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Should EMR Vendors Care If Patients Get Their Records?

Posted on August 11, 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.

Not long ago, Epic CEO Judy Faulkner and former Vice President Joe Biden reportedly butted heads over whether patients need and can understand their full medical records. The alleged conversation took place at a private meeting for Cancer Moonshot, a program with which Biden has been associated since his son died of cancer.

According to a piece in Becker’s Health IT & CIO Review, Faulkner asked Biden why patients actually needed their full medical records. “Why do you want your medical records? They’re a thousand pages of which you understand 10,” she is said to have told Biden.

Epic responded to the widely-reported conversation with a statement arguing that Faulkner had been quoted out of context, and that the vendor supported patients’ rights to having their entire record. Given that Becker’s had the story third-hand (it drew on a Politico column which itself was based on the remarks of someone who had been present at the meeting) I have little difficulty believing that something was lost in translation.

Still, I am left wondering whether this piece had touched on something important nonetheless. It raises the question of whether EMR vendor CEOs have the attitude towards patient medical record access Faulkner is portrayed as having.

Yes, I suspect virtually every EMR vendor CEO agrees in principle that patients are entitled to access their complete records. Of course, the law recognizes this right as well. However, do they, personally, feel strongly about providing such access? Is making patient access to records easy a priority for them? My guess is “no” and “no.”

The truth is, EMR vendors — like every other business — deliver what their customers want. Their customers, providers, may talk a good game when it comes to patient record access, but only a few seem to have made improving access a central part of their culture. In my experience, at least, most do what medical records laws require and little else. It’s hard to imagine that vendors spend any energy trying to change customers’ records practices for the better.

Besides, both vendors and providers are used to thinking about medical record data as a proprietary asset. Even if they see the necessity of sharing this information, it probably rubs at least some the wrong way to ladle it out at minimal cost to patients.

Given all this background, it’s easy to understand why health IT editors jumped on the story. While she may have been misrepresented this time, it’s not hard to imagine the famously blunt Faulkner confronting Biden, especially if she thought he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Even if she never spoke the words in question, or her comments were taken out of context, I have the feeling that at least some of her peers would’ve spoken them unashamedly, and if so, people need to call them out. If we’re going to achieve the ambitious goals we’ve set for value-based care, every player needs to be on board with empowering patients.

USAA Tapping EHR To Gather Data From Life Insurance Applicants

Posted on August 10, 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.

I can’t believe I missed this. Apparently, financial giant USAA announced earlier this year that it’s collecting health data from life insurance applicants by interfacing with patient portals. While it may not be the first life insurer to do so, I haven’t been able to find any others, which makes this pretty interesting.

Usually, when someone applies for life insurance, they have to produce medical records which support their application. (We wouldn’t want someone to buy a policy and pop off the next day, would we?) In the past, applicants have had to push their providers to send medical records to the insurer. As anyone who’s tried to get health records for themselves knows, getting this done can be challenging and is likely to slow down policy approvals.

Thanks to USAA’s new technology implementation, however, the process is much simpler. The new offering, which is available to applicants at the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, allows consumers to deliver their health data directly to the insurer via their patient portal.

To make this possible, USAA worked with Cerner on EHR retrieval technology. The technology, known as HealtheHistory, supports health data collection,  encrypts data transmission and limits access to EHR data to approved persons. No word yet as to whether Cerner has struck similar deals elsewhere but it wouldn’t surprise me.

USAA’s new EHR-based approach has paid off nicely. The life insurer has seen an average 30-day reduction in the time it takes to acquire health records for applicants, and though it doesn’t say what the average was back in the days of paper records, I assume that this is a big improvement.

And now on to the less attractive aspects of this deal. I don’t know about you, but I see a couple of red flags here.

First, while life insurers may know how to capture health data, I doubt they’re cognizant of HIPAA nuances. Even if they hire a truckload of HIPAA experts, they don’t have much context for maintaining HIPAA compliance. What’s more, they rarely if ever have to look a patient in the face, which serves as something of a natural deterrent to provider data carelessness.

Also, given the industry’s track record, is it really a good idea to give a life insurer that much data? For example, consider the case of a healthy 36-year-old woman with no current medical issues who was denied coverage because she had the BRCA 1 gene. That gene, as some readers may know, is associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The life insurer apparently found out about the woman’s makeup as part of the application process, which included queries about genetic information. Apparently, the woman had had such testing, and as a result had to disclose it or risk being accused of fraud.

While the insurer in question may have the right, legally, to make such decisions, their doing so falls into a gray area ethically. What’s more, things would get foggier if, say, it decided to share such information with a sister health insurance division. Doing so may not be legal but I can easily see it happening.

