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I Have Seen The Portal, And It Is Handy

Posted on July 14, 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.

After writing about EMRs/EHRs and portals for many years, I’ve finally begun using an enterprise-class portal to guide my own care. Here’s some of my impressions as an “inside” (EMR researcher) and “outside” (not employed as a provider) user of this tool. My conclusion is that it’s pretty handy, though it’s still rather difficult to leverage what I’ve learned despite being relatively sophisticated.

First, some background. I get most of my care from northern Virginia-based Inova Health System, including inpatient, primary care, imaging and specialist care. Inova has invested in a honking Epic installation which links the majority of these sites together (though I’ve been informed that its imaging facilities still aren’t hooked up to core medical record. D’oh!) After my last visit with an Inova doctor, I decided to register and use its Epic portal.

Epic’s MyChart has a robust, seemingly quite secure process for registering and accessing information, requiring the use of a long alphanumeric code along with unique personal data to establish an account. When I had trouble reading the code and couldn’t register, telephone-based tech support solved the problem quickly.  (Getting nearsighted as I move from middle- to old-aged!)

Using MyChart, I found it easy to access lab results, my drug list and an overview of health issues. In a plus for both me and the health system, it also includes access to a more organized record of charges and balances due than I’ve been able to put together in many years.

When I looked into extracting and sharing the records, I found myself connected to Lucy, an Epic PHR module. In case you’ve never heard of it (I hadn’t) here’s Epic’s description:

Lucy is a PHR that is not connected to any facility’s electronic medical record system. It stays with patients wherever they receive care and allows them to organize their medical information in one place that is readily accessible. Patients can enter health data directly into Lucy, pull in MyChart data or upload standards-compliant Continuity of Care Documents from other facilities.

As great as the possibility of integrating outside records sounds, that’s where I ran into my first snag. When I attempted to hook up with the portal for DC-based Sibley Memorial Hospital — a Johns Hopkins facility — and integrate the records from its Epic system into the Inova’s Lucy PHR, I was unable to do so since I hadn’t connected within 48 hours of a recent discharge. When I tried to remedy the situation, an employee from the hospital’s Health Information Management department gave me an unhelpful kiss-off, telling me that there was no way to issue a second security code. I was told she had to speak to her office manager; I told her access to my medical record was not up for a vote, and irritated, terminated the call.

Another snag came when I tried to respond to information I’d found in my chart summary. When I noted that one of my tests fell outside the standard range provided by the lab, I called the medical group to ask why I’d been told all tests were normal. After a long wait, I was put on the line with a physician who knew nothing about my case and promptly brushed off my concerns. I appreciate that the group found somebody to talk to me, but if I wasn’t a persistent lady, I’d be reluctant to speak up in the future given this level of disinterest.

All told, using the portal is a big step up from my previous experiences interacting with my providers, and I know it will be empowering for someone like myself. That being said, it seems clear that even in this day and age, even a sophisticated integrated health system isn’t geared to respond to the questions patients may have about their data.

For one thing, even if the Lucy portal delivers as promised, it’s clear that integrating data from varied institutions isn’t a task for the faint of heart. HIM departments still seem to house many staffers who are trained to be clerks, not supporters of digital health. That will have to change.

Also, hospitals and medical practices must train employees to enthusiastically, cheerfully support patients who want to leverage their health record data. They may also want to create a central call center, staffed by clinicians, to engage with patients who are raising questions related to their health data. Otherwise, it seems unlikely that they’ll bother to use it.

Some Methods For Improving EMR Alerts

Posted on June 25, 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.

A new study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association has made some points that may turn out to be helpful in designing those pesky but helpful alerts for clinicians.

Making alerts useful and appropriate is no small matter. As we reported on a couple of years ago, even then EMR alert fatigue has become a major source of possible medical errors. In fact, a Pediatrics study published around that time found that clinicians were ignoring or overriding many alerts in an effort to stay focused.

Despite warnings from researchers and important industry voices like The Joint Commission, little has changed since then. But the issue can’t be ignored forever, as it’s a car crash waiting to happen.

The JAMIA study may offer some help, however. While it focuses on making drug-drug interaction warnings more usable, the principles it offers can serve as a model for designing other alerts as well.

For what it’s worth, the strategies I’m about to present came from a DDI Clinical Decision Support conference attended by experts from ONC, health IT vendors, academia and healthcare organizations.

