose to see it.” Social data available online helps providers meet patients where they are and collect valuable data.  Social media data is another source to collect data about patient preferences and interactions for reaching healthcare populations providers are trying to serve. With so much data available sorting through relevant and helpful data provides a new challenge for healthcare systems and providers.

New Data sources can be paired with a consultative model for improving the intersection of accountable care and lack of access due to social factors. We have more sophisticated analytic tools than ever for providing high value care in the intersection between provider responsibility and social collaboration. This proactive collaboration needs to occur on local and national levels.  “It’s the social determinants of health and the behavioral aspects that we need to fund and will change healthcare” we were reminded. Finding local community programs that have success and helping develop a strategy for approaching Social Determinants of Health is on the mind of healthIT professionals.

A number of companies examine data from sources such as social media and internet usage or behavioral data to design improvements for social determinants of health outcomes.   They seek to bridge the gaps mentioned by Dawson. Data sets exist that could help build programs for social determinants of health.  Mandi Bishop started Lifely Insights centered around building custom community plans with behavioral insights into social determinant data. Health in all Policies is a government initiative supporting increased structure and guidelines in these areas. They support local and State initiatives with a focus on prevention.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the data landscape evolves this year. Government Challenges such as the Healthy Behavior Data Challenge launched at Datapalooza will help fund great improvements. All the data people will get together and determine meaningful data sets for building programs addressing the social determinants of health. They will have visualization tools with Tableau. They will find ways to get food to patients at home so those patients will get better. Programs will find a way to get care to rural patients with financial difficulty and build safe housing.

From a healthcare delivery perspective the idea of collaborating about data models can help improve community health and decrease provider and payer cost. The social determinants of health can cost healthcare organizations more money than data modeling and proactive community collaboration.

Great regressions, saving money and improving outcomes?

That is Datapalooza.

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.

 

Accountable Care HIT Spending Growing Worldwide

Posted on November 30, 2016 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.

A new market research report has concluded that given the pressures advancing the development of accountable care models, the market for solutions serving ACOs should expand worldwide, though North America is likely to lead the segment for the near future.

The report, by research firm Markets & Markets, covers a wide range of technologies, including EHRs, healthcare analytics, HIE, RCM, CDSS, population health, claims management and care management. It also looks at delivery mode, e.g. on premise, web and cloud and end-user, which includes providers and payers. So bear that in mind when you look at these numbers. That being said, providers accounted for the largest share of this niche last year, and should see the highest growth in the sector over the next five years.

Broadly speaking, Markets & Markets reports that the accountable care solutions market grew a healthy growth rate during the last decade. Researchers there expect to see this market grow at a CAGR of 16.6% over the next five years, to hit $18.86 billion by 2021.

When it comes to leaders in the sector, researchers identify Cerner, IBM, Aetna and Epic as leaders in the current ACO solutions market and probable future winners between 2016 and 2021. Other major players in the space include UnitedHealth Group, Allscripts, McKesson, Verisk Health, Zeomega, eClinicalWorks and NextGen. Given how broadly they define this category, I’m not sure how important this is, but there you have it.

According Markets & Markets, the growth of the ACO solutions market worldwide is due to forces we know well, including shifting government regulations, the rollout of initiatives shifting financial risk from payers to providers, the demand to slow down healthcare cost increases in the advance of IT and big data capabilities. (Personally, I’d add the desire of health systems – ACO-affiliated or not – to differentiate themselves by performing well at the population health level.)

If your view is largely US-centric, as is mine, you might be interested to note that the trend towards ACO-like entities in the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions is expanding, the researchers report. Most specifically, Markets & Markets researchers found that there is notable growth occurring in Asian countries, which, it reports, are modifying regulations and monitoring the implementation of procedures, policies and guidelines to promote innovation and commercialization. This has led to an increasing number of hospitals and academic institutions interested in the sector, along with a government focus on implementing health IT solutions and infrastructure – factors likely to generate an expanding ACO solutions market there.

After reading all of this, the question I’m left with is whether there’s any point in differentiating an “ACO” specific player as these researchers have. Maybe I’m playing with words too much hear, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the definition of health system infrastructure is evolving, whether it’s part of an ACO as such or not?

