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Streamlining Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Research in Software Agile Fashion

Posted on January 18, 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.

Medical research should not be in a crisis. More people than ever before want its products, and have the money to pay for them. More people than ever want to work in the field as well, and they’re uncannily brilliant and creative. It should be a golden era. So the myriad of problems faced by this industry–sources of revenue slipping away from pharma companies, a shift of investment away from cutting-edge biomedical firms, prices of new drugs going through the roof–must lie with the development processes used in the industry.

Like many other industries, biomedicine is contrasted with the highly successful computer industry. Although the financial prospects of this field have sagged recently (with hints of an upcoming dot-com bust similar to the early 2000s), there’s no doubt that computer people have mastered a process for churning out new, appealing products and services. Many observers dismiss the comparison between biomedicine and software, pointing out that the former has to deal much more with the prevalence of regulations, the dominance of old-fashioned institutions, and the critical role of intellectual property (patents).

Still, I find a lot of intriguing parallels between how software is developed and how biomedical research becomes products. Coding up a software idea is so simple now that it’s done by lots of amateurs, and Web services can try out and throw away new features on a daily basis. What’s expensive is getting the software ready for production, a task that requires strict processes designed and carried out by experienced professionals. Similarly, in biology, promising new compounds pop up all the time–the hard part is creating a delivery mechanism that is safe and reliable.

Generating Ideas: An Ever-Improving Environment

Software development has benefited in the past decade from an incredible degree of evolving support:

  • Programming languages that encapsulate complex processes in concise statements, embody best practices, and facilitate maintenance through modularization and support for testing

  • Easier development environments, especially in the cloud, which offer sophisticated test tools (such as ways to generate “mock” data for testing and rerun tests automatically upon each change to the code), easy deployment, and performance monitoring

  • An endless succession of open source libraries to meet current needs, so that any problem faced by programmers in different settings is solved by the first wave of talented programmers that encounter it

  • Tools for sharing and commenting on code, allowing massively distributed teams to collaborate

Programmers have a big advantage over most fields, in that they are experts in the very skills that produce the tools they use. They have exploited this advantage of the years to make software development cheaper, faster, and more fun. Treated by most of the industry as a treasure of intellectual property, software is actually becoming a commodity.

Good software still takes skill and experience, no doubt about that. Some research has discovered that a top programmer is one hundred times as productive as a mediocre one. And in this way, the programming field also resembles biology. In both cases, it takes a lot of effort and native talent to cross the boundary from amateur to professional–and yet more than enough people have done so to provoke unprecedented innovation. The only thing holding back medical research is lack of funding–and that in turn is linked to costs. If we lowered the costs of drug development and other treatments, we’d free up billions of dollars to employ the thousands of biologists, chemists, and others striving to enter the field.

Furthermore, there are encouraging signs that biologists in research labs and pharma companies are using open source techniques as software programmers do to cut down waste and help each other find solutions faster, as described in another recent article and my series on Sage Bionetworks. If we can expand the range of what companies call “pre-competitive research” and sign up more of the companies to join the commons, innovation in biotech will increase.

On the whole, most programming teams practice agile development, which is creative, circles around a lot, and requires a lot of collaboration. Some forms of development still call for a more bureaucratic process of developing requirements, approving project plans, and so forth–you can’t take an airplane back to the hanger for a software upgrade if a bug causes it to crash into a mountain. And all those processes exist in agile development too, but subject to a more chaotic process. The descriptions I’ve read of drug development hark of similar serendipity and unanticipated twists.

The Chasm Between Innovation and Application

The reason salaries for well-educated software developers are skyrocketing is that going from idea to implementation is an entirely different job from idea generation.

Software that works in a test environment often wilts when exposed to real-life operating conditions. It has to deal with large numbers of requests, with ill-formed or unanticipated requests from legions of new users, with physical and operational interruptions that may result from a network glitch halfway around the world, with malicious banging from attackers, and with cost considerations associated with scaling up.

In recent years, the same developers who created great languages and development tools have put a good deal of ingenuity into tools to solve these problems as well. Foremost, as I mentioned before, are cloud offerings–Infrastructure as a Service or Platform as a Service–that take hardware headaches out of consideration. At the cost of increased complexity, cloud solutions let people experiment more freely.

