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What’s the Impact of MACRA on Small Practices?

Posted on July 22, 2016 I Written By

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

I recently had a chance to sit down and chat with Tom Giannulli, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Kareo and Michael Sherling, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer and Co-founder of Modernizing Medicine, to talk about the impact of the MACRA legislation on small practices. Both of these CMOs at EHR vendors rode the meaningful use wave and now they’re preparing to ride the new MACRA wave as well. So, they were the perfect people to talk about the impact of MACRA on small practices and how a small practice should prepare themselves for the new MACRA legislation. If you’re a small practice that’s wondering about MACRA (or doesn’t even know what it is), then take the time to watch the video below to see what it means for small practices.

After our formal interviews, we always like to hold what we call the “after party.” We never know how it’s going to go. Sometimes people join in and offer their insights and ask questions and sometimes they don’t. In this case, we continued our conversation about the MACRA and small practices, but we also talked about the impact that legislation like MACRA has on an EHR vendors development lifecycle. You can learn more about MACRA in the video below:

This post was a great way to wrap up the week and also for us to announce a new blog post series we’re starting on Monday called MACRA Monday. Long time readers may remember the Meaningful Use Monday series of blog posts we did every Monday for a few years. This will be similar as we dive into the MACRA legislation and help small medical practices understand the details of what’s coming in MACRA. Watch for that on Monday!

CMS Opens Door to Possible MACRA Delay

Posted on July 15, 2016 I Written By

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

In related news to yesterday’s meaningful use REBOOT relief legislation, Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator of CMS, testified about MACRA before the Senate Finance committee. In his hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the committee commented “Physicians will only have about two months before the program goes live. This seems to be a legitimate concern. Considering the MACRA law does give CMS flexibility as to the start of the physician reporting period, what options is CMS considering to make sure this program gets started on the right foot?”

In response to this Slavitt responded that CMS was open to options such as postponing implementation and establishing shorter reporting periods (both of which were widely requested during the MACRA comment period).

Both Slavitt and Senator Hatch talked about the importance of the MACRA legislation not killing the small practice physician. A delay and shorter reporting periods would be a great start. However, so many small practices have been burned by meaningful use that it might be too late for MACRA. It seems that MACRA is dead on arrival for many physicians based on historical experience with meaningful use and certified EHR. I’m not sure CMS could do anything with MACRA to really stem the tide.

This is reflected in a survey that Deloitte recently did to assess physician’s awareness of MACRA. The survey found that 21% of self-employed physicians and those in independently owned medical practices report they are somewhat familiar with MACRA versus 9% of employed physicians surveyed. 32% of physicians only recognize the name.

Basically, physicians barely even know about MACRA. Although, I’m quite sure if we asked them if they liked the MACRA government legislation they’d all say an emphatic No! (Kind of reminds me of Jimmy Kimmel’s Life Witness News) It’s too bad, because if doctors have already been participating in PQRS and Meaningful Use, MACRA won’t be that bad. Of course, the same can’t be said for those that haven’t participated in either program.

During the hearing mentioned above, Senator Hatch highlighted Andy Slavitt’s comment that “the focus must be focused on patients and not measurement.” Plus, he suggested that more needed to be done in this regard. Andy Slavitt responded that they need to reduce the documentation requirements so doctors can spend more time with patients.

Take those comments for what their worth. They’re hearing the right messages and I think they’re heading the right direction. Let’s hope we see that in the MACRA final rule.

Meaningful Use Relief from New REBOOT Legislation

Posted on July 14, 2016 I Written By

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

John Thune has introduced a new legislation called the Electronic Health Record (EHR) Regulatory Relief Act (S. 3173) to provide some relief to hospitals and eligible providers participating in the Medicare EHR Incentive Program (Better known as Meaningful Use). You can find the legislative text (ie. legalese) and the summary document (ie. readable).

This legislation was written by the “REBOOT members” John Thune (S.D.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Bill Cassidy (La.) who previously released a white paper on their Health IT concerns.

Here’s a short summary of what the legislation would do:

  • Codify the 90-day reporting period for meaningful use
  • Remove the All-or-Nothing approach to Meaningful Use and set a 70% threshold
  • Increased flexibility in Hardship Exceptions

If I’m reading the legalese right, it also opens the door for the HHS Secretary to allow a 90 day reporting period for MIPS as well. It’s interesting that it wasn’t highlighted in the summary document.

Regardless, these are all changes that will be welcomed by the healthcare community. What I like most about these proposals is that I don’t think any of them will impact how a hospital or doctor was previously planning to use their EHR. At least it won’t impact care in any sort of adverse way. Doctors will still be using an EHR. However, it will provide some reporting relief and will open the door of meaningful use to organizations that wouldn’t have been able to comply previously. Of course, I’m sure there are a few people out there that will settle for nothing less than a repeal of meaningful use completely. I predict that such a thing will never happen.