Should someone’s genes be used to exclude them life or health insurance? Bar them from being approved for a mortgage from another sister company? Can insurers be trusted to meet HIPAA standards for use of PHI? It’ll be important to address such questions before we throw our weight behind open health data sharing with companies like USAA.

E-Patient Update: The Kaiser Permanente Approach To Consumer Health IT, Second Stanza

Posted on July 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.

As some of you may recall, I recently wrote a positive review of Kaiser Permanente’s use of consumer-facing health IT. (Kaiser Permanente is both my health insurer and provider.) Their offerings have a number of strengths including:

  • Interfaces: The kp.org site is decent, and the KP app highly usable
  • Access to care: Booking medical appointments is easy, as is cancelling them
  • Responsiveness: Physicians are quick to replay to email via the Kaiser portal
  • Connectedness: Thanks to being on a shared Epic platform, every provider knows my history (at least for the time I’ve spent within the KP system, which is pretty useful)

At the time, I also noted that I had a few minor concerns about the portal features and whatnot, but I was still a fan of KP’s setup.

By and large, my perceptions of Kaiser’s consumer health IT strengths haven’t changed. However, after a couple of months in the system, I’ve gotten a good look at its weaknesses as well. And I thought you might be interested in the problems Kaiser faces in connecting consumers, particularly given its use of best practices in many cases.

All told, these weaknesses suggest that over more than ten years after its Epic rollout, KP leaders still haven’t put their entire consumer health IT strategy in place. Here are a couple of my concerns.

Specialist appointments aren’t integrated

The biggest gripe I have with Kaiser’s interactive tools is that while I can schedule PCP appointments myself, I haven’t been able to set specialist appointments without speaking to a real live person. (My primary care doctor seems to be able to access specialist schedules and set appointments with them on my behalf.)

This may work for someone with no significant health problems, but creates a significant burden for me. After all, as someone with multiple chronic illnesses, I schedule a lot of specialist consults. You don’t realize how much time it takes to set each appointment with a clerical person until you’ve done it for five times in a week.  Try it sometime.

You might assume that this is a rationing measure, as organizations like KP are pretty strict about limiting access to specialist care. The truth is, that doesn’t seem to be the case. At least when it comes to my primary care physician (a big shout out to my PCP, Dr. Jason Singh) it doesn’t seem to be unduly hard to get access to specialists when needed.

No, I have concluded that the reason I can’t schedule specialist appointments online is that KP still hasn’t gotten their act together on this front. My guess is that the specialist systems live in some kind of silo, one that KP hasn’t managed to break down yet.

Mobile and web tools clash

As noted above, I’m largely satisfied with both KP’s consumer portal and its mobile app. True, the website sprawls a bit when it comes to presenting static content — such as physician bios — but the portal itself works fine. The mobile app, meanwhile, is great to use, as it presents my choices clearly and uses screen real estate effectively.

That being said, it annoys the heck out of me that there are minor but seemingly pointless, differences between how the portal and the mobile app function. It would be one thing the app was a shrunken down version of the website, offering a parallel but more limited version of available functions, but that isn’t how it works.

Instead, the services accessible through the portal and via the mobile app vary in small but irritating ways. For example, when emailing providers, you must choose a prewritten subject line from a drop-down menu. And I don’t know why, but the list of subjects available on the web portal version varies significantly from the list of subjects you can access via the mobile app.

There may be a rational reason for this. And mine may sound like a petty objection. But when you’re trying to address something as important as your healthcare, you want to know what’s going on with every detail.

I’d identify other ways in which the app and website portal vary, but I don’t have any other examples I can recall. And that’s the whole point. You don’t remember how the site and/or portal function until you stumble into another incompatibility. You roll your eyes and move on, but you see them again and waste one more spark of energy being annoyed.

It’s all about tradeoffs

So, you might ask if there’s any broad lesson to be taken from this. Honestly, probably not. I don’t like that KP’s tools pose these problems, but they don’t strike me as unusual.

And do my criticisms have any meaning for other healthcare organizations? Nothing more than a reminder that patients will take note of even small problems in your health IT execution, particularly when it comes to tools they rely upon to get things done.

In the end, of course, it’s all about trade-offs, as with any other industry. I don’t know whether KP chose to prioritize a potentially dangerous problem in provider-facing technologies over consumer quibbles, or just don’t know what’s going on. Perhaps they know and have added the fix to a long list of pending projects, or perhaps they don’t have their act together.

Still, lest it is lost in the discussion, remember I’m the customer, and I really don’t care about your IT problems. I just want to have tools that work every time and simplify my life.

