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Will MACRA Be Repealed or Replaced? – MACRA Monday

Posted on March 27, 2017 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.

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

I’ve heard a lot of doctors still suggesting that MACRA is going to disappear. I’ve heard every argument imaginable, but the most common one is that the Trump administration is going to get rid of MACRA. While I can understand this fear, I don’t think it has any real foundation. In fact, I think the opposite is true.

As Neil Versel aptly points out, the Repeal and Replace legislation that didn’t quite make it through the house was silent on healthcare IT. I love how Neil puts it:

Wondering what the proposed American Health Care Act—the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—says about health IT?

Nothing. It says nothing.

Wondering what the American Health Care Act says about promoting innovation in healthcare?

Nothing. It says nothing.

Wondering what the American Health Care Act says about holding providers accountable for the care they deliver or about moving away from the inefficient—and often dangerous—fee-for-service reimbursement model?

You guessed it. Nothing. Nada. Zero.

The closest things we’ve heard about the new administration impacting healthcare IT is Tom Price saying that he wants MACRA to not put undue burden on doctors and the possibility that ONC could be on the chopping block.

The former is something that every person at HHS has said for years. No doubt Tom Price is a more provider-friendly HHS secretary than past administrations but given the legislation, I don’t think Tom Price will change MACRA much. As to the later, even if they get rid of ONC, that doesn’t mean MACRA will disappear. It’s still the law of the land. MACRA would just move to another part of HHS. Look at it more as a corporate reorg versus something that will significantly impact MACRA.

All in all, the fact that technology was never really part of the repeal and replace discussion gives me more confidence that MACRA isn’t going anywhere. What do you think? Will MACRA survive? Are there other factors that could influence MACRA’s future?

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

E-Patient Update: Give Us Patient Data Analytics

Posted on March 24, 2017 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upgrade the portal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving patients more power

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

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

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

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

GAO: HHS Should Tighten Up Its Patient Data Access Efforts

Posted on March 23, 2017 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will New Doctors Hate EMRs the Way Older Doctors Do?

Posted on March 22, 2017 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.

Oh! Just the idiocy of it all!

That’s a quote from an email I got from an older doctor in response to a discussion about EHR software and in particular programs like meaningful use and now MACRA. This is a doctor who I’ve exchanged many emails with over multiple years. Needless to say, he’s not happy with what’s happening with EHR software and sees it as an awful thing for medicine. I think this is the view of most older doctors.

While most older doctors feel this way, I wonder if the next generations of doctors will feel the same. I’ll never forget my med school friend who said he hated rounding at a doctor’s office that didn’t have an EHR because he types faster than he writes. Or the middle-aged doctor that’s been a friend of my family since I was a kid that’s been on EHR so long that he once told me “I’ve never really known anything but an EHR, so I can’t imagine practicing medicine without it.”

I understand the doctors who complain about EHRs and more importantly complain about the regulations which are reflected in the features EHR software companies push out. EHR was a massive change for many of them and that can be brutal. Plus, there are plenty of issues with many EHR software and EHR implementations out there. Some that can be resolved and some that can’t. Not to mention that many regulation requirements aren’t clinically useful. We should be glad doctors are upset over this.

However, will the next generation of doctors care?

Besides the fact that new doctors are digital natives who grew up with technology, there’s also the fact that new doctors won’t know what life in a medical office was like before EHR. EHR documentation will just be part of the status quo for them and when you don’t know about the alternative, then you don’t hate it as much. It’s just a required part of the profession and it’s always been that way.

The reality for most new doctors is that there are so many things that are screwed up with our healthcare system, that the EHR is just one more to add to the pile of things that don’t make much sense. They’ll just consider it a feature of the profession and likely not complain much.

The one thing that could change all of this is for a new EHR or related solution to come out and blow all the current EHR vendors off the map. It would have to be something so dramatically better for organizations that healthcare organizations can’t resist it. Think of the way the iPhone made us rethink cell phones. It needs to be a solution which is that much better. Does such a solution exist? Can such a solution be built? Or do the current healthcare regulations prevent such a solution? Will it take changes in regulation and reimbursement to enable a new EHR that doctors love and not a change by an EHR software vendor?

Encouraged By Political Changes, Groups Question ONC Functions

Posted on March 21, 2017 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MACRA and MIPS Training and Resources – MACRA Monday

Posted on March 20, 2017 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.

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

While we’ve covered a lot of ground in this MACRA Monday series, there are still a lot of details we haven’t covered. I’ve been debating how deep into the weeds of MACRA and MIPS we should go or not as part of this series. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

We’re partially reticent to go really deep, because there’s a lot of great resources out there to dive deeply into MACRA and MIPS. Plus, we don’t see many people doing higher level strategic decision making content that has opinions about what your organization should or shouldn’t do when it comes to MACRA.

If you’re looking for some deeper training on MACRA and MIPS, we’ll highlight a few courses and trainings out there that we know about.

4Med MIPS and MACRA Training
The people at 4Med have a whole series of training for MIPS and MACRA. They have a lot of past experience doing training for meaningful use and PQRS and they’re continuing that with their latest MACRA and MIPS Training. Here’s a look at some of the courses they have coming up (Note: each of these links automatically gives you a discount on each course):

MACRA-MIPS Quality Project Manager – Starts March 29 – A nice course focused on the quality portion of MIPS.

Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) Workshop – Starts May 3 – This goes beyond MIPS and MACRA, but is all part of the related trend.

HIPAA Compliance Officer – Starts April 19 – This isn’t really a MIPS and MACRA course, but they require you to do a HIPAA Risk Assessment, so this course could help you make sure you’re ready to fulfill that requirement. Plus, this is a good course given the importance of security in healthcare these days.

