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Why Meaningful Use Should Balance Interoperability With More Immediate Concerns

Posted on March 12, 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://radar.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.

Frustration over the stubborn blockage of patient data sharing is spreading throughout the health care field; I hear it all the time. Many reformers have told me independently that the Office of the National Coordinator should refocus their Meaningful Use incentives totally on interoperability and give up on all the other nice stuff in the current requirements. Complaints have risen so high up that the ONC is now concentrating on interoperability, while a new Congressional bill proposes taking the job out of their hands.
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Should the Interoperability of Health Care Records Be the Law of the Land?

Posted on March 10, 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://radar.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 upcoming three days may be critical to health care in the US. Representative Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas) has introduced a bill to promote the interoperability of health care records, and is accepting comments to his office only through March 13. This bill states valuable goals, but also embodies implications we should be wary of–and some real dangers.
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Posters Flame ONC Comments

Posted on March 3, 2015 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

Someone at ONC who has to read public comments deserves a break. They’ve been flamed.

ONC just released the public comments on its 10 year Interoperability Plan. Many of the posts are from stakeholders who provided careful, point by point comments. These often represent greatly divergent views. However, these commenters have one thing quite solidly in common. They’ve read the plan.

Not so, many others who skipped the boring reading homework. They just dumped on it with one theme: The federal government has no business getting its hands on my medical records! There are dozens upon dozens of comments on this theme. They’re irate, angry and often vituperative – to say the least. The fact that nothing like that is in the plan doesn’t stop them from believing it and roundly denouncing it.

Where did all these folks get this notion? From what I can tell, two sources made the inductive leap from practioners sharing EHR records to the feds wanting to know about your lumbago.

One was the Citizens Council for Health Freedom, which issued an August 14, 2014 press release saying:

Our government is funneling billions of dollars into systems that will dump all of our private medical records into one giant hub—accessible by many,” said CCHF president and co-founder Twila Brase. Doctors and nurses who have already started using these systems are not convinced that they are ready for use or even necessary. The government is touting these procedures as ways to streamline patient care, but they’re actually an attempt to capture and store Americans’ private medical data and share it with agencies that have nothing to do with health care.

The release then urged readers to comment on the plan.

Brase cites no sources in or out of the plan for her observations or conclusions.

The other source was Tammy Bruce. On December 14, 2014 she wrote:

Your personal healthcare information will be shared with an astounding 35 agencies (at least), offices and individuals including the Department of Defense, NASA, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Labor, the Federal Communications Commission, the HHS assistant secretary for legislation, the HHS office for civil rights, the HHS office for the general counsel, the Office of Personnel Management, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons.

Clearly, this is meant to establish the fact that every federal agency will be participating in this scheme and will have access to your health information. Not only should this be anathema to every American on principle alone, but having all of our personal information available in the cloud also poses ridiculously obvious general security threats to our personal security.

She also urged readers to comment about the plan.

Again, no proof, no cites, just assertions and conclusions.

I don’t have anything to say about their claims, other than this. Our open political discourse means that those who read posts have to carefully sort out thoughtful, even if misinformed, opinion from dross. Pushing phony claims for whatever reason just makes it all the more difficult. Whoever at ONC has to slog through the dross in these comments has my sympathy.

Restructure and Reform Meaningful Use: Here’s a Way

Posted on February 12, 2015 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

It’s no secret that ONC’s meaningful use program’s a mess. I’m not sure there is an easy way out. In some respects, I wish they would go back and start over, but that’s not going to happen. They could do something to see daylight, but it won’t be either easy or simple. As I‘ll outline, ONC could adopt a graduated system that keeps the MU standards, includes terribly needed interoperability and usability standards, but does not drive everyone crazy over compliance.

MU’s Misguided Approach

ONC has spent much time and money on the MU standards, but has painted itself into a corner. No one, vendors, practioners or users is happy. Vendors see ONC pushing them to add features that aren’t needed or wanted. Practioners see MU imposing costs and practices that don’t benefit them or their patients. Users see EHRs as demonic Rube Goldberg creations out to frustrate, confuse and perplex. To boot, ONC keeps expanding its reach to new areas without progress on the basics.

Most the MU criticisms I’ve seen say MU’s standards are too strict or too vague. Compliance is criticized for being too demanding or not relevant. Most suggested cures tinker with the program: Eliminate standards or delay them. I think the problems are both content and structure. What MU needs is a return to basics and a general restructuring.