In addition, a bewildering plethora of tools address every task an operations person must face: creating new instances of programs, scheduling them, apportioning resources among instances, handling failures, monitoring them for uptime and performance, and so on. You can’t count the tools built just to help operations people collect statistics and create visualizations so they can respond quickly to problems.

In medicine, what happens to a promising compound? It suddenly runs into a maze of complicated and costly requirements:

  • It must be tested on people, animals, or (best of all) mock environments to demonstrate safety.

  • Researchers must determine what dose, delivered in what medium, can withstand shipping and storage, get into the patient, and reach its target.

  • Further testing must reassure regulators and the public that the drug does its work safely and effectively, a process that involves enormous documentation.

As when deploying software, developing and testing a treatment involves much more risk and many more people than the original idea took. But software developers are making progress on their deployment problem. Perhaps better tools and more agile practices can cut down the tool taken by the various phases of pharma development. Experiments being run now include:

  • Sharing data about patients more widely (with their consent) and using big data to vastly increase the pool of potential test subjects. This is crucial because a a large number of tests fail for lack of subjects

  • Using big data also to track patients better and more quickly find side effects and other show-stoppers, as well as potential off-label uses.

  • Tapping into patient communities to determine better what products they need, run tests more efficiently, and keep fewer from dropping out.

There’s hope for pharma and biomedicine. The old methods are reaching the limits of their effectiveness, as we demand ever more proof of safety and effectiveness. The medical field can’t replicate what software developers have done for themselves, but it can learn a lot from them nevertheless.

7% of Medical Records are Mismatched or Duplicates

Posted on January 15, 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.

Patient Matching Problem

Anyone that’s worked in healthcare knows that patient matching is a major problem. It’s interesting to see that ONC has quantified the problem as 7 out of 100 medical records having issues. It’s not hard to see how this can, will and does lead to medical errors. Doctors need the right information at the right time. If they are missing information or have the wrong information, then it can lead to deadly consequences.

One challenge I have with this problem is that I’ve heard many suggest that the reason this is such a problem is that we don’t have a national patient identifier. Next week CHIME is going to announce the details of their $1 million National Patient ID Challenge. We should have Anne Zieger onsite to report on the event, but here’s the challenge:

Ensure 100% accuracy of every patient’s health info to reduce preventable medical errors and eliminate unnecessary hospital costs/resources.

While I applaud CHIME’s efforts to push the national patient id forward, the issue of patient matching won’t just be solved by having a national patient ID. We’ll see what the challenge produces, but the challenge is so complex that I don’t think anyone will be able to achieve 100% accuracy. While I don’t think we’ll ever be perfect when it comes to patient matching in healthcare, I do think we can do better. Maybe CHIME’s efforts will help inspire organizations to do better.

Software Is Dramatically Better Than Paper – Even if EHR Is Far from Perfection

Posted on January 14, 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.

After writing my piece yesterday on the reasons so many physicians are burnt out and my previous New Year’s post on physicians getting pissed off, I thought it might be good to add a little more perspective to the discussion.

In a perfect act of serendipity I came across this great article with quotes from Ross Koppel, scholar in the Sociology Department & School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. First, he puts the situation many organizations find themselves in:

If I buy a toaster and my wife says, ‘It’s lousy; throw it out,’ to preserve domestic tranquility I throw out the toaster and buy a new one. If I spend $1.2 billion or $1.7, I am married and I don’t have a heck of a lot of options.

Then he offers what I think is a proper reality check:

There has been increasing rage on the part of physicians and others about the software not being responsive to their needs. That said, I would be the last person on Earth to argue we should go back to paper. The software is dramatically better than paper. [emphasis added]

I’m sure that some doctors will come on this post and start to point out the virtues of paper. No doubt, there were a lot of good things about paper. A long time ago I wrote a post that described the perfect interface that was infinitely flexible, multi-lingual, no training needed, etc and I was just describing the virtues of the paper chart. I get the paper chart was great for a lot of reasons, but it was awful for a lot of reasons as well. I’m reminded of this post called “Don’t Act Like Paper Charting Was Fast.” I won’t even mention how much time was wasted trying to read illegible charts or searching for the chart that could not be found. Oh wait, I just did.

