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A Circular Chat On Healthcare Interoperability

Posted on September 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.

About a week ago, a press release on health data interoperability came into my inbox. I read it over and shook my head. Then I pinged a health tech buddy for some help. This guy has seen it all, and I felt pretty confident that he would know whether there was any real news there.

And this is how our chat went.

—-

“So you got another interoperability pitch from one of those groups. Is this the one that Cerner kicked off to spite Epic?” he asked me.

“No, this is the one that Epic and its buddies kicked off to spite Cerner,” I told him. “You know, health data exchange that can work for anyone that gets involved.”

“Do you mean a set of technical specs? Maybe that one that everyone seems to think is the next big hope for application-based data sharing? The one ONC seems to like.” he observed. “Or at least it did during the DeSalvo administration.”

“No, I mean the group working on a common technical approach to sharing health data securely,” I said. “You know, the one that lets doctors send data straight to another provider without digging into an EMR.”

“You mean that technology that supports underground currency trading? That one seems a little bit too raw to support health data trading,” he said.

“Maybe so. But I was talking about data-sharing standards adopted by an industry group trying to get everyone together under one roof,” I said. “It’s led by vendors but it claims to be serving the entire health IT world. Like a charity, though not very much.”

“Oh, I get it. You must be talking about the industry group that throws that humungous trade show each year.” he told me. “A friend wore through two pairs of wingtips on the trade show floor last year. And he hardly left his booth!”

“Actually, I was talking about a different industry group. You know, one that a few top vendors have created to promote their approach to interoperability.” I said. “Big footprint. Big hopes. Big claims about the future.”

“Oh yeah. You’re talking about that group Epic created to steal a move from Cerner.” he said.

“Um, sure. That must have been it,” I told him. “I’m sure that’s what I meant.”

—-

OK, I made most of this up. You’ve got me. But it is a pretty accurate representation of how most conversations go when I try to figure out who has a chance of actually making interoperability happen. (Of course, I added some snark for laughs, but not much, believe it or not.)

Does this exchange sound familiar to anyone else?

And if it does, is it any wonder we don’t have interoperability in healthcare?

Is Interoperability Worth Paying For?

Posted on August 18, 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.

A member of our extended family is a nurse practitioner. Recently, we talked about her practice providing care for several homebound, older patients. She tracks their health with her employer’s proprietary EHR, which she quickly compared to a half-dozen others she’s used. If you want a good, quick EHR eval, ask a nurse.

What concerned her most, beyond usability, etc., was piecing together their medical records. She didn’t have an interoperability problem, she had several of them. Most of her patients had moved from their old home to Florida leaving a mixed trail of practioners, hospitals, and clinics, etc. She has to plow through paper and electronic files to put together a working record. She worries about being blindsided by important omissions or doctors who hold onto records for fear of losing patients.

Interop Problems: Not Just Your Doc and Hospital

She is not alone. Our remarkably decentralized healthcare system generates these glitches, omissions, ironies and hang ups with amazing speed. However, when we talk about interoperability, we focus on mainly on hospital to hospital or PCP to PCP relations. Doing so, doesn’t fully cover the subject. For example, others who provide care include:

  • College Health Systems
  • Pharmacy and Lab Systems
  • Public Health Clinics
  • Travel and other Specialty Clinics
  • Urgent Care Clinics
  • Visiting Nurses
  • Walk in Clinics, etc., etc.

They may or may not pass their records back to a main provider, if there is one. When they do it’s usually by FAX making the recipient key in the data. None of this is particularly a new story. Indeed, the AHA did a study of interoperability that nails interoperability’s barriers:

Hospitals have tried to overcome interoperability barriers through the use of interfaces and HIEs but they are, at best, costly workarounds and, at worst, mechanisms that will never get the country to true interoperability. While standards are part of the solution, they are still not specified enough to make them truly work. Clearly, much work remains, including steps by the federal government to support advances in interoperability. Until that happens, patients across the country will be shortchanged from the benefits of truly connected care.

We’ve Tried Standards, We’ve Tried Matching, Now, Let’s Try Money

So, what do we do? Do we hope for some technical panacea that makes these problems seem like dial-up modems? Perhaps. We could also put our hopes in the industry suddenly adopting an interop standard. Again, Perhaps.