While the experts offered several recommendations applying specifically to DDI alerts, their suggestions for presenting such alerts seem to apply to a wide range of notifications available across virtually all EMRs. These suggestions include:

  • Consistent use of color and visual cues: Like road signs, alerts should come in a limited and predictable variety of colors and styles, and use only color and symbols for which the meaning is clear to all clinicians.
  • Consistent use of terminology and brevity: Alerts should be consistently phrased and use the same terms across platforms. They should also be presented concisely, with minimal text, allowing for larger font sizes to improve readability.
  • Avoid interruptions wherever possible:  Rather than freezing clinician workflow over actions already taken, save interruptive alerts that require action to proceed for the most serious situation. The system should proactively guide decisions to safer alernatives, taking away the need for interruption.

The research also offers input on where and when to display alerts.

Where to display alert information:  The most critical information should be displayed on the alert’s top-level screen, with links to evidence — rather than long text — to back up the alert justification.

When to display alerts: The group concluded that alerts should be displayed at the point when a decision is being made, rather than jumping on the physician later.

The paper offers a great deal of additional information, and if you’re at all involved in addressing alerting issues or designing the alerts I strongly suggest you review the entire paper.

But even the excerpts above offer a lot to consider. If most alerts met these usability and presentation standards, they might offer more value to clinicians and greater safety to patients.

Wearables Trendsetters Don’t Offer Much Value

Posted on June 1, 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.

Today I was looking over my Twitter feed and this tweet popped up:

The referenced article appeared on the corporate site of Qmed, a supplier to the medical device industry. I found this interesting, as it’s pretty obvious that wearables and other mHealth toys will evolve into medical-grade devices over time.

But the choices the article made for hottest wearable firms, while worth a look, demonstrate pretty clearly that few wearables makers can point to any real, meaningful healthcare benefit they offer. (That’s obviously not Qmed’s fault — none of this is aimed at the editor who pulled this piece together — but it’s still a significant point.)

Some of the wearables listed are half-hearted medical device plays, others are fashionable eye candy for upscale geeks, and still others are tadpoles evolving from some other industry into a healthcare mode. Here’s some examples from the list, and why I’m skeptical that they deserve a high five:

* The list includes Apple courtesy of  its Apple Watch.  Right now nobody seems to know quite how the Apple Watch, or any smartwatch for that matter, serves anyone except gadget geeks with extra cash. How, exactly, will having a smartwatch improve your health or life, other than giving you bragging rights over non-owners?

* There’s Fitbit, which is undeniably the wearables success story to beat all others. But just because something is cool doesn’t mean it’s accomplishing anything meaningful. At least where healthcare is concerned, I fail to see how its cursory monitoring add-ons (such as automatic sleep monitoring and heart rate tracking) move the healthcare puck down the ice.

* The list also includes Misfit, whose $850K success on Indiegogo has vaulted it into the ranks of hipster coolness. Admittedly, its Shine is a lovely piece of wearables jewelry, and the Flash is cool, but again, should healthcare leaders really care?

* I admit to a certain interest in Caeden, a Rock Health wearables firm which apparently started out making headphones. The Qmed article reports that the company, which got $1.6M in funding this year, is creating a screenless leather wristband which does health monitoring. But I’m critical of the “screenless” aspect of this product; after all, isn’t one of the main goals of monitoring to engage patients in the process?

I could go on, but you probably get the point I’m trying to make. While the devices listed above might have their place in the consumer health device food chain, it’s not clear how they can actually make patients do better or feel better.

I do have to offer kudos to one company on the list, however. Chrono Therapeutics has an intriguing product to offer which could actually save lungs and lives. The company, which took in $32M in financing last year, has created a slick-looking wearable device that delivers doses of nicotine when a smoker’s cravings hit, and tracks the doses administrated. Now that could be a game change for consumers trying to beat nicotine addiction. (Heck, maybe it could help with other types of addiction too.)

I only hope other wearables manufacturers pick a spot, as Chrono Therapeutics has, and figure out how to do more than be cool, look good or sell to trendies.

The Dawn of The Community EMR

Posted on May 29, 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.

While many healthcare stakeholders would like to see clinical data shared freely, the models we have in place simply can’t get this done.

Take private HIEs, for example. Some of them have been quite successful at fostering data sharing between different parts of a health system, but the higher clinical functions aren’t integrated — just the data.

Another dead end comes when a health system uses a single EMR across its entire line of properties. That may integrate clinical workflow to some degree, but far too often, the different instances of the EMR can’t share data directly.

