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Patient Engagement and Patient Experience

Posted on May 24, 2017 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 got tied up on some big projects today and so for today’s post I’m going to point you to some really great resources being shared around patient engagement and patient experience from the Patient Engagement Summit hosted by the Cleveland Clinic.

Here are two images that were shared from the summit which give you a flavor for the types of conversations and knowledge that was being shared at the Patient Engagement Summit.


Note: Adrienne Boissy, MD, MA, noted that the chart above comes from this article.

You can find more great content like this by checking out the hashtag #PESummit on Twitter.

Collaborating With Patients On Visit Agendas Improves Communication

Posted on April 26, 2017 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.

Maybe it’s because I spent many years as a reporter, but when I meet with a doctor I get all of my questions out, even if I don’t plan things out in advance. I realize that this barrage may be unnerving for some doctors, but if I need to fire off a bunch of questions to understand my care, I’m going to do it.

That being said, I realize most people are more like my family members. Both my husband and my mother feel overwhelmed at medical visits, and often fail to ask the questions they want answered. I don’t know if they feel pressured by the rapid pace of your typical medical visit, afraid to offend their doctor or have trouble figuring out what information will help them most effectively, but clearly, they don’t feel in control of the situation.

Given their concerns, I wasn’t surprised to learn that letting patients create and share an agenda for their medical visit – before they see their provider – seems to improve physician-patient communication substantially. New research suggests that when patients set the agenda for their visit, both the patient and their doctor like the results.

Study details

The paper, which appeared in the Annals of Family Medicine, said that researchers conducted their study at Harborview Medical Center, a safety-net county hospital in Seattle. The researchers recruited patients and clinicians for the study between June 9 and July 22, 2015 at the HMC Adult Medicine Clinic. The 67-clinician primary care clinic serves about 5,000 patients per year.

When participating patients came in for a visit, a researcher assistant met them in the waiting room and gave them a laptop computer with the EMR interface displayed. The participating patients then typed their agenda for the visit in the progress notes section of their medical record. Clinicians then reviewed that agenda, either before entering the exam room or upon entering.

After the visit, patients were given a survey asking them for demographic information, self-reported health status and perceptions of the agenda-driven visit. Meanwhile, clinicians filled out a separate survey asking them for their gender, age, role in the clinic and their own perceptions of the patient agenda.

After reviewing the survey data, researchers concluded that using a collaborative visit agenda is probably a good idea. Seventy nine percent of patients and 74 percent of clinicians felt the agendas improved patient-clinician communication, and both types of participants wanted to use visit agendas agenda (73 percent of patients and 82 percent of clinicians).

Flawed but still valuable

In closing, the authors admitted that the study had its technical limits, including the use of a small convenient sample at a single clinic with no comparison group, It’s also worth noting that the study drew from a vulnerable population which might not be representative of most healthcare consumers.

Nonetheless, researchers feel these data points to a broader trend, in which patients have become increasingly comfortable with electronic health data. “The patient cogeneration of visit notes, facilitated by new EMR functionality, reflects a shift in the authorship and “ownership” of [their data],” the study points out. (I can’t help but agree that this is the case, and moreover, that patients’ response to programs  like Open Notes support their conclusion.)

I’m not sure if my mom or hubby would buy into this approach, but I imagine that if they did, they might find it helpful. Let’s hope the idea catches fire, and helps ordinary consumers take more control of their clinical relationships.

Could AI And Healthcare Chatbots Help Clinicians Communicate With Patients?

Posted on April 25, 2017 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.

AI-driven chatbots are becoming increasingly popular for a number of reasons, including improving technology and a need to automate some routine processes. (I’d also argue that these models are emerging because millennials and Gen Z-ers have spent their lives immersed in online-based social environments, and are far less likely to be afraid of or uncomfortable with such things.)

Given the maturation of the technology, I’m not surprised to see a number of AI-driven chatbots for healthcare emerging.  Some of these merely capture symptoms, such as the diabetes, CHF and mental health monitoring options by Sense.ly.

