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Getting HITECH: Unraveling the Complexities of Compliance

The following is a guest blog post by Jason Carolan, CTO for ViaWest.
Jason Carolan

HITECH and HIPAA compliance are incredibly important to the bottom lines of many companies. But what exactly does this compliance entail? In 2009, the HITECH Act (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) was passed, expanding the scope of the previous Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HITECH enforces the rules of HIPAA, while invoking stiff fines for non-compliance. Now more than ever before it is absolutely imperative that companies working with healthcare organizations ensure they have all the facts before designing IT solutions. And one of the keys to having all the facts is knowing the core terminology.

A Covered Entity under the HIPAA privacy rule refers to health plan groups, health care clearinghouses and health care providers that transmit health information electronically, including, doctors, dentists, chiropractors, insurers, Medicare, medical plans and billing services. These Covered Entities face the additional challenge of managing their Business Associates, revisiting agreements and ensuring privacy, security, enforcements and breach notification updates in order to meet the requirements of the Final Rule.

A Business Associate (BA) under the HIPAA privacy rule refers to a person or organization that conducts business with a Covered Entity that involves the use, access or disclosure of protected health information (PHI). HITECH also specifies that an organization that provides data transmission of PHI is a BA. Examples of BAs include vendors, subcontractors and IT service providers that provide managed hosting services requiring access, use or disclosure of PHI.

All HIPAA Covered Entities and Business Associates must comply with security controls to safeguard PHI through the following due diligence efforts:

  • Ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI
  • Protect against any reasonably anticipated threats and hazards
  • Protect against reasonably anticipated uses or disclosures of PHI that are not permitted
  • Ensure compliance by its workforce through Administrative Safeguards, Physical Safeguards, Technical Safeguards, Organizational Requirements and Policies and Procedures
  • Documentation of breach notification procedures and timeliness of breach notification

Covered Entities and Business Associates who have a strong security posture and can prove their due diligence through establishments and audit of controls and breach preparedness have a lower risk of fines than those companies that do nothing.  Proven due diligence includes:

  • Prioritizing compliance efforts
  • Culture awareness
  • Implementing security policies
  • Conducting risk assessments
  • Enforcing and validation of controls to protect PHI

IT departments are dealing with the same or shrinking budgets.  So, with a larger component of IT budget consumed by compliance, CIOs and CTOs are getting pressure from a resource standpoint but shrinking budgets. Failing on compliance can bring stiffer punishments and fines, so, more and more companies are looking at outsourcing so that they can share the burden and ensure they aren’t missing important components.

An audit may not be a pleasant experience, but it’s a reality, and being prepared is the key. The right technology provider can help you not just with a compliance checklist, but can take it a step further and provide a comprehensive set of solutions to be “baked in” upfront – minimizing the risk of audit or the “pain” of the audit if you are in the midst of one.

With increased regulation comes increased risk and complexity surrounding HIPAA compliance.  Are you confident in your company’s data security?

March 6, 2014 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.

Short Video Overview on EMR Stimulus (HITECH)

Check out this 4 and a half minute video that talks about the details of the EMR Stimulus (HITECH Act) EMR stimulus money. This is by far the best EMR stimulus video I’ve seen that gives a nice high level overview of the HITECH act. I hope that they do some other similar videos with more details on meaningful use and certified EHR since this is the only meaningful use video I’ve found.

If you know a lot about the HITECH act, you won’t enjoy this video. However, doctors who don’t know too much about the EMR stimulus money and how the HITECH act works will enjoy it.

November 16, 2010 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.

EHR Incentives (HITECH Act) Likely Safe With New Congress

Gov Info Security recently published their thoughts on the possible effects of the new Congress on the EHR incentive money known as the HITECH act.

Republicans, however, have made it clear that they’ll look for any opportunity to repeal some or all of the healthcare reform package. Observers say that means the HITECH Act likely won’t get as much attention, even though the EHR incentives are funded by President Obama’s economic stimulus package.
“One of the things that the Republican ‘pledge to America’ includes is a plan to take away any unobligated stimulus money,” says Dave Roberts, vice president of government relations at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. “I don’t think that’s going to apply to the HITECH provisions. Folks on the Hill tell me that health IT is a bipartisan issue. Democrats and Republicans see it as a way to improve healthcare.”

Nevertheless, Republicans will closely scrutinize all spending, Roberts acknowledges. “And they’re going to take a close look at all the provisions of the HITECH Act to make sure they’re being implemented as directed by Congress.”