The problem with all the benefits of EHR is that we quickly take them for granted and promptly forget about them. However, the problems and challenges stare us in the face and annoy us every day. Let’s just reconcile us to the fact that the Perfect EMR is Mythology. However, in many ways it’s better than paper and I don’t see anyone going back.

Here’s where I usually do my sidebar and say that doesn’t mean that EHR vendors can’t do better. They can and should. Hopefully the meaningful use handcuffs that we put on them will indeed be removed and they can focus their attention on making EHRs better as opposed to government regulation. Every EHR vendor I know would celebrate this as well!

If you can’t celebrate the small but powerful benefits of being able to read everything in your EHR and being able to instantly pull up every record. We’ve seen glimpses of other benefits coming to your EHR that are great. Take a second to talk to Jimmie Vanagon about how his #ProjectedEHR and patient portal has changed how he sees and cares for patients.

Want to see other innovation happening in the EHR space? Learn about what Modernizing Medicine is doing with EMA Grand Rounds and Watson. The grand rounds approach is genius and can really inform the care a doctor provides. Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about it, even from them, because I don’t know anyone who’s based their EHR buying decision on if it would improve care in their organization. Sure, they didn’t want it to decrease care, but did they really evaluate the EHR based on it’s ability to improve care? No. They ask if it would meet meaningful use. They ask if it will improve reimbursement. They ask if it will improve productivity. Where’s “Will it improve care?” in that list?

Chew on that concept for a minute. How many EHR systems were bought in order to improve care?

What would it take for a healthcare organization to be ready to make an EHR selection based on the care that an EHR system provided? Would the current crop of EHR vendors be able to adapt? Would it require a whole new breed of EHR software (or maybe a different name)? Will any of the current EHR vendors adapt enough that they could illustrate that their EHR improved care so substantially that it would be nearly malpractice for a healthcare organization to pick any EHR but there’s? Is this what we need to happen for doctors to love EHR?

As I wrote at the New Year, I’m optimistic for healthcare IT. There’s so much potential for us to better utilize technology to improve healthcare. There’s so much non-technology that could benefit healthcare as well. Sometimes it’s just baffling that we can’t get out of our own way. What is clear to me is that we’re not going back to paper.

Why Wouldn’t Doctors Be Happy?

Posted on January 13, 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.

Imagine someone comes to your job and tells you that if you didn’t start participating in a bunch of government programs then you’re going to get a 9% pay cut. Plus, those government programs add little value to the work you do and it’s going to cost you time and money to meet the government requirements. How would you feel?

To add on top of that, we’re going to create a new system for how you’re going to get paid too. In fact, it’s actually going to be two new systems. One that applies to the old system of payment (which has been declining for years) and a new one which isn’t well defined yet.

Also, to add to the fun, you’re going to have become a collection agency as well since your usual A/R is going to go up as your payment portfolio changes from large reliable payers to a wide variety of small, less reliable people.

I forgot to mention that in order to get access to these new government programs and avoid the penalties you’re going to have to likely use technology built in the 80’s. Yes, that means that it’s built before we even knew what the cloud or mobile was going to be and used advanced technologies like MUMPS.

In case you missed the connection, I’m describing the life of a doctor today. The 9% penalties have arrived. ICD-10 is upon us. ACOs and value based reimbursement is starting, but is not well defined yet. High deductible plans are shifting physician A/R from payers to patients. EHR software still generally doesn’t leverage technologies like the cloud and mobile devices.

All of this makes for the perfect storm. Is it any wonder physician dissatisfaction is at an all time high? It’s not to me. It seems like even CMS’ Andy Slavitt finally realized it with the announcement that meaningful use is dead and going to be replaced. It’s a good first step, but the devil is in the details. I hope he’s able to execute, but let’s not be surprised that so many doctors are unhappy about what’s happening to healthcare.

Patient Engagement Distracts the Health Care Field From Reform (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on January 12, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The previous segment of this article looked at the movement for patient engagement, or the patient experience. Now I’ll highlight a true reform in the health care system.

