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Research Shows that Problems with Health Information Exchange Resist Cures (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on March 23, 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 paper introduced problems found in HIE by two reports: one from the Office of the National Coordinator and another from experts at the Oregon Health & Science University. Tracing the causes of these problems is necessarily somewhat speculative, but the research helps to confirm impressions I have built up over the years.

The ONC noted that developing HIE is very resource intensive, and not yet sustainable. (p. 6) I attribute these problems to the persistence of the old-fashioned, heavyweight model of bureaucratic, geographically limited organizations hooking together clinicians. (If you go to another state, better carry your medical records with you.) Evidence of their continued drag on the field appeared in the report:

Grantees found providers did not want to login to “yet another system” to access data, for example; if information was not easily accessible, providers were not willing to divert time and attention from patients. Similarly, if the system was not user friendly and easy to navigate, or if it did not effectively integrate data into existing patient records, providers abandoned attempts to obtain data through the system. (pp. 76-77)

The Oregon researchers in the AHRQ webinar also confirmed that logging in tended to be a hassle.

Hidden costs further jacked up the burden of participation (p. 72). But even though HIEs already suck up unsustainable amounts of money for little benefit, “Informants noted that it will take many years and significantly more funding and resources to fully establish HIE.” (p. 62) “The paradox of HIE activities is that they need participants but will struggle for participants until the activities demonstrate value. More evidence and examples of HIE producing value are needed to motivate continued stakeholder commitment and investment.” (p. 65)

The adoption of the Direct protocol apparently hasn’t fixed these ongoing problems; hopefully FHIR will. The ONC hopes that, “Open standards, interfaces, and protocols may help, as well as payment structures rewarding HIE.” (p. 7) Use of Direct did increase exchange (p. 56), and directory services are also important (pp. 59-60). But “Direct is used mostly for ADT notifications and similar transitional documents.” (p. 35)

One odd complaint was, “While requirements to meet Direct standards were useful for some, those standards detracted attention from the development of query-based exchange, which would have been more useful.” (p. 77) I consider this observation to be a red herring, because Direct is simply a protocol, and the choice to use it for “push” versus “pull” exchanges is a matter of policy.

But even with better protocols, we’ll still need to fix the mismatch of the data being exchanged: “…the majority of products and provider processes do not support LOINC and SNOMED CT. Instead, providers tended to use local codes, and the process of mapping these local codes to LOINC and SNOMED CT codes was beyond the capacity of most providers and their IT departments.” (p. 77) This shows that the move to FHIR won’t necessarily improve semantic interoperability, unless FHIR requires the use of standard codes.

Trust among providers remains a problem (p. 69) as does data quality (pp. 70-71). But some informants put attitude about all: “Grantees questioned whether HIE developers and HIE participants are truly ready for interoperability.” (p. 71)

It’s bad enough that core health care providers–hospitals and clinics–make little use of HIE. But a wide range of other institutions who desperately need HIE have even less of it. “Providers not eligible for MU incentives consistently lag in HIE connectivity. These setting include behavioral health, substance abuse, long-term care, home health, public health, school-based settings, corrections departments, and emergency medical services.” (p. 75) The AHRQ webinar found very limited use of HIE for facilities outside the Meaningful Use mandate, such as nursing homes (Long Term and Post Acute Care, or LTPAC). Health information exchange was used 10% to 40% of the time in those settings.

The ONC report includes numerous recommendations for continuing the growth of health information exchange. Most of these are tweaks to bureaucratic institutions responsible for promoting HIE. These are accompanied by the usual exhortations to pay for value and improve interoperability.

But six years into the implementation of HITECH–and after the huge success of its initial goal of installing electronic records, which should have served as the basis for HIE–one gets the impression that the current industries are not able to take to the dance floor together. First, ways of collecting and sharing data are based on a 1980s model of health care. And even by that standard, none of the players in the space–vendors, clinicians, and HIE organizations–are thinking systematically.

Who is Adopting EHRs and Why: ONC Turns up Some Surprises

Posted on December 15, 2014 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 high-level view of the direction being taken by electronic health records in the U.S. comes from a recent data brief released by the Office of the National Coordinator. Their survey of physician motivations for adopting EHRs turns up some puzzling and unexpected findings. I’ll look at three issues in this article: the importance of Meaningful Use incentives and penalties, the role of information exchange, and who is or is not adopting EHRs.

Incentives and Penalties
The impact of the Meaningful Use bribes–sorry, I meant incentive payments–in the HITECH act are legendary: they touched off a mad rush to adopt technology that had previously aroused only tepid interest among most physicians, because they found the EHRs outrageously expensive, saw no advantage to their use, or just didn’t want to leave the comfort zone of pen and paper. The dramatic outcome of Stage 1, for instance, can be seen in the first chart of this PDF.