Even if the presumed new speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, was to push for spending cuts, such as eliminating the EHR incentives, getting such a proposal approved would prove very difficult, Roberts argues. “With the two chambers of Congress controlled by different parties, getting them to agree on something will be next to impossible,” he says.

In addition, President Obama, who is strongly supportive of healthcare IT, likely would veto any cuts in HITECH spending, notes Rob Tennant, senior policy adviser for the Medical Group Management Association. And overriding a veto would prove extremely difficult.

I tend to agree. Certainly something crazy could happen (it’s government work after all), but I think the likelihood of HITECH Act funding being taken away is pretty slim. As it describes above, it would take a really unique piece of legislation to get it through the house, senate and then the President. I just don’t see that happening at all.

Plus, I thought the point of the money being so far along in the regulation process is another good reason. Although, since checks haven’t been paid out yet, I’m guessing that there’s still potential that they’ll put it on hold. Just seems really unlikely to me.

November 8, 2010 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.

Two Medical Practices’ Reactions to MACRA Ruining Healthcare

Last week I wrote a post that discussed whether MACRA was ruining Healthcare. It’s an important discussion to have as we look at where healthcare IT legislation should go in the future.

In response to the article I got some pretty heated responses from medical practices that I thought were worth sharing with the wider audience who doesn’t get a chance to read the comments (yeah, I know that’s most of you).

The first comment is from Billy who said the following:

I wouldn’t say MACRA is ruining healthcare, but it’s starting to drive the decision train, which may be the first step.

From my corner of healthcare in America, our practice is forcing adherence to MACRA to set the tone for an ever growing portion of the workflow. The benefit from such is viewed as non-existent aside from protecting revenues. We have compliant doctors (with plenty of grumblings), but no happy ones that are doing this in the belief it’s good for medicine.

Taking two parts of your post I think I can speak towards in view of that…

“All of this leaves doctors I know upset with MACRA and MIPS. They wish it would go away and that the government would stop being so involved in their practice.”

They’re upset at the government because MACRA is seen as an intrusion with no benefit. At best, it’s a threat to their income (both to the business and their end of year salary), and at worst, they don’t trust the government entering the realm of “quality” which traditionally was limited to clinical relevancy. We’ve had plenty of internal discussions of how MACRA quality measures are worlds away from what the physicians view as truly important quality measures for their profession.

“Let’s imagine for a minute that Congress was functional enough to pass a law that would get rid of all of MACRA. Then what? Would doctor’s problems be solved?”

This doesn’t account for the primary reason MACRA was passed in the first place- controlling the costs of Medicare. They can talk about quality all they want, the government needed to eliminate the near automatic 2.5% (or thereabouts) increase in Medicare fee reimbursements. They do that with the freeze in rate increases, and making the physicians battle each other for what remains with the reward/penalty system.

Congress will never get rid of MACRA, it’s their plan to keep Medicare costs from blowing up until 2025 as the boomer generation keeps adding to the rolls.

So, MACRA is seen as having no benefit but a lot of downside in income and daily operations. About the only other thing that could have brought these emotions about would come from the IRS, but this is worse in some ways, as it’s forcing changes in clinical operations for the purpose of checking a box to protect income.

Welcome to the new normal.

It’s hard to think that Billy is right that this is the new normal. Should it be? Could we do something to make it so it’s not?

The next comment was from a long time reader who’s been commenting against MACRA and meaningful use before that (ie. a long time). Here’s meltoots’ take on the question of if MACRA is ruining healthcare:

Yep.
Count me as another mid career MD that sees the futility in any hope for the future of medicine. We are doomed. I do everything I can to talk everyone out of becoming an MD. Including my children.

We have 100% of the accountability and zero authority. Worse I am penalized by our government because I refuse to play stupid counting and clicking games. I was just discussing again (seems daily) my plans to exit this career. Too bad as I am one of only 4 orthopaedic surgeons left at our hospital. 20 years ago we had 35 on staff.

Every single person on earth seems to be saying all this data entry by MDs is silly, inefficient, useless, complex and frankly a huge costly waste of time. Everyone is speaking to burdens and the ridiculous nature of all this forced mindless data entry, super complex reporting, terrible auditing and penalizing for no good reason. When we look back a decade from now and wonder how we made medicine like the postal service, I know I can say I did try to point out better ways. But no one listened. At all.