But other AI-based chatbots attempt to go much further. One emerging company, X2ai, is rolling out a psychology-oriented chatbot offering mental health counseling, Another, UK-based startup Babylon Health, offers a text-only mobile apps which provides medical evaluations and screenings. The app is being pilot-tested with the National Health Service, where early reports say that it’s diagnosing and triaging patients successfully.

One area I haven’t seen explored, though, is using a chatbot to help doctors handle routine communications with patients. Such an app could not only triage patients, as with the NHS example, but also respond to routine email messages.

Scheduling and administration

The reality is that while doctors and nurses are used to screening patients via telephone, they’re afraid of being swamped by tons of electronic patient messages. Many feel that if they agree to respond to patient email messages via a patient portal, they’ll spend too much time doing so. With most already time-starved, it’s not surprising that they’re worried about this.

But a combination of AI and healthcare chatbot technology could reduce their time required to engage patients. In fact, the right solution could address a few medical practice workflow issues at one time.

First, it could triage and route patient concerns to doctors and advanced practice nurses, something that’s done now by unqualified clerks or extremely busy nurses. For example, the patient would be able to tell the chatbot why they wanted to schedule a visit, with the chatbot teasing out some nuances in their situation. Then, the chatbot could kick the information over to the patient’s provider, who could, with a few clicks, forward a request to schedule either an urgent or standard consult.

Perhaps just as important, the AI technology could sit atop messages sent between provider and patient. If the patient message asked a routine question – such as when their test results would be ready – the system could bounce back a templated message stating, for instance, that test results typically take five business days to post on the patient portal. It could also send templated responses to requests for medical records, questions about doctor availability or types of insurance accepted and so on.

Diagnosis and triage

Meanwhile, if the AI concludes that the patient has a health concern to address, it could send back a link to the chatbot, which would ask pertinent questions and send the responses to the treating clinician. At that point, if things look questionable, the doctor might choose to intervene with their own email message or phone call.

Of course, providers will probably be worried about relying on a chatbot for patient triage, especially the legal consequences if the bot misses something important. But over time, if health chatbot pilots like the UK example offer good results, they may eventually be ready to give this approach a shot.

Also, patients may be uncertain about working with a chatbot at first. But if physicians stress that they’re not trying put them off, but rather, to save time so they can take their time when patients need them, I think they’ll be satisfied.

I admit that under ideal circumstances, clinicians would have more time to communicate with patients directly. But the truth is, they simply don’t, and pressuring them to take phone calls or respond to every online message from patients won’t work.

Besides, as providers work to prepare for value-based care, they’ll need not only physician extenders, but physician extender-extenders like chatbots to engage patients and keep track of their needs. So let’s give them a shot.

E-Patient Update: Doctors Need To Lead Tech Charge

Posted on April 7, 2017 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.

Doctors, like any other group of people, vary in how comfortable they are with technology. Despite the fact that their job is more technology-focused than ever before, many clinicians use tech tools because they must.

As a result, they aren’t great role models when it comes to encouraging patients to engage with portals, try mobile apps or even pay their healthcare bills online. I too am frustrated when doctors can’t answer basic tech questions, despite my high comfort level with technology. I like to think that we’re on the same page, and I feel sort of alienated when my doctors don’t seem to care about the digital health advantage.

This needs to change. Given the extent to which technology permeates care delivery, physicians must become better at explaining how basic tech tools work, why they’re used and how they benefit patients.

Below, I’ve listed three tools which I consider to be critical to current medical practices, based on both my patient experiences and my ongoing research on health IT tools. To me, knowing something about each of them is unavoidable if doctors want to keep up with trends and improve patient care.

The top three tools I see as central to serving patients effectively are:

  • Patient portals: This is arguably the most important technical option doctors can share with patients. To get the most value out of portals, every doctor – especially in primary care – should be able to explain to patients why accessing their data can improve their health and lives.
  • Connected health: For a while, connected health/remote monitoring solutions were a high-end, expensive way to track patient health. But today, these options are everywhere and accessible virtually anyone. (My husband bought a connected glucose monitor for $10 a few weeks ago!) If nothing else, clinicians should be able to explain to patients how such devices can help tame chronic diseases and prevent hospitalizations.
  • Mobile apps: While few apps, if any, are universally trusted by doctors, there’s still plenty of them which can help patients log, measure and monitor important data, such as medication compliance or blood pressure levels. While they don’t need to understand how mobile apps work, they should know something of why patients can benefit from using them.

