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Dumb Question 101: What’s Workflow Doing in an EHR?

Posted on March 29, 2016 I Written By

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

This was going to be a five year relook at Practice Fusion. Back then, I’d written a critical review saying I wouldn’t be a PF consultant. Going over PF now, I found it greatly changed. For example, I criticized it not having a shared task list. Now, it does. Starting to trace other functions, a question suddenly hit me. Why did I think an EHR should have a shared task list or any other workflow function for that matter?

It’s a given that an EHR is supposed to record and retrieve a patient’s medical data. Indeed, if you search for the definition of an EHR, you’ll find just that. For example, Wikipedia defines it this way:

An electronic health record (EHR), or electronic medical record (EMR), refers to the systematized collection of patient and population electronically-stored health information in a digital format.[1] These records can be shared across different health care settings. Records are shared through network-connected, enterprise-wide information systems or other information networks and exchanges. EHRs may include a range of data, including demographics, medical history, medication and allergies, immunization status, laboratory test results, radiology images, vital signs, personal statistics like age and weight, and billing information.[2]

Other definitions, such as HIMSS are similar, but add another critical element, workflow:

The EHR automates and streamlines the clinician’s workflow.

Is this a good or even desirable thing? Now, before Chuck Webster shoots out my porch lights, that doesn’t mean I’m anti workflow. However, I do ask what are workflow features doing in an EHR?

In EHRs early days, vendors realized they couldn’t drop one in a practice like a fax machine. EHRs were disruptive and not always in a good way. They often didn’t play well with practice management systems or the hodgepodge of forms, charts and lists they were replacing.

As a result, vendors started doing the workflow archeology and devising new ones as part of their installs. Over time, EHRs vendors started touting how they could reform not just replace an old system.

Hospitals were a little different. Most had IT staff that could shoehorn a new system into their environment. However, as troubled hospital EHR rollouts attest, they rarely anticipated the changes that EHRs would bring about.

Adding workflow functions to an EHR may have caused what my late brother called a “far away” result. That is, the farther away you were from something, the better it looked. With EHR workflow tools, the closer you get to their use, the more problems you may find.

EHRs are designed for end users. Adding workflow tools to these assumes that the users understand workflow dynamics and can use them accordingly. Sometimes this works well, but just as often the functions may not be as versatile as the situation warrants. Just ask the resident who can’t find the option they really need.

I think the answer to EHR workflow functions is this. They can be nice to have, like a car’s backup camera. However, having one doesn’t make you a good driver. Having workflow functions shouldn’t fool you into thinking that’s all workflow requires.

The only way to determine what’s needed is by doing a thorough, requirements analysis, working closely with users and developing the necessary workflow systems.

A better approach would be a workflow system that embeds its features in an EHR. That way, the EHR could fit more seamlessly its environment, rather than the other way around.

Is Cerner Edging Up On Epic?

Posted on January 7, 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.

At Verona, Wisc.-based Epic Systems, growth is a way of life. In fact, the EMR vendor now boasts a workforce of 9,400, which is estimated to be an increase of 1,400 staffers over the past year.

Not only that, Epic is confident enough to build cute. Its Campus 4, dubbed the “Wizards Academy Campus,” is designed to resemble the fictional Hogwarts school of Harry Potter fame — or if you’re academically-minded, England’s Oxford University. When completed this summer, Campus 4 will add 1,508 offices and 2,000 parking spaces to the Epic headquarters.

I could go on with details of the Disneyland Epic is making of its HQ, but you get the picture. Epic leaders are confident that they’re only going to expand their business, and they want to make sure the endless streams of young eggheads they recruit are impressed when they visit. My guess is that the Epic campus is being designed as a, well, campus speaks to the idea of seeing the company as a home. When I was 25, unique surroundings would have worked on me!

In any event, if I was running the place, I’d be pretty confident too. After all, if its own stats are correct, Epic software is either being used by or installed at 360 healthcare organizations in 10 countries. The EMR giant also reports that its platform manages records for 180 million Americans, or about 55 percent of the entire U.S. population. It also reported generating a not-so-shabby $1.8 billion in revenues for 2014.