Enterprise EHR Vendors Consolidating Hold On Doctors

Posted on September 9, 2016 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.

When I stumbled across a recent study naming the EHRs most widely used by physicians, I don’t know what I expected, but I did not think big-iron enterprise vendors would top the list. I was wrong.

In fact, I should have guessed that things would play out this way for giants like Epic, though not because physicians adore them. Forces bigger than the Cerners and Epics of the world, largely the ongoing trend towards buyouts of medical groups by hospitals, have forced doctors’ hand. But more on this later.

Context on physician EHR adoption
First, some stats for context.  To compile its 2016 EHR Report, Medscape surveyed 15,285 physicians across 25 specialties. Researchers asked them to name their EHR and rate their systems on several criteria, including ease of use and value as a clinical tool.

When it came to usage, Epic came in at first place in both 2012 and 2016, but climbed six percentage points to 28% of users this year. This dovetails with other data points, such that Epic leads the hospital and health system market, according to HIT Consultant, which reported on the study.

Meanwhile, Cerner climbed from third place to second place, but it only gained one percentage point in the study, hitting 10% this year. It took the place of Allscripts, which ranked second in 2012 but has since dropped out of the small practice software market.

eClinicalWorks came in third with 7% share, followed by NextGen (5%) and MEDITECH (4%). eClinicalWorks ranked in fifth place in the 2012 study, but neither NextGen nor MEDITECH were in the top five most used vendors four years ago. This shift comes in part due to the disappearance of Centricity from the list, which came in fourth in the 2012 research.

Independents want different EHRs
I was interested to note that when the researchers surveyed independent practices with their own EHRs, usage trends took a much different turn. eClinicalWorks rated first in usage among this segment, at 12% share, followed by Practice Fusion and NextGen, sharing the second place spot with 8% each.

One particularly striking data point provided by the report was that roughly one-third of these practices reported using “other systems,” notably EMA/Modernizing Medicine (1.6%), Office Practicum (1.2%) and Aprima (0.8%).

I suppose you could read this a number of ways, but my take is that physicians aren’t thrilled by the market-leading systems and are casting about for alternatives. This squares with the results of a study released by Physicians Practice earlier this year, which reported that only a quarter of so of practices felt they were getting a return on investment from their system.

Time for a modular model
So what can we take away from these numbers?  To me, a few things seem apparent:

* While this wasn’t always the case historically, hospitals are pushing out enterprise EHRs to captive physicians, probably the only defensible thing they can do at this point given interoperability concerns. This is giving these vendors more power over doctors than they’ve had in the past.

* Physicians are not incredibly fond of even the EHRs they get to choose. I imagine they’re even less thrilled by EHRs pushed out to them by hospitals and health systems.

* Ergo, if a vendor could create an Epic- or Cerner-compatible module designed specifically – and usably — for outpatient use, they’d offer the best of two worlds. And that could steal the market out from under the eClinicalWorks and NextGens of the world.

It’s possible that one of the existing ambulatory EHR leaders could re-emerge at the top if it created such a module, I imagine. But it’s hard for even middle-aged dogs to learn new tricks. My guess is that this mantle will be taken up by a company we haven’t heard of yet.

In the mean time, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the physician-first EHR players stand a chance of keeping their market share.

Is CMS Listening to Doctors’ Thoughts on MACRA?

Posted on June 10, 2016 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 have to admit that I have a lot of respect for Andy Slavitt. He’s doing a really hard job as Acting Administrator of CMS and he’s been very vocal and open about his view of what they’re doing and their efforts to listen to those of us in healthcare. I’ve really appreciated his willingness to engage the community on challenging topics. Did you ever see this from previous CMS administrators?

This tweet illustrates Andy’s efforts to really listen to doctors when it comes to MACRA:

This illustrates why I previously wrote that Andy Slavitt was very much in touch with the pulse of what doctors are feeling and experiencing. Although, with that comment I also said that I hoped that the policies and programs they implemented would match that understanding.

I realize that this concept is much easier said than done. Andy Slavitt and his team at CMS are sometimes not able to make changes to things like MACRA even if they know it’s the right thing to do. They aren’t the ones responsible for making the legislation. Their jobs are to implement the legislation. It’s a tough balance which always leaves people wanting.