What do you think of this proposed legislation? Are they enough? Should they be providing more relief? Will this change your meaningful use plans?

Physician Data Paradox

Posted on June 29, 2016 I Written By

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

“[Doctors] are overloaded on data entry and yet rampantly under-informed.”
-Andy Slavitt at Health Datapalooza

This quote from Andy Slavitt at Health Datapalooza has really stuck with me. He calls it the physician data paradox. It’s an ugly paradox and is at the heart of so many doctors discontent with EHR software. Andy Slavitt is spot on with his analysis. Doctors spend hours entering all of this data and get very little return value from that data or the volume of health data that is being captured.

My friend Dr. Michael Koriwchak has made an interesting request. In a recent blab interview he was on he said that CMS should only require the collection of data they’re actually going to use.

My guess is that the majority of meaningful use data would not need to be collected if Dr. Koriwchak’s rule was in place. CMS hasn’t really even collected the data from doctors, so they’re certainly not using it. Some of the principles of meaningful use would still exist like interoperability and ePrescribing, but we wouldn’t be turning our doctors into data entry clerks of data that’s not being used.

Think about the reality of meaningful use data collection: CMS doesn’t use the data. Clinicians don’t use the data.

We’ve basically asked doctors and other medical staff to spend millions of hours collecting a bunch of data that’s not being used. Does that make sense to anyone? You could make the argument that the data collection is creating a platform for the future. There’s some value in this thinking, but that’s pretty speculative spending. Why not do this type of speculative data collection with small groups who get paid for their efforts and then as they discover new healthcare opportunities? We can expand the data collection requirement to all of healthcare once doctors can do something meaningful with the data they’re being required to collect.

In fact, what if we paid docs for telling CMS or their EHR vendor how EHR data could be used to benefit patients? I’d see this similar to how IT companies pay people who submit bug reports. Not using health data the right way is kind of like reporting a bug in the health system. Currently, there’s no financial incentive for users to share their best practices and discoveries. Sure, some of them do it at user conferences or other conferences, but imagine how much more interested they’d be in finding and sharing health data discoveries if they were paid for it.

If we finally want to start putting all this health data to work, we’re going to have to solve the physician data paradox. Leveraging the power of the crowd could be a great way to improve the 2nd part of the paradox.

Long Standing EHR Issues That Remain Unaddressed

Posted on June 17, 2016 I Written By

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

Dr. Jayne has presented a pretty great voice of reason in her blog posts about the realities of being a doctor in the meaningful use era. In a recent post she offered this comment which I’ve heard from many doctors:

And while we as physicians are having to cope with arduous workflows as a result of the regulations, there are advancements that would really benefit us that remain unaddressed.

I realize that EHR vendors have to prioritize requests from users. Plus, they have to deal with massive government regulation which has made it hard to prioritize user requests over government regulations. However, I know from the end user standpoint Dr. Jayne’s comment about the advancements that could be made in an EHR that still haven’t been added creates a really awful feeling.

Dr. Jayne also added this sad observation:

We’re forced to gather loads of information that could be put to good use but isn’t. For example, we collect information on race, ethnicity, religious preference, language preference, sexual orientation, and more. In many cases, it’s not used to further clinical care. It would have been great to have a prompt to ask about religious fasting the other night when I was treating a patient with profound dehydration. Although it occurred to me to ask, it didn’t occur to my patient care technician or to the resident I was supervising.

The optimistic side of me says that comments like this are a very good thing. 5-10 years ago, doctors wouldn’t have even thought to request this kind of feature. All they wanted to do was automate the paper charts. So, it’s progress that now we’re talking about ways we can incorporate the data in an EHR at the point of care in a much more effective way.

Now if EHR vendors can just be given the flexibility to work on these challenging problems instead of a list of prescriptive goverment regulations which just add to the burden of doctors as opposed to creating magical experiences.

Government Involvement in Healthcare IT – How Meaningful Use Went Wrong

Posted on June 15, 2016 I Written By

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

I have about 150 draft blog posts on EMR and EHR. Most of them are ideas for future posts. Unfortunately, I get so many new ideas, a lot of the drafts remain draft blog posts for long periods of time. I probably should create a better process for tracking my blog post ideas, but this was worked so far. Plus, it’s fun to go back and see what past ideas I had for posts and then think about how things have changed or whether that insight has stood the test of time.

This post is an example of that and the draft blog post contained a tweet that Greg Meyer shared during a #HITsm Twitter chat back in December 2014. Here’s the tweet:

No doubt Greg’s tweet resonated with me back in 2014 and still resonates with me today. In meaningful use, the government got way too deep into the how and caused all sorts of unintended consequences. We’d be in a much better position if the government would have just defined the measures and functions and not how you actually got there.

What’s interesting is that this is more or less what I’ve been hearing from Andy Slavitt in regards to MACRA. I’m not sure CMS has executed this vision well, but it’s at least hopeful that their leader is espousing a similar approach to what Greg describes above.