Roots of the MU Program’s Problems

It’s easy to beat up on ONC’s failures. Almost everyone has a pet, so I’ll keep mine short.

MU1: Missed Opportunities. MU’s problems stem from its first days. ONC saw EHRs as little more than database systems that stored and retrieved encounters. Data sharing only this:

Capability to exchange key clinical information (for example, problem list, medication list, medication allergies, diagnostic test results), among providers of care and patient authorized entities electronically.

Compliance only required one data exchange attempt. ONC relied on state systems to achieve interoperability. Usability didn’t exist.

MU2: Punting the Problems. ONC’s approach to interoperability and usability was simple. Interoperability was synonymous with continuity of care and public health reports. Every thing else was put off for future testing criteria.

ONC’s usability approach was equally simple. Vendors defined their usability and measurement. The result? Usability’s become a dead topic.

Interoperability

ONC has many good things to say about the need for interoperability. Its recent Roadmap is thoughtful and carefully crafted. However, the roadmap points out just how poor a job ONC has done to date and it highlights, to me, how much ONC needs to rethink its entire MU approach.

Changing ONC

In one of his seminal works on organizations, C. Northcote Parkinson said it’s almost impossible to change a failing organization. His advice is to walk away and sew salt. If you must persist, then you should adopt the heart of a British Drill Sergeant, that nothing is acceptable. Alas, only Congress can do the former and I’m way too old for military service, so I will venture on knowing it’s probably foolhardy, but here goes.

New Basic Requirements

A better approach to MU’s core and menu system would allow vendors to pick and choose the features they want to support, but require that all EHRs meet four basic standards:

  1. Data Set. This first standard would spell out in a basic, medical data set. This would include, for example, vitals, demographics, meds, chief complaints, allergies, surgeries, etc.
  2. Patient ID. A patient’s demographics would include a unique patient identifier. ONC can use its new freedom in this area by asking NIST to develop a protocol with stakeholders.
  3. Interoperability. EHRs would have to transmit and receive, on demand, the basic data set using a standard protocol, for example, HL7.
  4. Usability. Vendors would have to publish the results of running their EHR against NIST’s usability standard. This would give users, for the first time, an independent way to compare EHRs’ usability.

All current EHRs would have to meet these criteria within one year. Compliance would mean certification, but EHRs that only met these criteria would not be eligible for any funding.

Cafeteria Program. For funding, vendors would have to show their EHR supported selected MU2 and MU3 features. The more features certified, the more eligible they’d be for funding.

Here is how it would work. Each MU criteria would have a one to ten score. To be eligible for funding, a product would have to score 50 or more. The higher their score, the higher their funding eligibility.

Provider Compliance. Providers would have a similar system. ONC would assign scores of one to ten for each utilization standard. As with vendors, implementing organizations would receive points for each higher utilization level. That is, unlike current practice, which is all or nothing, the more the system is used to promote MU’s goals the higher the payments. This would permit users to decide which compliance criteria they wanted to support and which they did not.

Flexibility’s Advantages

This system’s flexibility has several advantages. It ends the rigid nature of compliance. It allows ONC to add new criteria as it sees fit giving it freedom to add criteria as needed or to push the field.

It achieves a major advancement for users. It not only tells users how products perform, but it also lets them choose those that best fit their needs.

Vendors, too, benefit from this approach. They would not only know where they stood vs. the competition, but would also be free to innovate without having to include features they don’t want.

ONC Healthcare Interoperability Roadmap Infographic

Posted on February 5, 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.

There’s been a lot of talk around the 10 year ONC Healthcare Interoperability Roadmap. I think it’s a really great thing that they’re helping to drive a lot more discussion around interoperability. I’m very interested in doing the same.

For those who want the cliff notes version of the interoperability roadmap, I think this infographic does a pretty good job summarizing it:
ONC Healthcare Interoperability Roadmap Infographic

What do you think of the roadmap? Is it all conjecture and not much substance or will it make a big difference?

ONC Annual Meeting – Who’s Going?

Posted on January 28, 2015 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

ONC’s Agenda – February 2-3, Washington, DC

Next Monday, ONC holds its annual meeting in downtown DC. I’m going, one small advantage of living here. Here’s the agenda. To see day two, click on the agenda header.