Of course, this list is brief, but it’s a decent place to start. After all, I’m not suggesting that physicians need to get a master’s in health IT to serve patients adequately; I’m just recommending that they study up and prepare to guide their patients in using helpful tools.

Ultimately, it’s not as important that clinicians use or even have a deep understanding of digital health tools, health bands, smartwatches, sensor-laden clothing or virtual reality. They don’t have to understand cybersecurity or know how to reboot a server. They just have to know how to help patients navigate the healthcare world as it is.

By this point, in fact, I’d argue that it’s irresponsible to avoid learning about technologies that can help patients manage their health. Bear in mind that even if they don’t act like it, even confident, experienced patients like me truly admire our doctors and take what they say seriously. So if I am enthusiastic about using tech tools to manage my health, but my doctor’s eyes glaze over when I talk about them, even I feel a bit discouraged. So why not learn enough to encourage me on my journey?

Do Vendor Business Models Discourage EMR Innovation?

Posted on April 4, 2017 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.

Despite the ever-mounting levels of physician frustration, in some ways EMRs have changed little from their mass-market rollout. EMR interfaces are still counterintuitive, data sharing possibilities are limited, important information still lives in isolated silos and endless data entry is the rule rather than exception.

In theory, we could do better if we had a reasonable vision of what should come next. For example, I was intrigued by ideas proposed by Dr. Robert Rowley of Flow Health. He describes a model in which EMRs draw on a single, external data source which isn’t confined to any one organization. Providers would access, download and add data through a modern API.  Given such fluid access to data, providers would be able to create custom front-ends based on a collection of apps, rather than rely on a single vendor-created interface.

Unfortunately, EMR vendors are unlikely to take on a completely different approach like Rowley’s, for reasons inherent to their business model. After all, they have little reason to develop new, innovative EMRs which rely on a different data architecture. Not only that, the costs associated with developing and rolling out a completely new EMR model would probably be very high. And what company would take that chance when their existing “big iron” approach still sells?

Not only that, EMR vendors would risk alienating their customers if they stray too far off the ranch. While an innovative new platform might be attractive to some buyers, it might also be incompatible with their existing technology. And it would probably require both providers and vendors to reinvent workflows and transform their technical architecture.

Meanwhile, in addition to finding a way to pay for the technology, providers would have to figure out how to integrate their existing data into the new system, integrate the platform with its existing infrastructure, retrain the staff and clinicians and cope with reduced productivity for at least a year or two. And what would become of their big data analytics code? Their decision support modules? Even data entry could be a completely new game.

Smaller medical practices could be pushed into bankruptcy if they have to invest in yet another system. Large practices, hospitals and health systems might be able to afford the initial investment and systems integration, but the project would be long and painful. Unless they were extremely confident that it would pay off, they probably wouldn’t risk giving a revolutionary solution a try.

All that being said, there are forces in play which might push vendors to innovate more, and give providers a very strong incentive to try a new approach to patient data management. In particular, the need to improve care coordination and increase patient engagement – driven by the emergence of value-based care – is putting providers under intense pressure. If a new platform could measurably improve their odds of surviving this transition, they might be forced to adopt it.

Right now, providers who can afford to do so are buying freestanding care coordination and patient engagement tools, then integrating them into their existing EMRs. I can certainly see the benefit of doing so, as it brings important functions on board without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And these organizations aren’t forced to rethink their fundamental technical strategy.

But the truth is, this model is unlikely to serve their needs over the long term. Because it relies on existing technology, welding new functions onto old, clinicians are still forced to grappled with kludgy technology. What’s more, these solutions add another layer to a very shaky pile of cards. And it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to support data interoperability, either.