But a little-noticed report issued by analyst firm KLAS last year raises questions as to whether the Epic steamroller can maintain its momentum. According to the report, which admittedly came out about a year ago, “the competition between Epic and Cerner is closer than it has been in years past as customers determine their future purchasing plans,” analysts wrote.

According to KLAS researchers, potential EMR buyers are largely legacy customers deciding how to upgrade. These potential customers are giving both Cerner and Epic a serous look, with the remainder split between Meditech and McKesson upgrades.

The KLAS summary doesn’t spell out exactly why researchers believe hospital leaders are beginning to take Cerner as seriously as Epic, but some common sense possibilities occur to me:

The price:  I’m not suggesting that Cerner comes cheap, but it’s become clear over the years that even very solvent institutions are struggling to pay for Epic technology. For example, when traditionally flush-with-cash Brigham and Women’s Hospital undershoots its expected surplus by $53 million due (at least in part) to its Epic install, it’s gotta mean something.

Budget overruns: More often than not, it seems that Epic rollouts end up costing a great deal more than expected. For example, when New York City-based Health and Hospital Corp. signed up to implement Epic in 2013, the deal weighed in at $302 million. Since then, the budget has climbed to $764 million, and overall costs could hit $1.4 billion. If I were still on the fence I’d find numbers like those more than a little concerning. And they’re far from unique.

Scarce specialists:  By the company’s own design, Epic specialists are hard to find. (Getting Epic certified seems to take an act of Congress.) It must be quite nerve-wracking to cut a deal with Epic knowing that Epic itself calls the shots on getting qualified help. No doubt this contributes to the high cost of Epic as well.

Despite its control of the U.S. market, Epic seems pretty sure that it has nowhere to go but up. But that’s what Microsoft thought before Google took hold. If that comparison bears any weight, the company that will lap up Epic’s business and reverse its hold on the U.S. market probably already exists. It may not be Cerner, but Epic will face meaningful competition sometime soon.

Significant Articles in the Health IT Community in 2015

Posted on December 15, 2015 I Written By

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

Have you kept current with changes in device connectivity, Meaningful Use, analytics in healthcare, and other health IT topics during 2015? Here are some of the articles I find significant that came out over the past year.

The year kicked off with an ominous poll about Stage 2 Meaningful Use, with implications that came to a head later with the release of Stage 3 requirements. Out of 1800 physicians polled around the beginning of the year, more than half were throwing in the towel–they were not even going to try to qualify for Stage 2 payments. Negotiations over Stage 3 of Meaningful Use were intense and fierce. A January 2015 letter from medical associations to ONC asked for more certainty around testing and certification, and mentioned the need for better data exchange (which the health field likes to call interoperability) in the C-CDA, the most popular document exchange format.

A number of expert panels asked ONC to cut back on some requirements, including public health measures and patient view-download-transmit. One major industry group asked for a delay of Stage 3 till 2019, essentially tolerating a lack of communication among EHRs. The final rules, absurdly described as a simplification, backed down on nothing from patient data access to quality measure reporting. Beth Israel CIO John Halamka–who has shuttled back and forth between his Massachusetts home and Washington, DC to advise ONC on how to achieve health IT reform–took aim at Meaningful Use and several other federal initiatives.

Another harbinger of emerging issues in health IT came in January with a speech about privacy risks in connected devices by the head of the Federal Trade Commission (not an organization we hear from often in the health IT space). The FTC is concerned about the security of recent trends in what industry analysts like to call the Internet of Things, and medical devices rank high in these risks. The speech was a lead-up to a major report issued by the FTC on protecting devices in the Internet of Things. Articles in WIRED and Bloomberg described serious security flaws. In August, John Halamka wrote own warning about medical devices, which have not yet started taking security really seriously. Smart watches are just as vulnerable as other devices.

Because so much medical innovation is happening in fast-moving software, and low-budget developers are hankering for quick and cheap ways to release their applications, in February, the FDA started to chip away at its bureaucratic gamut by releasing guidelines releasing developers from FDA regulation medical apps without impacts on treatment and apps used just to transfer data or do similarly non-transformative operations. They also released a rule for unique IDs on medical devices, a long-overdue measure that helps hospitals and researchers integrate devices into monitoring systems. Without clear and unambiguous IDs, one cannot trace which safety problems are associated with which devices. Other forms of automation may also now become possible. In September, the FDA announced a public advisory committee on devices.