Patients Left Out in the Cold
What activist patients and doctors have been demanding for years is not engagement or a better experience, but a central role for the patient in choosing treatment and carrying it out when they leave the doctor’s office. Patient empowerment is the key to all the things doctors profess to care about, such as preventing readmissions. It’s even more critical with chronic diseases that have a lifestyle component, such as congestive heart failure and diabetes.

Some patients come to the clinical setting endowed with more education than others, or a personality suited to pushing back and demanding rights. But some fight for years for such basics as access to their records. I was dejected to read just a few weeks ago of an attempt to improve care in Rhode Island, endorsed no less by the American College of Physicians, that boasts about giving access to everybody except the patient to health records.

The American College of Physicians is concerned about the hypothetical patient who “doesn’t know the name of the peach-colored pill that the orthopedist prescribed.” That particular patient is clearly not asking for empowerment. But millions do keep track of their medications and deserve equal knowledge about the rest of the information about their medical condition. If the peach-colored pill had been recorded in a patient health record, accessible to the patient (or a responsible care-giver) wherever she goes, all the complex Health Information Exchange infrastructure praised in the article could go by the wayside. Another article describes an emerging PHR solution.

Another recent example of the disdain for patients comes in a complaint by AHIMA about the difficulties of matching records for a single patient. Duplicate records are undeniably a serious problem (as is information mistakenly entered in a different person’s record). But instead of recognizing the obvious solution of a PHR, all they can come up with is a universal identifier (which is a privacy risk as well as a target for security attacks) and more determined efforts to match patients the old-fashioned way.

Empowered patients have control over their own information. Doctors guide them to make reasonable choices that affect their health, which includes sharing those records. Empowered patients set their own goals and timetables. A grant of power and information to patients will inevitably empower and inform the other health professionals with whom those patients interact, leading to a learning health system and a true team approach to care.

What’s the difference?
As I eventually admitted, the movement for patient engagement offers many good ideas that can contribute not only to a better experience in the health care center but to patient empowerment and better outcomes. What I complain about is the motive behind patient engagement.

Let’s take patient portals. To proponents of patient engagement, it serves a few purposes related to public relations. The portal hopefully:

  • Indulges people’s preference for fast information, endearing them to the practice

  • Keeps them more “engaged,” meaning that they’ll come back and spend more money at the health care center.

  • Delivers information in more appealing ways (such as through video, when practices use it).

  • Takes routine tasks off the shoulders of staff, freeing them to do other things that improve the patient experience.

This poverty of vision is why most portals lack useful information that patients can use to actually improve their care. Discharge instructions are usually a crumpled page. Doctor notes are hidden away, available to malicious attackers more easily than to patients. Medical codes and raw numbers appear on the portal without further elucidation.

Modern health facilities use web sites along with text messaging, old-fashioned phone calls, and other tools as part of a strategy to keep patients on their treatment plans. They may have full discharge instructions, along with instructional videos for such important tasks as changing bandages, on a patient’s personal site. The patient is encouraged to report her progress along with any setbacks, and gets quick feedback when there is a change. Many face-to-face visits can be averted, and patients who can update their caretakers without leaving home are less likely to exhaust themselves at vulnerable times. The patient’s family members can easily keep up with changes and find out what they need to do, as can other professionals working on the case.

For every element of empowerment, there is a tawdry alternative that can be offered as “engagement.” That’s the risk in the patient experience movement. Unless the health care institutions start out with the philosophy of empowerment, it’s just another distraction from the work we need to do.

Patient Engagement Distracts the Health Care Field From Reform (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on January 11, 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.

One can derive a certain sense of entertainment, along with a discomfort comparable to the unending alarms one hears in the background of a hospital ward, when one sees an industry fumble over a critical task and seek desperately for a solution that takes the heat off of them while freeing them from the thoroughgoing cultural and organizational change that the crisis clearly calls for. If you haven’t figured out the issue I’m talking about yet, it’s the hot topic in health care circles these days: patient engagement.

Patient engagement is starkly counterposed to patient empowerment, which is the demand issued by the activists most engaged in health care these days. This article will look at the overlap and differences.