Ultimately, the healthcare industry is going to be bogged down with short-term concerns until providers and vendors come together and develop a completely new approach to health data. To succeed at changing their health IT platform, they’ll have to rethink the very definition of key issues like ease of use and free data access, care coordination, patient engagement and improved documentation.

I believe that’s going to happen, at some point, perhaps when doctors storm the executive offices of their organization with torches and pitchforks. But I truly hope providers and vendors introduce more effective data management tools than today’s EMRs without getting to that point.

ACP Offers Recommendations On Reducing MD Administrative Overload

Posted on March 30, 2017 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.

As everyone knows, physicians are being overwhelmed by outsized levels of administrative chores. As if dealing with insurance companies wasn’t challenging enough, in recent years EMRs have added to this burden, with clinicians doing double duty as data entry clerks after they’re seen patients.

Unfortunately, streamlining EMR use for clinical use has proven to be a major challenge. Still, there are steps healthcare organizations can take to cut down on clinicians’ administrative frustrations, according to the American College of Physicians.

The ACP’s recommendations include the following:

  1. Stakeholders responsible for imposing administrative tasks – such as payors, government and vendors – should analyze the impact of administrative tasks on physicians. If a task is found to have a negative effect on care quality, needlessly questions a clinician’s judgment or increases costs, it should be challenged, fixed or removed.
  2. If an administrative task can’t be cut, it must be reviewed, revised, aligned or streamlined to reduce stakeholders’ burden.
  3. Stakeholders should collaborate with professional societies, clinicians, patients and EMR vendors to develop performance measures that minimize needless clinician burden and integrate performance reporting and quality improvement.
  4. All key stakeholders should collaborate in reducing, streamlining, reducing and aligning clinicians’ administrative tasks by making better use of health IT.
  5. As the US healthcare system shifts to value-based payment, stakeholders should consider streamlining or eliminating duplicative administrative demands.
  6. The ACP would like to see rigorous research done on the impact of administrative tasks on healthcare quality, time and cost; on clinicians, staff and healthcare organizations; patient and family; and patient outcomes.
  7. The ACP calls for research on best practices for cutting down on clinicians’ administrative tasks within both practices and organizations. All key stakeholders, including clinician societies, payors, regulators, vendors and suppliers, should disseminate these evidence-based best practices.

It appears that even the federal government has begun to take these issues to heart. According to Modern Healthcare, late last year CMS announced a long-term initiative intended to reduce physicians’ administrative burdens.  Then-acting CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt said the initiative would hopefully make it a bit easier for practices to meet the requirements of the Quality Payment Program under MACRA.

But other sources of administrative frustration are likely to linger for the foreseeable future, as they’re deeply ingrained in stakeholder business processes or simply difficult to change.

For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians notes that some of the biggest aggravations and time wasters for its members include the need to get prior authorizations from health plans and outdated CMS documentation guidelines for E/M services which don’t leverage EMR capabilities. Sadly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for either of those problems to be solved.

Still, it seems some healthcare organizations want to take on the administrative overhead problem. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has launched an initiative aimed at reducing the number of computer-related tasks doctors have to perform. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, UPMC is partnering with Microsoft to minimize physicians’ need to do electronic paperwork. Executives with the two organizations say this effort should result in tools for both doctors and patients.

E-Patient Update: Give Us Patient Data Analytics

Posted on March 24, 2017 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 other day, I sat down with my husband to check out the features of his new connected glucose monitor. My husband, a Type 2 diabetic, had purchased the Accu-Chek Aviva Connect, which when synched with a computer, displays readings data on the web.

After synching up his results with his desktop via Bluetooth, he entered a web portal and boom! There was a two-week history of his readings, with data points organized by what times they were taken. As part of its dashboard, the portal also displayed the highest and lowest readings taken during the time period, as well as citing the average difference between high and low readings (the size of the delta).

By going over this data, we were able to learn a few things about his current disease management efforts. For example, we saw that virtually all of the highest readings were taken between 6PM and 9PM, which helped him identify some behaviors that he could change.

