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I Have Seen The Portal, And It Is Handy

Posted on July 14, 2015 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting Hospital Records to the Needs of Transgender People

Posted on July 13, 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.

More than just about any other institution, hospitals and clinics have to deal with the unexpected. People with the most unusual characteristics and problems drop in all the time. But electronic records, being formal documentation, like regularity. The clash between diversity and computerization explodes into view when a transgender or gender-queer person walks in.

I have written about the strains that transgender people put on an EHR earlier as part of my family’s encounter with the medical system. Recently I got a chance to talk with a leader who has taken some of the necessary steps to fix systems: Scott MacDonald, MD, working in the health system of University of California at Davis.

A thrust to improve UC Davis’s handling of LGBT clients preceded Dr. MacDonald’s arrival. A group of staff and clinicians interested in providing better care to LGBT people decided to take steps to address the needs in that area. The institution made an ethical commitment to reducing disparities in care. The group recognized that the information in the record was deficient–they often didn’t even know who identified as LGBT.

The first step in this information gathering is training health providers to ask for the information in ways that are sensitive to patients’ feelings, and to become comfortable with it. The next step is deciding what to do with that information, and the third is figuring out how to store it in a structured way.

As MacDonald says, “The first priority is to train providers to understand why this data collection is important, explaining that they cannot care for a person whose life situation they don’t understand. Research (especially for reducing disparities) is a close second priority. An electronic means to capture the data needs to be created along with these efforts. Once the data is available in a formal, structured way, we can encourage and train clinicians to ask the pertinent questions and respond to the information sensitively.”

When MacDonald joined the organization, he brought technical expertise with working on disparities in ethnicity and language. He started two surveys: one of the patient population and another of the staff.

The patient survey showed that for the most part, patients were glad to be asked about their sexual orientation (which is different from sexual behavior, although related). They were particularly open to the question if their primary care provider was the one holding the discussion. Naturally, some expressed privacy concerns and wondered who might have access to the information once it was recorded.

Health care providers also showed a willingness to learn more about LGBT issues and be listed in the UC Davis registry as an LGBT-welcoming provider. Over time, without an explicit mandate from leadership, the information collected on the sexual preference of patients increased. UC Davis also provided resources for training in LGBT issues via a web site.

Before starting, UC Davis interviewed the clients of a local clinic specializing in gender issues, in order to flesh out their understanding of patient needs and sensitivities.

Now we get to the heart of the IT issues. Any record system used by a health care institution needs at least the following to handle transgender and gender non-conforming patients:

  • A way to list their preferred name and gender, along with the name and gender that appear on their insurance cards and other official documents. Transitions can take years, and patients often have insurance with the old name and gender long after they have made the determination to be known in a new way. Gender can also be a fluid and evolving concept for some patients.

  • Ways to record the factors that affect gender, such as what surgeries they have had for gender dysphoria and what hormones they are taking. Someone who identifies as male may still need to have a regular Pap smear. A male-to-female transgender person may have a very different normal range on a blood test from someone born female (cis-female).

UC Davis had licensed an Epic EHR, but at that time Epic had only a few suggestions to offer. For instance, they suggested adding a special flag for transgender patients, but this would be too limited a way of handling the range of gender issues encountered, and would not provide adequate clinical information. UC Davis thus launched into a series of customizations, which Epic in turn compiled into an implementation guide that has been used by other customers.

The goal at UC Davis was to make it easy for patients to enter data at in the privacy of their homes through Epic’s patient portal. The interviews at the partner clinic had showed that many were comfortable providing information this way that many were comfortable providing information this way. Besides asking for assigned sex at birth, click-buttons in the portal’s web page offer common choices for current gender identity and sexual orientation. The patient could also enter free-text comments if the predefined choices didn’t capture their identity.

