Free EMR Newsletter Want to receive the latest news on EMR, Meaningful Use, ARRA and Healthcare IT sent straight to your email? Join thousands of healthcare pros who subscribe to EMR and EHR for FREE!

Accountable Care HIT Spending Growing Worldwide

Posted on November 30, 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 new market research report has concluded that given the pressures advancing the development of accountable care models, the market for solutions serving ACOs should expand worldwide, though North America is likely to lead the segment for the near future.

The report, by research firm Markets & Markets, covers a wide range of technologies, including EHRs, healthcare analytics, HIE, RCM, CDSS, population health, claims management and care management. It also looks at delivery mode, e.g. on premise, web and cloud and end-user, which includes providers and payers. So bear that in mind when you look at these numbers. That being said, providers accounted for the largest share of this niche last year, and should see the highest growth in the sector over the next five years.

Broadly speaking, Markets & Markets reports that the accountable care solutions market grew a healthy growth rate during the last decade. Researchers there expect to see this market grow at a CAGR of 16.6% over the next five years, to hit $18.86 billion by 2021.

When it comes to leaders in the sector, researchers identify Cerner, IBM, Aetna and Epic as leaders in the current ACO solutions market and probable future winners between 2016 and 2021. Other major players in the space include UnitedHealth Group, Allscripts, McKesson, Verisk Health, Zeomega, eClinicalWorks and NextGen. Given how broadly they define this category, I’m not sure how important this is, but there you have it.

According Markets & Markets, the growth of the ACO solutions market worldwide is due to forces we know well, including shifting government regulations, the rollout of initiatives shifting financial risk from payers to providers, the demand to slow down healthcare cost increases in the advance of IT and big data capabilities. (Personally, I’d add the desire of health systems – ACO-affiliated or not – to differentiate themselves by performing well at the population health level.)

If your view is largely US-centric, as is mine, you might be interested to note that the trend towards ACO-like entities in the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions is expanding, the researchers report. Most specifically, Markets & Markets researchers found that there is notable growth occurring in Asian countries, which, it reports, are modifying regulations and monitoring the implementation of procedures, policies and guidelines to promote innovation and commercialization. This has led to an increasing number of hospitals and academic institutions interested in the sector, along with a government focus on implementing health IT solutions and infrastructure – factors likely to generate an expanding ACO solutions market there.

After reading all of this, the question I’m left with is whether there’s any point in differentiating an “ACO” specific player as these researchers have. Maybe I’m playing with words too much hear, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the definition of health system infrastructure is evolving, whether it’s part of an ACO as such or not?

AMA Approves List Of Best Principles For Mobile Health App Design

Posted on November 29, 2016 I Written By

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

The American Medical Association has effectively thrown her weight behind the use of mobile health applications, at least if those apps meet the criteria members agreed on at a recent AMA meeting. That being said, the group also argues that the industry needs to expand the evidence base demonstrating that apps are accurate, effective, safe and secure. The principles, which were approved at its recent Interim Meeting, are intended to guide coverage and payment policies supporting the use of mHealth apps.

The AMA attendees agreed on the following principles, which are intended to guide the use of not only mobile health apps but also associated devices, trackers and sensors by patients, physicians and others. They require that mobile apps and devices meet the following somewhat predictable criteria:

  • Supporting the establishment or continuation of a valid patient-physician relationship
  • Having a clinical evidence base to support their use in order to ensure mHealth apps safety and effectiveness
  • Following evidence-based practice guidelines, to the degree they are available, to ensure patient safety, quality of care and positive health outcomes
  • Supporting data portability and interoperability in order to promote care coordination through medical home and accountable care models
  • Abiding by state licensure laws and state medical practice laws and requirements in the state in which the patient receives services facilitated by the app
  • Requiring that physicians and other health practitioners delivering services through the app be licensed in the state where the patient receives services, or will be providing these services is otherwise authorized by that state’s medical board
  • Ensuring that the delivery of any service via the app is consistent with the state scope of practice laws

In addition to laying out these principles, the AMA also looked at legal issues physicians might face in using mHealth apps. And that’s where things got interesting.

For one thing, the AMA argues that it’s at least partially on a physician’s head to school patients on how secure and private a given app may be (or fail to be). That implies that your average physician will probably have to become more aware of how well a range of apps handle such issues, something I doubt most have studied to date.