The only thing awkward about Andy Slavitt’s tweet above is that he says CMS has “trained nearly 60,000.” It’s quite interesting that he views these MACRA sessions as trainings. I thought they were more listening sessions than training sessions, but I guess I was wrong. Certainly you have to train a doctor on the MACRA legislation if you want to get the right feedback from them. So, I guess training and listening aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s not surprising that many doctors don’t want to be “trained” on MACRA. For some doctors, anything less than a full repeal of MACRA will be less than satisfying and that’s not going to happen.

While you can complain about the way Andy might phrase things in a tweet, I don’t think that’s very productive. Although, I don’t think listening to (or should I say training) 60,000 physicians’ thoughts about MACRA is very useful either if we don’t see that feedback incorporated into the final MACRA rule. This tweet gives me some hope that the feedback has been heard and we’ll see some important changes to MACRA:

When the MACRA final rule comes out, I hope that along with the changes that were made we also get a look into the changes that people requested that CMS was unable to make because of the way the legislation was written. I’m not sure if CMS is allowed to be that transparent, but if we’re going to help push for better legislation it would be great to know which feedback was thwarted by legislation so that doctors can push for better legislation.

The Virtual ACO

Posted on April 26, 2016 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.

“Virtual ACOs may be the next big thing for small practices,” says our host Dr. Tom. “I want to talk about how independent practices can lead and not just follow the shift to value-based care.”

Who here has looked at or talked to someone about virtual ACOs?

My guess is that most small practices haven’t really heard about it. Maybe it has to do with most doctors being too busy to consider other innovation. I’ll admit that the idea of a virtual ACO is a new one to me and so I was interested in the discussion that Dr. Tom from Kareo led on virtual ACOs.

The concept of a virtual ACO makes sense. Basically use technology to provide coordinated care across the care system. In fact, that’s what most patients think is already happening with their care, but we know it’s generally not happening. We all know it should and most doctors would embrace the ability to have the right information in the right place so that their patients get the right care. I don’t know anyone who’s against that principle.

However, as was pointed out in the chat linked above, the financial model for a virtual ACO is up in the air. There’s no clear financial model that makes sense. The care model makes sense, but the financial model is a mess.

Dr. Tom did make this assertion in the virtual ACO discussion:

Although S. Turner Dean responded with something we’ve talked about quite a few times before:

I love Dr. Tom’s optimism that this new world of value based reimbursement simplifying things, but I’m not sure it will be any simpler than fee for service. That’s not even taking into account the fact that we have the whole infrastructure set up to handle fee for service and that we know how it works. Set that aside and I’m still not sure that a virtual ACO would be any less complicated than our current fee for service world.

What do you think of the concept of a virtual ACO? Will it simplify medicine? Will it help doctors love their work again? Will it help the independent physician practice survive?

Full Disclosure: Kareo is an advertiser on this blog.

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

Posted on April 13, 2016 I Written By

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

The previous section of this article provided whatever detail I could find on the costs of poor communications and data exchange among health care providers. But in truth, it’s hard to imagine the toll taken by communications failures beyond certain obvious consequences, such as repeated tests and avoidable medical errors. One has to think about how the field operates and what we would be capable of with proper use of data.

As patients move from PCP to specialist, from hospital to rehab facility, and from district to district, their providers need not only discharge summaries but intensive coordination to prevent relapses. Our doctors are great at fixing a diabetic episode or heart-related event. Where we fall down is on getting the patient the continued care she needs, ensuring she obtains and ingests her medication, and encouraging her to make the substantial life-style changes that can prevent reoccurrences. Modern health really is all about collaboration–but doctors are decades behind the times.

Clinicians were largely unprepared to handle the new patients brought to them by the Affordable Care Act. Examining the impact of new enrollees, who “have higher rates of disease and received significantly more medical care,” an industry spokesperson said, “The findings underscore the need for all of us in the health care system, and newly insured consumers, to work together to make sure that people get the right health care service in the right care setting and at the right time…Better communication and coordination is needed so that everyone understands how to avoid unnecessary emergency room visits, make full use of primary care and preventive services and learn how to properly adhere to their medications.” Just where the health providers fall short.

