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MGMA Blames Rise in HIT Costs on Fed’s Regs

Posted on September 15, 2016 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why MGMA’s case falls flat:

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

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

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

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

Artificial Intelligence Can Improve Healthcare

Posted on July 20, 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.

In recent times, there has been a lot of discussion of artificial intelligence in public forums, some generated by thought leaders like Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. Late last year Hawking actually argued that artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.”

But most scientists and researchers don’t seem to be as worried as Gates and Hawking. They contend that while machines and software may do an increasingly better job of imitating human intelligence, there’s no foreseeable way in which they could become a self-conscious threat to humanity.

In fact, it seems far more likely that AI will work to serve human needs, including healthcare improvement. Here’s five examples of how AI could help bring us smarter medicine (courtesy of Fast Company):

  1. Diagnosing disease:

Want to improve diagnostic accuracy? Companies like Enlitic may help. Enlitic is studying massive numbers of medical images to help radiologists pick up small details like tiny fractures and tumors.

  1. Medication management

Here’s a twist on traditional med management strategies. The AiCure app is leveraging a smartphone webcam, in tandem with AI technology, to learn whether patients are adhering to their prescription regimen.

  1. Virtual clinicians

Though it may sound daring, a few healthcare leaders are considering giving no-humans-involved health advice a try. Some are turning to startup Sense.ly, which offers a virtual nurse, Molly. The Sense.ly interface uses machine learning to help care for chronically-ill patients between doctor’s visits.

  1. Drug creation:

AI may soon speed up the development of pharmaceutical drugs. Vendors in this field include Atomwise, whose technology leverages supercomputers to dig up therapies for database of molecular structures, and Berg Health, which studies data on why some people survive diseases.

  1. Precision medicine:

Working as part of a broader effort seeking targeted diagnoses and treatments for individuals, startup Deep Genomics is wrangling huge data sets of genetic information in an effort to find mutations and linkages to disease.

In addition to all of these clinically-oriented efforts, which seem quite promising in and of themselves, it seems clear that there are endless ways in which computing firepower, big data and AI could come together to help healthcare business operations.

Just to name the first applications that popped into my head, consider the impact AI could have on patient scheduling, particularly in high-volume hostile environments. What about using such technology to do a better job of predicting what approaches work best for collecting patient balances, and even to execute those efforts is sophisticated way?

And of course, there are countless other ways in which AI could help providers leverage clinical data in real time. Sure, EMR vendors are already rolling out technology attempting to help hospitals target emergent conditions (such as sepsis), but what if AI logic could go beyond condition-specific modules to proactively predicting a much broader range of problems?

The truth is, I don’t claim to have a specific expertise in AI, so my guesses on what applications makes sense are no better than any other observer’s. On the other hand, though, if anyone reading this has cool stories to tell about what they’re doing with AI technology I’d love to hear them.

Physicians Still Struggle To Find EHR Value

Posted on July 18, 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 study by Physicians Practice magazine suggests that medical groups still aren’t getting what they want out of their EHRs, with nearly one-fifth reporting that they’re still struggling with an EHR-related drop in productivity and others still trying to optimize their system.

Physicians Practice surveyed 1,568 physicians, advanced practice providers across the U.S. as part of its 2016 Technology Survey. Nearly a third of respondents (31.9%) were in solo practice, and 34% in 2 to 5 physician practices, with percentages largely dropping as practice sizes grew larger.

Specialties represented included pediatrics (17.5%), family medicine (16.2%), OB/GYN (15.2%), psychiatry (12%), internal medicine (10.6%), surgery (2.9%), general practice (2.7%) and “other” at 22.9% (led by ophthalmology). As to business models, 63.3% of practices were independently-owned, 27.9% were part of an integrated delivery network and the remaining 8.8% were “other,” led by federally-qualified health centers.

Here’s some interesting data points from the survey, with my take:

  • Almost 40% of EHR users are struggling to get value out of their system: When asked what their most pressing technology problem was, 20.3% said it was optimizing use of their EHR, 18.9% a drop in productivity due to their EHR, and 12.9% a lack of interoperability between EHRs. Both EHR implementation and costs to implement and use technologies came in at 8%.
  • EHR rollouts are maturing, but many practices are lagging: About 59% of respondents had a fully-implemented EHR in place, with 14.5% using a system provided by a hospital or corporate parent. But 16.8% didn’t have an EHR, and 9.5% had selected an EHR (or a corporate parent had done so for them) but hadn’t fully implemented or optimized yet.
  • Many practices that skip EHRs don’t think they’re worth the trouble and expense: Almost 41% of respondents who don’t have a system in place said that they don’t believe it would improve patient care, 24.4% said that such systems are too expensive. A small but meaningful subset of the non-users (6.6%) said they’d “heard too many horror stories.”
  • Medical group EHR implementations are fairly slow, with more than one-quarter limping on for over a year: More than a third (37.2%) of practices reported that full implementation and training took up to six months, 21.2% said it took more than six months and less than a year, 12.8% said more than a year but less than 18 months, and 15.7% at more than 18 months.
  • Most practices haven’t seen a penny of return on their EHR investment: While just about one-quarter of respondents (25.7%) reported that they’d gotten ROI from their system, almost three-quarters (74.3%) said they had not.
  • Loyalty to EHR vendors is lukewarm at best: When asked how they felt about their EHR vendor, 39.7% said they were satisfied and would recommend them, but felt other vendors would be just as good. Just over 16% said they were very satisfied. Meanwhile, more than 17% were either dissatisfied and regretted their purchase or ready to switch to another system.
  • The big EHR switchout isn’t just for hospitals: While 62.1% of respondents said that the EHR they had in place was their first, 27.1% were on their second system, and 10.8% their third or more.

If you want to learn more, I recommend the report highly (click here to get it). But it doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way these winds are blowing. Clearly, many practices still need a hand in getting something worthwhile from their EHR, and I hope they get it.

Providers: Today’s Telehealth Tech Won’t Work For Future

Posted on July 5, 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 study has concluded that while healthcare leaders see major opportunities for growing their use of telehealth technologies, they don’t think existing technologies will meet the demands of the future.

For the study, which was sponsored by Modern Healthcare and Avizia, researchers surveyed more than 280 healthcare executives to see how they saw the future of telehealth programs and delivery models. For the purposes of the study, they defined telehealth as encompassing a broad mix of healthcare approaches, including consumer-focused wireless applications, remote monitoring of vital signs, patient consultations via videoconferencing, transmission of still images, use of patient portals and continuing medical education.

The survey found that 63% of those surveyed used telehealth in some way. Most respondents were with hospitals (72%), followed by physician groups and clinics (52%) and a grab bag of other provider organizations ambulatory centers in nursing homes (36%).

The most common service lines in use by the surveyed providers included stroke (44%), behavioral health (39%), staff education and training (28%) and primary care (22%). Other practice areas mentioned, such as neurology, pediatrics and cardiology, came in at less than 20%. Meanwhile, when it comes to telehealth applications they wish they had, patient education and training was at the top list at 34%, followed by remote patient home monitoring (30%) and primary care (27%). Other areas on providers’ wish lists include cardiology (25%), behavioral health (24%), urgent care (20%) and wound care (also 20%).

Not only did surveyed providers hope to see telemedicine extended into other service lines, they’d like to see the technologies used for telehealth delivery change as well. Currently, much telehealth is delivered via a computer workstation on wheels or ‘tablet on a stick.’  But providers would like to see technology platforms advance.

For example, 38% would like to see video visits with clinicians supported by their EMR, 25% would like to offer telemedical appointments through a secure messaging app used by providers and 23% would like to deliver telemedical services through personal mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.

But what’s driving providers’ interest in telehealth? For most (almost 75%) consumer demand is a key reason for pursuing such programs. Large numbers of respondents also cited the ability to improve clinical outcomes (66%) and value-based care (62%).

That being said, to roll out telehealth in force, many respondents (50%) said they’d have to make investments in telehealth technology and infrastructure. And nearly the same number (48%) said they’d have to address reimbursement issues as well. (It’s worth mentioning, however, that at the time the study was being written, the number of states requiring reimbursement parity between telehealth and traditional care had already risen to 29.)

This study underscores some important reasons why providers are embracing telehealth strategies. Another one pointed out by my colleague John Lynn is that telehealth can encourage early interventions which might otherwise be delayed because patients don’t want to bother with an in-person visit to the doctor’s office. Over time, I suspect additional benefits will emerge as well. This is such an exciting use of technology!

Making Health Data Patient-Friendly

Posted on May 6, 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.

Most of the efforts designed to make healthcare processes more transparent hope to make patients better shoppers. The assumption is that better-informed patients make better decisions, and that ultimately, if enough patients have the right data they’ll take steps which improve outcomes and lower the cost of care. And while the evidence for this assumption is sparse, the information may increase patient engagement in their care — and hopefully, their overall health.

That’s all well and good, but I believe too little attention has been paid to another dimension of transparency. To wit, I’d argue that it’s more than time to present patients with clinical data on a real- or near-real-time basis. Yes, shopping for the right doctor is good, but isn’t it even more important for patients to see what results he or she actually gets in their particular medical case?