I think the answer lies not in technology or standards, but by paying for interop successes. For a long time, I’ve mulled over a conversation I had with Chandresh Shah at John’s first conference. I’d lamented to him that buying a Coke at a Las Vegas CVS, brought up my DC buying record. Why couldn’t we have EHR systems like that? Chandresh instantly answered that CVS had an economic incentive to follow me, but my medical records didn’t. He was right. There’s no money to follow, as it were.

That leads to this question, why not redirect some MU funds and pay for interoperability? Would providers make interop, that is data exchange, CCDs, etc., work if they were paid? For example, what if we paid them $50 for their first 500 transfers and $25 for their first 500 receptions? This, of course, would need rules. I’m well aware of the human ability to game just about anything from soda machines to state lotteries.

If pay incentives were tried, they’d have to start slowly and in several different settings, but start they should. Progress, such as it is, is far too slow and isn’t getting us much of anywhere. My nurse practitioner’s patients can’t wait forever.

ONC’s Budget: A Closer Look

Posted on August 3, 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.

When HHS released ONC’s proposed FY2017 budget last winter, almost all attention focused on one part, a $22 million increase for interoperability. While the increase is notable, I think ONC’s full $82 Million budget deserves some attention.

ONC’s FY2017 Spending Plan.

Table I, summarizes ONC’s plan for Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017. The first thing to note is that ONC’s funding would change from general budget funds, known as Budget Authority or BA, to Public Health Service Evaluation funds. HHS’ Secretary may allocate up to 2.1 percent of HHS’ funds to these PHS funds. This change would not alter Congress’ funding role, but apparently signals HHS’s desire to put ONC fully in the public health sector.

Table I
ONC FY2017 Budget

fy2017-budget-justification-onc

What the ONC Budget Shows and What it Doesn’t

ONC’s budget follows the standard, federal government budget presentation format. That is, it lists, by program, how many people and how much money is allocated. In this table, each fiscal year, beginning with FY2015, shows the staffing level and then spending.

Staffing is shown in FTEs, that is, full time equivalent positions. For example, if two persons work 20 hours each, then they are equivalent to one full time person or FTE.

Spending definitions for each fiscal year is a little different. Here’s how that works:

  • FY2015 – What actually was spent or how many actually were hired
  • FY2016 – The spending and hiring Congress set for ONC for the current year.
  • FY2017 – The spending and hiring in the President’s request to Congress for next year.

If you’re looking to see how well or how poorly ONC does its planning, you won’t see it here. As with other federal and most other government budgets, you never see a comparison of plans v how they really did. For example, FY2015 was the last complete fiscal year. ONC’s budget doesn’t have a column showing its FY2015 budget and next to it, what it actually did. If it did, you could see how well or how poorly it did following its plan.

You can’t see the amount budgeted for FY2015 in ONC’s budget, except for its total budget. However, if you look at the FY2016 ONC budget, you can see what was budgeted for each of its four programs. While the budget total and the corresponding actual are identical -$60,367,000, the story at the division level is quite different.

                                   Table II
                    ONC FY2015 Budget v Actual
                                    000s

Division

FY2015 Budget $ FY2015 Actuals $ Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 12,474 13,112 638
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 15,230 15,425 195
Adoption and Meaningful Use 11,139 10,524 (615)
Agency-wide Support 21,524 21,306 (218)
Total 60,367 60,367

 

Table II, shows this by comparing the FY2015 Enacted Budget from ONC’s FY2015 Actuals for its four major activities. While the total remained the same, it shows that there was a major shift of $638,000 from Meaningful Use to Policy. There was a lesser shift of $195,000 from Agency Support to Standards. These shifts could have been actual transfers or they could have been from under and over spending by the divisions.

Interestingly, Table III for staffing shows a different pattern. During FY2015, ONC dropped 25 FTEs, a dozen from Policy Development and the rest from Standards and Meaningful Use. That means, for example, that Policy Development had less people and more money during FY2015.

Table III
ONC FY2015
Budget v Actual Staffing FTEs
Division FY2015 Budget FTEs FY2015 Actuals FTEs Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 49 37 (12)
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 32 26 (6)
Adoption and Meaningful Use 49 42 (7)
Agency-wide Support 55 55
Total 185 160 25

 

To try to make sense of this, I looked at the current and past year’s budgets, but to no avail. As best I can tell is ONC made great use of contracts and other non personnel services. For example, ONC spent $30 Million on purchase/contracts, which is $8 million more than it did on its payroll.

