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ONC’s Budget: A Closer Look

Posted on August 3, 2016 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.

When HHS released ONC’s proposed FY2017 budget last winter, almost all attention focused on one part, a $22 million increase for interoperability. While the increase is notable, I think ONC’s full $82 Million budget deserves some attention.

ONC’s FY2017 Spending Plan.

Table I, summarizes ONC’s plan for Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017. The first thing to note is that ONC’s funding would change from general budget funds, known as Budget Authority or BA, to Public Health Service Evaluation funds. HHS’ Secretary may allocate up to 2.1 percent of HHS’ funds to these PHS funds. This change would not alter Congress’ funding role, but apparently signals HHS’s desire to put ONC fully in the public health sector.

Table I
ONC FY2017 Budget

fy2017-budget-justification-onc

What the ONC Budget Shows and What it Doesn’t

ONC’s budget follows the standard, federal government budget presentation format. That is, it lists, by program, how many people and how much money is allocated. In this table, each fiscal year, beginning with FY2015, shows the staffing level and then spending.

Staffing is shown in FTEs, that is, full time equivalent positions. For example, if two persons work 20 hours each, then they are equivalent to one full time person or FTE.

Spending definitions for each fiscal year is a little different. Here’s how that works:

  • FY2015 – What actually was spent or how many actually were hired
  • FY2016 – The spending and hiring Congress set for ONC for the current year.
  • FY2017 – The spending and hiring in the President’s request to Congress for next year.

If you’re looking to see how well or how poorly ONC does its planning, you won’t see it here. As with other federal and most other government budgets, you never see a comparison of plans v how they really did. For example, FY2015 was the last complete fiscal year. ONC’s budget doesn’t have a column showing its FY2015 budget and next to it, what it actually did. If it did, you could see how well or how poorly it did following its plan.

You can’t see the amount budgeted for FY2015 in ONC’s budget, except for its total budget. However, if you look at the FY2016 ONC budget, you can see what was budgeted for each of its four programs. While the budget total and the corresponding actual are identical -$60,367,000, the story at the division level is quite different.

                                   Table II
                    ONC FY2015 Budget v Actual
                                    000s

Division

FY2015 Budget $ FY2015 Actuals $ Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 12,474 13,112 638
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 15,230 15,425 195
Adoption and Meaningful Use 11,139 10,524 (615)
Agency-wide Support 21,524 21,306 (218)
Total 60,367 60,367

 

Table II, shows this by comparing the FY2015 Enacted Budget from ONC’s FY2015 Actuals for its four major activities. While the total remained the same, it shows that there was a major shift of $638,000 from Meaningful Use to Policy. There was a lesser shift of $195,000 from Agency Support to Standards. These shifts could have been actual transfers or they could have been from under and over spending by the divisions.

Interestingly, Table III for staffing shows a different pattern. During FY2015, ONC dropped 25 FTEs, a dozen from Policy Development and the rest from Standards and Meaningful Use. That means, for example, that Policy Development had less people and more money during FY2015.

Table III
ONC FY2015
Budget v Actual Staffing FTEs
Division FY2015 Budget FTEs FY2015 Actuals FTEs Diff
Policy Development and Coordination 49 37 (12)
Standards, Interoperability, and Certification 32 26 (6)
Adoption and Meaningful Use 49 42 (7)
Agency-wide Support 55 55
Total 185 160 25

 

To try to make sense of this, I looked at the current and past year’s budgets, but to no avail. As best I can tell is ONC made great use of contracts and other non personnel services. For example, ONC spent $30 Million on purchase/contracts, which is $8 million more than it did on its payroll.

ONC’s budget, understandably, concentrates on its programs and plans. It puts little emphasis on measuring its hiring and spending abilities. It’s not alone, budgets government and otherwise, are forecast and request documents. However, if we could know how plans went – without having to dig in last year’s weeds  – it would let us know how well a program executed its plans as well as make them. That would be something worth knowing.