Another FDA decision with a potential long-range impact was allowing 23andMe to market its genetic testing to consumers.

The Department of Health and Human Services has taken on exceedingly ambitious goals during 2015. In addition to the daunting Stage 3 of Meaningful Use, they announced a substantial increase in the use of fee-for-value, although they would still leave half of providers on the old system of doling out individual payments for individual procedures. In December, National Coordinator Karen DeSalvo announced that Health Information Exchanges (which limit themselves only to a small geographic area, or sometimes one state) would be able to exchange data throughout the country within one year. Observers immediately pointed out that the state of interoperability is not ready for this transition (and they could well have added the need for better analytics as well). HHS’s five-year plan includes the use of patient-generated and non-clinical data.

The poor state of interoperability was highlighted in an article about fees charged by EHR vendors just for setting up a connection and for each data transfer.

In the perennial search for why doctors are not exchanging patient information, attention has turned to rumors of deliberate information blocking. It’s a difficult accusation to pin down. Is information blocked by health care providers or by vendors? Does charging a fee, refusing to support a particular form of information exchange, or using a unique data format constitute information blocking? On the positive side, unnecessary imaging procedures can be reduced through information exchange.

Accountable Care Organizations are also having trouble, both because they are information-poor and because the CMS version of fee-for-value is too timid, along with other financial blows and perhaps an inability to retain patients. An August article analyzed the positives and negatives in a CMS announcement. On a large scale, fee-for-value may work. But a key component of improvement in chronic conditions is behavioral health which EHRs are also unsuited for.

Pricing and consumer choice have become a major battleground in the current health insurance business. The steep rise in health insurance deductibles and copays has been justified (somewhat retroactively) by claiming that patients should have more responsibility to control health care costs. But the reality of health care shopping points in the other direction. A report card on state price transparency laws found the situation “bleak.” Another article shows that efforts to list prices are hampered by interoperability and other problems. One personal account of a billing disaster shows the state of price transparency today, and may be dangerous to read because it could trigger traumatic memories of your own interactions with health providers and insurers. Narrow and confusing insurance networks as well as fragmented delivery of services hamper doctor shopping. You may go to a doctor who your insurance plan assures you is in their network, only to be charged outrageous out-of-network costs. Tools are often out of date overly simplistic.

In regard to the quality ratings that are supposed to allow intelligent choices to patients, A study found that four hospital rating sites have very different ratings for the same hospitals. The criteria used to rate them is inconsistent. Quality measures provided by government databases are marred by incorrect data. The American Medical Association, always disturbed by public ratings of doctors for obvious reasons, recently complained of incorrect numbers from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. In July, the ProPublica site offered a search service called the Surgeon Scorecard. One article summarized the many positive and negative reactions. The New England Journal of Medicine has called ratings of surgeons unreliable.

2015 was the year of the intensely watched Department of Defense upgrade to its health care system. One long article offered an in-depth examination of DoD options and their implications for the evolution of health care. Another article promoted the advantages of open-source VistA, an argument that was not persuasive enough for the DoD. Still, openness was one of the criteria sought by the DoD.

The remote delivery of information, monitoring, and treatment (which goes by the quaint term “telemedicine”) has been the subject of much discussion. Those concerned with this development can follow the links in a summary article to see the various positions of major industry players. One advocate of patient empowerment interviewed doctors to find that, contrary to common fears, they can offer email access to patients without becoming overwhelmed. In fact, they think it leads to better outcomes. (However, it still isn’t reimbursed.)

Laws permitting reimbursement for telemedicine continued to spread among the states. But a major battle shaped up around a ruling in Texas that doctors have a pre-existing face-to-face meeting with any patient whom they want to treat remotely. The spread of telemedicine depends also on reform of state licensing laws to permit practices across state lines.

Much wailing and tears welled up over the required transition from ICD-9 to ICD-10. The AMA, with some good arguments, suggested just waiting for ICD-11. But the transition cost much less than anticipated, making ICD-10 much less of a hot button, although it may be harmful to diagnosis.

