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Will New Group Steal Thunder From CommonWell Health Alliance?

Posted on January 26, 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.

Back in March 0f 2013, six health IT vendors came together to announce the launch of the CommonWell Health Alliance. The group, which included Cerner, McKesson, Allscripts, athenahealth, Greenway Medical Technologies and RelayHealth, said they were forming the not-for-profit organization to foster national health data interoperability. (Being a cynical type, I immediately put it in a mental file tagged “The Group Epic Refused To Join,” but maybe that wasn’t fair since it looks like the other EHR vendors might have left Epic out on purpose.)

Looked at from some perspectives, the initiative has been a success. Over the past couple of years or so, CommonWell developed service specifications for interoperability and deployed a national network for health data sharing. The group has also attracted nearly three dozen HIT companies as members, with capabilities extending well beyond EMRs.

And according to recently-appointed executive director Jitin Asnaani, CommonWell is poised to have more than 5,000 provider sites using its services across the U.S. That will include more than 1,200 of Cerner’s provider sites. Also, Greenway Health and McKesson provider sites should be able to share health data with other CommonWell participants.

While all of this sounds promising, it’s not as though we’ve seen a great leap in interoperability for most providers. This is probably why new interoperability-focused initiatives have emerged. Just last week, five major HIT players announced that they would be the first to implement the Carequality Interoperability Framework.

The five vendors include, notably, Epic, along with athenahealth, eClinicalWorks, NextGen Healthcare and Surescripts. While the Carequality team might not be couching things this way, to me it seems likely that it intends to roll on past (if not over) the CommonWell effort.

Carequality is an initiative of The Sequoia Project, a DC-area non-profit. While it shares CommonWell’s general mission in fostering nationwide health information exchange, that’s where its similarities to CommonWell appear to end:

* Unlike CommonWell, which is almost entirely vendor-focused, Sequoia’s members also include the AMA, Kaiser Permanente, Minute Clinic, Walgreens and Surescripts.

* The Carequality Interoperability Framework includes not only technical specifications for achieving interoperability, but also legal and governance documents helping implementers set up data sharing in legally-appropriate ways between themselves and patients.

* The Framework is designed to allow providers, payers and other health organizations to integrate pre-existing connectivity efforts such as previously-implemented HIEs.

I don’t know whether the Carequality effort is complimentary to CommonWell or an attempt to eclipse it. It’s hard for me to tell whether the presence of a vendor on both membership lists (athenahealth) is an attempt to learn from both sides or a preparation for jumping ship. In other words, I’m not sure whether this is a “game changer,” as one health IT trade pub put it, or just more buzz around interoperability.

But if I were a betting woman, I’d stake hard, cold dollars that Carequality is destined to pick up the torch CommonWell lit. That being said, I do hope the two cooperate or even merge, as I’m sure the very smart people associated with these efforts can learn from each other. If they fight for mindshare, it’d be a major waste of time and talent.

Idiosyncratic Recommendations Based on Widespread Principles: the Health IT Policy Committee Report

Posted on December 21, 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.

Congress received an odd document last week from an advisory committee on Health IT. It takes an unexpectedly new–and demandingly detailed–approach to the perennial problem of health record interoperability. However, if one analyzes the authors’ reasoning, it turns out to be based on unstated principles that are widely accepted in health care:

  1. The market is broken, and the government must intervene either through incentives or through requirements.

  2. The intervention should be based on operational or clinical goals, not dictating the adoption of specific technologies.

  3. Policy-makers should pick off low-hanging fruit through goals that produce potentially large benefits with relative ease.

Read more..

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.

Providers Still Have Hope For HIEs

Posted on July 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.

Sometimes, interoperability alone doesn’t cut it.  Increasingly, providers are expecting HIEs to go beyond linking up different organizations to delivering “actionable” data, according to a new report from NORC at the University of Chicago. The intriguing follow-on to the researchers’ conclusions is that HIEs aren’t obsolete, though their obsolescence seemed all but certain in the past.

The study, which was written up by Healthcare Informatics, conducted a series of site visits and 37 discussions with providers in Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont, Utah and Wyoming. The researchers, who conducted their study in early 2014, hoped to understand how providers looked at HIEs generally and their state HIE program specifically. (The research was funded by ONC.)

One major lesson for the health IT types reading this article is that providers want data sharing models to reflect new care realities.  With Meaningful Use requirements and changes in payment models bearing down on providers, and triggering changes in how care is delivered, health IT-enabled data exchange needs to support new models of care.