Patients rarely get a well-developed look at their clinical data. Patient portals may offer access to test and imaging results from today through 10 years ago — my health system does — but offer no tools to put this data in context. If a patient wants to take a good look at their health history, and particularly, how test results correlate with their behavior, they’ll have to map the data out themselves. And that’s never going to work for your average patient.

Of course, there are obstacles to making this happen:

  • Physicians aren’t thrilled with the idea of giving patients broad healthcare data access. In fact, more than one doctor I’ve seen wouldn’t let me see test results until he or she had “approved” them.
  • Even if you set out to create some kind of clinical data dashboard, doing so isn’t trivial, at least if you want to see patients actually use it. Significant user testing would be a must to make this approach a success.
  • To my knowledge, no EMR vendor currently supports a patient dashboard or any other tools to help patients navigate their own data. So to create such an offering, providers would need to wait until their vendor produces such a tool or undertake a custom development project.

To some extent, the healthcare IT industry is already headed in this direction. For example, I’ve encountered mobile apps that attempt to provide some context for the data which they collect. But virtually all healthcare apps focus on just a few key indicators, such as, say calorie intake, exercise or medication compliance. For a patient to get a broad look at their health via app, they would have to bring together several sets of data, which simply isn’t practical.

Instead, why not give patients a broad look at their health status as seen through the rich data contained in an EMR? The final result could include not only data points, but also annotations from doctors as to the significance of trends and access to educational materials in context. That way, the patient could observe, say, the link between blood pressure levels, exercise, weight and med compliance, read comments from both their cardiologist and PCP on what has been working, and jump to research and education on cardiovascular health.

Ultimately, I’d argue, the chief obstacle to creating such an offering isn’t technical. Rather, it’s a cultural issue. Understandably, clinicians are concerned about the disruption such approaches might pose to their routine, as well as their ability to manage cases.

But if we are to make patients healthier, putting the right tools in their hands is absolutely necessary. And hey, after paying so much for EMRs, why not get more value for your money?

P.S. After writing this I discovered a description of a “digital health advisor” which parallels much of what I’m proposing. It’s worth a read!

New Payment Model Pushes HIT Vendors To Collaborate

Posted on April 20, 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.

CMS has launched a new program designed to shift more risk to and offer more rewards to primary care practices which explicitly requires HIT vendors to be involved at advanced stages. While the federal government has obvious done a great deal to promote the use of HIT in medical practices, this is the first I’ve seen where HHS has demanded vendors get involved directly, and I find it intriguing. But let me explain.

The new Comprehensive Primary Care Plus payment scheme – which builds upon an existing model – is designed to keep pushing risk onto primary care practices. CMS expects to get up to 5,000 practices on board over the next five years, spanning more than 20,000 clinicians serving 25 million Medicare beneficiaries.

Like Medicare payment reforms focused on hospitals, CPC+ is designed to shift risk to PCPs in stages. Track 1 of the program is designed to help the practices shift into care management mode, offering an average care management fee of $15 per beneficiary per month on top of fee-for-service payments. Track 2, meanwhile, requires practices to bear some risk, offering them a special hybrid payment which mixes fee-for-service and a percentage of expected Evaluation & Management reimbursement up front. Both tracks offer a performance-based incentive, but risk-bearing practices get more.

So why I am I bothering telling you this? I mention this payment model because of an interesting requirement CMS has laid upon Track 2, the risk-bearing track. On this track, practices have to get their HIT vendor(s) to write a letter outlining the vendors’ willingness to support them with advanced health IT capabilities.

This is a new tack for CMS, as far as I know. True, writing a letter on behalf of customers is certainly less challenging for vendors than getting a certification for their technology, so it’s not going to create shockwaves. Still, it does suggest that CMS is thinking in new ways, and that’s always worth noticing.

True, it doesn’t appear that vendors will be required to swear mighty oaths promising that they’ll support any specific features or objectives. As with the recently-announced Interoperability Pledge, it seems like more form than substance.

Nonetheless, my take is that HIT vendors should take this requirement seriously. First of all, it shines a spotlight on the extent to which the vendors are offering real, practical support for clinicians, and while CMS may not be measuring this just yet, they may do so in the future.

What’s more, when vendors put such a letter together in collaboration with practices, it brings both sides to the table. It gives vendors and PCPs at least a marginally stronger incentive to discuss what they need to accomplish. Ideally – as CMS doubtless hopes – it could lay a foundation for better alignment between clinicians and HIT leaders.