4 Med offers a number of other courses including an Advancing Care Information course as well, but it’s not scheduled right now. We’ll update you in the future as those courses are scheduled. Instead of the live training options above, you can also purchase the online version of these courses. If you use the promo code: HITC you’ll get 20% off those online versions.

MIPS Boot Camp
Another option to consider is this MIPS Boot Camp course offered by Jim Tate and Wayne Singer. The course is only 1.5 hours, but Jim is a true expert in this area and so it will be a great starter course. They obviously are trying to push their MyMipsScore™ App, but that might be something useful for readers as well.

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

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.

 

What Do Doctors Need to Know About MACRA and MIPS? – MACRA Monday

Posted on March 13, 2017 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.

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

While at the HIMSS 2017 conference, I had a chance to do a video interview with MACRA expert, Alexandria (Alex) J. Goulding, Public Policy Manager at iHealth. We cover a broad range of MACRA topics focused on the practical things that doctors should know about MACRA and MIPS.

You can find the full MACRA video interview at the bottom or click any of the links below to skip to a specific answer:

Do you have other perspectives and insights that you’d add to what Alex Goulding offered above? Please share them in the comments.

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

A New MACRA Tools Market – MACRA Monday

Posted on March 6, 2017 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.

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

One thing we’ve realized writing MACRA Monday is that there’s an insatiable appetite for MACRA right now. Webinar signups are through the roof when it’s on the topic of MACRA and MIPS. MACRA and MIPS training courses are selling like hot cakes. Everyone is trying to get the information they need to deal with MACRA and MIPS.

After talking with many companies at HIMSS, there’s a whole new market being created for tools that help organizations track and attest for MACRA as well. Of course, every EHR vendor is creating a solution for their providers. However, there are a lot of other companies that are looking at this as a big opportunity for them to provide tools to make tracking and reporting MACRA and MIPS easy.

Two companies that I ran into recently in this space are SA Ignite and SPH Analytics.

Both of these companies are focusing on MACRA, APM, and MIPS reporting at the higher end. We’re talking about hospital systems that have 100 medical practices and so they have a few hundred doctors who need to do MACRA reporting. Can you imagine managing that many attestations on Excel or something? That’s why I think these tools are going to become so popular.

A part of me hates that entire companies are being created around government attestation. However, the realist in me understands that these tools are needed by large health systems that have to comply with government requirements or lost a lot of money.

What do you think of this trend? Is it a microcosm of our current healthcare system? Do you know of other tools that can help organizations trying to handle MACRA reporting?

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

E-Patient Update: A Missed Opportunity For Primary Care Collaboration

Posted on March 3, 2017 I Written By

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

Tell me if you’ve run into the following.

You call your primary care doctor to set an appointment, wading through the inevitable voice-response prompts and choosing the right number to reach a clerk. You wait on hold for a while – perhaps a LONG while – and finally get a clerk.

The clerk asks why you’re booking an appointment, and you name a problem. The clerk says she needs to consult a nurse about the problem before she books you, so you wait on hold while she calls the nurse. Of course, the nurse is too busy to answer her phone, so you leave her a voicemail message.

The next day she finally calls back and tells you a standard appointment will be fine. Yay.

This might sound like an incredibly twisty process, but this is exactly how it works at my PCP office. And the truth is that I’ve been run through a similar mill before by other primary care practices of this size.

In theory, many of these problems would go away if my PCP office simply took advantage of the scheduling tools its portal already offers. But for some reason its leaders don’t seem to value that function much; in fact, when it went offline for a while the practice didn’t seem to know.

But there are alternatives to this crazy workflow pattern that don’t require the re-invention of the lightbulb. In fact, all it would take is adding a few functions to the portal to make progress.

Gathering the threads

From what I can see, the key to streamlining this type of process is to gather these threads together. And it doesn’t take much imagination to picture how that would work.

What if my initial contact with the practice wasn’t via phone, but via more sophisticated interface than a calendaring app? This interface should ask patients what prompts their requested visit, and offer a pulldown menu providing a list of standard situations and conditions.

If a patient chooses a condition that might be hazardous, the system would automatically kick the request to a nurse, who can email or call the patient directly, possibly avoiding hit-or-miss phone tag. Or the practice could provide the nurse with a secure messaging client to use in connecting with clients on the go.  Using such an app, the nurse could even conference in the doctor as needed.

Meanwhile, if a patient wants to get a provider’s opinion on their condition – whether they should wait and see what happens, go to urgent care, make an appointment or hit the ED – the same interface could route the request to the provider on call. If the patient can be treated effectively with a basic appointment, the clinician routes the request to the front desk, with a request that the clerk schedule an appointment. The clerk reaches out to the patient, which means the patient (me!) doesn’t have to call in and wait for an age while the clerk handles other issues.

The same process would also work well for medication refill and referral requests, which my practice now handles in the same cumbersome, time-wasting manner. Not only that, automating such requests would leave an audit trail, which doesn’t exist at present.

Pursuing the obvious

What bugs me about all of this is that if I can imagine this, anyone in healthcare could — it’s a massive case of pursuing the obvious. Though I’m an HIT fan, and I follow the industry closely, I’m no programmer or engineer. I’m just somebody who wants to do my business effectively. Surely my PCP does too?

Of course, I know that just because an approach is possible, it doesn’t mean that it will be easy to implement. Not only that, only the largest and most prosperous practices have enough clout to demand that vendors develop such features. So it may not be as easy as it should be to put them in place.

Still, I see a crying need here, or perhaps one might call it an opportunity.  If we arm primary care doctors – who will play a steadily-growing role in next-gen systems – with better workflow options, every part of the system will benefit.