This month’s data brief reconfirms that incentives and penalties played a critical role during the period that Meaningful Use has been in play. In the brief’s Figure 3, incentives and penalties topped the list of reasons for adopting records, with nothing else coming even close (although the list was oddly chosen, leaving out credible reasons such as “EHRs are useful”).

The outsized role payments play is both strange and worrisome. Strange, because the typical $15,000 paid per physician doesn’t even start to cover the costs of converting from paper to an EHR, or even from one EHR to another. Worrisome, because the escalator (a favorite metaphor of former National Coordinator David Blumenthal) on which payments put physicians is leveling off. Funding in the HITECH act ends after Stage 3, and even those payments will be scrutinized by the incoming budget-conscious Congress.

In addition, Stage 2 attestations have been dismally low. Critics throughout the industry, smelling blood, have swooped in to call for scaling back, to suggest that meaningful use provisions be eased or weakened, or just to ask for a more concentrated focus on the key goal of interoperability.

The ONC knows full well that they have to cut back expectations as payments dry up, although penalties from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services can still provide some leverage. Already, the recent House budget has level-funded the ONC for next year. Last summer’s reorganization of the ONC was driven by the new reality. Recent initiatives at the ONC show a stronger zeal for creating and urging the adoption of standards, which would be consistent with the need to find a role appropriate to lean times.

Health Information Exchange
I am also puzzled by the emphasis this month’s data brief puts on health information exchange. Rationally speaking, it would make perfect sense for physicians to ramp up and streamline the sharing of patient data–that’s exactly what all the health care reformers are demanding that they do. Why should somebody ask a patient to expose himself to unnecessary radiation because an X-Ray hasn’t been sent over, or try to treat someone after surgery without knowing the discharge plan?

Actually, most physicians would. That’s how they have been operating for decades. Numerous articles find that most physicians don’t see the value of information exchange, and can profit from their ignorance of previous tests and treatments the patient has received.

And that’s probably why, after taking hundreds of millions of dollars from governments, the heavy-weight institutions called Health Information Exchanges have repeatedly thrown in the towel or been left gasping for breath. At least two generations of HIEs have come and gone, and the trade press is still searching for their value.

So I’m left scratching my head and asking: if doctors adopt EHRs for information exchange, are they getting what they paid for? Redemption may have arrived through the Direct project, an ONC-sponsored standard for a low-cost, relatively frictionless form of data exchange. Although the original goal was to make HIE as simple as email, the infrastructure required to protect privacy imposes more of a technical burden. So the ONC envisioned a network of Health Information Service Provider (HISP) organizations to play the role of middleman, and a number are now operating. According to Julie Maas of EMR Direct, nearly half a million people were using Direct in July 2014, and the number is expected to double the next time statistics are collected next February.

So far, although isolated studies have shown that HIEs improve outcomes and reduce costs, we haven’t seen these effects nationwide.

What Hinders Adoption
Some of the most intriguing statistics in the data brief concern who is adopting EHRs and what holds back others from doing so. The main dividing line is simply size: most big organizations have EHRs and most small ones don’t.

I have explored earlier the pressures of health care reform on small providers and the incentives to merge. Health care technology is a factor in the consolidation we’re seeing around the country. And we should probabaly look forward to more.

Americans have trouble feeling good about consolidation in any field. We’re nostalgic for small-town proprietors like the pharmacist in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We forget that the pharmacist in that movie nearly killed someone by filling a prescription incorrectly. In real life, large organizations can pursue quality in a host of ways unavailable to individuals.

One interesting finding in the data brief is that rural providers are adopting EHRs at the same rate as urban ones. So we can discard any stereotypes of country hick doctors letting teenagers set up the security on their PCs.

Lack of staff and lack of support are, however, major barriers to adoption. This is the last perplexing question I take from the data brief. Certainly, it can be hard to get support for choosing an EHR in the first place. (The Meaningful Use program set up Regional Extension Centers to partially fill the gap.) But after spending millions to install an EHR, aren’t clinicians getting support from the vendors?

Support apparently is not part of the package. Reports from the field tell me that vendors install the software, provide a few hours of training, and tip their hats good-bye. This is poetic justice toward physicians, who for decades have sent patients out weak and groggy with a prescription and a discharge sheet. Smart organizations set aside a major percentage of their EHR funding to training and support–but not everybody knows how to do this or has grasped the need for ongoing support.