ONC’s budget, understandably, concentrates on its programs and plans. It puts little emphasis on measuring its hiring and spending abilities. It’s not alone, budgets government and otherwise, are forecast and request documents. However, if we could know how plans went – without having to dig in last year’s weeds  – it would let us know how well a program executed its plans as well as make them. That would be something worth knowing.

New ONC Scorecard Tool Grades C-CDA Documents

Posted on August 2, 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.

The ONC has released a new scorecard tool which helps providers and developers find and resolve interoperability problems with C-CDA documents. According to HealthDataManagement, C-CDA docs that score well are coded with appropriate structure and semantics under HL7, and so have a better chance of being parseable by different systems.

The scorecard tool, which can be found here, actually offers two different types of scores for C-CDA documents, which must be uploaded to the site to be analyzed. One score diagnoses whether the document meets the requirements of the 2015 Edition Health IT Certification for Transitions of Care, granting a pass/fail grade. The other score, which is awarded as a letter grade ranging from A+ to D, is based on a set of enhanced interoperability rules developed by HL7.

The C-CDA scorecard takes advantage of the work done to develop SMART (Substitutable Medical Apps Resusable Technologies). SMART leverages FHIR, which is intended to make it simpler for app developers to access data and for EMR vendors to develop an API for this purpose. The scorecard, which leverages open-source technology, focuses on C-CDA 2.1 documents.

The SMART C-CDA scorecard was designed to promote best practices in C-CDA implementation by helping creators figure out how well and how often they follow best practices. The idea is also to highlight improvements that can be made right away (a welcome approach in a world where improvement can be elusive and even hard to define).

As SMART backers note, existing C-CDA validation tools like the Transport Testing Tool provided by NIST and Mode-Driven Health Tools, offer a comprehensive analysis of syntactic conformance to C-CDA specs, but don’t promote higher-level best practices. The new scorecard is intended to close this gap.

In case developers and providers have HIPAA concerns, the ONC makes a point of letting users know that the scorecard tool doesn’t retain submitted C-CDA files, and actually deletes them from the server after the files have been processed. That being said, ONC leaders still suggest that submitters not include any PHI or personally-identifiable information in the scorecards they have analyzed.

Checking up on C-CDA validity is becoming increasingly important, as this format is being used far more often than one might expect. For example, according to a story appearing last year in Modern Healthcare:

  • Epic customers shared 10.2 million C-CDA documents in March 2015, including 1.3 million outside the Epic ecosystem (non-Epic EMRs, HIEs and the health systems for the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments)
  • Cerner customers sent 7.3 million C-CDA docs that month, more than half of which were consumed by non-Cerner systems.
  • Athenahealth customers sent about 117,000 C-CDA documents directly to other doctors during the first quarter of 2015.

Critics note that it’s still not clear how useful C-CDA information is to care, nor how often these documents are shared relative to the absolute number of patient visits. Still, even if the jury is still out on their benefits, it certainly makes sense to get C-CDA docs right if they’re going to be transmitted this often.

No, The Market Can’t Solve Health Data Interoperability Problems

Posted on July 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.

I seldom disagree with John Halamka, whose commentary on HIT generally strikes me as measured, sensible and well-grounded. But this time, Dr. Halamka, I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Dr. Halamka, chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and co-chair of the ONC’s Health IT Standards Committee, recently told Healthcare IT News that it’s time for ONC and other federal regulators to stop trying to regulate health data interoperability into existence.

“It’s time to return the agenda to the private sector in the clinician’s guide vendors reduce the products and services they want,” Halamka said. “We’re on the cusp of real breakthroughs in EHR usability and interoperability based on the new incentives for outcomes suggested by MACRA and MIPS. {T}he worst thing we could do it this time is to co-opt the private sector agenda more prescriptive regulations but EHR functionality, usability and quality measurement.”

Government regs could backfire

Don’t get me wrong — I certainly appreciate the sentiment. Government regulation of a dynamic goal like interoperability could certainly backfire spectacularly, if for no other reason than that technology evolves far more quickly than policy. Regulations could easily set approaches to interoperability in stone that become outmoded far too quickly.