New ONC Scorecard Tool Grades C-CDA Documents

Posted on August 2, 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 ONC has released a new scorecard tool which helps providers and developers find and resolve interoperability problems with C-CDA documents. According to HealthDataManagement, C-CDA docs that score well are coded with appropriate structure and semantics under HL7, and so have a better chance of being parseable by different systems.

The scorecard tool, which can be found here, actually offers two different types of scores for C-CDA documents, which must be uploaded to the site to be analyzed. One score diagnoses whether the document meets the requirements of the 2015 Edition Health IT Certification for Transitions of Care, granting a pass/fail grade. The other score, which is awarded as a letter grade ranging from A+ to D, is based on a set of enhanced interoperability rules developed by HL7.

The C-CDA scorecard takes advantage of the work done to develop SMART (Substitutable Medical Apps Resusable Technologies). SMART leverages FHIR, which is intended to make it simpler for app developers to access data and for EMR vendors to develop an API for this purpose. The scorecard, which leverages open-source technology, focuses on C-CDA 2.1 documents.

The SMART C-CDA scorecard was designed to promote best practices in C-CDA implementation by helping creators figure out how well and how often they follow best practices. The idea is also to highlight improvements that can be made right away (a welcome approach in a world where improvement can be elusive and even hard to define).

As SMART backers note, existing C-CDA validation tools like the Transport Testing Tool provided by NIST and Mode-Driven Health Tools, offer a comprehensive analysis of syntactic conformance to C-CDA specs, but don’t promote higher-level best practices. The new scorecard is intended to close this gap.

In case developers and providers have HIPAA concerns, the ONC makes a point of letting users know that the scorecard tool doesn’t retain submitted C-CDA files, and actually deletes them from the server after the files have been processed. That being said, ONC leaders still suggest that submitters not include any PHI or personally-identifiable information in the scorecards they have analyzed.

Checking up on C-CDA validity is becoming increasingly important, as this format is being used far more often than one might expect. For example, according to a story appearing last year in Modern Healthcare:

  • Epic customers shared 10.2 million C-CDA documents in March 2015, including 1.3 million outside the Epic ecosystem (non-Epic EMRs, HIEs and the health systems for the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments)
  • Cerner customers sent 7.3 million C-CDA docs that month, more than half of which were consumed by non-Cerner systems.
  • Athenahealth customers sent about 117,000 C-CDA documents directly to other doctors during the first quarter of 2015.

Critics note that it’s still not clear how useful C-CDA information is to care, nor how often these documents are shared relative to the absolute number of patient visits. Still, even if the jury is still out on their benefits, it certainly makes sense to get C-CDA docs right if they’re going to be transmitted this often.

We Still Need More Female Leaders In Health Tech

Posted on July 12, 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.

Despite the looming presence of Epic’s Judy Faulkner, women are still underrepresented in the boardrooms of health tech companies. This point was underscored a recent article in Healthegy News, which offered a bracing reminder of the need for better gender balance in the industry, especially at the top.

As the article points out, women are grossly underrepresented within digital health, arguably the least traditional niche within the business, running only 6% of these ventures. I don’t know what the stats are for health IT at large but I can’t imagine the ratio is any better (and it may be worse).

And as writer Kirti Patel notes, it’s probably not a coincidence that only 6% of venture capitalists are female. Patel cites stats suggesting that VC teams with women on them are twice as likely to invest in management teams that include women, and three times more likely to invest in companies with female CEOs.

Of course, Faulkner isn’t the only woman to hold a powerful position in the health IT world. Female influencers and leaders in U.S. healthcare industry range from Nancy Ham, CEO of Medicity to Carla Kriwet, CEO of Patient Care and Monitoring Solutions at Phillips to AHIMA CEO Lynne Thomas Gordon. Other standouts include Deborah DiSanzo, General Manager of IBM Watson Health and of course Karen DeSalvo, Acting Assistant Secretary for Health at ONC. But numbers-wise, women with top roles in health IT are still in the minority.