So this is my official challenges to Kaiser leadership. For Pete’s sake, KP, would you please help me cut down on the specialist phone calls? Perhaps you could create a centralized specialist appointment call center, or use carrier pigeons, or let me suss out their schedules using my vast psychic powers — hey, they’re all options. Or maybe, just maybe, you can let me schedule the appointments online. Your call.

The EMR Vendor’s Dilemma

Posted on June 6, 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.

Yesterday, I had a great conversation with an executive at one of the leading EMR vendors. During our conversation, she stressed that her company was focused on the future – not on shoring up its existing infrastructure, but rather, rebuilding its code into something “transformational.”

In describing her company’s next steps, she touched on many familiar bases, including population health, patient registries and mobile- first deployment to support clinicians. She told me that after several years of development, she felt her company was truly ready to take on operational challenges like delivering value-based care and conducting disease surveillance.

All that being said – with all due respect to the gracious exec with whom I spoke – I wouldn’t want to be a vendor trying to be transformed at the moment. As I see it, vendors who want to keep up with current EMR trends are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, such vendors need to support providers’ evolving health IT needs, which are changing rapidly as new models of care delivery are emerging. Not only do they need to provide the powerhouse infrastructure necessary to handle and route massive floods of data, they also need to help their customers reach and engage consumers in new ways.

To do so, however, they need to shoot at moving targets, or they won’t meet provider demand. Providers may not be sure what shape certain processes will take, but they still expect EMR vendors to keep up with their needs nonetheless. And that can certainly be tricky these days.

For example, while everybody is talking about population health management, as far as I know we still haven’t adopted a widely-accepted model for adopting it. Sure, people are arriving at many of the same conclusions about pop health, but their approach to rolling it out varies widely.  And that makes things very tough for vendors to create pop health technology.

And what about patient engagement solutions? At present, the tools providers use to engage patients with their care are all over the map, from portals to mobile apps to back-end systems using predictive analytics. Synchronizing and storing the data generated by these solutions is challenging enough. Figuring out what configuration of options actually produces results is even harder, and nobody, including the savviest EMR vendors, can be sure what the consensus model will be in the future.

Look, I’m aware that virtually all software vendors face this problem. It’s difficult as heck to decide when to lead the industry you serve and when to let the industry lead you. Straddling these two approaches successfully is what separates the men from the boys — or the girls from the women — and dictates who the winners and losers are in any technology market.

But arguably, health IT vendors face a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to keeping up with the times. There’s certainly few industries are in a greater state of flux, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

It will take some very fancy footwork to dance gracefully with providers. Within a few years, we’ll look back and know vendors adapted just enough.

E-Patient Update: The Kaiser Permanente Approach To Consumer Health IT

Posted on May 19, 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.

Usually, particularly when I have complaints, I don’t name the providers or vendors who serve my healthcare needs, largely because I don’t want to let my personal gripes overshadow my analysis of a particular health IT issue.

That being said, I thought I’d veer from that rule today, as I wanted to share some details on how Kaiser Permanente, my new provider and health plan, supports consumers with health IT functions. Despite having started with Kaiser – in this case the DC metro division – less than a week ago, being an e-patient I’ve had my hands all over its Web – and mobile-based options for patients.

I’m not going to say the system is perfect by any means. There are some blind alleys on the web site, and some problems in integrating clinical information into consumer records, but so far their set-up largely seems thoughtful and well-managed.

Having allegedly spent $4 billion plus on its Epic rollout, it’s hard to imagine how Kaiser could have realized that big a return even several years later, but it seems that the healthcare giant is at least doing many of the right things.

Getting enrolled

My first contact with Kaiser, after signing up with Healthcare.gov, was a piece of snail-mail which provided us with our insurance cards and a summary of our particular coverage. The insurance cards included my health plan ID/medical record number.

To enroll on the core Kaiser site, kp.org, I had to supply the record number, my birth date and a few other basic pieces of information. I also downloaded the KP app, which offers a far-more-elegant interface to the same functions.

Medical appointments

Once logged in, it was easy to choose a primary care doctor and OB/GYN by searching the site and clicking a selection button. If you wished you could review physician profiles and educational history as well as testimonial quotes from patients about that doctor before you chose them.

Having chosen a doctor, booking an appointment with them online was easy.  As with Zocdoc.com, you entered a range of dates for a possible consult, then chose the slot that worked for you. And if you need to cancel one of those appointments, it’s easy to do so online.

Digital communication

I was glad to see that the Kaiser portal allows you to email your doctor directly, something which is less common than you might think. (My last primary care group wouldn’t even put their doctors on the phone.)