If healthcare is to transform itself, a new platform will be necessary which can be both the data-sharing and clinical tool needed for every healthcare player in a community. Consider the vision laid out by Forbes contributor Dave Chase:

Just as the previous wars impacted which countries would lead the world in prosperity, the “war” we are in will dictate the communities that get the lion’s share of the jobs (and thus prosperity). Smart economic development directors and mayors will stake their claim to be the place where healthcare gets reinvented.

In Chase’s column, he notes that companies like IBM have begun to base their decisions about where to locate new technology centers partly on how efficiently, effectively and affordably care can be delivered in that community. For example, the tech giant recently decided to locate 4,000 new jobs in Dubuque, Iowa after concluding that the region offered the best value for their healthcare dollar.

To compete with the Dubuques of the world, Chase says, communities will need to pool their existing healthcare spending — ideally $1B or more — and use it to transform how their entire region delivers care.

While Chase doesn’t mention this, one element which will be critical in building smart healthcare communities is an EMR that works as both a workflow and care coordination tool AND a platform for sharing data. I can’t imagine how entire communities can rebuild their care without sharing a single tool like this.

A few years ago I wrote about how the next generation of  EMRs would probably be architected as a platform with a stack of apps built over it that suit individual organizations. The idea doesn’t seem to have gained a lot of traction in the U.S. since 2012, but the approach is very much alive outside the country, with vendors like Australia’s Ocean Informatics selling this type of technology to government entities around the world. And maybe it can bring cities and regions together too.

For the short term, getting a community of providers to go all in on such an architecture doesn’t seem too likely. Instead, they’ll cling to ACO models which offer at least an illusion of independence. But when communities that offer good healthcare value start to steal their patients and corporate customers, they may think again.

Meaningful Use Stage 3 Success Could Rely On Vendors

Posted on May 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.

Today I was reading a report on the Health IT Policy Committee’s review of pending Meaningful Use Stage 3 rules — which would ordinarily be as about as exciting as watching rocks erode — when something leapt out at me which I wanted to share with you, dear readers.

The overview, brought to us courtesy of Medical Practice Insider, noted that proposed plans for the Stage 3 rule would allow providers to attest in 2017, though attesting wouldn’t be mandatory until 2018. What this means, editor Frank Irving notes, is that it would be up to EMR vendors to be ready for providers wishing to attest a year early.

The folks overseeing this discussion, the Advanced Health Models and Meaningful Use Workgroup, seem (wisely) to have had their doubts that vendors could be relied upon to meet the 2017 deadline. At the session, workgroup members proposed a couple of alternative ways of addressing this timeline. One was to make the 2017 deadline go away, requiring instead that EMRs have full 2015 certification by 2018. Another was to allow optional attestation in 2017, but if need be, with 2014 EMR certification.

I don’t know about you, but this whole thing makes me nervous. By “whole thing,” I mean adjusting the rules to deal with the likely resistance vendors will exhibit to keeping their roadmap in synch with federal requirements.

After all, consider the history of EMR vendors’ relationship with providers. As we’ve noted, HHS has paid out about $30B in Meaningful Use incentives under HITECH without insisting that vendors provide interoperability. And what have EMR vendors done?  They’ve avoided developing shared standards for interoperability with an alacrity which amazes the eye.

In fact, some EMR vendors — including top contender Epic Systems — have been slapping providers with fees for data sharing (even if they’ve kind of dropped them for now), at prices which could leave them millions in the hole. If that isn’t dead opposite to what those in public policy hope to see happen, I don’t know what is.

Bottom line, if the good people overseeing Meaningful Use want to see Stage 3 accomplish good things, they’ll need to see to it that the new rules give regulators some leverage when it comes to controlling vendors.

As the whole sad interoperability saga has demonstrated, vendors will not take actions that advance health IT on their own. Unlike in other IT markets, where interoperability and meeting regulatory deadlines have been the signs of a winner, EMR vendors actually have strong incentives to ignore providers’ business imperatives.

With any luck, however, between tougher rules on Stage 3 and public pressure to achieve interoperability, EMR vendors will do the right thing.  They’ve certainly had long enough.

A “Collaborative Consult” Could Greatly Improve EMR Value

Posted on May 19, 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.

Over the past several years, EMRs have taken some steps forward. At least in some cases, analytics have improved, vendors have begun offering cloud or on-premise install versions of their products and user interfaces have even improved.