All these failures to communicate may explain the disappointing performance of patient centered medical homes and Accountable Care Organizations. While many factors go into the success or failure of such complex practices, a high rate of failure suggests that they’re not really carrying out the coordinated care they were meant to deliver. Naturally, problems persist in getting data from one vendor’s electronic health record to another.

Urgent care clinics, and other alternative treatment facilities offered in places such as pharmacies, can potentially lower costs, but not if the regular health system fails to integrate them.

Successes in coordinated care show how powerful it can be. Even so simple a practice as showing medical records to patients can improve care, but most clinicians still deny patients access to their data.

One care practice drastically lowered ER admissions through a notably low-tech policy–refering their patients to a clinic for follow-up care. This is only the beginning of what we could achieve. If modern communications were in place, hospitals would be linked so that a CDC warning could go to all of them instantly. And if clinicians and their record systems were set up to handle patient-generated data, they could discover a lot more about the patients and monitor behavior change.

How are the hospitals and clinics responding to this crisis and the public pressure to shape up? They push back as if it was not their problem. They claim they are moving toward better information sharing and teamwork, but never get there.

One of their favorite gambits is to ask the government to reward them for achieving interoperability 90 days out of the year. They make this request with no groveling, no tears of shame, no admission that they have failed in their responsibility to meet reasonable goals set seven years ago. If I delivered my projects only 25% of the time, I’d have trouble justifying myself to my employer, especially if I received my compensation plan seven years ago. Could the medical industry imagine that it owes us a modicum of effort?

Robert Schultz, a writer and entrepreneur in health care, says, “Underlying the broken communications model is a lack of empathy for the ultimate person affected–the patient. Health care is one of the few industries where the user is not necessarily the party paying for the product or service. Electronic health records and health information exchanges are designed around the insurance companies, accountable care organizations, or providers, instead of around understanding the challenges and obstacles that patients face on a daily basis. (There are so many!) The innovators who understand the role of the patient in this new accountable care climate will be winners. Those who suffer from the burden of legacy will continue to see the same problems and will become eclipsed by other organizations who can sustain patient engagement and prove value within accountable care contracts.”

Alternative factors

Of course, after such a provocative accusation, I should consider the other contributors that are often blamed for increasing health care costs.

An aging population

Older people have more chronic diseases, a trend that is straining health care systems from Cuba to Japan. This demographic reality makes intelligent data use even more important: remote monitoring for chronic conditions, graceful care transitions, and patient coordination.

The rising cost of drugs

Dramatically increasing drug prices are certainly straining our payment systems. Doctors who took research seriously could be pushing back against patient requests for drugs that work more often in TV ads than in real life. Doctors could look at holistic pain treatments such as yoga and biofeedback, instead of launching the worst opiate addiction crisis America has ever had.

Government bureaucracy

This seems to be a condition of life we need to deal with, like death and taxes. True, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) keeps adding requirements for data to report. But much of it could be automated if clinical settings adopted modern programming practices. Furthermore, this data appears to be a burden only because it isn’t exploited. Most of it is quite useful, and it just takes agile organizations to query it.

Intermediaries

Reflecting the Byzantine complexity of our payment systems, a huge number of middlemen–pharmacy benefits managers, medical billing clearinghouses, even the insurers themselves–enter the system, each taking its cut of the profits. Single-payer insurance has long been touted as a solution, but I’d rather push for better and cheaper treatments than attack the politically entrenched payment system.

Under-funded public health

Poverty, pollution, stress, and other external factors have huge impacts on health. This problem isn’t about clinicians, of course, it’s about all of us. But clinicians could be doing more to document these and intervene to improve them.

Clinicians like to point to barriers in their way of adopting information-based reforms, and tell us to tolerate the pace of change. But like the rising seas of climate change, the bite of health care costs will not tolerate complacency. The hard part is that merely wagging fingers and imposing goals–the ONC’s primary interventions–will not produce change. I think that reform will happen in pockets throughout the industry–such as the self-insured employers covered in a recent article–and eventually force incumbents to evolve or die.

The precision medicine initiative, and numerous databases being built up around the country with public health data, may contribute to a breakthrough by showing us the true quality of different types of care, and helping us reward clinicians fairly for treating patients of varying needs and risk. The FHIR standard may bring electronic health records in line. Analytics, currently a luxury available only to major health conglomerates, will become more commoditized and reach other providers.