According to the study, providers are intent on having HIEs deliver admission, discharge, and transfer alerts, interstate data exchange and data services that assist in coordinating care. While I don’t have comprehensive HIE services research to hand, maybe you do, readers. Are HIEs typically meeting these criteria? I doubt it, though I could be wrong.

That being said, providers seem to be willing to pay for HIE services if the vendor can meet their more stringent criteria.  While this may be tough to swallow for existing HIE technology sellers, it’s good news for the HIE model generally, as getting providers to pay for any form of community data exchange has been somewhat difficult historically.

Some of the biggest challenges in managing HIE connectivity identified by the study include getting good support from both HIE and EMR vendors, as well as a lack of internal staff qualified to manage data exchange, competing priorities and problems managing multiple funding streams. But vendors can work to overcome at least some of these problems.

As I noted previously, hospitals in particular have had many beliefs which have discouraged them from participating in HIEs. As one HIE leader quoted in my previous post noted, many have assumed that HIE connection costs would be in the same range as EMR adoption expenses; they’re been afraid that HIEs would not put strong enough data security in place to meet HIPAA obligations; and they assumed that HIE participation wasn’t that important.

Today, given the growing importance of sophisticated data management has come to the forefront, and most providers know that they need to have the big picture widespread data sharing can provide. Without the comprehensive data set cutting across the patient care environment — something few organizations are integrated enough to develop on their own — they’re unlikely to mount a successful population health management initiative or control costs sufficiently. So it’s interesting to see providers see a future for HIEs.

Patients Can Squawk, But We Have Little To Crow About Open Data

Posted on June 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.

One of the biggest disappointments at this year’s Health Datapalooza (which I found disappointing overall) was the continued impasse presented to patients who, bolstered by the best thinking in health care as well as Federal laws and regulations, ask for health data stored about them by doctors and other institutions.

Activists such as Regina Holliday and e-Patient Dave proved years ago that giving patients information and involving them in decisions will save lives. The Society for Participatory Medicine enshrines the principle. But the best witnesses for patient empowerment are the thousands of anonymous patients, spouses, parents, and children quietly trundling folders with their own records through the halls of hospitals, building up more knowledge of their chronic conditions than any professional clinician possesses, and calmly but inflexibly insisting on being equal partners with those who treat them.

There were plenty of high-minded words at the Datapalooza about patient rights to data. It was recognized as a key element of patient empowerment (or “activation,” as the more timid speakers liked to say) as well as an aid to better care. An online petition backed by an impressive array of health reformers is collecting signatures (whom someone will presumably look at) and encourages activists to speak up about this topic on July 4. HHS announced that anyone denied access to data to which the law gives her a right can submit an informal report to noinformationblocking@cms.hhs.gov.

Although occasional mention was made of personal health records (PHRs), most of the constant discussion about interoperability stayed on the safe topic of provider-to-provider data exchange. Keeping data with health care providers leads to all sorts of contorted practices. For instance, patient matching and obtaining consent are some of the most difficult challenges facing health IT in the U.S., all caused by keeping data with providers instead of the patients themselves.

The industry’s slowness to appreciate patient-generated data is also frustrating. Certainly, the health IT field needs to do a lot more to prepare data for use: consumer device manufacturers must assure clinicians of the devices’ accuracy, and researchers need to provide useful analytics that clinicians can plug in to their electronic systems. Still, doctors are demonstrating a disappointing lack of creativity in the face of this revolutionary source of information. It’s all to easy to carp about accuracy (after all, lab tests have limited accuracy as well) or just to state that you don’t know what to do with the data.

I heard about recent progress at the UK’s National Health Service from Brian Ahier, who is the only person I know who can explain the nuances of extensions to FHIR resources while actively using both his laptop and his cell phone at the same time. Ahier heard at a UK-US Bootcamp before the Datapalooza that the NHS has given 97% of its patients access to their records.

But there’s a bit of a caution around that statistic: only one-fifth of the patients have taken advantage of this right. This doesn’t bother me. First of all, one-fifth of the population with access to their personal records would be a dizzying accomplishment for most countries, including the U.S. Second, few people need access to records until some major problem arises, such as the need to see a specialist. They probably feel relieved to know the records will be there when needed.