Formal studies of EHR strengths and weaknesses are rare, so I’ll mention this survey finding that EHRs aid with public health but are ungainly for the sophisticated uses required for long-term, accountable patient care. Meanwhile, half of hospitals surveyed are unhappy with their EHRs’ usability and functionality and doctors are increasingly frustrated with EHRs. Nurses complained about technologies’s time demands and the eternal lack of interoperability. A HIMSS survey turned up somewhat more postive feelings.

EHRs are also expensive enough to hurt hospital balance sheets and force them to forgo other important expenditures.

Electronic health records also took a hit from ONC’s Sentinel Events program. To err, it seems, is not only human but now computer-aided. A Sentinel Event Alert indicated that more errors in health IT products should be reported, claiming that many go unreported because patient harm was avoided. The FDA started checking self-reported problems on PatientsLikeMe for adverse drug events.

The ONC reported gains in patient ability to view, download, and transmit their health information online, but found patient portals still limited. Although one article praised patient portals by Epic, Allscripts, and NextGen, an overview of studies found that patient portals are disappointing, partly because elderly patients have trouble with them. A literature review highlighted where patient portals fall short. In contrast, giving patients full access to doctors’ notes increases compliance and reduces errors. HHS’s Office of Civil Rights released rules underlining patients’ rights to access their data.

While we’re wallowing in downers, review a study questioning the value of patient-centered medical homes.

Reuters published a warning about employee wellness programs, which are nowhere near as fair or accurate as they claim to be. They are turning into just another expression of unequal power between employer and employee, with tendencies to punish sick people.

An interesting article questioned the industry narrative about the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act, saying that the industry is expanding robustly in the face of the tax. However, this tax is still a hot political issue.

Does anyone remember that Republican congressmen published an alternative health care reform plan to replace the ACA? An analysis finds both good and bad points in its approach to mandates, malpractice, and insurance coverage.

Early reports on use of Apple’s open ResearchKit suggested problems with selection bias and diversity.

An in-depth look at the use of devices to enhance mental activity examined where they might be useful or harmful.

A major genetic data mining effort by pharma companies and Britain’s National Health Service was announced. The FDA announced a site called precisionFDA for sharing resources related to genetic testing. A recent site invites people to upload health and fitness data to support research.

As data becomes more liquid and is collected by more entities, patient privacy suffers. An analysis of web sites turned up shocking practices in , even at supposedly reputable sites like WebMD. Lax security in health care networks was addressed in a Forbes article.

Of minor interest to health IT workers, but eagerly awaited by doctors, was Congress’s “doc fix” to Medicare’s sustainable growth rate formula. The bill did contain additional clauses that were called significant by a number of observers, including former National Coordinator Farzad Mostashari no less, for opening up new initiatives in interoperability, telehealth, patient monitoring, and especially fee-for-value.

Connected health took a step forward when CMS issued reimbursement guidelines for patient monitoring in the community.

A wonky but important dispute concerned whether self-insured employers should be required to report public health measures, because public health by definition needs to draw information from as wide a population as possible.

Data breaches always make lurid news, sometimes under surprising circumstances, and not always caused by health care providers. The 2015 security news was dominated by a massive breach at the Anthem health insurer.

Along with great fanfare in Scientific American for “precision medicine,” another Scientific American article covered its privacy risks.

A blog posting promoted early and intensive interactions with end users during app design.

A study found that HIT implementations hamper clinicians, but could not identify the reasons.

Natural language processing was praised for its potential for simplifying data entry, and to discover useful side effects and treatment issues.

CVS’s refusal to stock tobacco products was called “a major sea-change for public health” and part of a general trend of pharmacies toward whole care of the patient.

A long interview with FHIR leader Grahame Grieve described the progress of the project, and its the need for clinicians to take data exchange seriously. A quiet milestone was reached in October with a a production version from Cerner.

Given the frequent invocation of Uber (even more than the Cheesecake Factory) as a model for health IT innovation, it’s worth seeing the reasons that model is inapplicable.