To be fair, the lack of women in the health IT boardroom reflects the larger technology industry. Research suggests that only 25% of professional computing physicians in the 2015 U.S. workforce were held by women, and that just 17% of Fortune 500 CIO positions were held by women that year. This dovetails with other trends, such as the fact that only 15% of 2014 computer science bachelor’s degree recipients at major research universities were women.

Still, even given these statistics, I’d argue that we all know incredible women in health IT who might be capable of far more, including top leadership roles, if they had the opportunity. And while I’m not suggesting that conscious discrimination is going on, gender bias pops up in ways that people don’t always recognize.

The problem is so pervasive, in part, because it extends beyond technical positions to healthcare as a whole. According to statistics from a couple of years ago, women made up 80% of the healthcare workforce, but just 40% of the leadership roles in the industry.

Health IT faces too many challenges to pass over anyone who might have good solutions to offer. Health IT organizations should do everything they can to be sure that unseen gender bias in preventing them from moving the industry forward.

No, The Market Can’t Solve Health Data Interoperability Problems

Posted on July 6, 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.

I seldom disagree with John Halamka, whose commentary on HIT generally strikes me as measured, sensible and well-grounded. But this time, Dr. Halamka, I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Dr. Halamka, chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and co-chair of the ONC’s Health IT Standards Committee, recently told Healthcare IT News that it’s time for ONC and other federal regulators to stop trying to regulate health data interoperability into existence.

“It’s time to return the agenda to the private sector in the clinician’s guide vendors reduce the products and services they want,” Halamka said. “We’re on the cusp of real breakthroughs in EHR usability and interoperability based on the new incentives for outcomes suggested by MACRA and MIPS. {T}he worst thing we could do it this time is to co-opt the private sector agenda more prescriptive regulations but EHR functionality, usability and quality measurement.”

Government regs could backfire

Don’t get me wrong — I certainly appreciate the sentiment. Government regulation of a dynamic goal like interoperability could certainly backfire spectacularly, if for no other reason than that technology evolves far more quickly than policy. Regulations could easily set approaches to interoperability in stone that become outmoded far too quickly.

Not only that, I sympathize with Halamka’s desire to let independent clinical organizations come together to figure out what their priorities are for health data sharing. Even if regulators hire the best, most insightful clinicians on the planet, they still won’t have quite the same perspective as those still working on the front lines every day. Hospitals and medical professionals are in a much better position to identify what data should be shared, how it should be shared and most importantly what they can accomplish with this data.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking what the “private sector agenda” that Halamka cites is, actually. Is he referring to the goals of health IT vendors? Hospitals? Medical practices? Health plans? The dozens of standards and interoperability organization that exist, ranging from HL7 and FHIR to the CommonWell Health Alliance? CHIME? HIMSS? HIEs? To me, it looks like the private sector agenda is to avoid having one. At best, we might achieve the United Nations version of unity as an industry, but like that body it would be interesting but toothless.

Patients ready to snap

After many years of thought, I have come to believe that healthcare interoperability is far too important to leave to the undisciplined forces of the market. As things stand, patients like me are deeply affected by the inefficiencies and mistakes bred by the healthcare industry’ lack of interoperability — and we’re getting pretty tired of it. And readers, I guarantee that anyone who taps the healthcare system as frequently as I do feels the same way. We are on the verge of rebellion. Every time someone tells me they can’t get my records from a sister facility, we’re ready to snap.

So do I believe that government regulation is a wonderful thing? Certainly not. But after watching the HIT industry for about 20 years on health data sharing, I think it’s time for some central body to impose order on this chaos. And in such a fractured market as ours, no voluntary organization is going to have the clout to do so.

Sure, I’d love to think that providers could pressure vendors into coming up with solutions to this problem, but if they haven’t been able to do so yet, after spending a small nation’s GNP on EMRs, I doubt it’s going to happen. Rather than fighting it, let’s work together with the government and regulatory agencies to create a minimal data interoperability set everyone can live with. Any other way leads to madness.

Patients’ Rights Videos

Posted on June 9, 2016 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.