Another aspect of patient control over data is research. The standard researcher-centered model is seen as increasingly paternalistic, driving patients away. They’re not impressed with being told that some study will benefit people like them–they want to tell researchers what really matters to them as sufferers, and hear more about the study as it goes along. Researchers are frantic to reverse a situation where most studies fail simply because they can’t sign up enough subjects.

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is one of the progressive institutions in health care who understand that giving patients more of a say will be increasingly important for signing up patients in the first place, as well doing research of value to them. Its PCORnet combines traditional research databases with databases maintained by patient advocacy groups. Each member network can create its own policies for getting consent, which allows researchers to bend with the needs of their research subjects.

OpenClinica, the open source clinical research platform, just announced the release of an app that may contribute to the goals of taking input from patients and binding them closer to the research endeavor.

Public health officials also recognize the sensibilities of the people they monitor. At a panel on data about low-income people, speakers stressed the importance of collecting data in a respectful way that doesn’t make people feel they’re being spied on or could be punished for their behavior.

Let’s talk a minute about health care costs, if only because doctors and insurers don’t want to. (Some doctors are prohibited by their employers from telling patients how much a recommended procedure will cost, supposedly because they don’t want costs to intrude on what should ideally be a clinical decision. This is changing with the increase in deductibles, but often the doctors don’t even know what the final cost will be after insurance.)

One app so admired by the Datapalooza team that they allowed the company to demonstrate its product on the main stage during keynote time was Sensentia. This product everybody is so impressed with takes in information from health plans to allow patients as well as the staff at health care providers to quickly find the health plan benefits for a procedure. (I recently covered another company doing similar work with insurance and costs.)

Sensentia is a neat product, I am willing to aver. It accepts natural language queries, crunches the data about health plans and insurers, and returns the actual health plan benefits for a treatment. Of course, I know the cost of flying from Boston to San Francisco after six clicks in my browser, even though the calculations that go into offering me a price are at least as complicated as those run by health plans. One may be shocked to hear that that current phone calls to an insurer cost $3-$10. This is the state of health care–it costs more than five bucks on average for a doctor just to find out how much it will cost to offer his own service.

A panel on patient-generated data reported more barriers than successes in getting doctors to work with data from patient devices and reports from everyday life. Another panel about improving quality measures culminated in the moderator admitting that more patients use Yelp than anything else to choose providers–and that it works pretty well for them.

For me that was the conference’s low point, and a moment of despairing cynicism that doesn’t reflect the mood of the conference or the health care field as a whole. Truly, if Yelp could solve our quality problems, we wouldn’t need a Datapalooza or the richness of data analysis it highlights. But I think reformers need more strategies to leap the hurdles we’re facing and implement the vision we all share.

Taking a New Look at the Lamented Personal Health Record: Flow Health’s Debut

Posted on June 8, 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.

After the disappointing lack of adoption suffered by Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault, many observers declared personal health records (PHRs) a non-starter, while others predicted that any progress toward personal control over health data would require a radically new approach.

Several new stabs at a PHR are emerging, of which Flow Health shows several promising traits. The company tries to take advantage of–and boost the benefits of–advances in IT standards and payment models. This article is based on a conversation I had with their general counsel, David Harlow, who is widely recognized as the leading legal expert in health IT and health privacy and who consults with companies in those spaces through the Harlow Group.

Because records are collected by doctors, not patients, the chief hurdle any PHR has to overcome is to persuade the health care providers to relinquish sole control over the records they squirrel away in their local EHR silos. Harlow believes the shift to shared risk and coordinated care is creating the incentive for doctors to share. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services is promising to greatly increase the role of pay-for-value, and a number of private insurers have promised to do so as well. In short, Flow Health can make headway if the tangible benefit of learning about a patient’s recent hospital discharge or treating chronic conditions while the patient remains at home start to override the doctor’s perception that she can benefit by keeping the patient’s data away from competitors.

The next challenge is technically obtaining the records. This is facilitated first by the widespread move to electronic records (a legacy of Meaningful Use Stage 1) and the partial standardization of these records in the C-CDA. Flow Health recognizes both the C-CDA and Blue Button, as well as using the Direct protocol to obtain records. Harlow says that FHIR will be supported when the standard settles down.

But none of that is enough to offer Flow Health what the doctors and patients really want, which is a unified health record containing all the information given by different providers. Therefore, like other companies trying to broaden access to patient data, Flow Health must deal with the problem that Dr. Eric Topol recently termed the Tower of EMR Babel. They study each format produced by different popular EHRs (each one using the C-CDA in slightly incompatible ways) and convert the data into a harmonized format. This allows Flow Health to then reconcile records when a diagnosis, a medication list, or some other aspect of the patient’s health is represented differently in different records.