The AMA also charges physicians to become aware of whether mHealth apps and associated devices, trackers and sensors are abiding by all applicable privacy and security laws. In fact, according to the new policy, doctors are supposed to consult with an attorney if they don’t know whether mobile health apps meet federal or state privacy and security laws. That warning, while doubtless prudent, must not be helping members sleep at night.

Finally, the AMA notes that there are still questions remaining as to what risks physicians face who use, recommend or prescribe mobile apps. I have little doubt that they are right about this.

Just think of the malpractice lawsuit possibilities. Is the doctor liable because they relied on inaccurate app results collected by the patient? If the app they recommended presented inaccurate results? How about if the app was created by the practice or health system for which they work? What about if the physician relied on inaccurate data generated by a sensor or wearable — is a physician liable or the device manufacturer? If I can come up with these questions, you know a plaintiff’s attorney can do a lot better.

New Effort Would Focus HIE Data Around Patients

Posted on June 7, 2016 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

The PCDH’s data sharing model works as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

New Payment Model Pushes HIT Vendors To Collaborate

Posted on April 20, 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.

CMS has launched a new program designed to shift more risk to and offer more rewards to primary care practices which explicitly requires HIT vendors to be involved at advanced stages. While the federal government has obvious done a great deal to promote the use of HIT in medical practices, this is the first I’ve seen where HHS has demanded vendors get involved directly, and I find it intriguing. But let me explain.

The new Comprehensive Primary Care Plus payment scheme – which builds upon an existing model – is designed to keep pushing risk onto primary care practices. CMS expects to get up to 5,000 practices on board over the next five years, spanning more than 20,000 clinicians serving 25 million Medicare beneficiaries.

Like Medicare payment reforms focused on hospitals, CPC+ is designed to shift risk to PCPs in stages. Track 1 of the program is designed to help the practices shift into care management mode, offering an average care management fee of $15 per beneficiary per month on top of fee-for-service payments. Track 2, meanwhile, requires practices to bear some risk, offering them a special hybrid payment which mixes fee-for-service and a percentage of expected Evaluation & Management reimbursement up front. Both tracks offer a performance-based incentive, but risk-bearing practices get more.

So why I am I bothering telling you this? I mention this payment model because of an interesting requirement CMS has laid upon Track 2, the risk-bearing track. On this track, practices have to get their HIT vendor(s) to write a letter outlining the vendors’ willingness to support them with advanced health IT capabilities.

This is a new tack for CMS, as far as I know. True, writing a letter on behalf of customers is certainly less challenging for vendors than getting a certification for their technology, so it’s not going to create shockwaves. Still, it does suggest that CMS is thinking in new ways, and that’s always worth noticing.

True, it doesn’t appear that vendors will be required to swear mighty oaths promising that they’ll support any specific features or objectives. As with the recently-announced Interoperability Pledge, it seems like more form than substance.

Nonetheless, my take is that HIT vendors should take this requirement seriously. First of all, it shines a spotlight on the extent to which the vendors are offering real, practical support for clinicians, and while CMS may not be measuring this just yet, they may do so in the future.

What’s more, when vendors put such a letter together in collaboration with practices, it brings both sides to the table. It gives vendors and PCPs at least a marginally stronger incentive to discuss what they need to accomplish. Ideally – as CMS doubtless hopes – it could lay a foundation for better alignment between clinicians and HIT leaders.

Again, I’m not suggesting this is a massive news item, but it’s certainly food for thought. Asking HIT vendors to stick their necks out in this way (at least symbolically) could ultimately be a catalyst for change.

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.

Another Quality Initiative Ahead of Its Time, From California

Posted on March 21, 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.

When people go to get health care–or any other activity–we evaluate it for both cost and quality. But health care regulators have to recognize when the ingredients for quality assessment are missing. Otherwise, assessing quality becomes like the drunk who famously looked for his key under the lamplight instead of where the key actually lay. And sadly, as I read a March 4 draft of a California initiative to rate health care insurance, I find that once again the foundations for assessing quality are not in place, and we are chasing lamplights rather than the keys that will unlock better care.

The initiative I’ll discuss in this article comes out of Covered California, one of the Unites States’ 13 state-based marketplaces for health insurance mandated by the ACA. (All the other states use a federal marketplace or some hybrid solution.) As the country’s biggest state–and one known for progressive experiments–California is worth following to see how adept they are at promoting the universally acknowledged Triple Aim of health care.