ONC and OCR recently released a number of videos that outline patients’ rights. Here’s one called “Individual’s Rights under HIPAA to Access their Health Information”:

What do you think of these videos? Will they effectively educate patients?

Makes me wonder what ZDoggMD would do with the content.

Halamka Ponders The Need to Leave Medicine If We Continue Our Current Trajectory

Posted on May 5, 2016 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.

The famous Dr. John Halamka, Hospital CIO, Doctor, Former member of the HIT Policy committee, blogger at Life as a Healthcare CIO, recently read the 962 page MACRA NPRM and he wrote up a detailed look at the IT elements of MACRA. The post is worth a read if you’re interested in MACRA. Especially if you don’t want to spend the 20 hours reading it that he spent.

MACRA aside, he ends his post with this bombshell of a comment:

As a practicing clinician for 30 years, I can honestly say that it’s time to leave the profession if we stay on the current trajectory.

A doctor in the comments shared a similar view to Dr. Halamka:

Wow, I feel exactly the same as you do. As a front line ortho provider in a small group. I think now I get the message. CMS and ONC wants us out of private practice, either retire, or join as a salaried doc or hospital employee. That is the only justification for this 1000 page nightmare.

We’ve written a lot about physician burnout and many doctors distaste of all this government regulation, but having someone like John Halamka comment like this is quite telling. What’s scary for me is that I don’t see much light at the end of the MACRA tunnel from a physician perspective. Do you?

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.

Research Shows that Problems with Health Information Exchange Resist Cures (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on March 22, 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.

Given that Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) received 564 million dollars in the 2009 HITECH act to promote health information exchange, one has to give them credit for carrying out a thorough evaluation of progress in that area. The results? You don’t want to know.

There are certainly glass-full as well as glass-empty indications in the 98-page report that the ONC just released. But I feel that failure dominated. Basically, there has been a lot of relative growth in the use of HIE, but the starting point was so low that huge swaths of the industry remain untouched by HIE.

Furthermore, usage is enormously skewed:

In Q2 2012, for example, three states (Indiana, Colorado, and New York) accounted for over 85 percent of total directed transactions; in Q4 2013, five states (Michigan, Colorado, Indiana, New York, Michigan, and Vermont) accounted for over 85 percent of the total. Similarly, in Q2 a single state (Indiana) accounted for over 65 percent of total directed transactions; in Q4 2013, four states (California, Indiana, Texas, and New York) accounted for over 65 percent of the total. (p. 42)

This is a pretty empty glass, with the glass-full aspect being that if some states managed to achieve large numbers of participation, we should be able to do it everywhere. But we haven’t done it yet.

Why health information exchange is crucial

As readers know, health costs are eating up more and more of our income (in the US as well as elsewhere, thanks to aging populations and increasing chronic disease). Furthermore, any attempt to stem the problem requires coordinated care and long-term thinking. But the news in these areas has been disappointing as well. For instance:

  • Patient centered medical homes (PCMH) are not leading to better outcomes. One reason may be the limited use of health information exchange, because the success of treating a person in his own habitat depends on careful coordination.

  • Accountable Care Organizations are losing money and failing to attract new participants. A cynical series of articles explores their disappointing results. I suspect that two problems account for this: first, they have not made good use of health information exchange, and second, risk sharing is minimal and not extensive enough to cause a thoroughgoing change to long-term care.

  • Insurers are suffering too, because they have signed up enormous numbers of sick patients under the Affordable Care Act. The superficial adoption of fee-for-value and the failure of clinicians to achieve improvements in long-term outcomes are bankrupting the payers and pushing costs more and more onto ordinary consumers.

With these dire thoughts in mind, let’s turn to HIE.

HIE challenges and results

The rest of this article summarizes the information I find most salient in the ONC report, along with some research presented in a recent webinar by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) on this timely topic. (The webinar itself hasn’t been put online yet.)