The same information could be entered by clinicians as well. People viewing the record could not tell whether the gender information was entered by a clinician or directly by the patient (although on the back-end, the system preserves the provenance of the information). MacDonald said that the source of the information was ultimately the patient, so it doesn’t really matter who entered it.

What’s important is that the gender-related information, formerly stuffed into free-form text somewhere in the record, was now stored in a structured format. This allows UC Davis to fulfill its mandate to track how it is addressing disparities in care. In the future, such information may also feed into clinical decision support tools.

The gender information is not displayed prominently, but is available to all staff who have access to patient records and seek it our for purposes of patientcare. It is protected by the usual information security measures in place at UC Davis. The information is of greatest use to the primary care provider, but is also used by in-patient nurses and special departments dealing with transgender issues.

The patient’s preferred name was easier to handle. Epic already allows records to distinguish between the official name–used for legal and insurance purposes–and the preferred name. The record offers several descriptors that explain what the preferred name is, such as a nickname or alias. To this list of descriptors, UC Davis added an option applicable to transgender patients.

The remaining missing information is the status of a patient during and after transition. A record can’t yet record birth sex in a separate field from gender identity. It can capture sex as cis-male or trans-man, but that doesn’t gracefully account for the combinatorics of birth sex, gender identity, legal sex, and so on. Transition-specific surgeries and hormone therapy can be captured as a part of surgical history and the medication list, but there is no standard way to record organ inventory. Those things are still listed in free-form text.

However, Epic is looking at ways to adapt its software at the deep level to show this diversity of status. This is something all vendors need to do, because more and more people of all ages are identifying as transgender or non-conformaing as the public gets used to the idea that this kind of identity is within the range of normal. The needs of the population are complex and urgent, so the faster we fix the records, the better will be the care we provide.

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.

Some Methods For Improving EMR Alerts

Posted on June 25, 2015 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Meaningful Use For Mental Health Providers On The Way?

Posted on June 10, 2015 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

EMRs Should Include Telemedicine Capabilities

Posted on May 22, 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.

The volume of telemedicine visits is growing at a staggering pace, and they seem to have nowhere to go but up. In fact, a study released by Deloitte last August predicted that there would be 75 million virtual visits in 2014 and that there was room for 300 million visits a year going forward.

These telemedicine visits are generating a flood of medical data, some in familiar text formats and some in voice and video form. But since the entire encounter takes place outside of any EMR environment, huge volumes of such data are being left on the table.

Given the growing importance of telemedicine, the time has come for telemedicine providers to begin integrating virtual visit results into EMRs.  This might involve adopting specialized EMRs designed to capture video and voice, or EMR vendors might go with the times and develop ways of categorizing and integrating the full spectrum of telemedical contacts.

And as virtual visit data becomes increasingly important, providers and health plans will begin to demand that they get copies of telemedical encounter data.  It may not be clear yet how a provider or payer can effectively leverage video or voice content, which they’ve never had to do before, but if enough care is taking place in virtual environments they’ll have to figure out how to do so.

Ultimately, both enterprise and ambulatory EMRs will include technology allowing providers to search video, voice and text records from virtual consults.  These newest-gen EMRs may include software which can identify critical words spoken during a telemedical visit, such as “pain,” or “chest” which could be correlated with specific conditions.

It may be years before data gathered during virtual visits will stand on equal footing with traditional text-based EMR data and digital laboratory results.  As things stand today, telemedicine consults are used as a cheaper form of urgent care, and like an urgent care visit, the results are not usually considered a critical part of the patient’s long-term history.

But the more time patients spend getting their treatment from digital doctors on a screen, the more important the mass of medical data generated becomes. Now is the time to develop data structures and tools allowing clinicians and facilities to mine virtual visit data.  We’re entering a new era of medicine, one in which patients get better even when they can’t make it to a doctor’s office, so it’s critical that we develop the tools to learn from such encounters.

Meaningful Use Stage 3 Success Could Rely On Vendors

Posted on May 20, 2015 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.