A number of hot new sensors and devices were announced, including a tiny sensor from Intel, a device from Google to measure blood sugar and another for multiple vital signs, enhancements to Microsoft products, a temperature monitor for babies, a headset for detecting epilepsy, cheap cameras from New Zealand and MIT for doing retinal scans, a smart phone app for recognizing respiratory illnesses, a smart-phone connected device for detecting brain injuries and one for detecting cancer, a sleep-tracking ring, bed sensors, ultrasound-guided needle placement, a device for detecting pneumonia, and a pill that can track heartbeats.

The medical field isn’t making extensive use yet of data collection and analysis–or uses analytics for financial gain rather than patient care–the potential is demonstrated by many isolated success stories, including one from Johns Hopkins study using 25 patient measures to study sepsis and another from an Ontario hospital. In an intriguing peek at our possible future, IBM Watson has started to integrate patient data with its base of clinical research studies.

Frustrated enough with 2015? To end on an upbeat note, envision a future made bright by predictive analytics.

Are EMRs Getting Worse Or Doctors Getting Smarter?

Posted on August 20, 2015 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.

I know it sounds crazy — it’s hard to imagine doctors being more annoyed with EMRs than they already are — but according to one study that’s just what’s happening.

A newly-published study by the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians’ AmericanEHR division suggests that doctors like the current crop of EMRs less than ever.

About half of study respondents said that their EMR was having a negative impact on costs, efficiency or productivity, the groups reported. Only 22% said they were satisfied with their EMR, and a scant 12% said they were “very satisfied.”

Doctors’ happiness with their EMRs has dropped substantially since five years ago, when 39% reported being satisfied and 22% said they were very satisfied, according to a prior study by AmericanEHR.  In other words, nearly 4 out of 10 doctors surveyed seem to have been content with what they had. But conditions have clearly changed.

The reasons for this are unlikely to be the result of mere peevishness. After all, with EMRs being a reality of doing business today, it seems unlikely that physicians would simply revert into sulking. Actually, my own unofficial survey — of several docs I’ve actually seen as a patient — suggests that most have gone through their stages of grief and decided that EMRs aren’t unholy. (My PCP said it best: “You get used to them, then they’re not so bad.”)

Instead, I’d argue, something good is actually happening, though it may not look that way on the surface. Having adapted to the need to use EMRs, physicians are engaging with them deeply, and beginning to expect more from them than a kludgy interface slapped on a slow database can provide.

Some are actually proposing that EMRs go beyond traditional medical record paradigm, something I see as an exciting development. For example, Dr. Arlen Meyers, CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, argues that it’s time to “unbundle and re-engineer the care processes model” by introducing new templates into EMRs. In fact, he’s a fan of rethinking the hallowed SOAP (symptoms, objective findings, assessment and plan) approach to patient notes:

Given how things are changing, it might be time to give the pink slip to SOAP. The main problems are that 1) the model does not prioritize information by levels of urgency, 2) it does not provide decision support when it comes to how one disease affects the other or how one medicine affects another, and 3) it does not add efficiencies to taking care of increasingly complex patients.

And Meyers is not the only one. In fact, a recent paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that a new format flipping the elements of the SOAP note and reordering them as APSO (assessment, plan, subjective, objective) works well in the EMR age.

According to a 2010 study detailed in the paper, APSO notes were fairly successful at the University of Colorado ambulatory clinics. The study, which looked at APSO use in 13 clinics, found that 73% of participants were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the new format, and 75% “preferred” or “strongly preferred” reading APSO notes.

I’m betting that physicians will only be satisfied with EMRs again when EMRs are reshaped to embrace new ways of working. Since new workflow demands are generated by using EMRs, in turn, this cycle may never end. But that’s a good thing. If physicians are engaged enough with their EMRs to propose new ways of working, it will benefit everyone.

Is Meaningful Use For Mental Health Providers On The Way?

Posted on June 10, 2015 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.

If you look at the policy statements issued by ONC, it sounds as though the organization is a big fan of putting behavioral health IT on the same footing as other aspects of care. As the agency itself points out, 46% of Americans will have a mental health disorder over the course of their lifetime, and 26% of Americans aged 18 and older live with a mental health disorder in any given year, which makes it imperative to address such issues systematically.