The ONC report covers the years 2011-2014, so possibly something momentous has happened over the past year to change the pattern. But I suspect that substantial progress will have to wait for widespread implementation of FHIR, which is too new to appear in the report.

You can read the report and parse the statistics until you get a headache, but I will cite just one more passage about the rate of HIE adoption in order to draw a broad conclusion.

As of 2015, the desire for actionable data, focus on MU 2 priorities, and exchange related to delivery system reform is in evidence. Care summary exchange rates facilitated through HIOs are high—for example, care record summaries (89%); discharge summaries (78%); and ambulatory clinical summaries (67%). Exchange rates are also high for test results (89%), ADT alerts (69%), and inpatient medication lists (68%). (p. 34)

What I find notable in the previous quote is that all the things where HIE use improved were things that clinicians have always done anyway. There is nothing new about sending out discharge summaries or reporting test results. (Nobody would take a test if the results weren’t reported–although I found it amusing to receive an email message recently from my PCP telling me to log into their portal to see results, and to find nothing on the portal but “See notes.” The notes, you might have guessed, were not on the portal.)

One hopes that using HIE instead of faxes and phone calls will lower costs and lead to faster action on urgent conditions. But a true leap in care will happen only when HIE is used for close team coordination and patient reporting–things that don’t happen routinely now. One sentence in the report hints at this: “Providers exchanged information, but they did not necessarily use it to support clinical decision-making.” (p. 77) One wonders what good the exchange is.

In the AHRQ webinar, experts from the Oregon Health & Science University reported results of a large literature review, including:

  • HIE reduces the use lab and radiology tests, as well emergency department use. This should lead to improved outcomes as well as lower costs, although the literature couldn’t confirm that.

  • Disappointingly, there was little evidence that hospital admissions were reduced, or that medication adherence improved.

  • Two studies claimed that HIE was “associated with improved quality of care” (a very vague endorsement).

In the next section of this article, I’ll return to the ONC report for some clues as to the reasons HIE isn’t working well.

The Case For Dumping EMR Interoperability Goals

Posted on December 22, 2015 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 new year is upon us, and maybe we should consider some new approaches, or even throw out accepted wisdom. Why not consider some major pain points and reconsider how we’re handling them?

In that spirit, my question is this: Should we give up on the idea that EMR vendors will ever allow their data will be interoperable? While this conclusion isn’t exactly a no-brainer, many of us have certainly toyed with the idea. So let’s take ‘er out for a spin.

One major consideration is that EMR vendors have some very compelling reasons for keeping things as they are. Perhaps most notably, interoperability would mean that providers wouldn’t be trapped in deals with a single vendor, as they could just shift the data over to a new platform if the need arose. If I sold EMRs I’d fight tooth and nail to prevent my product from being dumped too easily.

As if that weren’t enough of a disincentive, EMR vendors would need to spend big bucks to achieve interoperability, with no direct reward in sight. Somehow, I doubt that they’re ever going to make such an investment to win some “nice guy” award from the industry.

And even if they could somehow achieve interoperability without breaking a sweat, we’ve got to contend with inertia. Making changes on that scale takes a great deal of effort, and EMR vendors have very little reason to do so.

Maybe the federal government could achieve interoperability through some kind of epic power play, like refusing to issue Medicare reimbursement to providers whose EMRs didn’t meet some ONC interoperability standard.

But even that kind of brute force wouldn’t solve the interoperability problem with one stroke. Such an approach would come with a raft of serious concerns. What interoperability standard would ONC use, and how long would it take to choose? Then, how long would vendors have to meet the standard?  How long would providers have to decommission their existing EMR — and let’s not forget, quite possibly interlocking HIT systems — and where would they get the money for the new/upgraded systems?

Not only that, it would it cost billions of dollars, without a doubt, to make this transition. It could take a decade before the transition was complete. A lot can happen to derail such an initiative over that amount of time, and market forces could render the premises of such an effort obsolete.