If all these programs are so wonderful, tell me all the great things that have come out of MU, PQRS, VBM, QPP? So you got MDs to buy EHRs. Great. Everyone hates them. Great work.

HITECH set back real IT innovation in medicine at least a decade.

CMS touts patents over paperwork with absolutely no action, even worse, they made the MACRA program even more burdensome this year. AAPM, you want me to take even MORE risk, and hire more admins to run it? For 5%? Come on.

I have finally come to realization, that medicine has been destroyed by administrators, CMS /ONC, regulators, bean counters and the dozens of people I support just trying to stay ahead of the complexity. Its like the movie Office Space when I forget to click something in the 1000 clicks I have to do a day, I get 10 admins telling me about my TPS reports on what I did wrong.

What is really the worst part, is that I am pretty darned good at what I do, I am super busy and loaded with patients, too many. So I will be yet another MD, that has just had enough, that left the game in his prime. We should all be ashamed at what we did to our physicians.

January 31, 2018 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.

EHRs Could Be Causing Patient Harm More Often Than Expected

Why did the healthcare industry invest so heavily in EHRs in recent years?  Obviously, one major reason is the payoffs that became available under HITECH, but that’s not all.

Another important objective for spending heavily on EHRs and other HIT options was to protect patients from needless harm, including everything from clinical decision support to finding grand clinical patterns among patients with similar conditions.

Now, nobody’s saying that none of these benefits have been realized. But according to one researcher, we haven’t paid enough attention to the ways in which these technologies can actually cause harm as well. In fact, some researchers say that HIT-related mistakes are not as minimal or easily managed as some think.

So how do we get a grip on how often HIT tools and EHRs are a factor in patient care errors? One way is to examine the role HIT has played in malpractice claims, which, while not offering a comprehensive look at how such mistakes occur, certainly gives us a look at where some of the biggest have taken place.

For example, look at this data from the Journal of Patient Safety, which dug into more than 300,000 cases from an insurance database to see what role HIT played in such cases. Researchers found that less than 1% of the total malpractice claims involved HIT, more than 80% of that 1% involved problems of medium to intense severity.

The researchers found three major reasons for EHR-related suits:

  • 31% involved medication errors, such as the case when a baby died from a drug overdose that took place because a handwritten order was entered in the computer inaccurately
  • 28% involved diagnostic errors, as when critical ultrasound results ended up being routed to the wrong tab in the EHR — which in turn led to a year-long delay before a cancer patient was diagnosed
  • 31% of cases were related to complications of treatment related to HIT errors. For example, in one case a doctor was unable to access emergency department notes, and the lack of that knowledge prevented the doctor from saving the patient

Unfortunately, if you’re a physician group member working within a hospital — particularly as an on-call clinician with little say about how HIT system should work — your group may be vulnerable to lawsuits due to technologies it doesn’t control.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to learn about common errors that can arise due to EHR and HIT malfunctions. When it comes to delivering patient care, the fewer surprises the better.

December 26, 2017 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.

EHR Data – Is it Improving Healthcare?

I’ve written pretty regularly about the wave of data that’s coming to the world of healthcare. It’s really something quite extraordinary. However, data in itself doesn’t solve anything. So, I was bothered by this tweet which suggested that technology was improving healthcare by illustrating that more and more health data was being collected by technology.

Here’s the tweet:

Attached to this tweet is the following image which doesn’t illustrate the above assertion at all.

No one believes that technology can help improve healthcare more than me. However, it’s not right to make that assertion on Twitter and then use the increased collection of healthcare data as proof of this fact. We can collect all the data in the world and healthcare can remain exactly as it is today.

This reminds me of when the government suggested that HITECH (Meaningful Use) was a success based on graphs that show that most organizations have adopted an EHR. I guess if EHR adoption is your goal, then it was a success. However, if your goal is to use technology to improve healthcare, then EHR adoption is a vanity metric.

We need to stop focusing on adoption and start focusing more on metrics that really matter. Are we improving care? Are we lowering the cost of healthcare? Are we improving the efficiency of our healthcare providers? If technology can’t help you in one of these areas, then we should question why we’re doing it. Let’s bring some sanity back to our approach to healthcare technology.

June 14, 2017 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 Will Be Trump’s Impact on MACRA? – MACRA Monday

This post is part of the MACRA Monday series of blog posts where we dive into the details of the MACRA Quality Payment Program.