An overview of health care quality

There’s no dearth of quality measurement efforts in health care–I gave a partial overview in another article. The Covered California draft cites many of these efforts and advises insurers to hook up with them.

Alas–there are problems with all the quality control efforts:

  • Problems with gathering accurate data (and as we’ll see in California’s case, problems with the overhead and bureaucracy created by this gathering)

  • Problems finding measures that reflect actual improvements in outcomes

  • Problems separating things doctors can control (such as follow-up phone calls) with things they can’t (lack of social supports or means of getting treatment)

  • Problems turning insights into programs that improve care.

But the biggest problem in health care quality, I believe, is the intractable variety of patients. How can you say that a particular patient with a particular combination of congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and diabetes should improve by a certain amount over a certain period of time? How can you guess how many office visits it will take to achieve a change, how many pills, how many hospitalizations? How much should an insurer pay for this treatment?

The more sophisticated payers stratify patients, classifying them by the seriousness of their conditions. And of course, doctors have learned how to game that system. A cleverly designed study by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research has uncovered upcoding in the U.S.’s largest quality-based reimbursement program, Medicare Advantage. They demonstrate that doctors are gaming the system in two ways. First, as the use of Medicare Advantage goes up, so do the diagnosed risk levels of patients. Second, patients who transition from private insurance into Medicare Advantage show higher risk not seen in fee-for-service Medicare.

I don’t see any fixes in the Covered California draft to the problem of upcoding. Probably, like most government reimbursement programs, California will slap on some weighting factor that rewards hospitals with higher numbers of poor and underprivileged patients. But this is a crude measure and is often suspected of underestimating the extra costs these patients bring.

A look at the Covered California draft

Covered California certainly understands what the health care field needs, and one has to be impressed with the sheer reach and comprehensiveness of their quality plan. Among other things, they take on:

  • Patient involvement and access to records (how the providers hated that in the federal Meaningful Use requirements!)

  • Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities

  • Electronic record interoperability

  • Preventive health and wellness services

  • Mental and behavioral health

  • Pharmaceutical costs

  • Telemedicine

If there are any pet initiatives of healthcare reformers that didn’t make it into the Covered California plan, I certainly am having trouble finding them.

Being so extensive, the plan suffers from two more burdens. First, the reporting requirements are enormous–I would imagine that insurers and providers would balk simply at that. The requirements are burdensome partly because Covered California doesn’t seem to trust that the major thrust of health reform–paying for outcomes instead of for individual services–will provide an incentive for providers to do other good things. They haven’t forgotten value-based reimbursement (it’s in section 8.02, page 33), but they also insist on detailed reporting about patient engagement, identifying high-risk patients, and reducing overuse through choosing treatments wisely. All those things should happen on their own if insurers and clinicians adopt payments for outcomes.

Second, many of the mandates are vague. It’s not always clear what Covered California is looking for–let alone how the reporting requirements will contribute to positive change. For instance, how will insurers be evaluated in their use of behavioral health, and how will that use be mapped to meeting the goals of the Triple Aim?

Is rescue on the horizon?

According to a news report, the Covered California plan is “drawing heavy fire from medical providers and insurers.” I’m not surprised, given all the weaknesses I found, but I’m disappointed that their objections (as stated in the article) come from the worst possible motivation: they don’t like its call for transparent pricing. Hiding the padding of costs by major hospitals, the cozy payer/provider deals, and the widespread disparities unrelated to quality doesn’t put providers and insurers on the moral high ground.

To me, the true problem is that the health care field has not learned yet how to measure quality and cost effectiveness. There’s hope, though, with the Precision Medicine initiative that recently celebrated its first anniversary. Although analytical firms seem to be focusing on processing genomic information from patients–a high-tech and lucrative undertaking, but one that offers small gains–the real benefit would come if we “correlate activity, physiological measures and environmental exposures with health outcomes.” Those sources of patient variation account for most of the variability in care and in outcomes. Capture that, and quality will be measurable.

Economists Display What They Don’t Know About the Health Care Industry

Posted on October 7, 2015 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://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.

Recently, I resorted to a rare economic argument in a health IT article, pointing out that it’s unfair to put the burden of high health care costs on the patients. Now 101 economists have come out publicly recommending that very injustice. Their analysis shows the deep reluctance of those who are supposed to guide our health care policy to admit how distorted the current system is, and how entrenched are the powerful forces that keep it from reforming.