But clinicians also have to do their part, and start acting like the future is here now. Those who make a priority of data sharing and communication will set themselves up for success long-term.

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

Posted on April 12, 2016 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Coordinating with other providers treating the patients.

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

  • Basing treatment decisions on evidence from research.

  • Providing patients with their own health care data.

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

Why doctors don’t work together effectively

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Twine Health Found a Successful Niche for a Software Service in Health Care

Posted on April 1, 2016 I Written By

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

Apps and software services for health care are proliferating–challenges and hackathons come up with great ideas week after week, and the app store contains hundreds of thousands of apps. The hard thing is creating a business model that sustains a good idea. To this end, health care incubators bring in clinicians to advise software developers. Numerous schemes of questionable ethics abound among apps (such as collecting data on users and their contacts). In this article, I’ll track how Twine Health tried different business models and settled on the one that is producing impressive growth for them today.

Twine Health is a comprehensive software platform where patients and their clinicians can collaborate efficiently between visits to achieve agreed-upon goals. Patients receive support in a timely manner, including motivation for lifestyle changes and expertise for medication adjustments. I covered the company in a recent article that showed how the founders ran some clinical studies demonstrating the effectiveness of their service. Validation is perhaps the first step for any developer with a service or app they think could be useful. Randomized controlled trials may not be necessary, but you need to find out from potential users what they want to see before they feel secure prescribing, paying for, and using your service. Validation will differentiate you from the hoards of look-alike competitors with whom you’ll share your market.

Dr. John Moore, co-founder of Twine Health, felt in 2013 that it was a good time to start a company, because the long-awaited switch in US medicine from fee-for-service to value-based care was starting to take root. Blue Cross and Blue Shield were encouraging providers to switch to Alternative Quality Contracts. The Affordable Care act of 2010 created the Medicare Shared Savings Program, which led to Accountable Care Organizations.

The critical role played by value-based-care has been explained frequently in the health care space. Current fee-for-service programs pay only for face-to-face visits and occasionally for telehealth visits. The routine daily interventions of connected health, such as text messages, checks of vital signs, and supportive prompts, receive no remuneration. The long-term improvements of connected health receive no support in the fee-for-value model, as much as individual clinicians may with to promote positive behavior among their patients.

Thus, Twine Health launched in 2014 with a service for clinicians. What they found, unfortunately, is that the hype about value-based care had gotten way ahead of its actual progress. The risk sharing by Accountable Care Organizations, such as under the Medicare Shared Savings Program, weren’t full commitments to delivering value, as when clinicians receive full capitation for a population and are required to deliver minimum health outcomes. Instead, the organizations were still billing fee-for-service. Medicare compared their spending to a budget at the end of the year, and, if the organization accrued less fee-for-service billing than Medicare expected, the organization got back 50-60% of the savings In the lowest track of the program, the organization didn’t even get penalized for exceeding costs–it was just rewarded for beating the estimates.

In short, Twine Health found that clinicians in ACOs in 2014 were following the old fee-for-service model and that Twine Health’s service was not optimal for their everyday practices. A recent survey from the NEJM Catalyst Insights Council showed that risk sharing and quality improvement are employed in a minority of health care settings, and are especially low in hospitals.

Collaborative care requires a complete rededication of time and resources. One must be willing to track one’s entire patient panel on a regular basis, guiding them toward ongoing behavior modification in the context of their everyday lives, with periodic office visits every few months. One also needs to go beyond treating symptoms and learn several skills of a very different type that traditional clinicians haven’t been taught: motivational interviewing, shared decision making, and patient self-management.

Over a period of months, a new model for Twine’s role in healthcare delivery started to become apparent: progressive, self-insured employers were turning their attention to value-based care and taking matters into their own hands because of escalating healthcare costs. They were moving much quicker than ACOs and taking on much greater risk.

The employers were contracting with innovative healthcare delivery organizations, which were building on-site primary care clinics (exclusive to that employer and located right at the place of work), near-site primary care clinics (shared across multiple employers), wellness and chronic disease coaching programs, etc. Unlike traditional healthcare providers, the organizations providing services to self-insured employers were taking fully capitated payments and, therefore, full risk for their set of services. Ironically, some of the self-insured employers were actually large health systems whose own business models still involved mostly fee-for-service payments.