The Elusive Hunt for the Happy Patient
Doctors and administrators must be annoyed at having take time away from busy schedules to learn new bedside manners, but articles pour out on web sites almost daily telling them they need to do so. Typical titles are Social Media 101 For Healthcare CXOs and 5 Elements of a Successful Patient Engagement Strategy. A whole new job description has been even created: the patient experience officer, adding another expensive office to the hospital bureaucracy (with a concomitant rise in hospital costs, I’m sure).

I’ll double back later and admit that many of recommended strategies could help improve care. But an initial indulgence in cynicism is still justified.

Atul Gawande contributed to the fervor for treating patients as customers through his notorious ode to the Cheesecake Factory. The strengths and weaknesses of that comparison have been intelligently analyzed by numerous articles, such as ones in Forbes and KevinMD.

Another commentary shrewdly notes that clinicians themselves suppress patient engagement through problems ranging from lack of record sharing to opaque pricing.

One can sympathize with clinical administrators caught up in the rating frenzy that has overtaken everything we buy and every institution with which we interact. People seem to listen to other people’s rants over long waits or snippy receptionists when choosing which doctor to call (that is, people, lucky enough to have a choice of doctors–a topic beyond the scope of this article). The Department of Health and Human Services has legitimized the concern for patient ratings with its Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey, introduced in 2006. CMS uses a hospital’s score while determining its Medicare pay rate for inpatient care. (There’s help yet again for beleaguered administrators: Five Tips to Improve Your HCAHPS Scores).

OK, patient experience is important. I certainly couldn’t argue against empathy or compassion. One study found that communicating well with patients contributes more than other “quality measures” to reducing hospital readmissions. The critical issue of patient access to records will be addressed in my next section. More minor improvements to the patient experience can have ripple effects–for instance, moving them through the waiting room and examination faster reduces their risk of picking up infections. Even the snippy receptionist contributes to stress that’s bad for health, or discourages a patient from making an important follow-up visit.

But patient experience does not equal good care. As highlighted in an article in the Atlantic Magazine, patients are easily misled by superficial conveniences. Real improvement in care, the article says, comes from more nurses and a better working environment.

If people are dropping right and left from bugs picked up in restaurants (as they did in a number of Chipotle outlets), we wouldn’t be asking customers to rate the foam on their coffees or whether the waiters smiled at them. We’d be instituting a strong restaurant inspection regimen.

That’s the position of our hospitals and clinics. We have much worse things to worry about than the lengths of time spent in the waiting room. But if we want a focus on patients, there’s another way to do it that I’ll discuss in the next segment of the article.

The State of ePrescribing Controlled Substances

Posted on January 8, 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.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for infographics. This one from Caradigm looks at the benefits of ePrescribing controlled substances and more importantly a chart that shows how many controlled substances have been ePrescribed. I think that chart over the next couple years is going to go through the roof. It needs to for the benefit of everyone.

epcs - ePrescribing of Controlled Substance Infographic

Is Cerner Edging Up On Epic?

Posted on January 7, 2016 I Written By

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

At Verona, Wisc.-based Epic Systems, growth is a way of life. In fact, the EMR vendor now boasts a workforce of 9,400, which is estimated to be an increase of 1,400 staffers over the past year.

Not only that, Epic is confident enough to build cute. Its Campus 4, dubbed the “Wizards Academy Campus,” is designed to resemble the fictional Hogwarts school of Harry Potter fame — or if you’re academically-minded, England’s Oxford University. When completed this summer, Campus 4 will add 1,508 offices and 2,000 parking spaces to the Epic headquarters.

I could go on with details of the Disneyland Epic is making of its HQ, but you get the picture. Epic leaders are confident that they’re only going to expand their business, and they want to make sure the endless streams of young eggheads they recruit are impressed when they visit. My guess is that the Epic campus is being designed as a, well, campus speaks to the idea of seeing the company as a home. When I was 25, unique surroundings would have worked on me!