Not only that, I sympathize with Halamka’s desire to let independent clinical organizations come together to figure out what their priorities are for health data sharing. Even if regulators hire the best, most insightful clinicians on the planet, they still won’t have quite the same perspective as those still working on the front lines every day. Hospitals and medical professionals are in a much better position to identify what data should be shared, how it should be shared and most importantly what they can accomplish with this data.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking what the “private sector agenda” that Halamka cites is, actually. Is he referring to the goals of health IT vendors? Hospitals? Medical practices? Health plans? The dozens of standards and interoperability organization that exist, ranging from HL7 and FHIR to the CommonWell Health Alliance? CHIME? HIMSS? HIEs? To me, it looks like the private sector agenda is to avoid having one. At best, we might achieve the United Nations version of unity as an industry, but like that body it would be interesting but toothless.

Patients ready to snap

After many years of thought, I have come to believe that healthcare interoperability is far too important to leave to the undisciplined forces of the market. As things stand, patients like me are deeply affected by the inefficiencies and mistakes bred by the healthcare industry’ lack of interoperability — and we’re getting pretty tired of it. And readers, I guarantee that anyone who taps the healthcare system as frequently as I do feels the same way. We are on the verge of rebellion. Every time someone tells me they can’t get my records from a sister facility, we’re ready to snap.

So do I believe that government regulation is a wonderful thing? Certainly not. But after watching the HIT industry for about 20 years on health data sharing, I think it’s time for some central body to impose order on this chaos. And in such a fractured market as ours, no voluntary organization is going to have the clout to do so.

Sure, I’d love to think that providers could pressure vendors into coming up with solutions to this problem, but if they haven’t been able to do so yet, after spending a small nation’s GNP on EMRs, I doubt it’s going to happen. Rather than fighting it, let’s work together with the government and regulatory agencies to create a minimal data interoperability set everyone can live with. Any other way leads to madness.

Dallas Children’s Health and Sickle Cell Patients: Cobbling Together a Sound Solution

Posted on June 23, 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.

Sickle cell anemia (SCA) is a genetic, red blood cell condition, which damages cell walls impeding their passage through capillaries. Episodic, it is often extremely painful. It can damage organs, cause infections, strokes or joint problems. These episodes or SCA crises can be prompted by any number of environmental or personal factors.

In the US, African Americans are most commonly susceptible to SCA, but other groups can have it as well. SCA presents a variety of management problems in the best of circumstances. As is often the case, management is made even more difficult when the patient is a child. That’s what Children’s Health of Dallas, Texas, one of the nation’s oldest and largest pediatric treatment facilities faced two years ago. Children’s Health, sixty five percent of whose patients are on Medicaid, operates a large, intensive SCA management program as the anchor institution of the NIH funded Southwestern Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center.

Children’s Health problem wasn’t with its inpatient care or with its outpatient clinics. Rather, it was keeping a child’s parents and doctors up to date on developments. Along with the SCA clinical staff, Children’s Chief Information Officer, Pamela Arora, and Information Management and Exchange Director, Katherine Lusk, tackled the problem. They came up with a solution using all off the shelf technology.

Their solution? Provide each child’s caregiver with a free Verizon smartphone. Each night, they extracted the child’s information from EPIC and sent it to Microsoft’s free, vendor-neutral HealthVault PHR. This gave the child’s doctor and parents an easy ability to stay current with the child’s treatment. Notably, Children’s was able to put the solution together quickly with minimal staff and without extensive development.

That was two years ago. Since then, EPIC’s Lucy PHR has supplanted the project. However, Katherine Lusk who described the project to me is still proud of what they did. Even though the project has been replaced, it’s worth noting as an important example. It shows that not all HIE projects must be costly, time-consuming or resource intense to be successful.

Children’s SCA project points out the value of these system development factors:

  • Clear, understood goal
  • Precise understanding of users and their needs
  • Small focused team
  • Searching for off the shelf solutions
  • Staying focused and preventing scope creep

Each of these proved critical to Children’s success. Not every project lends itself to this approach, but Children’s experience is worth keeping in mind as a useful and repeatable model of meeting an immediate need with a simple, direct approach.

Note: I first heard of Children’s project at John’s Atlanta conference. ONC’s Peter Ashkenaz mentioned it as a notable project that had not gained media attention. I owe him a thanks for pointing me to Katherine Lusk.