I’d also point out an insight I believe I first heard from Dr. Michael Koriwchak. He espoused the principle that CMS shouldn’t require the collection of any data which it wasn’t going to actually use. Think about how meaningful use would have been totally different if they’d employed this rule. What value is there to healthcare if we collect a whole bunch of data that’s never actually used to improve care?

Do you think CMS will get this right with MACRA? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Is CMS Listening to Doctors’ Thoughts on MACRA?

Posted on June 10, 2016 I Written By

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

I have to admit that I have a lot of respect for Andy Slavitt. He’s doing a really hard job as Acting Administrator of CMS and he’s been very vocal and open about his view of what they’re doing and their efforts to listen to those of us in healthcare. I’ve really appreciated his willingness to engage the community on challenging topics. Did you ever see this from previous CMS administrators?

This tweet illustrates Andy’s efforts to really listen to doctors when it comes to MACRA:

This illustrates why I previously wrote that Andy Slavitt was very much in touch with the pulse of what doctors are feeling and experiencing. Although, with that comment I also said that I hoped that the policies and programs they implemented would match that understanding.

I realize that this concept is much easier said than done. Andy Slavitt and his team at CMS are sometimes not able to make changes to things like MACRA even if they know it’s the right thing to do. They aren’t the ones responsible for making the legislation. Their jobs are to implement the legislation. It’s a tough balance which always leaves people wanting.

The only thing awkward about Andy Slavitt’s tweet above is that he says CMS has “trained nearly 60,000.” It’s quite interesting that he views these MACRA sessions as trainings. I thought they were more listening sessions than training sessions, but I guess I was wrong. Certainly you have to train a doctor on the MACRA legislation if you want to get the right feedback from them. So, I guess training and listening aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s not surprising that many doctors don’t want to be “trained” on MACRA. For some doctors, anything less than a full repeal of MACRA will be less than satisfying and that’s not going to happen.

While you can complain about the way Andy might phrase things in a tweet, I don’t think that’s very productive. Although, I don’t think listening to (or should I say training) 60,000 physicians’ thoughts about MACRA is very useful either if we don’t see that feedback incorporated into the final MACRA rule. This tweet gives me some hope that the feedback has been heard and we’ll see some important changes to MACRA:

When the MACRA final rule comes out, I hope that along with the changes that were made we also get a look into the changes that people requested that CMS was unable to make because of the way the legislation was written. I’m not sure if CMS is allowed to be that transparent, but if we’re going to help push for better legislation it would be great to know which feedback was thwarted by legislation so that doctors can push for better legislation.

Bill Could Cut Meaningful Use Reporting Period Drastically

Posted on April 25, 2016 I Written By

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

A bill has been filed in Congress that would slash the Meaningful Use reporting period from one year to 90 days. This seems to be a challenge to CMS, which has reportedly held firm in the face of pressure to cut the reporting period on its own.

Supporters of the bill, which is backed by a broad coalition of industry trade groups, argue that a 365-day reporting period is unduly burdensome for providers, and will become even more awkward as MACRA requirements fall into place. Cutting the reporting period “will continue the significant progress providers are making to harness the use of technology to succeed in new payment and care delivery models,” argued a coalition of such groups in a letter sent to CMS last month.

That being said, it’s not clear how the structure of Meaningful Use incentives will play out under MACRA. So the reporting period change may or may not be as relevant as it might have been before the MACRA rules were set to be announced.

CMS leaders have said that the upcoming Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) – which will probably fall in place under MACRA in 2017 — is designed to unify incentive payments. Specifically, it integrates existing MU, PQRS and Value-Based Payment Modifier programs. MIPS payments will be based on a weighted score rating providers on four factors: quality (30%), resource use (30%), Meaningful Use (25%) and clinical practice improvement activities (15%). This suggests that a focus on reporting requirements is probably a matter of closing the barn door after the horse has left the stable.

On the other hand, since Meaningful Use isn’t going away completely, maybe cutting the reporting period required is necessary. If providers are being rated on a set of factors of which MU is just a part, reporting for an entire year could certainly impose an administrative burden. Why set providers up to fail by forcing them to overextend their resources on reporting?

I believe that reducing Meaningful Use requirements is a sensible step to take at this point. While there are probably those who would argue the point, I submit that MU has been pretty successful in motivating providers to rethink their relationship with HIT, and has even help a subset to completely rethink how they deliver care. Now, it’s time to move the ball forward, to a more holistic approach that goes beyond regulating care processes.

Admittedly, it’s possible that cutting the reporting period, or otherwise shifting the emphasis away from regulating HIT use, might cause some providers to slack off in some way. But to my way of thinking, that’s a risk we need to take. After investing many billions of dollars on promoting smart HIT use, we have to assume that we’ve done what we can, and focus on smart quality measures. With any luck, the new measures will work better for everyone involved.

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.