Of course, for the professionals reading this, none of these features are all that impressive. In fact, they’re practically kid’s stuff, though I imagine his endocrinologist will get at least some benefit from the charts.

But I’m here to tell you that as patient data management goes, this is off-the-charts cool. After all, neither of us has had a chance to track key health metrics and act on them, at least not without doing our own brute number crunching with a spreadsheet. As you can imagine, we greatly prefer this approach.

Unfortunately, few patients have access to any kind of analytics tools that put our health data in context. And without such tools most of us don’t get much benefit out of accessing the data. It’s time for things to change!

Upgrade the portal

One of the most common ways patients access their health data is via a provider portal. Most commonly, portals display the results of diagnostic tests, including lab tests and the text of imaging results.

Sharing this data is a step in the right direction, but it’s not likely to empower patients on its own. After all, even an experienced clinician would find it difficult to make sense of dozens (or in the case of chronically-ill patients like me, hundreds) of test results.  Even if the portal provided educational material on each test, it may be too much information for a patient to absorb.

On the other hand, patients could do a lot with their data if it was displayed in a patient-friendly manner. The possibilities for improving data display are manifold. They include:

  • Displaying tests relating to specific concern (such as thyroid levels) in sequence over time
  • Offer a chart comparing related data points, such as blood pressure levels and cardiac functioning or kidney functioning paired with blood glucose levels
  • Display only outlier test values, along with expected ranges, and link to an explanation of what these values might mean
  • Have the portal auto-generate a list of questions patients should ask their doctor, based on any issues suggested by test data

By provider standards, these displays might be fairly mundane. But speaking as a patient, I think they’d be very valuable. I am compulsive enough to check all of my health data and follow up with questions, but few patients are, and any tools which helped them decide what action to take would represent a big step forward.

It would be even more useful if patients could upload results from health bands or smartwatches and cross-reference that data with testing results. But for the short term, it would be enough to help patients understand the data already in the system.

Giving patients more power

At first, some providers might object to giving patients this much information, as odd as it may sound. I’ve actually run into situations where a practice won’t share test data with a patient until the doctor has “approved” the results, apparently because they don’t want patients to be frightened by adverse information.

But if we want to engage patients, providers have to give give patients more power. If nothing else, we need a better way to look at our data, and learn how we can respond effectively.

To be fair, few providers will have the resources in-house to add patient data analytics tools to portals. Their vendors will have to add upgrades to their portal software, and that’s not likely to happen overnight. After all, while the technical challenges involved are trivial, developers will need to decide exactly how they’re going to analyze the data and what search capabilities patients should have.

But there’s no excuse for letting this issue go, either. If providers want patients to engage in their healthcare process, helping them understand their health data is one of the most important steps they can take. Expecting patients to dive in and figure it out themselves is unlikely to work.

GAO: HHS Should Tighten Up Its Patient Data Access Efforts

Posted on March 23, 2017 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 Government Accountability Office has issued a new report arguing, essentially, that while its heart is in the right place, HHS isn’t doing enough to track the effectiveness of patient health data access efforts. The report names ONC as arguably the weakest link here, and calls on the HHS-based organization to track its outreach programs more efficiently.

As readers know, CMS has spent a vast sum of money (over $35 billion at this point) to support health IT adoption and health data access. And while these efforts have spilled over to some patients, it’s still an uphill battle getting the others to access their electronic health information, the GAO report says.

Moreover, even patients that are accessing data face some significant challenges, including the inability to aggregate their longitudinal health information from multiple sources into a single, accessible record, the agency notes. (In other words, patients crave interoperability and data integration too!)

Unfortunately, progress on this front continues to be slow. For example, after evaluating data from the 2015 Medicare EHR Program, GAO researchers found that few patients were taking a look at data made available by their participating provider. In fact, while 88 percent of the program’s hospitals gave patients access to data, only 15 percent of patients actually accessed the information which was available.  When professionals provided patients with data access, the number of patients accessing such data climbed to 30 percent, but that’s not as big a delta as it might seem, given that 87 percent of such providers offered patient data access.