New Effort Would Focus HIE Data Around Patients

Posted on June 7, 2016 I Written By

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

In theory, doctors should be able to pull up all data available on a patient located within any networks to which they have access. In other words, not only should they be able to see any data on Patient A within the EMR where A’s care is documented, but also retrieve data on A from within any HIEs which connect with the EMR. But the reality is, that’s not always the case (in fact, it’s rarely the case).

To help weave together patient data strung across various HIEs, three exchanges have teamed up to pilot test the idea of a patient-centered data home (PCDH). While many health leaders have looked at the idea of putting patients in charge of their own data, largely by adding to or correcting existing records, getting patients involved in curating such data has been difficult at best.

In this model, Arizona Health-e Connection, western Colorado’s Quality Health Network and the Utah Health Information Network are testing a method of data sharing in which the other HIEs would be notified if the patient undergoes an episode of care within their network.

The alert confirms the availability and specific location of the patient’s clinical data, reports Healthcare Informatics. Providers will then be able to access real-time information on that patient across network lines by initiating a simple query. Unlike in other models of HIE data management, all clinical data in a PCDH will become part of a comprehensive longitudinal patient record, which will be located in the HIE where the patient resides.

The PCDH’s data sharing model works as follows:

  • A group of HIEs set up a PCDH exchange, sharing all the zip codes within the geographic boundaries that their exchanges serve.
  • Once the zip codes are shared, the HIEs set up an automated notification process which detects when there is information on the patient’s home HIE that is available for sharing.
  • If a patient is seen outside of their home territory, say in a hospital emergency department, the event triggers an automated alert which is sent to the hospital’s HIE.
  • The hospital’s HIE queries the patient’s home HIE, which responds that there is information available on that patient.
  • At that point providers from both HIEs and query and pull information back and forth. The patient’s home HIE pulls information on the patient’s out-of-area encounter into their longitudinal record.

The notion of a PCDH is being developed by the Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative, a 37-member HIE trade group to which the Utah, Arizona and Colorado exchanges belong.

Developing a PCDH model is part of a 10-year roadmap for interoperability and a “learning health system” which will offer centralized consent management and health records for patients, as well as providing national enterprises with data access. The trade group expects to see several more of its members test out PCDHs, including participants in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

According to the Collaborative, other attempts at building patient records across networks have failed because they are built around individual organizations, geographies such as state boundaries, single EHR vendors or single payers. The PCDH model, for its part, can bring information on individual patients together seamlessly without disrupting local data governance or business models, demanding new technical infrastructure or violating the rights of local stakeholders, the group says.

Like other relatively lightweight data sharing models (such as the Direct Project) the PCDH offers an initial take on what is likely to be a far more complex problem. But it seems like a good idea nonetheless.

ZibdyHealth Adapts to Sub-Optimal Data Exchange Standards for a Personal Health Record

Posted on May 10, 2016 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://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.

Reformers in the health care field, quite properly, emphasize new payment models and culture changes to drive improvements in outcomes. But we can’t ignore the barriers that current technology puts in the way of well-meaning reformers. This article discusses one of the many companies offering a patient health record (PHR) and the ways they’ve adapted to a very flawed model for data storage and exchange.

I had the honor to be contacted by Dr. Hirdey Bhathal, CEO/Founder of ZibdyHealth. Like many companies angling to develop a market for PHRs, ZibdyHealth offers a wide range of services to patients. Unlike, say, Google Health (of blessed memory) or Microsoft HealthVault, ZibdyHealth doesn’t just aspire to store your data, but to offer additional services that make it intensely valuable to you. Charts and visualizations. for instance, will let you see your progress with laboratory and device data over time. They call this a “Smart HIE.” I’ll look a bit at what they offer, and then at the broken model for data exchange that they had to overcome in the health care industry.

The ZibdyHealth application

Setting up an account with ZibdyHealth is as easy as joining Facebook. Once you’re there, you can create health information manually. The company is working with fitness device makers to allow automatic uploads of device data, which can then be saved as a standard Continuity of Care Document (CCD) and offered to doctors.

You can also upload information from your physician via their health care portal–with a degree of ease or difficulty depending on your provider–and share it with other clinicians or family members (Figure 1). You have fine-grained control over which medications, diagnoses, and other information to share, a form of control called segmentation in health care.