My argument cited numerous studies and anecdotal reports to show the deplorable record of the US health care industry regarding costs: providers who don’t reveal prices, providers who don’t know what the patient’s out-of-pocket costs will be, wrenching differences in insurance payments for the same procedure, missing quality information that consumers would need to make fair comparisons, and more. Just as icing on the cake, the most recent Consumer Reports (November 2015) offered a five-page article on all the screw-ups that lead to medical “sticker shock.”

Probably I’m foolish to launch an economic argument with the distinguished signers of the brief letter to key members of Congress. The signers’ credentials are impeccable, placing them in an impressive list of universities and think tanks–all of which, I’m sure give generous coverage for any health care these economists need. If any of the signers should be burdened with the Cadillac tax, they could cover it with an extra consulting gig at the World Bank. (What’s the economics behind “nice work if you can get it”?)

But the economists just aren’t facing realities in the health care industry. Let’s expand their telescoped argument, full of assumptions and leaps of faith, to see what they’re saying.

First, they expect that the Cadillac tax will not be quietly absorbed by firms wooing professionals in high demand (such as health IT developers), but will drive those firms to reduce coverage. The burden will explicitly fall on the individual patient. I suspect that many firms facing staff shortages would just compensate key high-performers for the high-cost health coverage, but let’s accept the economists’ assumption and move on.

Next, the economists assume that the patient will make rational choices leading to what they call “cost-effective care.” What could such choices be?

Can the patient tell her doctor that a certain test is unnecessary, or that a certain treatment is unlikely to improve her condition? Does the patient know that the test has too many false positives, or is unlikely to add to the doctor’s knowledge? These questions lie precisely within the expertise of the provider, not the patient.

Can the patient determine whether a high-cost drug will pay for itself in reduced future health care and improved quality of life? This calls for extended longitudinal research.

Can the patient tell her provider or insurer to adopt a rigorous pay-for-value regime? If she goes looking for an ACO, will it actually gather enough data to treat her efficiently, and does it truly get rewarded for doing so? These are nation-wide policy issues outside the patient’s control.

As I pointed out in my earlier article, the patients lack the information needed to compare the costs and quality of procedures from different providers. Patients try to do so, but data is inadequate. Nor will yelling and screaming about it make any difference–we’ve all known about the problem for years and it hasn’t made much difference so far.

I don’t like dumping on economists. After all, they rarely cause the problems of the world, and are all too often tasked with solving them. The perennial occupational hazard of the economist is to be forced to make recommendations on the basis of insufficient knowledge.

But in this case, the average patient has knowledge that these economists lack. The problems are also well known to anyone in the health care industry who has the courage and clarity of vision to acknowledge what’s going on. If we want the system to change, let’s put public pressure on the people who are actually responsible for the problems–not the hapless patient.

5 Lessons Providers Can Learn from Payers Infographic

Posted on May 1, 2015 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.

ClinicSpectrum has been putting out a whole series of healthcare IT infographics. I recently saw one of them that really caught my eye as it came across my Twitter stream. The infographic offers 5 things providers can learn from payers. I’m sure that concept is a bit unsettling for some providers, but the list is quite intriguing:

  1. Leverage Data to Identify High-Risk Patients
  2. Help Patients Manage Their Meds
  3. Designate a Patient Engagement Advocate
  4. Build Partnerships
  5. Seek Interoperability Opportunities

What do you think about these ideas? Check out the full infographic below for more details:
5 Lessons Learned from Payers
Full Disclosure: ClinicSpectrum sponsors posts on Healthcare Scene.

Fascinating Drawings from #DoMoreHIT Dell Healthcare Think Tank Event

Posted on March 20, 2015 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.

This week I got the change to spend the day at SXSW at the Dell Healthcare Think Tank event. This is my third year in a row participating and it’s always an exciting event. In case you missed it, I’ve embedded the 3 Healthcare Think Tank sessions on EMR and HIPAA so you can watch the recorded video stream from the event.

Also, during each of the three sessions of the event, an artist was capturing what was being said. You can see each of the three drawings below (Click on the drawing to make it larger).

Session 1: Consumer Engagement & Social Media
Consumer Engagement and Social Media

Session 2: Bridging the Gap Between Providers, Payers and Patients
Bridging the Gap Between Payers Providers and Patients

Session 3: Entrepreneurship & Innovation
Healthcare Entrepreneurship and Innovation