Patient reluctance to dive in to their EHI may be in part due to the large number of differing portals offered by individual providers. With virtually every doctor and hospital offering their own portal version, all but the most sophisticated patients get overwhelemed. In addition to staying on top of the information stored in each portal, patients typically need to manage separate logins and passwords for each one, which can be awkward and time-consuming.

Also, the extent of data hospitals and providers offer varies widely, which may lead to patient confusion. The Medicare EHR Program requires that participants make certain information available – such as lab test results and current medications – but less than half of participating hospitals (46 percent) and just 54 percent of healthcare professionals routinely offered access to clinician notes.

The process for sharing out patient data is quite variable as well. For example, two hospitals interviewed by the GAO had a committee decide which data patients could access. Meanwhile, one EHR vendor who spoke with the agency said it makes almost all information available to patients routinely via its patient portal. Other providers take the middle road. In other words, patients have little chance to adopt a health data consumption routine.

Technical access problems and portal proliferation pose significant enough obstacles, but that’s not the worst part of the story. According to the GAO, the real problem here is that ONC – the point “man” on measuring the effectiveness of patient data access efforts – hasn’t been as clear as it could be.

The bottom line, for GAO, is that it’s time to figure out what enticements encourage patients to access their data and which don’t. Because the ONC hasn’t developed measures of effectiveness for such patient outreach efforts, parent agency HHS doesn’t have the information needed to tell whether outreach efforts are working, the watchdog agency said.

If ONC does improve its methods for measuring patient health data access, the benefits could extend beyond agency walls. After all, it wouldn’t hurt for doctors and hospitals to boost patient engagement, and getting patients hooked on their own data is step #1 in fostering engagement. So let’s hope the ONC cleans up its act!

Paper Records Are Dead

Posted on March 14, 2017 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.

Here’s an argument that’s likely to upset some, but resonate with others. After kicking the idea around in my head, I’ve concluded that given broad cultural trends, that the healthcare industry as a whole has outgrown the use of paper records once and for all. I know that this notion is implicit in what health IT leaders do, but I wanted to state this directly nonetheless.

Let me start out by noting that I’m not coming down on the minority of practices (and the even smaller percentage of hospitals) which still run on old-fashioned paper charts. No solution is right for absolutely everyone, and particularly in the case of small, rural medical practices, paper charts may be just the ticket.

Also, there are obviously countless reasons why some physicians dislike or even hate current EMRs. I don’t have space to go into them here, but far too many, they’re hard to use, expensive, time-consuming monsters. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that doctors that have managed to cling to paper are just being contrary.

Still, for all but the most isolated and small providers, over the longer term there’s no viable argument left for shuffling paper around. Of course, the healthcare industry won’t realize most of the benefits of EMRs and digital health until they’re physician-friendly, and progress in that direction has been extremely slow, but if we can create platforms that physicians like, there will be no going back. In fact, for most their isn’t any going back even if they don’t become more physician firendly. If we’re going to address population-wide health concerns, coordinate care across communities and share health information effectively, going full-on digital is the only solution, for reasons that include the following:

  • Millennial and Gen Y patients won’t settle for less. These consumers are growing up in a world which has gone almost completely digital, and telling them that, for example they have to get in line to get copies of a paper record would not go down well with them.
  • Healthcare organizations will never be able to scale up services effectively, or engage with patients sufficiently, without using EMRs and digital health tools. If you doubt this, consider the financial services industry, which was sharing information with consumers decades before providers began to do so. If you can’t imagine a non-digital relationship with your bank at this point, or picture how banks could do their jobs without web-based information sharing, you’ve made my point for me.
  • Without digital healthcare, it may be impossible for hospitals, health systems, medical practices and other healthcare stakeholders to manage population health needs. Yes, public health organizations have conducted research on community health trends using paper charts, and done some effective interventions, but nothing on the scale of what providers hope (and need) to achieve. Paper records simply don’t support community-based behavioral change nearly as well.
  • Even small healthcare operations – like a two-doctor practice – will ultimately need to go digital to meet quality demands effectively. Though some have tried valiantly, largely by auditing paper charts, it’s unlikely that they’d ever build patient engagement, track trends and see that predictable needs are met (like diabetic eye exams) as effectively without EMRs and digital health data.