Not only that, everyone I’ve talked to at KP so far– three medical appointments, as I was playing catch-up — has stressed that the email function isn’t just for show. My new providers insisted that they do answer email messages, and that I shouldn’t hesitate to write if I have questions or concerns.

Another way KP leverages digital communications is the simple, but effective, device of texting me when my prescriptions are due for a refill. This may not sound like much, but convenience matters! (I can also check med reminders by logging in to a custom KP meds app.)

Data sharing

Given that everyone at Kaiser uses the same Epic EMR, clinicians are of course more aware of what their colleagues are doing than my past gaggle of disconnected specialists. They seem quite serious about reading this history before seeing me, something which past physicians haven’t always done, even if I was previously seen by someone else in their practice.

KP also uses Epic’s Care Everywhere function, which allows them to pull in a limited summary of care from other Epic-based providers. While Care Everywhere has limits, the providers are making use of what they can.

One small wrinkle was that prior to two of my visits, I filled out a questionnaire online and when asked to submit it to my electronic patient record, did so. Nonetheless, I was asked to fill out the same questionnaire again, on paper, when I saw a specialist.

Test results

KP seems to be set up appropriately to share standard test results. However, I’ve already had one test, a mammogram, and in doing so found out that their data sharing infrastructure isn’t quite complete.

After being scanned, I was told that I’d receive my results via snail-mail, in about two weeks. I’m glad that this was a routine screening, rather than a test to investigate something scary, as I would have been pretty upset with this news if I was worried.

My conclusions

I don’t want to romanticize Kaiser’s consumer HIT services. After all, looked at one way, KP is only doing what integrated health systems are supposed to do, and not without at least a few hitches.

Still, at least on first view, on the whole I’m pretty happy with how Kaiser’s interactive functions are deployed, as well the general attitude staff members seem to have about consumer use of HIT tools. Generally speaking, they seem to encourage it, and for someone like me that’s quite welcome.

As I see it, if providers outside of the Kaiser bubble were as married to a shared infrastructure as KP providers are, my care would be much improved. Let’s see if I still if I still feel that way after the new health plan smell has worn off!

Dogged By Privacy Concerns, Consumers Wonder If Using HIT Is Worthwhile

Posted on May 17, 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.

I just came across a survey suggesting that while we in the health IT world see a world of possibilities in emerging technologies, consumers aren’t so sure. The researchers found that consumers question the value of many tech platforms popular with health execs, apparently because they don’t trust providers to keep their personal health data secure.

The study, which was conducted between September and December 2016, was done by technology research firm Black Book. To conduct the survey, Black Book reached out to 12,090 adult consumers across the United States.

The topline conclusion from the study was that 57 percent of consumers who had been exposed to HIT through physicians, hospitals or ancillary providers doubted its benefits. Their concerns extended not only to EHRs, but also to many commonly-deployed solutions such as patient portals and mobile apps. The survey also concluded that 70 percent of Americans distrusted HIT, up sharply from just 10 percent in 2014.

Black Book researchers tied consumers’ skepticism to their very substantial  privacy concerns. Survey data indicated that 87 percent of respondents weren’t willing to divulge all of their personal health data, even if it improved their care.

Some categories of health information were especially sensitive for consumers. Ninety-nine percent were worried about providers sharing their mental health data with anyone but payers, 90 percent didn’t want their prescription data shared and 81 percent didn’t want information on their chronic conditions shared.

And their data security worries go beyond clinical data. A full 93 percent responding said they were concerned about the security of their personal financial information, particularly as banking and credit card data are increasingly shared among providers.

As a result, at least some consumers said they weren’t disclosing all of their health information. Also, 69 percent of patients admitted that they were holding back information from their current primary care physicians because they doubted the PCPs knew enough about technology to protect patient data effectively.

One of the reason patients are so protective of their data is because many don’t understand health IT, the survey suggested. For example, Black Book found that 92 percent of nurse leaders in hospital under 200 beds said they had no time during the discharge process to improve patient tech literacy. (In contrast, only 55 percent of nurse leaders working in large hospitals had this complaint, one of the few bright spots in Black Book’s data.)

When it comes to tech training, medical practices aren’t much help either. A whopping 96 percent of patients said that physicians and staff didn’t do a good job of explaining how to use the patient portal. About 40 percent of patients tried to use their medical practice’s portal, but 83 percent said they had trouble using it when they were at home.

All that being said, consumers seemed to feel much differently about data they generate on their own. In fact, 91 percent of consumers with wearables reported that they’d like to see their physician practice’s medical record system store any health data they request. In fact, 91 percent of patients who feel that their apps and devices were important to improving their health were disappointed when providers wouldn’t store their personal data.

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?

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!