But as things stand, behavioral health IT initiatives aren’t likely to go far. True, ONC has encouraged behavioral health stakeholders on integrating their data with primary care data, stressed the value of using EMRs for consent management, supported the development of behavioral health clinical quality measures and even offered vendor guidelines on creating certified EMR tech for providers ineligible for Meaningful Use. But ONC hasn’t actually suggested that these folks deserve to be integrated into the MU program. And not too surprisingly, given their ineligibility for incentive checks, few mental health providers have invested in EMRs.

However, a couple of House lawmakers who seem pretty committed to changing the status quo are on the case. Last week, Reps. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) have reintroduced a bill which would include a new set of behavioral health and substance abuse providers on the list of those eligible for Meaningful Use incentives.

The bill, “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” would make clinical psychologists and licensed social workers eligible to get MU payments. What’s more, it would make mental health treatment facilities, psychiatric hospitals and substance abuse mistreatment facilities eligible for incentives.

Supporters like the Behavioral Health IT Coalition say such an expansion could provide many benefits, including integration of psych and mental health in primary care, improved ability of hospital EDs to triage patients and reduction of adverse drug-to-drug interactions and needless duplicative tests. Also, with interoperable healthcare data on the national agenda, one would think that bringing a very large and important sector into the digital fold would be an obvious move.

So as I see it, making it possible for behavioral health and other medical providers can share data is simply a no-brainer.  But that can’t happen until these providers implement EMRs. And as previous experience has demonstrated, that’s not going to happen until some version of Meaningful Use incentives are available to them.

I imagine that the bill has faltered largely over the cost of implementing it. While I haven’t seen an estimate of what it would cost to expand eligibility to these new parties, I admit it’s likely to be very substantial. But right now the U.S. health system is bearing the cost of poorly coordinated care administered to about one-quarter of all U.S. adults over age 18. That’s got to be worse.

Customizable EMRs Are Long Overdue

Posted on May 5, 2015 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.

EMRs can be customized to some extent today, but not that much. Providers can create interfaces between their EMR and other platforms, such as PACS or laboratory information systems, but you can’t really take the guts of the thing apart. The reality is that the EMR vendor’s configuration shapes how providers do business, not the other way around.

This has been the state of affairs for so long that you don’t hear too much complaining about it, but health IT execs should really be raising a ruckus. While some hospitals might prefer to have all of their EMR’s major functions locked down before it gets integrated with other systems, others would surely prefer to build out their own EMR from widgetized components on a generic platform.

Actually, a friend recently introduced me to a company which is taking just this approach. Ocean Informatics, which has built an eHealth base on the openEHR platform, offers end users the chance to build not only an EMR application, but also use clinical modules including infection control, care support, decision support and advanced care management, and a mobile platform. It also offers compatible knowledge-based management modules, including clinical modeling tools and a clinical modeling manager.

It’s telling that the New South Wales, Australia-based open source vendor sells directly to governments, including Brazil, Norway and Slovenia. True, U.S. government is obviously responsible for VistA, the VA’s universally beloved open source EMR, but the Department of Defense is currently in the process of picking between Epic and Cerner to implement its $11B EMR update. Even VistA’s backers have thrown it under the bus, in other words.

Given the long-established propensity of commercial vendors to sell a hard-welded product, it seems unlikely that they’re going to switch to a modular design anytime soon.  Epic and Cerner largely sell completely-built cars with a few expensive options. Open source offers a chassis, doors, wheels, a custom interior you can style with alligator skin if you’d like, and plenty of free options, at a price you more or less choose. But it would apparently be too sensible to expect EMR vendors to provide the flexible, affordable option.

That being said, as health systems are increasingly forced to be all things to all people — managers of population health, risk-bearing ACOs, trackers of mobile health data, providers of virtual medicine and more — they’ll be forced to throw their weight behind a more flexible architecture. Buying an EMR “out of the box” simply won’t make sense.

When commercial vendors finally concede to the inevitable and turn out modular eHealth data tools, providers will finally be in a position to handle their new roles efficiently. It’s about time Epic and Cerner vendors got it done!