On top of that, any effort which encouraged providers to dump their existing EMR platform would greatly diminish, if not erase, the value of the billions of dollars invested in Meaningful Use incentives. A lot of effort has gone into workflow and interface designs that support MU compliance, and starting from scratch on a new platform would NOT be a walk in the park.  So meeting MU goals might be possible over time, but could fall by the wayside for the short term.

All told, it seems that we may be chasing our tails trying to push through interoperability. In theory it sounds good, but when you look at the details it seems unlikely to happen. That being said, the need to share patient data isn’t going to go away, so what alternatives might work? I’ll follow up with some additional thoughts.

Significant Articles in the Health IT Community in 2015

Posted on December 15, 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.

Have you kept current with changes in device connectivity, Meaningful Use, analytics in healthcare, and other health IT topics during 2015? Here are some of the articles I find significant that came out over the past year.

The year kicked off with an ominous poll about Stage 2 Meaningful Use, with implications that came to a head later with the release of Stage 3 requirements. Out of 1800 physicians polled around the beginning of the year, more than half were throwing in the towel–they were not even going to try to qualify for Stage 2 payments. Negotiations over Stage 3 of Meaningful Use were intense and fierce. A January 2015 letter from medical associations to ONC asked for more certainty around testing and certification, and mentioned the need for better data exchange (which the health field likes to call interoperability) in the C-CDA, the most popular document exchange format.

A number of expert panels asked ONC to cut back on some requirements, including public health measures and patient view-download-transmit. One major industry group asked for a delay of Stage 3 till 2019, essentially tolerating a lack of communication among EHRs. The final rules, absurdly described as a simplification, backed down on nothing from patient data access to quality measure reporting. Beth Israel CIO John Halamka–who has shuttled back and forth between his Massachusetts home and Washington, DC to advise ONC on how to achieve health IT reform–took aim at Meaningful Use and several other federal initiatives.

Another harbinger of emerging issues in health IT came in January with a speech about privacy risks in connected devices by the head of the Federal Trade Commission (not an organization we hear from often in the health IT space). The FTC is concerned about the security of recent trends in what industry analysts like to call the Internet of Things, and medical devices rank high in these risks. The speech was a lead-up to a major report issued by the FTC on protecting devices in the Internet of Things. Articles in WIRED and Bloomberg described serious security flaws. In August, John Halamka wrote own warning about medical devices, which have not yet started taking security really seriously. Smart watches are just as vulnerable as other devices.

Because so much medical innovation is happening in fast-moving software, and low-budget developers are hankering for quick and cheap ways to release their applications, in February, the FDA started to chip away at its bureaucratic gamut by releasing guidelines releasing developers from FDA regulation medical apps without impacts on treatment and apps used just to transfer data or do similarly non-transformative operations. They also released a rule for unique IDs on medical devices, a long-overdue measure that helps hospitals and researchers integrate devices into monitoring systems. Without clear and unambiguous IDs, one cannot trace which safety problems are associated with which devices. Other forms of automation may also now become possible. In September, the FDA announced a public advisory committee on devices.

Another FDA decision with a potential long-range impact was allowing 23andMe to market its genetic testing to consumers.

The Department of Health and Human Services has taken on exceedingly ambitious goals during 2015. In addition to the daunting Stage 3 of Meaningful Use, they announced a substantial increase in the use of fee-for-value, although they would still leave half of providers on the old system of doling out individual payments for individual procedures. In December, National Coordinator Karen DeSalvo announced that Health Information Exchanges (which limit themselves only to a small geographic area, or sometimes one state) would be able to exchange data throughout the country within one year. Observers immediately pointed out that the state of interoperability is not ready for this transition (and they could well have added the need for better analytics as well). HHS’s five-year plan includes the use of patient-generated and non-clinical data.

The poor state of interoperability was highlighted in an article about fees charged by EHR vendors just for setting up a connection and for each data transfer.

In the perennial search for why doctors are not exchanging patient information, attention has turned to rumors of deliberate information blocking. It’s a difficult accusation to pin down. Is information blocked by health care providers or by vendors? Does charging a fee, refusing to support a particular form of information exchange, or using a unique data format constitute information blocking? On the positive side, unnecessary imaging procedures can be reduced through information exchange.