In any event, if I was running the place, I’d be pretty confident too. After all, if its own stats are correct, Epic software is either being used by or installed at 360 healthcare organizations in 10 countries. The EMR giant also reports that its platform manages records for 180 million Americans, or about 55 percent of the entire U.S. population. It also reported generating a not-so-shabby $1.8 billion in revenues for 2014.

But a little-noticed report issued by analyst firm KLAS last year raises questions as to whether the Epic steamroller can maintain its momentum. According to the report, which admittedly came out about a year ago, “the competition between Epic and Cerner is closer than it has been in years past as customers determine their future purchasing plans,” analysts wrote.

According to KLAS researchers, potential EMR buyers are largely legacy customers deciding how to upgrade. These potential customers are giving both Cerner and Epic a serous look, with the remainder split between Meditech and McKesson upgrades.

The KLAS summary doesn’t spell out exactly why researchers believe hospital leaders are beginning to take Cerner as seriously as Epic, but some common sense possibilities occur to me:

The price:  I’m not suggesting that Cerner comes cheap, but it’s become clear over the years that even very solvent institutions are struggling to pay for Epic technology. For example, when traditionally flush-with-cash Brigham and Women’s Hospital undershoots its expected surplus by $53 million due (at least in part) to its Epic install, it’s gotta mean something.

Budget overruns: More often than not, it seems that Epic rollouts end up costing a great deal more than expected. For example, when New York City-based Health and Hospital Corp. signed up to implement Epic in 2013, the deal weighed in at $302 million. Since then, the budget has climbed to $764 million, and overall costs could hit $1.4 billion. If I were still on the fence I’d find numbers like those more than a little concerning. And they’re far from unique.

Scarce specialists:  By the company’s own design, Epic specialists are hard to find. (Getting Epic certified seems to take an act of Congress.) It must be quite nerve-wracking to cut a deal with Epic knowing that Epic itself calls the shots on getting qualified help. No doubt this contributes to the high cost of Epic as well.

Despite its control of the U.S. market, Epic seems pretty sure that it has nowhere to go but up. But that’s what Microsoft thought before Google took hold. If that comparison bears any weight, the company that will lap up Epic’s business and reverse its hold on the U.S. market probably already exists. It may not be Cerner, but Epic will face meaningful competition sometime soon.

Background On Cerner’s Capture Of DoD EHR Data Center Biz

Posted on January 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.

As many readers will know, the Department of Defense awarded Cerner the $4.3 billion Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract this summer, through its partnership with Leidos and Accenture. In doing so the partners beat out some formidable competition, including an Epic/IBM bid and a group, led by Computer Sciences Corp., whose partners included Allscripts and HP.

This is a system integration project on the grandest scale, connecting healthcare systems located at Army hospitals, on Naval vessels, in battlefield clinics across the glove. The idea is to bring all of this data — on active-duty members, reservists and civilian contractors — into a single open, interoperable platform. The new platform should serve 9.5 million military beneficiaries in roughly 1,000 locations.

Now, just six months into the 10-year deal, the DoD has decided to change the rules a bit. Military officials have concluded that the new records system capabilities won’t function at their best unless they’re hosted in a Center datacenter. The new system, officials said, “requires direct access to proprietary Cerner data, which is only available within Cerner-owned-and-operated data centers.”

I’m not sharing this tidbit because it nets the partnership more money — Cerner will take in a comparatively trivial $5 million per year to host the government health data — but for a few other reasons that offer ongoing perspective on this massive deal:

  • While there’s no concrete way to prove this, the buzz around the time of Cerner winning the contract was that it won because it was perceived as more open than Epic. Arguably, if the DoD has to transfer data hosting because it needs access to proprietary algorithms, maybe the whole open thing was a fake-out. Certainly, needing access to Cerner logic locks down the deal even further than a straight ahead contract award.
  • Why couldn’t the DoD anticipate that their own data centers wouldn’t meet the needs of the project?  And why didn’t planners know, in advance, that they’d need access to Cerner’s “quantitative models and strategies” prior to signing on the dotted line? Admittedly, this is a sprawling project, but planning for appropriate network architecture seems pretty basic to me. Did Cerner deliberately raise this issue only after the deal was done?
  • In the notice the DoD issued outlining its intention to shift hosting to Cerner, it noted that while it wasn’t seeking competitive proposals, “any firm believing that they can fulfill the requirement of providing these services may be considered by the Agency.” The key for late entrants would be to prove that they could both meet hosting requirements and connect to proprietary Cerner data.
  • Was the intent always to host the EHR at the Cerner data centers and this was a way to do an end around the bid process and make the initial bid look more attractive (ie. cheaper) so it won the contract? I wonder how many more of these late additions the DoD will have when implementing the Cerner EHR. We’ve seen many hospital EHR implementation budgets have skyrocketed. It’s not hard to imagine the same scenario playing out with the DoD EHR budget. This might be the first of many EHR add-ons that weren’t part of the original contract.