With on-site clinics, wellness and chronic disease coaching organizations, and self-insured employers, Twine Health has found a firm and growing customer base. Dr. Moore is confident that the healthcare industry is on the cusp of broadly adopting value-based care. Twine Health and other connected health providers will be able to increase their markets vastly by working with traditional providers and insurers. But the Twine Health story is a lesson in how each software developer must find the right angle, the right time, and the right foothold to succeed.

Harvard Law Conference Surveys Troubles With Health Care

Posted on March 30, 2016 I Written By

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

It is salubrious to stretch oneself and regularly attend a conference in a related field. At the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, one can bask in the wisdom of experts who are truly interdisciplinary (as opposed to people like me, who is simply undisciplined). Their Tenth Anniversary Conference drew about 120 participants. The many topics–which included effects of the Supreme Court rulings on the Affordable Care Act and other cases, reasons that accountable care and other efforts haven’t lowered costs, stresses on the pharmaceutical industry, and directions in FDA regulation–contained several insights for health IT professionals.

From my perspective, the center of the conference was the panel titled “Health Innovation Policy and Regulating Novel Technology.” A better title might have been “How to Make Pharma Profitable Again,” because most of the panelists specialized in pharmaceuticals or patents. They spun out long answers to questions about how well patents can protect innovation (recognizing a controversy); the good, the bad, and the ugly of pricing; and how to streamline clinical trials, possibly adding risk. Their pulses really rose when they were asked a question about off-label drug use. But they touched on health IT and suggested many observations that could apply to it as well.

It is well known that drug development and regulatory approval take years–perhaps up to 20 years–and that high-tech companies developing fitness devices or software apps have a radically different product cycle. As one panelist pointed out, it would kill innovation to require renewed regulatory approval for each software upgrade. He suggested that the FDA define different tiers of changes, and that minor ones with little risk of disrupting care be allowed automatically.

I look even farther. It is well known also that disruptive inventions displace established technologies. Just as people with mobile devices get along without desktop computers and even TV sets, medicines have displaced many surgical procedures. Now the medicines themselves (particularly, controversial mental health medicines) can sometimes be replaced by interactive apps and online services. Although rigorous testing is still lacking for most of these alternatives, the biggest barrier to their adoption is lack of reimbursement in our antiquated health payment system.

Instead of trying to individually fix each distortion in payment, value-based care is the reformer’s solution to the field’s inefficient use of treatment options. Value-based care requires more accurate information on quality and effectiveness, as I recently pointed out. And this in turn may lead to the more flexible regulations suggested by the panelist, with a risk that is either unchanged or raised by an amount we can tolerate.

Comparisons between information and other medical materials can be revealing. For instance, as the public found out in the Henrietta Lacks controversy, biospecimens are treated as freely tradable information (so long as the specimen is de-identified) with no patient consent required. It’s assumed that we should treat de-identified patient information the same way, but in fact there’s a crucial difference. No one would expect the average patient to share and copy his own biospecimens, but doing so with information is trivially easy. Therefore, patients should have more of a say about how their information is used, even if biospecimens are owned by the clinician.

Some other insights I picked up from this conference were:

  • Regulations and policies by payers drive research more than we usually think. Companies definitely respond to what payers are interested in, not just to the needs of the patients. One panelist pointed out that the launch of Medicare Part D, covering drugs for the first time, led to big new investments in pharma.

  • Hotels and other service-oriented industries can provide a positive experience efficiently because they tightly control the activities of all the people they employ. Accountable Care Organizations, in contrast, contain loose affiliations and do not force their staff to coordinate care (even though that was the ideal behind their formation), and therefore cannot control costs.

  • Patents, which the pharma companies consider so important to their business model, are not normally available to diagnostic tests. (The attempt by Myriad Genetics to patent the BRACA1 gene in order to maintain a monopoly over testing proves this point: the Supreme Court overturned the patent.) However, as tests get more complex, the FDA has started regulating them. This has the side effect of boosting the value of tests that receive approval, an advantage over competitors.

Thanks to Petrie-Flom for generously letting the public in on events with such heft. Perhaps IT can make its way deeper into next year’s conference.