Figure 1. Zibdy discharge summary displayed on mobile device

Figure 1. Summary of visit in Zibdy

Dr. Bhathal would like his application to serve whole families and teams, not just individuals. Whether you are caring for your infant or your aging grandmother, they want their platform to meet your needs. In fact, they are planning to deploy their application in some developing nations as an electronic medical record for rural settings, where one healthcare provider will be able to manage the health data for an entire village.

Currently, ZibdyHealth allows speciality clinics to share information with the patient’s regular doctor, helps identify interactions between drugs provided by different doctors, and allows parents to share their children’s health information with schools. This consolidation and quick sharing of medical information will work well with minute clinics or virtual MD visits.

ZibdyHealth is HIPAA-compliant, and support highly secure 256-bit AES encryption for data exchange. Like health care providers, they may share data with partners for operational purposes, but they promise never to sell your data–unlike many popular patient networks. Although they sometimes aggregate anonymized data, they do so to offer you better services, not to sell it on the market or to sell you other services themselves.

In some ways, ZibdyHealth is like a health information exchange (HIE), and as we shall see, they face some of the same problems. But current HIEs connect only health care providers, and are generally limited to large health care systems with ample resources. PHR applications such as ZibdyHealth aim to connect physicians and patients with others, such as family members, therapists, nursing homes, assisted care facilities, and independent living facilities. In addition, most HIEs only work within small states or regions, whereas ZibdyHealth is global. They plan to follow a business model where they provide the application for free to individuals, without advertisements, but charge enterprises who choose the application in order to reach and serve their patients.

Tackling the data dilemma

We’d see a lot more services like ZibdyHealth (and they’d be more popular with patients, providers, and payers) if data exchange worked like it does in the travel industry or other savvy market sectors. Interoperability will enable the “HIE of one” I introduced in an earlier article. In the meantime, ZibdyHealth has carried out a Herculean effort to do the best they can in today’s health exchange setting.

What do they use to get data from patient portals and clinicians’ EHRs? In a phrase, every recourse possible.

  • Many organizations now offer portals that allow patients to download their records in CCD format. ZibdyHealth works with a number of prominent institutions to make uploading easy (Figure 2). Or course, the solution is always a contingent one, because the provider still owns your data. After your next visit, you have to download it again. ZibdyHealth is working on automating this updating process so that providers can feed this information to the patient routinely and, by uploading the discharge CCD as part of a patient’s discharge process, ensure an easy and accurate transition of care.

  • Figure 2. List of electronic records uploaded to Zibdy through their CCD output

    Figure 2. List of uploaded CCDs

  • If providers aren’t on ZibdyHealth’s list of partners, but still offer a CCD, you can download it yourself using whatever mechanism your provider offers, then upload it to ZibdyHealth. ZibdyHealth has invested an enormous amount to parse the various fields of different EHRs and figure out where information is, because the CCD is a very imperfect standard and EHRs differ greatly. I tried the download/upload technique with my own primary care provider and found that ZibdyHealth handled it gracefully.

  • ZibdyHealth also supports Blue Button, the widely adopted XML format that originated at the VA as a text file.

I see ZibdyHealth as one of the early explorers who have to hew a path through the forest to reach their goal. As more individuals come to appreciate the benefits of such services, roads will be paved. Each patient who demands that their doctor make it easy to connect with an application like ZibdyHealth will bring closer the day when we won’t have to contort ourselves to share data.

Our Uncontrolled Health Care Costs Can Be Traced to Data and Communication Failures (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on April 13, 2016 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://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.

The previous section of this article provided whatever detail I could find on the costs of poor communications and data exchange among health care providers. But in truth, it’s hard to imagine the toll taken by communications failures beyond certain obvious consequences, such as repeated tests and avoidable medical errors. One has to think about how the field operates and what we would be capable of with proper use of data.

As patients move from PCP to specialist, from hospital to rehab facility, and from district to district, their providers need not only discharge summaries but intensive coordination to prevent relapses. Our doctors are great at fixing a diabetic episode or heart-related event. Where we fall down is on getting the patient the continued care she needs, ensuring she obtains and ingests her medication, and encouraging her to make the substantial life-style changes that can prevent reoccurrences. Modern health really is all about collaboration–but doctors are decades behind the times.