Accountable Care Organizations are also having trouble, both because they are information-poor and because the CMS version of fee-for-value is too timid, along with other financial blows and perhaps an inability to retain patients. An August article analyzed the positives and negatives in a CMS announcement. On a large scale, fee-for-value may work. But a key component of improvement in chronic conditions is behavioral health which EHRs are also unsuited for.

Pricing and consumer choice have become a major battleground in the current health insurance business. The steep rise in health insurance deductibles and copays has been justified (somewhat retroactively) by claiming that patients should have more responsibility to control health care costs. But the reality of health care shopping points in the other direction. A report card on state price transparency laws found the situation “bleak.” Another article shows that efforts to list prices are hampered by interoperability and other problems. One personal account of a billing disaster shows the state of price transparency today, and may be dangerous to read because it could trigger traumatic memories of your own interactions with health providers and insurers. Narrow and confusing insurance networks as well as fragmented delivery of services hamper doctor shopping. You may go to a doctor who your insurance plan assures you is in their network, only to be charged outrageous out-of-network costs. Tools are often out of date overly simplistic.

In regard to the quality ratings that are supposed to allow intelligent choices to patients, A study found that four hospital rating sites have very different ratings for the same hospitals. The criteria used to rate them is inconsistent. Quality measures provided by government databases are marred by incorrect data. The American Medical Association, always disturbed by public ratings of doctors for obvious reasons, recently complained of incorrect numbers from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. In July, the ProPublica site offered a search service called the Surgeon Scorecard. One article summarized the many positive and negative reactions. The New England Journal of Medicine has called ratings of surgeons unreliable.

2015 was the year of the intensely watched Department of Defense upgrade to its health care system. One long article offered an in-depth examination of DoD options and their implications for the evolution of health care. Another article promoted the advantages of open-source VistA, an argument that was not persuasive enough for the DoD. Still, openness was one of the criteria sought by the DoD.

The remote delivery of information, monitoring, and treatment (which goes by the quaint term “telemedicine”) has been the subject of much discussion. Those concerned with this development can follow the links in a summary article to see the various positions of major industry players. One advocate of patient empowerment interviewed doctors to find that, contrary to common fears, they can offer email access to patients without becoming overwhelmed. In fact, they think it leads to better outcomes. (However, it still isn’t reimbursed.)

Laws permitting reimbursement for telemedicine continued to spread among the states. But a major battle shaped up around a ruling in Texas that doctors have a pre-existing face-to-face meeting with any patient whom they want to treat remotely. The spread of telemedicine depends also on reform of state licensing laws to permit practices across state lines.

Much wailing and tears welled up over the required transition from ICD-9 to ICD-10. The AMA, with some good arguments, suggested just waiting for ICD-11. But the transition cost much less than anticipated, making ICD-10 much less of a hot button, although it may be harmful to diagnosis.

Formal studies of EHR strengths and weaknesses are rare, so I’ll mention this survey finding that EHRs aid with public health but are ungainly for the sophisticated uses required for long-term, accountable patient care. Meanwhile, half of hospitals surveyed are unhappy with their EHRs’ usability and functionality and doctors are increasingly frustrated with EHRs. Nurses complained about technologies’s time demands and the eternal lack of interoperability. A HIMSS survey turned up somewhat more postive feelings.

EHRs are also expensive enough to hurt hospital balance sheets and force them to forgo other important expenditures.

Electronic health records also took a hit from ONC’s Sentinel Events program. To err, it seems, is not only human but now computer-aided. A Sentinel Event Alert indicated that more errors in health IT products should be reported, claiming that many go unreported because patient harm was avoided. The FDA started checking self-reported problems on PatientsLikeMe for adverse drug events.

