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Bringing the Obvious to the Surface Through Analytics

Posted on May 26, 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 ( 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.

Analytics can play many roles, big and small, in streamlining health care. Data crunching may uncover headline-making revelations such as the role smoking plays in cancer. Or it may save a small clinic a few thousand dollars. In either case, it’s the hidden weapon of modern science.

The experience of Dr. Jordan Shlain (@drshlain) is a success story in health care analytics, one that he taking big time with a company called HealthLoop. The new venture dazzles customers with fancy tools for tracking and measuring their customer interactions–but it all started with an orthopedic clinic and a simple question Shlain asked the staff: how many phone calls do you get each week?

Asking the right question is usually the start to a positive experience with analytics. In the clinic’s case, it wasn’t hard to find the right question because Shlain could hear the phones ringing off the hook all day. The staff told him they get some 200 calls each week and it was weighing them down.

OK, the next step was to write down who called and the purpose of every call. The staff kept journals for two weeks. Shlain and his colleagues then reviewed the data and found out what was generating the bulk of the calls.

Sometimes, analytics turns up an answer so simple, you feel you should have known it all along. That’s what happened in this case.

The clinic found that most calls came from post-operative patients who were encountering routine symptoms during recovery. After certain surgeries, for instance, certain things tend to happen 6 to 9 days afterward. As if they had received instructions to do, patients were calling during that 6-to-9-day period to ask whether they symptoms were OK and what they should do. Another set of conditions might turn up 11 to 14 days after the surgery.

Armed with this information, the clinic proceeded to eliminate most of their phone calls and free up their time for better work. Shlain calls the clinic’s response to patient needs “health loops,” a play on the idea of feedback loops. Around day 5 after a surgery, staff would contact the patient to warn her to look for certain symptoms during the 6-to-9-day period. They did this for every condition that tended to generate phone calls.

HealthLoop builds on this insight and attaches modern digital tools for tracking and communications. Patients are contacted through secure messaging on the device of their choice. They are provided with checklists of procedures to perform at home. There’s even a simple rating system, like the surveys you receive after taking your car in to be fixed or flying on an airline.

Patient engagement–probably the most popular application of health IT right now–is also part of HealthLoop. A dashboard warns the clinician which patients to perform each day, surfacing the results of risk stratification at a glance. There’s also an activity feed for each patient that summarizes what a doctor needs to know.

Analytics doesn’t have to be rocket science. But you have to know what you’re looking for, collect the data that tells you the answer, and embody the resulting insights into workflow changes and supporting technologies. With his first experiment in phone call tracking, Shlain just took the time to look. So look around your own environment and ask what obvious efficiencies analytics could turn up for you.

EHRs Don’t Support Key Parts of Practice

Posted on June 3, 2013 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 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.

Ideally, EHRs make the clinical exams more efficient and effective, ultimately saving or even making more money for medical practices.  But the reality is that they bypass other parts of the patient encounter where much of the costs and inefficiencies are generated, according to a whitepaper by athenahealth, “The Economics of Patient Workflow: Cracking the Code of Successful EHR Design.

As the paper notes, 100 percent of practice revenue is generated by the patient exam. Other stages of managing a practice, such as orders and results management, generate 30 percent to 40 percent of costs but no revenue at all. So having an EHR in place which does little to improve exam efficiency — or actually reduces it — is a dangerous thing to do to a practice.

Worse, as the paper points out, there are some major flaws with typical, software-based EHRs:

* They’re too expensive:  Typical cost is $33,000 per physician plus $1,500 per doctor per month for maintenance.

* They don’t save money because they slow doctors down:  Most EHRs force physicians to do a lot of data entry, much in time-consuming, structured formats.

* They aren’t designed to manage the P4P cycle seamlessly:  With most EHRs, doctors have to dig out the data needed to create pay for performance reports.

* They usually don’t offer an efficient, closed-loop solution to the problem of monitoring paper and electronic orders and results:  Remember, orders and result management generates as much as 40 percent of practice expenses.  EHRs’ failure to make such tracking efficient is a major obstacle for medical practices.

Few EHRs support follow-up work from orders and results effectively:  Most EHRs don’t include built-in management and tracking of patient communications, forcing providers to do inefficient and potentially risky manual follow-up.

The white paper goes on to make the argument that there are several reasons why Web-based EHRs solve these problems, largely by requiring no up front cost, using up less physician time on data entry, optimizing collection of data for P4P programs, digitizing all paperwork and tracking practice results.

Social Media and Doctor Satisfaction

Posted on June 14, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the 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 and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

I found this recent post by Howard J. Luks, MD very intellectually stimulating. It’s a great read. Particularly if you’re a doctor or someone who tries to understand some of the various physician perspectives.

Here’s one section that sounded all too familiar to me:

Discussions about physician dissatisfaction occur at every water cooler, in every operating room lounge, and that every dinner many of us attend. But I often wonder if any of my colleagues are actively pursuing workflow changes, office efficiencies, or changes to their daily habits which may improve their level of job satisfaction. Interestingly, when I pose that question to my colleagues… the answer always seems to focus on finding another job… hmmm.

I can’t tell you how many doctors I’ve had come up to me with some hair brained website/internet idea and they want to build it. The story is so often the same. They make good money as a doctor, but they have to do it forever to make that money. They see the internet as this font of wealth. I try to let them down easy when I describe what it really takes to do what they’ve described. Ok, maybe I’m not that gentle in my description. I don’t want to crush dreams, but I do want them to understand what it really takes to do what they want to do. I digress…

Here’s another powerful part of Dr. Luk’s post:

Last week in my office, I received 5 emails germane to this topic. Three simply mentioned how satisfied they were with their encounter in the office in terms of the time they were given, the time I took to listen to their complaints, and the time I took to explain the natural history of their disease. Two of the e-mails came from long-term patients who are many years out from surgery — yet ventured onto my website and decided that they would touch base.

That simply makes my day.
From a work perspective, there’s no greater level of satisfaction that I could ask for.

The whole post is great since he covers the challenges of medicine as well and has a great golf analogy about how the perfect shot makes up for all the bad shots kind of like the grateful patient makes up for the bad ones.

Of course, all this discussion of patient and doctor satisfaction makes me wonder what role things like social media, PHR and patient portals can play in a doctor’s satisfaction. Many doctors fear the idea of being connected to their patients in some sort of social media. I’m not saying there aren’t reasonable precautions that need to be taken in our litigious society. However, I wonder if many doctors are missing out on some of the satisfaction they could get by using social media.

I have first hand knowledge of the job satisfaction you get when someone sends you a kind email in response to your blog post, tweet, or other communication. I know I can recount many such experiences because they were so satisfying that I’ll never forget them. I’m sure many doctors are missing out on similar experiences, because their afraid to open a channel up for that communication.