Again, I’m not suggesting this is a massive news item, but it’s certainly food for thought. Asking HIT vendors to stick their necks out in this way (at least symbolically) could ultimately be a catalyst for change.

Direct Primary Care Docs And EMRs

Posted on April 14, 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.

For those that haven’t stumbled upon it, direct primary care is an emerging model for changing the relationship between primary care docs and their patients. Under this model, patients pay primary care practices a flat fee per month which covers all services they use during that month. From what I’ve seen, fees are typically between $50 and $100 per month, depending on the patient’s age.

The key to this model — which borrows from but is emphatically not a concierge set-up — is taking insurance companies out of the relationship. And investors seem to be excited about this approach, with VC money flowing into DPC companies and startups like Turntable Health, which is backed by Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh.

I bring this up because I wanted to lay out a theory and see what you folks think. The theory doesn’t come from me; it was tossed out in a blog item by Twine Health, which makes a collaborative care platform. In the item, Twine blogger Chris Storer argues that the DPC movement is enabling doctors to junk their EMRs, which he suggests have been put in place to handle insurance documentation.

While the notion is self-serving, given that Twine seemingly wants to replace EMRs in the healthcare continuum, I thought it gave rise to an interesting thought experiment. Are EMRs mostly a tool to placate insurance companies? It’s worth considering. While Twine may or may not offer a solution, it’s hard to argue that existing EMRs “have empowered both physicians and patients in developing relationships that result in better healthcare outcomes.”

In the blog item, Storer argues that primary care practices largely use EMRs as a means of capturing data, and by doing so meeting insurance claims requirements. Though he offers no evidence to this effect, Storer suggests that DPC practices are dumping EMRs to focus better on patient care. There’s actually at least one direct-primary-care oriented EMR on the market (atlas.md, which is backed by a DPC practice in Wichita, KS), but that doesn’t prove the blogger wrong.

For Twine and its ilk, the question seems to be whether switching from EMRs to another care management model would actually improve the patient experience in and of itself. I’m sure that Twine (and others who consider themselves competitors) believe that it will.

As I see it, though, they’re talking around some key issues. no matter how user-friendly a platform is, No how laudable its goals are, I doubt that even a direct primary care practice unfettered by insurance requirements could seamlessly shift their practice to a platform such this. And no matter how good next-gen collaborative tools are — and I’m optimistic about them, as a category — the workflow issues which have alienated patients in the EMR age won’t go away entirely.

So while I’ll believe that DPC practices want to pitch their EMR, my guess is that the odds of their replacing it with an alternative platform are slim. Now, if collaborative care players catch practices when they’re being formed, that may be a different story. But for now my guess is that any practice that has an EMR in place is unlikely to dump it for the time being. The alternatives (including going back to paper charts) are unlikely to make sense.

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.

Could Blockchain Tech Tackle Health Data Security Problems?

Posted on March 25, 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.

While you might not own any them, you’ve probably heard of bitcoins, a floating currency backed by no government entity. You may also be aware that these coins are backed by blockchain technology, a decentralized system in which all participants track everyone’s holdings on their own individual systems. In this world, buyers and sellers can exchange bitcoins untraceably, making bitcoins perfect for criminal use.

In fact, some readers may have first heard about bitcoins when a Hollywood, CA hospital recently had all its data assets frozen by malware hackers, who demanded a ransom of $3.4 million in bitcoins before the hospital could have its data back. (The hospital ended up talking the ransomware attackers down to paying $17K, and when it paid that sum, IT leaders got back control.)

What’s intriguing, however, is that blockchain technology may also be a solution for some of healthcare’s most vexing health data security problems. That, at least, is the view of Peter Nichol, a veteran healthcare business and technology executive consultant. As he sees it, “blockchain addresses the legitimate previous concerns of security, scalability and privacy of electronic medical records.”

In his essay posted on LinkedIn Nichol describes a way in which the blockchain can be used in healthcare data management:

  1. Patient: The patient is provided a code (private key or hash) and an address that provides the codes to unlock their patient data.  While the patient data is not stored in the blockchain, the blockchain provides the authentication or required hashes (multi-signatures, also referred to as multi-sigs) to be used to enable access to the data (identification and authentication).
  2. Provider: Contributors to patient’s medical records (e.g. providers) are provided a separate universal signature (codes or hashes or multi-sigs). These hashes when combined with the patient’s hash establishes the required authentication to unlock the patient’s data.
  3. Profile: Then the patient defines in their profile, the access rules required to unlock their medical record.
  4. Access: If the patient defines 2-of-2 codes, then two separate computer machines (the hashes) would have to be compromised to gain unauthorized access to the data. (In this case, establishing unauthorized privileged access becomes very difficult when the machines types differ, operating systems differ and are hosted with different providers.)