I’m particularly interested in these topics:

  • Adverse event reporting,
  • Interoperability standards,
  • Meaningful Use program’s future, and
  • Usability.

Looking at the agenda, I should stay busy with one exception. There isn’t much on usability. The word’s only on the agenda once. Not a surprise since ONC has pretty much relinquished any role to the vendors.

How important do you think the ONC meeting and also the ONC run Healthdatapalooza now that meaningful use has kind of run its course? Will these two meeting gain steam and influence or will organizations start to go other places? I’ll be interested to watch that trend as I attend the event.

If you can’t attend, you can follow on various webcasts and twitter. If you do plan to attend, I’d love to see you there. To email me, click on my name in my profile blurb, or at carl@ehrselector.com.

The New Congressional Rider: Unique Patient ID Lemonade?

Posted on January 8, 2015 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn't rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

Note: Previous versions referred to Rand Paul as the author of the first congressional rider. That was in error. The first rider was authored by then Representative Ron Paul. I regret the error. CB

Last month, I posted that Ron Paul’s gag rule on a national patient identifier was gone. Shortly, thereafter, Brian Ahier noted that the gag rule wasn’t dead. It just used different words. Now, it looks as if we were both right and both wrong. Here’s why. Paul’s rider’s gone, but its replacement, though daunting, isn’t as restrictive.

The gag rules are appropriation bill riders. Paul’s, which began in 1998, was aimed at a HIPAA provision, which called for identifiers for:

…. [E]ach individual, employer, health plan, and health care provider for use in the health care system. 42 US Code Sec. 1320d-2(b)

It prohibited “[P]lanning, testing, piloting, or developing a national identification card.” This was interpreted to prohibit a national patient id.

As I noted in my post, Paul’s language was dropped from the CRomnibus appropriation act. Brian, however, found new, restrictive language in CRomnibus, which says:

Sec. 510. None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to promulgate or adopt any final standard under section 1173(b) of the Social Security Act providing for, or providing for the assignment of, a unique health identifier for an individual (except in an individual’s capacity as an employer or a health care provider), until legislation is enacted specifically approving the standard.

Gag Rule’s Replacement Language

Unlike Paul’s absolutist text, the new rider makes Congress the last, biggest step in a formal ID process. The new language lets ID development go ahead, but if HHS wants to adopt a standard, Congress must approve it.

This change creates two potential adoption paths. Along the first, and most obvious, HHS develops a mandatory, national patient ID through Medicare, or the Meaningful Use program, etc., and asks congress’ approval. This would be a long, hard, uphill fight.

The second is voluntary adoption. For example, NIST could develop a voluntary, industry standard. Until now, Paul’s rider stopped this approach.

NIST’s a Consensus Building Not a Rulemaking Agency

NIST’s potential ID role is well within its non regulatory, consensus standards development mandate. It could lead a patient ID building effort with EHR stakeholders. Given the high cost of current patient matching techniques, stakeholders may well welcome a uniform, voluntary standard. That would not solve all interoperability problems, but it would go a long way toward that end.

Congress has loosened its grip on a patient ID, now its up to ONC, NIST, etc., to use this new freedom.

Assessment Released of Health Information Exchanges (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on January 6, 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://radar.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.

Like my Boston-area neighbors who perennially agonize over the performance of the Red Sox, healthcare advocates spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about Health Information Exchanges (HIEs). Will the current round of exchanges work after most previous attempts failed? What results can be achieved from the 564 million dollars provided by the Office of the National Coordinator since 2009? Has the effort invested by the government and companies in the Direct project paid off, and why haven’t some providers signed up yet?

I too was consumed by such thoughts when reading a reported contracted by the ONC and released in December, “HIE Program Four Years Later: Key Findings on Grantees’ Experiences from a Six-State Review. Although I found their complicated rating system a bit arbitrary, I found several insights in the 42-page report and recommend it to readers. I won’t try to summarize it here, but will use some of the findings to illuminate–and perhaps harp on–issues that come up repeatedly in the HIE space.
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Looking Back at 2014: Thermidor for Health Care Reform?

Posted on December 29, 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://radar.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.

As money drains out of health care reform, there are indications that the impetus for change is receding as well. Yet some bright spots in health IT remain, so it’s not yet time to announce a Thermidor–the moment when a revolution is reversed and its leaders put to the guillotine. Let’s look back a bit at what went right and wrong in 2014.
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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://radar.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.