The ONC reported gains in patient ability to view, download, and transmit their health information online, but found patient portals still limited. Although one article praised patient portals by Epic, Allscripts, and NextGen, an overview of studies found that patient portals are disappointing, partly because elderly patients have trouble with them. A literature review highlighted where patient portals fall short. In contrast, giving patients full access to doctors’ notes increases compliance and reduces errors. HHS’s Office of Civil Rights released rules underlining patients’ rights to access their data.

While we’re wallowing in downers, review a study questioning the value of patient-centered medical homes.

Reuters published a warning about employee wellness programs, which are nowhere near as fair or accurate as they claim to be. They are turning into just another expression of unequal power between employer and employee, with tendencies to punish sick people.

An interesting article questioned the industry narrative about the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act, saying that the industry is expanding robustly in the face of the tax. However, this tax is still a hot political issue.

Does anyone remember that Republican congressmen published an alternative health care reform plan to replace the ACA? An analysis finds both good and bad points in its approach to mandates, malpractice, and insurance coverage.

Early reports on use of Apple’s open ResearchKit suggested problems with selection bias and diversity.

An in-depth look at the use of devices to enhance mental activity examined where they might be useful or harmful.

A major genetic data mining effort by pharma companies and Britain’s National Health Service was announced. The FDA announced a site called precisionFDA for sharing resources related to genetic testing. A recent site invites people to upload health and fitness data to support research.

As data becomes more liquid and is collected by more entities, patient privacy suffers. An analysis of web sites turned up shocking practices in , even at supposedly reputable sites like WebMD. Lax security in health care networks was addressed in a Forbes article.

Of minor interest to health IT workers, but eagerly awaited by doctors, was Congress’s “doc fix” to Medicare’s sustainable growth rate formula. The bill did contain additional clauses that were called significant by a number of observers, including former National Coordinator Farzad Mostashari no less, for opening up new initiatives in interoperability, telehealth, patient monitoring, and especially fee-for-value.

Connected health took a step forward when CMS issued reimbursement guidelines for patient monitoring in the community.

A wonky but important dispute concerned whether self-insured employers should be required to report public health measures, because public health by definition needs to draw information from as wide a population as possible.

Data breaches always make lurid news, sometimes under surprising circumstances, and not always caused by health care providers. The 2015 security news was dominated by a massive breach at the Anthem health insurer.

Along with great fanfare in Scientific American for “precision medicine,” another Scientific American article covered its privacy risks.

A blog posting promoted early and intensive interactions with end users during app design.

A study found that HIT implementations hamper clinicians, but could not identify the reasons.

Natural language processing was praised for its potential for simplifying data entry, and to discover useful side effects and treatment issues.

CVS’s refusal to stock tobacco products was called “a major sea-change for public health” and part of a general trend of pharmacies toward whole care of the patient.

A long interview with FHIR leader Grahame Grieve described the progress of the project, and its the need for clinicians to take data exchange seriously. A quiet milestone was reached in October with a a production version from Cerner.

Given the frequent invocation of Uber (even more than the Cheesecake Factory) as a model for health IT innovation, it’s worth seeing the reasons that model is inapplicable.

A number of hot new sensors and devices were announced, including a tiny sensor from Intel, a device from Google to measure blood sugar and another for multiple vital signs, enhancements to Microsoft products, a temperature monitor for babies, a headset for detecting epilepsy, cheap cameras from New Zealand and MIT for doing retinal scans, a smart phone app for recognizing respiratory illnesses, a smart-phone connected device for detecting brain injuries and one for detecting cancer, a sleep-tracking ring, bed sensors, ultrasound-guided needle placement, a device for detecting pneumonia, and a pill that can track heartbeats.

The medical field isn’t making extensive use yet of data collection and analysis–or uses analytics for financial gain rather than patient care–the potential is demonstrated by many isolated success stories, including one from Johns Hopkins study using 25 patient measures to study sepsis and another from an Ontario hospital. In an intriguing peek at our possible future, IBM Watson has started to integrate patient data with its base of clinical research studies.

Frustrated enough with 2015? To end on an upbeat note, envision a future made bright by predictive analytics.