I certainly changed some of my opinions about the adoption of EHRs after reading the ONC data brief. But the statistics don’t quite add up. We could use some more background in order to understand how to continue making progress.

Open Source Electronic Health Records: Will They Support Clinical Data Needs of the Future? (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on November 18, 2014 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 first part of this article provided a view of the current data needs in health care and asked whether open source electronic health records could solve those needs. I’ll pick up here with a look at how some open source products deal with the two main requirements I identified: interoperability and analytics.

Interoperability, in health care as in other areas of software, is supported better by open source products than by proprietary ones. The problem with interoperability is that it takes two to tango, and as long as standards remain in a fuzzy state, no one can promise in isolation to be interoperable.

The established standard for exchanging data is the C-CDA, but a careful examination of real-life C-CDA documents showed numerous incompatibilities, some left open by the ambiguous definition of the standard and others introduced by flawed implementations. Blue Button, invented by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a simpler standard with much promise, but is also imperfectly specified.

Deanne Clark, vxVistA Program Manager at DSS, Inc., told me that VistA supports the C-CDA. The open source Mirth HIE software, which I have covered before, is used by vxVistA, OpenVista (the MedSphere VistA offering), and Tolven. Proprietary health exchange products are also used by many VistA customers.

Things may get better if vendors adopt an emerging HL7 standard called FHIR, as I suggested in an earlier article, which may also enable the incorporation of patient-generated data into EHRs. OpenMRS is one open source EHR that has started work on FHIR support.

Tolven illustrates how open source enables interoperability. According to lead developer Tom Jones, Tolven was always designed around care coordination, which is not the focus of proprietary EHRs. He sees no distinction between electronic health records and health information exchange (HIE), which most of the health IT field views as separate functions and products.

From its very start in 2006, Tolven was designed around helping to form a caring community. This proved useful four years later with the release of Meaningful Use requirements, which featured interoperability. APIs allow the easy development of third-party applications. Tovlen was also designed with the rights of the patient to control information flow in mind, although not all implementations respect this decision by putting data directly in the hands of the patient.

In addition to formats that other EHRs can recognize, data exchange is necessary for interoperability. One solution is an API such as FHIR. Another is a protocol for sending and receiving documents. Direct is the leading standard, and has been embraced by open source projects such as OpenEMR.

The second requirement I looked at, support for analytics, is best met by opening a platform to third parties. This assumes interoperability. To combine analytics from different organizations, a program must be able to access data through application programming interfaces (APIs). The open API is the natural complement of open source, handing power over data to outsiders who write programs accessing that data. (Normal access precautions can still be preserved through security keys.)

VistA appears to be the EHR with the most support for analytics, at least in the open source space. Edmund Billings, MD, CMO of MedSphere, pointed out that VistA’s internal interfaces (known as remote procedure calls, a slightly old-fashioned but common computer term for distributed programming) are totally exposed to other developers because the code is open source. VistA’s remote procedure calls are the basis for numerous current projects to create APIs for various languages. Some are RESTful, which supports the most popular current form of distributed programming, while others support older standards widely known as service-oriented architectures (SOA).

An example of the innovation provided by this software evolution is the mobile apps being built by Agilex on VistA. Seong K. Mun, President and CEO of OSEHRA, says that it now supports hundreds of mobile apps.

MedSphere builds commercial applications that plug into its version of Vista. These include multidisciplinary treatment planning tools, flow sheets, and mobile rounding tools so doctor can access information on the floor. MedSphere is also working with analytic groups to access both structured and unstructured information from the EHR.

DSS also adds value to VistA. Clark said that VistA’s native tools are useful for basic statistics, such as how many progress notes have not been signed in a timely fashion. An SQL interface has been in VistA for a long time, DSS’s enhancements include a graphical interface, a hook for Jaspersoft, which is an open source business intelligence tool, and a real-time search tool that spiders through text data throughout all elements of a patient’s chart and brings to the surface conditions that might otherwise be overlooked.

MedSphere and DSS also joined the historical OSEHRA effort to unify the code base across all VistA offerings, from both Veterans Affairs and commercial vendors. MedSphere has added major contributions to Fileman, a central part of VistA. DSS has contributed all its VistA changes to OSEHRA, including the search tool mentioned earlier.

OpenMRS contributor Suranga Kasthurirathne told me that an OpenMRS module exposes its data to DHIS 2, an open source analytics tool supporting visualizations and other powerful features.

I would suggest to the developers of open source health tools that they increase their emphasis on the information tools that industry observers predict are going to be central to healthcare. An open architecture can make it easy to solicit community contributions, and the advances made in these areas can be selling points along with the low cost and easy customizability of the software.