Restructure and Reform Meaningful Use: Here’s a Way

Posted on February 12, 2015 I Written By

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

It’s no secret that ONC’s meaningful use program’s a mess. I’m not sure there is an easy way out. In some respects, I wish they would go back and start over, but that’s not going to happen. They could do something to see daylight, but it won’t be either easy or simple. As I‘ll outline, ONC could adopt a graduated system that keeps the MU standards, includes terribly needed interoperability and usability standards, but does not drive everyone crazy over compliance.

MU’s Misguided Approach

ONC has spent much time and money on the MU standards, but has painted itself into a corner. No one, vendors, practioners or users is happy. Vendors see ONC pushing them to add features that aren’t needed or wanted. Practioners see MU imposing costs and practices that don’t benefit them or their patients. Users see EHRs as demonic Rube Goldberg creations out to frustrate, confuse and perplex. To boot, ONC keeps expanding its reach to new areas without progress on the basics.

Most the MU criticisms I’ve seen say MU’s standards are too strict or too vague. Compliance is criticized for being too demanding or not relevant. Most suggested cures tinker with the program: Eliminate standards or delay them. I think the problems are both content and structure. What MU needs is a return to basics and a general restructuring.

Roots of the MU Program’s Problems

It’s easy to beat up on ONC’s failures. Almost everyone has a pet, so I’ll keep mine short.

MU1: Missed Opportunities. MU’s problems stem from its first days. ONC saw EHRs as little more than database systems that stored and retrieved encounters. Data sharing only this:

Capability to exchange key clinical information (for example, problem list, medication list, medication allergies, diagnostic test results), among providers of care and patient authorized entities electronically.

Compliance only required one data exchange attempt. ONC relied on state systems to achieve interoperability. Usability didn’t exist.

MU2: Punting the Problems. ONC’s approach to interoperability and usability was simple. Interoperability was synonymous with continuity of care and public health reports. Every thing else was put off for future testing criteria.

ONC’s usability approach was equally simple. Vendors defined their usability and measurement. The result? Usability’s become a dead topic.

Interoperability

ONC has many good things to say about the need for interoperability. Its recent Roadmap is thoughtful and carefully crafted. However, the roadmap points out just how poor a job ONC has done to date and it highlights, to me, how much ONC needs to rethink its entire MU approach.

Changing ONC

In one of his seminal works on organizations, C. Northcote Parkinson said it’s almost impossible to change a failing organization. His advice is to walk away and sew salt. If you must persist, then you should adopt the heart of a British Drill Sergeant, that nothing is acceptable. Alas, only Congress can do the former and I’m way too old for military service, so I will venture on knowing it’s probably foolhardy, but here goes.

New Basic Requirements

A better approach to MU’s core and menu system would allow vendors to pick and choose the features they want to support, but require that all EHRs meet four basic standards:

  1. Data Set. This first standard would spell out in a basic, medical data set. This would include, for example, vitals, demographics, meds, chief complaints, allergies, surgeries, etc.
  2. Patient ID. A patient’s demographics would include a unique patient identifier. ONC can use its new freedom in this area by asking NIST to develop a protocol with stakeholders.
  3. Interoperability. EHRs would have to transmit and receive, on demand, the basic data set using a standard protocol, for example, HL7.
  4. Usability. Vendors would have to publish the results of running their EHR against NIST’s usability standard. This would give users, for the first time, an independent way to compare EHRs’ usability.

All current EHRs would have to meet these criteria within one year. Compliance would mean certification, but EHRs that only met these criteria would not be eligible for any funding.

Cafeteria Program. For funding, vendors would have to show their EHR supported selected MU2 and MU3 features. The more features certified, the more eligible they’d be for funding.

Here is how it would work. Each MU criteria would have a one to ten score. To be eligible for funding, a product would have to score 50 or more. The higher their score, the higher their funding eligibility.

Provider Compliance. Providers would have a similar system. ONC would assign scores of one to ten for each utilization standard. As with vendors, implementing organizations would receive points for each higher utilization level. That is, unlike current practice, which is all or nothing, the more the system is used to promote MU’s goals the higher the payments. This would permit users to decide which compliance criteria they wanted to support and which they did not.

Flexibility’s Advantages

This system’s flexibility has several advantages. It ends the rigid nature of compliance. It allows ONC to add new criteria as it sees fit giving it freedom to add criteria as needed or to push the field.