But one problem with EMRs that seems to be nearly unfixable is the need for providers to stare at an EMR screen, leaving patients to fidget uncomfortably while they wait for a bit of face-to-face contact and discussion. Sure, you’ll see scribes in hospital emergency departments, allowing ED docs to speak to patients without interruption, but in the outpatient settings where patients spend most of their time, the EMR screen is king.

Such a focus on the EMR display isn’t unreasonable, given the importance of the data being entered, but as critics have noted countless times, it does make it more likely that the provider will miss subtle clues as to the patient’s condition, and possibly end up offering lower-quality care than they would have if they had an old-fashioned computerless encounter.

I have long thought, however, that there’s a solution to this problem which would be helpful to both the physician and the patient, one which would literally make sure that patients and doctors are on the same page. I’m speaking of a new group of settings for EMRs designed specifically to let patients collaborate with physicians.

Such an EMR setting, as I envision it, would begin with a section depicting a dummy patient of the appropriate gender.The patient would touch the areas of the body which were causing them problems, while the doctor typed up a narrative version of the problem presentation. The two (patient and doctor) would then zoom in together to more specific descriptions of what the patient’s trouble might be, and the doctor would educate the patient as to what kind of treatment these different conditions might require.

At that point, depending on what condition(s) the doctor chose as requiring further study, lists of potential tests would come up. If a patient wanted to learn what these tests were intended to accomplish, they’d have the liberty to drill down and learn, say, what a CBC measures and why.  The patient would also see, where possible, the data (such as high cholesterol levels) which caused the doctor to seek further insight.

If the patient had a known illness being managed by the physician, such as heart disease, a tour through a 3-D visual model of the heart would also be part of the collaboration, allowing the doctor to educate the patient effectively as to what they were jointly trying to accomplish (such as halting heart muscle thickening).

The final step in this patient-doctor process would come with the system presenting a list of current medications taken by the patient, and if appropriate, new medications that might address any new or recurring symptoms the patient was experiencing.

The final result would come in the form of a PDF, e-mailed to the patient or printed out for their use, offering an overview of their shared journey. The doctor might have to spend a few minutes adding details to their notes after the patient left, but for the most part, the collaborative consult would have met everyone’s needs.

Now you tell me:  Why aren’t we doing this now?  Wouldn’t it make much more sense, and take much more advantage of the powerful desktops, tablets and smartphones we have, than having a provider stare at a screen for most of their visit with a patient?

HHS’ $30B Interoperability Mistake

Posted on May 8, 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.

Sometimes things are so ill-advised, in hindsight, that you wonder what people were thinking. That includes HHS’ willingness to give out $30 billion to date in Meaningful Use incentives without demanding that vendors offer some kind of interoperability. A staggering amount of money has been paid out under HITECH to incentivize providers to make EMR progress, but we still have countless situations where one EMR can’t talk to another one right across town.

When you ponder the wasted opportunity, it’s truly painful. While the Meaningful Use program may have been a good idea, it failed to bring the interoperability hammer down on vendors, and now that ship has sailed. While HHS might have been able to force the issue back in the day, demanding that vendors step up or be ineligible for certification, I doubt vendors could backward-engineer the necessary communications formats into their current systems, even if there was a straightforward standard to implement — at least not at a price anyone’s willing to pay.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that “interoperability” is an elastic concept, and that the feds couldn’t just demand that vendors bolt on some kind of module and be done with it. Without a doubt, making EMRs universally interoperable is a grand challenge, perhaps on the order of getting the first plane to fly.

But you can bet your last dollars that vendors, especially giants like Cerner and Epic, would have found their Wilbur and Orville Wright if that was what it took to fill their buckets with incentive money. It’s amazing how technical problems get solved when powerful executives decide that it will get done.

But now, as things stand, all the government can do is throw its hands up in the air and complain. At a Senate hearing held in March, speakers emphasized the crying need for interoperability between providers, but none of the experts seemed to have any methods in their hip pocket for fixing the problem. And being legislators, not IT execs, the Senators probably didn’t grasp half of the technical stuff.

As the speakers noted, what it comes down to is that vendors have every reason to create silos and keep customers locked into their product.  So unless Congress passes legislation making it illegal to create a walled garden — something that would be nearly impossible unless we had a consensus definition of interoperability — EMR vendors will continue to merrily make hay on closed systems.  It’s not a pretty picture.

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!

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.