Finding an EHR With Online Tools

Posted on January 5, 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.For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manager 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, a role he recently repeated for a Council member.

So, you want to dump your EHR and find another, or about to join the fray? Once you’ve got a handle on your requirements, this review lists some online tools that might help. Ideally, they’ll point to the one that’s best for you. Even if they can’t do that, they should help identify what you don’t want. Along the way, they may also raise some new issues, or give you some new insights.

Full Disclosure: I manage EHRSelector.com, but it’s not included.

Finding EHR Tools

The web has a surfeit of EHR evaluation tools. I’ve only reviewed those that are vendor independent and employ some filtering or ranking. That excludes spreadsheets and PDFs that just list features. I also skipped any that charge. I found the nine shown in Table I and reviewed below. Table II explains my definitions.


EHR Tool Table IEHR Tool Table II

EHR Tools Reviewed

1. American EHR. American’s tool gives you several ways to look at an EHR. Its side by side list compares 80 features. It asks users to rank a dozen features on a 1 to 5 scale. To use the tool, you pick a practice size and specialty. You can also see how users rated a product in detail, which shows how it stacks up against all its others. Unfortunately, its interface is a hit or miss affair. When you change a product choice sometimes it works and sometimes it just sits there.

2. Capterra. Capterra ranks the top 20 most popular EHRs, or at least the most well known. To do this, it adds up the number of customers, users and social media scores. That is, how often they’re mentioned on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Users rank products on a 1 to 5 scale and can add comments. It has a basic product filtering system.

3. Consumer Affairs. It examines ten major vendors using a short breakdown of features and user reviews. Users rate products on a 1 to 5 scale and can add comments.

4. EHR Compare. This tool solely relies on user ratings. Users score 20 EHR features on a 1 to 5 scale. It may add additional features depending on specialty. It only has a handful of reviews, which is a drawback.

5. EHR in Practice. EHR in Practice provides a short list of features and thumbnail EHR descriptions.

6. EHR Softwareinsider. This site uses ONC attestations to rank vendors. Its analysis shows those rankings along with Black Book ratings. Users rank products on a 1 to 10 scale. Interestingly, users can earn a $10 Amazon gift card for their reviews. For a fee, a vendor can move their product to the top of a list, though ES says that does not influence other factors.

7. Select Hub. There is one big if to using this site, if you can get in. As with some sites, SH requires that you register to get to its rankings. The problem is that once you do, you may wait for a day or more for a confirming email link. Even then, it didn’t see the confirmation, so I had to repeat, etc. If you get in, you’ll find some interesting features. Its staff briefly analyzes a product’s performance for each function. The other is that you can set up a project for yourself and others to query vendors.

8. Software Advice. Software Advice is a user rating site based on a 1 to 5 scale. It offers filters by rating rank, specialty and practice size as well as a short product summary.

9. Top Ten Reviews. As the name implies, Top Ten shows just that. There are two problems with its rankings. It doesn’t explain how it chose them or how they are ranked. It provides a thumbnail for each product.

What to Use. Several of the EHR comparison are just popularity contests. They have limited filters and depend on user reviews from whoever walks in the door. Two, however, go beyond that and are worth exploring: American EHR and Select Hub. Both have interface problems, but with persistence, you can find out more about a product than using the others.

With that said, you may also may find it useful to go through the user ranked tools. They may help you cull out particular products or interest you in one you’ve overlooked. Finally, if I’ve left something out, please let me know. I’ll add it in a revised post.