Clinicians were largely unprepared to handle the new patients brought to them by the Affordable Care Act. Examining the impact of new enrollees, who “have higher rates of disease and received significantly more medical care,” an industry spokesperson said, “The findings underscore the need for all of us in the health care system, and newly insured consumers, to work together to make sure that people get the right health care service in the right care setting and at the right time…Better communication and coordination is needed so that everyone understands how to avoid unnecessary emergency room visits, make full use of primary care and preventive services and learn how to properly adhere to their medications.” Just where the health providers fall short.

All these failures to communicate may explain the disappointing performance of patient centered medical homes and Accountable Care Organizations. While many factors go into the success or failure of such complex practices, a high rate of failure suggests that they’re not really carrying out the coordinated care they were meant to deliver. Naturally, problems persist in getting data from one vendor’s electronic health record to another.

Urgent care clinics, and other alternative treatment facilities offered in places such as pharmacies, can potentially lower costs, but not if the regular health system fails to integrate them.

Successes in coordinated care show how powerful it can be. Even so simple a practice as showing medical records to patients can improve care, but most clinicians still deny patients access to their data.

One care practice drastically lowered ER admissions through a notably low-tech policy–refering their patients to a clinic for follow-up care. This is only the beginning of what we could achieve. If modern communications were in place, hospitals would be linked so that a CDC warning could go to all of them instantly. And if clinicians and their record systems were set up to handle patient-generated data, they could discover a lot more about the patients and monitor behavior change.

How are the hospitals and clinics responding to this crisis and the public pressure to shape up? They push back as if it was not their problem. They claim they are moving toward better information sharing and teamwork, but never get there.

One of their favorite gambits is to ask the government to reward them for achieving interoperability 90 days out of the year. They make this request with no groveling, no tears of shame, no admission that they have failed in their responsibility to meet reasonable goals set seven years ago. If I delivered my projects only 25% of the time, I’d have trouble justifying myself to my employer, especially if I received my compensation plan seven years ago. Could the medical industry imagine that it owes us a modicum of effort?

Robert Schultz, a writer and entrepreneur in health care, says, “Underlying the broken communications model is a lack of empathy for the ultimate person affected–the patient. Health care is one of the few industries where the user is not necessarily the party paying for the product or service. Electronic health records and health information exchanges are designed around the insurance companies, accountable care organizations, or providers, instead of around understanding the challenges and obstacles that patients face on a daily basis. (There are so many!) The innovators who understand the role of the patient in this new accountable care climate will be winners. Those who suffer from the burden of legacy will continue to see the same problems and will become eclipsed by other organizations who can sustain patient engagement and prove value within accountable care contracts.”

Alternative factors

Of course, after such a provocative accusation, I should consider the other contributors that are often blamed for increasing health care costs.

An aging population

Older people have more chronic diseases, a trend that is straining health care systems from Cuba to Japan. This demographic reality makes intelligent data use even more important: remote monitoring for chronic conditions, graceful care transitions, and patient coordination.

The rising cost of drugs

Dramatically increasing drug prices are certainly straining our payment systems. Doctors who took research seriously could be pushing back against patient requests for drugs that work more often in TV ads than in real life. Doctors could look at holistic pain treatments such as yoga and biofeedback, instead of launching the worst opiate addiction crisis America has ever had.

Government bureaucracy

This seems to be a condition of life we need to deal with, like death and taxes. True, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) keeps adding requirements for data to report. But much of it could be automated if clinical settings adopted modern programming practices. Furthermore, this data appears to be a burden only because it isn’t exploited. Most of it is quite useful, and it just takes agile organizations to query it.

Intermediaries

Reflecting the Byzantine complexity of our payment systems, a huge number of middlemen–pharmacy benefits managers, medical billing clearinghouses, even the insurers themselves–enter the system, each taking its cut of the profits. Single-payer insurance has long been touted as a solution, but I’d rather push for better and cheaper treatments than attack the politically entrenched payment system.

Under-funded public health

Poverty, pollution, stress, and other external factors have huge impacts on health. This problem isn’t about clinicians, of course, it’s about all of us. But clinicians could be doing more to document these and intervene to improve them.