As Nichol rightly notes, blockchain strategies offer some big advantages over existing security, particularly given that keys are distributed and that multiple computers but need to be compromised for attackers to gain access to illicit data.

Nichols’ essay also notes that blockchain technology can be used to provide patients with more sophisticated levels of privacy control over their personal health information. As he points out, the patient can use their own blockchain signature, combined with, say, that of a hospital to provide more secure access when seeking treatment. Meanwhile, when they want to limit access to the data it’s easy to do so.

And voila, health data maintenance problems are solved, he suggests. “This model lifts the costly burden of maintaining a patient’s medical histories away from the hospitals,” he argues. “Eventually cost savings will make it full cycle back to the patient receiving care.”

What’s even more interesting is that Nichols is clearly not just a voice in the wilderness. For example, Philips Healthcare recently made an early foray into blockchain technology, partnering with blockchain-based record-keeping startup Tierion.

Ultimately, whether Nichols is entirely on target or not, it seems clear that health IT players have much to gain by exploring use of blockchain technology in some form. In fact, I predict that 2016 will be a breakout year for this type of application.

EMR Issues That Generate Med Mal Payouts Sound Familiar

Posted on February 8, 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 any new technology is adopted, new risks arise, and EMR systems are no exception to that rule. In fact, if one medical malpractice insurer’s experience is any indication, EMR-related medical errors may be rising over time — or at least, healthcare organizations are becoming more aware of the role that EMRs are playing in some medical errors. The resulting data seems to suggest that many EMR risks haven’t changed for more than a decade.

In a recent blog item, med mal insurer The Doctors Company notes that EMR-related factors contributed to just under one percent of all claims closed between January 2007 through June 2014. Researchers there found that user factors contributed to 64% of the 97 closed claims, and system factors 42%.

The insurer also got specific as to what kind of system and user factors had a negative impact on care, and how often.

EMR System Factors: 

  • Failure of system design – 10%
  • Electronic systems/technology failure – 9%
  • Lack of EMR alert/alarm/decision support – 7%
  • System failure–electronic data routing – 6%
  • Insufficient scope/area for documentation – 4%
  • Fragmented EMR – 3%

EMR User Factors

  • Incorrect information in the EMR – 16%
  • Hybrid health records/EMR conversion – 15%
  • Prepopulating/copy and paste – 13%
  • EMR training/education – 7%
  • EMR user error (other than data entry) – 7%
  • EMR alert issues/fatigue – 3%
  • EMR/CPOE workarounds -1%

This is hardly a road map to changes needed in EMR user practices and system design, as a 97-case sample size is small. That being said, it’s intriguing — and to my mind a bit scary — to note 16% of claims resulted at least in part due to the EMR containing incorrect information. True, paper records weren’t perfect either, but there’s considerably more vectors for infecting EMR data with false or garbled data.

It’s also worth digging into what was behind the 10% of claims impacted by failure of EMR design. Finding out what went wrong in these cases would be instructive, to be sure, even if some the flaws have probably been found and fixed. (After all, some of these claims were closed more than 15 years ago.)

But I’m leaving what I consider to be the juiciest data for last. Just what problems were created by EMR user and systems failures? Here’s the top candidates:

Top Allegations in EMR Claims

  • Diagnosis-related (failure, delay, wrong) – 27%
  • Medication-related – 19%
    • Ordering wrong medication – 7%
    • Ordering wrong dose – 5%
    • Improper medication management – 7%

As medical director David Troxel, MD notes in his blog piece, most of the benefits of EMRs continue to come with the same old risks. Tradeoffs include:

Improved documentation vs. complexity: EMRs improve documentation and legibility of data, but the complexity created by features like point-and-click lists, autopopulation of data from templates and canned text can make it easier to overlook important clinical information.

Medication accuracy vs. alarm fatigue: While EMRs can make med reconciliation and management easier, and warn of errors, frequent alerts can lead to “alarm fatigue” which cause clinicians to disable them.

Easier data entry vs. creation of errors:  While templates with drop-down menus can make data entry simpler, they can also introduce serious, hard-to-catch errors when linked to other automated features of the EMR.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to address these issues, or we wouldn’t still be talking about them many years after they first became identified. My guess is that it will take a next-gen EMR with new data collection, integration and presentation layers to move past these issues. (Expect to see any candidates at #HIMSS16?)

In the mean time, I found it very interesting to hear how EMRs are contributing to medical errors. Let’s hope that within the next year or two, we’ll at least be talking about a new, improved set of less-lethal threats!