Of course, as noted above, the countervailing argument to all of this is the first few generations of EMRs have done more to burden clinicians than help them achieve their goals, sometimes by a very large margin. That seems to be largely because most have been designed — and sadly, continue to be designed — more to support billing processes than improve care. But if EMRs are redesigned to support patient care first and foremost, things will change drastically. Someday our grandchildren, carrying their lifetime medical history in a chip on their fingernail, will wonder how providers ever managed during our barbaric age.

 

Epic Launches FHIR-Based App Platform

Posted on March 2, 2017 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.

It looks like Epic is getting on the FHIR train. According to an article in Modern Healthcare, Epic is launching a new program – serving physician practices and hospitals – to help them build customized apps. The program, App Orchard, will also support independent mobile app developers who target providers and patients.

The launch follows on the heels of a similar move by Cerner, which set up its own sandbox for developers interested in linking to its EMR using FHIR. The Cerner Open Developer Experience (code_), which launched in early 2016, is working with firms creating SMART on FHIR apps.

App Orchard, for its part, lets developers use a FHIR-based API to access an Epic development sandbox. This will allow the developers to address issues in connecting their apps to the Epic EMR. Previously, Epic wouldn’t let mobile app developers connect to its EMR until a customer requested permission on their behalf.

In addition to providing the API, App Orchard will also serve as an online marketplace along the lines of Google Play or the Apple app store. However, end users won’t be able to download the app for their own use — only software developers and vendors will be able to do that. The idea is that these developers will create the apps on contract to customers.

Meanwhile, according to the magazine, Epic will screen and pick an initial group of developers to the program. Brett Gann, who leads the Epic-based team developing App Orchard, told Modern Healthcare that factors which will distinguish one developer from the other include app safety, security, privacy, reliability, system integrity, data integrity and scalability.

As part of their participation, developers will get documentation listing these criteria and what they mean to Epic. The Epic team will expect the developers to commit to following these guidelines and explain how they’ll do so, Gann said.

While Epic hasn’t made any predictions about what types of apps developers will pursue, recent research offers a clue. According to new research by SMART and KLAS, providers are especially interested in apps that help with patient engagement, EMR data viewing, diagnostics, clinical decision support and documentation tasks.

One thing to watch is how Epic decides to handle licensing, ownership, and charges for participation in their Orchard Program. If they have a true open API, then this will be a good move for the industry. If instead they choose to take ownership of everything that’s created, put restrictive licenses on developers, and/or charge huge sums to participate, then it’s unlikely to see much true innovation that’s possible with an open API. We’ll see how that plays out.

Meanwhile, in other Epic news, Becker’s Hospital Review notes that the vendor is planning to develop two additional versions of its EMR. Adam Whitlatch, a lead developer there, told the site that the new versions will include a mid-range EMR with fewer modules (dubbed “utility”), and a slimmer version with fewer modules and advanced features, to be called “Sonnet.”

Whitlatch said the new versions will target physician practices and smaller hospitals, which might prefer a lower-cost EMR that can be implemented more quickly than the standard Epic product. It’s also worth noting that the two new EMR versions will be interoperable with the traditional Epic EMR (known as “all-terrain”).

All told, these are intriguing developments which could have an impact on the EMR industry as a whole.

On the one hand, not only is Epic supporting the movement towards interchangeable apps based on FHIR, it appears that the vendor has decided to give in to the inevitable and started to open up its platform (something it hasn’t done willingly in the past).  Over time, this could affect providers’ overall Epic development plans if Epic executes it well and enables innovation on Orchard and doesn’t restrict it.

Also, the new versions of the Epic could make it available to a much wider audience, particularly if the stripped-down versions are significantly cheaper than its signature EMR. In fact, an affordable Epic EMR could trigger a big shakeup in the ambulatory EMR market.

Let’s see if more large EMR vendors decide to offer an open API. If access to EMR APIs became common, it would represent a major shift in the whole health IT ecosystem.