Clinicians like to point to barriers in their way of adopting information-based reforms, and tell us to tolerate the pace of change. But like the rising seas of climate change, the bite of health care costs will not tolerate complacency. The hard part is that merely wagging fingers and imposing goals–the ONC’s primary interventions–will not produce change. I think that reform will happen in pockets throughout the industry–such as the self-insured employers covered in a recent article–and eventually force incumbents to evolve or die.

The precision medicine initiative, and numerous databases being built up around the country with public health data, may contribute to a breakthrough by showing us the true quality of different types of care, and helping us reward clinicians fairly for treating patients of varying needs and risk. The FHIR standard may bring electronic health records in line. Analytics, currently a luxury available only to major health conglomerates, will become more commoditized and reach other providers.

But clinicians also have to do their part, and start acting like the future is here now. Those who make a priority of data sharing and communication will set themselves up for success long-term.

Our Uncontrolled Health Care Costs Can Be Traced to Data and Communication Failures (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on April 12, 2016 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://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.

A host of scapegoats, ranging from the Affordable Care Act to unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies, have been blamed for the rise in health care costs that are destroying our financial well-being, our social fabric, and our political balance. In this article I suggest a more appropriate target: the inability of health care providers to collaborate and share information. To some extent, our health care crisis is an IT problem–but with organizational and cultural roots.

It’s well known that large numbers of patients have difficulty with costs, and that employees’ share of the burden is rising. We’re going to have to update the famous Rodney Dangerfield joke:

My doctor said, “You’re going to be sick.” I said I wanted a second opinion. He answered, “OK, you’re going to be poor too.”

Most of us know about the insidious role of health care costs in holding down wages, in the fight by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker over pensions that tore the country apart, in crippling small businesses, and in narrowing our choice of health care providers. Not all realize, though, that the crisis is leaching through the health care industry as well, causing hospitals to fail, insurers to push costs onto subscribers and abandon the exchanges where low-income people get their insurance, co-ops to close, and governments to throw people off of subsidized care, threatening the very universal coverage that the ACA aimed to achieve.

Lessons from a ground-breaking book by T.R. Reid, The Healing of America, suggests that we’re undergoing a painful transition that every country has traversed to achieve a rational health care system. Like us, other countries started by committing themselves to universal health care access. This then puts on the pressure to control costs, as well as the opportunities for coordination and economies of scale that eventually institute those controls. Solutions will take time, but we need to be smart about where to focus our efforts.

Before even the ACA, the 2009 HITECH act established goals of data exchange and coordinated patient care. But seven years later, doctors still lag in:

  • Coordinating with other providers treating the patients.

  • Sending information that providers need to adequately treat the patients.

  • Basing treatment decisions on evidence from research.

  • Providing patients with their own health care data.

We’ll look next at the reports behind these claims, and at the effects of the problems.

Why doctors don’t work together effectively

A recent report released by the ONC, and covered by me in a recent article, revealed the poor state of data sharing, after decades of Health Information Exchanges and four years of Meaningful Use. Health IT observers expect interoperability to continue being a challenge, even as changes in technology, regulations, and consumer action push providers to do it.

If merely exchanging documents is so hard–and often unachieved–patient-focused, coordinated care is clearly impossible. Integrating behavioral care to address chronic conditions will remain a fantasy.

Evidence-based medicine is also more of an aspiration than a reality. Research is not always trustworthy, but we must have more respect for the science than hospitals were found to have in a recent GAO report. They fail to collect data either on the problems leading to errors or on the efficacy of solutions. There are incentive programs from payers, but no one knows whether they help. Doctors are still ordering far too many unnecessary tests.

Many companies in the health analytics space offer services that can bring more certainty to the practice of medicine, and I often cover them in these postings. Although increasingly cited as a priority, analytical services are still adopted by only a fraction of health care providers.

Patients across the country are suffering from disrupted care as insurers narrow their networks. It may be fair to force patients to seek less expensive providers–but not when all their records get lost during the transition. This is all too likely in the current non-interoperable environment. Of course, redundant testing and treatment errors caused by ignorance could erase the gains of going to low-cost providers.

Some have bravely tallied up the costs of waste and lack of care coordination in health care. Some causes, such as fraud and price manipulation, are not attributable to the health IT failures I describe. But an enormous chunk of costs directly implicate communications and data handling problems, including administrative overhead. The next section of this article will explore what this means in day-to-day health care.