What’s next for Flow Health? Harlow said they are preparing an API to let third parties add powerful functionality, such as care coordination and patient access from any app of their choice. Flow Health is already working closely with payers and providers to address workflow challenges, thus accelerating the aggregation of patient health record data for access and use by clinicians and patients.

A relative of mine could have used something like Flow Health recently when her eye doctor referred her to the prestigious Lahey Clinic in the Boston area. First of all, the test that led to the referral had to be repeated at the Lahey Clinic, because the eye doctor did not forward test results. Nor did anyone provide a medication list, so the Lahey Clinic printed out a five-year old medication list that happened to hang around from a visit long ago and asked her to manually update it. There was also confusion about what her insurer would cover, but that’s a different matter. All this took place in 2015, in the country’s leading region for medical care.

It seems inevitable that–as Flow Health hopes–patients will come to demand access to their medical records. A slew of interesting experiments will proliferate, like Flow Health and the rather different vision of Medyear to treat health information like a social network feed. Patient-generated data, such as the output from fitness devices and home sensors, will put yet more pressure on health care providers to take the patient seriously as a source of information. And I’ll continue to follow developments.

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.

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!

Epic Belatedly Accepts Reality And Drops Interoperability Fees

Posted on April 21, 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.

Unbeknownst to me, and perhaps some of you as well, Epic has been charging customers data usage fees for quite some time.  The EMR giant has been quietly dunning users 20 cents for each clinical message sent to a health information exchange and $2.35 for inbound messages from non-Epic users, fees which could surely mount up into the millions if across a substantial health system.  (The messages were delivered through an EMR module known as Care Everywhere.)

And now, Epic chose #HIMSS15 to announce grandly that it was no longer charging users any fees to share clinical data with organizations that don’t use its technology, at least until 2020, according to CEO Judy Faulkner.  In doing so, it has glossed over the fact that these questionable charges existed in the first place, apparently with some success. For an organization which has historically ducked the press routinely, Epic seems to have its eye on the PR ball.

To me, this announcement is troubling in several ways, including the following:

  • Charging fees of this kind smacks of a shakedown.  If a hospital or health system buys Epic, they can’t exactly back out of their hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars investment to ensure they can share data with outside organizations.
  • Forcing providers to pay fees to share data with non-Epic customers penalizes the customers for interoperability problems for which Epic itself is responsible. It may be legal but it sure ain’t kosher.
  • In a world where even existing Epic customers can’t share freely with other Epic customers, the vendor ought to be reinvesting these interoperability fees in making that happen. I see no signs that this is happening.
  • If Epic consciously makes it costly for health systems to share data, it can impact patient care both within and outside, arguably raising costs and increasing the odds of care mistakes. Doing so consciously seems less than ethical. After all, Epic has a 15% to 20% market share in both the hospital and ambulatory enterprise EMR sector, and any move it makes affects millions of patients.

But Epic’s leadership is unrepentant. In fact, it seems that Epic feels it’s being tremendously generous in letting the fees go.  Here’s Eric Helsher, Epic’s vice president of client success, as told to Becker’s Hospital Review: “We felt the fee was small and, in our opinion, fair and one of the least expensive…but it was confusing to our customers.”

Mr. Helsher, I submit that your customers understood the fees just fine, but balked at paying them — and for good reason. At this point in the history of clinical data networking, pay-as-you-go models make no sense, as they impose a large fluctuating expense on organizations already struggling to manage development and implementation costs.

But those of us, like myself, who stand amazed at the degree to which Epic blithely powers through criticism, may see the giant challenged someday. Members of Congress are beginning to “get it” about interoperability, and Epic is in their sights.

ONC Healthcare Interoperability Roadmap Infographic

Posted on February 5, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

There’s been a lot of talk around the 10 year ONC Healthcare Interoperability Roadmap. I think it’s a really great thing that they’re helping to drive a lot more discussion around interoperability. I’m very interested in doing the same.

For those who want the cliff notes version of the interoperability roadmap, I think this infographic does a pretty good job summarizing it:
ONC Healthcare Interoperability Roadmap Infographic

What do you think of the roadmap? Is it all conjecture and not much substance or will it make a big difference?