It achieves a major advancement for users. It not only tells users how products perform, but it also lets them choose those that best fit their needs.

Vendors, too, benefit from this approach. They would not only know where they stood vs. the competition, but would also be free to innovate without having to include features they don’t want.

ONC Annual Meeting – Who’s Going?

Posted on January 28, 2015 I Written By

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

ONC’s Agenda – February 2-3, Washington, DC

Next Monday, ONC holds its annual meeting in downtown DC. I’m going, one small advantage of living here. Here’s the agenda. To see day two, click on the agenda header.

I’m particularly interested in these topics:

  • Adverse event reporting,
  • Interoperability standards,
  • Meaningful Use program’s future, and
  • Usability.

Looking at the agenda, I should stay busy with one exception. There isn’t much on usability. The word’s only on the agenda once. Not a surprise since ONC has pretty much relinquished any role to the vendors.

How important do you think the ONC meeting and also the ONC run Healthdatapalooza now that meaningful use has kind of run its course? Will these two meeting gain steam and influence or will organizations start to go other places? I’ll be interested to watch that trend as I attend the event.

If you can’t attend, you can follow on various webcasts and twitter. If you do plan to attend, I’d love to see you there. To email me, click on my name in my profile blurb, or at carl@ehrselector.com.

The New Congressional Rider: Unique Patient ID Lemonade?

Posted on January 8, 2015 I Written By

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

Note: Previous versions referred to Rand Paul as the author of the first congressional rider. That was in error. The first rider was authored by then Representative Ron Paul. I regret the error. CB

Last month, I posted that Ron Paul’s gag rule on a national patient identifier was gone. Shortly, thereafter, Brian Ahier noted that the gag rule wasn’t dead. It just used different words. Now, it looks as if we were both right and both wrong. Here’s why. Paul’s rider’s gone, but its replacement, though daunting, isn’t as restrictive.

The gag rules are appropriation bill riders. Paul’s, which began in 1998, was aimed at a HIPAA provision, which called for identifiers for:

…. [E]ach individual, employer, health plan, and health care provider for use in the health care system. 42 US Code Sec. 1320d-2(b)

It prohibited “[P]lanning, testing, piloting, or developing a national identification card.” This was interpreted to prohibit a national patient id.

As I noted in my post, Paul’s language was dropped from the CRomnibus appropriation act. Brian, however, found new, restrictive language in CRomnibus, which says:

Sec. 510. None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to promulgate or adopt any final standard under section 1173(b) of the Social Security Act providing for, or providing for the assignment of, a unique health identifier for an individual (except in an individual’s capacity as an employer or a health care provider), until legislation is enacted specifically approving the standard.

Gag Rule’s Replacement Language

Unlike Paul’s absolutist text, the new rider makes Congress the last, biggest step in a formal ID process. The new language lets ID development go ahead, but if HHS wants to adopt a standard, Congress must approve it.

This change creates two potential adoption paths. Along the first, and most obvious, HHS develops a mandatory, national patient ID through Medicare, or the Meaningful Use program, etc., and asks congress’ approval. This would be a long, hard, uphill fight.

The second is voluntary adoption. For example, NIST could develop a voluntary, industry standard. Until now, Paul’s rider stopped this approach.

NIST’s a Consensus Building Not a Rulemaking Agency

NIST’s potential ID role is well within its non regulatory, consensus standards development mandate. It could lead a patient ID building effort with EHR stakeholders. Given the high cost of current patient matching techniques, stakeholders may well welcome a uniform, voluntary standard. That would not solve all interoperability problems, but it would go a long way toward that end.

Congress has loosened its grip on a patient ID, now its up to ONC, NIST, etc., to use this new freedom.

Looking Back at 2014: Thermidor for Health Care Reform?

Posted on December 29, 2014 I Written By

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

As money drains out of health care reform, there are indications that the impetus for change is receding as well. Yet some bright spots in health IT remain, so it’s not yet time to announce a Thermidor–the moment when a revolution is reversed and its leaders put to the guillotine. Let’s look back a bit at what went right and wrong in 2014.
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