Next week we’ll be kicking off our weekly series of details from the MACRA Final Rule. However, before we start going through the changes and what you need to know about MACRA, I wanted to cover an important topic of concern for many practices. I’ve heard a lot of practices that are afraid of what they consider the uncertain future in the coming Trump presidency.

While I believe that healthcare could see significant impact from a Trump presidency, I don’t believe that MACRA will be impacted by the change in presidency. First, MACRA was as bipartisan as you could find in Washington DC. Even if Trump wanted to replace, modify, repeal MACRA, I can’t imagine it getting enough support in the senate and house. If this is true, Trump won’t even try to do anything with MACRA. Second, Trump has plenty of bigger fish to fry. When you look at the various priorities that Trump has said he has for his presidency, nothing indicates that MACRA will be anywhere near those priorities. Third, it’s hard for me to imagine that Trump would see a problem with the move to technology in healthcare.

What also is worth noting is that MACRA is separate from ACA (aka Obamacare) and even ARRA (the HITECH Act). I’ll leave the predictions for what will happen with ACA for other people. I have no doubt that ACA will be impacted by the change in presidency, but even if they did a full repeal of Obamacare (which looks like it’s impossible), MACRA will still remain and be in force. If MACRA was part of Obamacare, I’d have a different view, but since it’s not then I think MACRA will continue forward as planned.

Those of you hoping for MACRA to disappear due to the new president and those of you waiting for MACRA to change after the comment period is over are grasping at straws. Love it. Hate it. Feel however you may about MACRA, I really don’t see any scenario where MACRA is not part of the future of healthcare.

What do you think? If you disagree, I’d love to hear why in the comments. If you agree, I’d love to hear from you as well. With that view, we’ll be continuing MACRA Monday blog posts for the foreseeable future so that our readers are ready.

Be sure to check out all of our MACRA Monday blog posts where we dive into the details of the MACRA Quality Payment Program.

November 21, 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.

MGMA Blames Rise in HIT Costs on Fed’s Regs

MGMA’s released a study of 850 member’s practices showing HIT costs up by more than 45 percent in the last six years. MGMA puts much of the blame on federal regulations. It’s concerned that:

Too much of a practice’s IT investment is tied directly to complying with the ever-increasing number of federal requirements, rather than to providing better patient care. Unless we see significant changes in the final MIPS/APM rule, practice IT costs will continue to rise without a corresponding improvement in the care delivery process.

There may be a good case that the HITECH act is responsible for the lion’s share of HIT growth for these and other providers, but MGMA study doesn’t make the case – not by far.

What the study does do is track the rise in HIT costs since 2011 for physician owned, multispecialty practices. For example, MGMA’s press release notes that IT costs have gone up by almost 47 percent since 2009.

In fairness, MGMA also notes that costs may have also gone up do to other costs, such as patient portals, etc. However, the release emphasizes that regulations are at great fault.

Here’s why MGMA’s case falls flat:

  • Seeing Behind the Paywall. If you want to examine the study, it’ll cost you $655 to read it. Many similar studies that charge, provide a good synopsis and spell out their methodology. MGMA doesn’t do either.
  • Identifying the Issue. It’s one thing to complain about regulations. It’s quite another to identify which ones specifically harm productivity without compensating benefit. MGMA cites regulations without so much as an example.
  • Lacking Comparables. MGMA’s press release notes that total HIT costs were $32,000 per practitioner. However, this does not look at non HIT support costs, nor does it address comparable support costs from other professions.
  • Breaking Down Costs. The study offers comparable information to practitioners by specialty types, etc. However, all IT costs are lumped together and called HIT.
  • Ignoring Backgrounds. MGMA notes that HIT costs rose most dramatically between 2010 and 2011, which marked MU1’s advent. It doesn’t address these practices’ IT state in 2009. It would be good to know how many were ready to install an EHR and how many had to make basic IT improvements?
  • Finessing Productivity. Other than mentioning patient portals, MGMA ignores any productivity changes due to HIT. For example, how long did it take and what did it cost to do a refill request before HIT and now? This and similar productivity measures could give a good view of HIT’s impact.

It’s popular to beat up on HITs in general and EHRs in general. Lord knows, EHRs have their problems, but many of the ills laid at their doorstep are just so much piling on. Or, as is this case, are used to make a connection for the sake of political argument.

Studies that want to get at the effect HIE and EHRs have had on the practice of medicine need to be carefully done. They need to look at how things were done, what they could accomplish and what costs were before and after HIT changes. Otherwise, the study’s data are fitted to the conclusions not the other way around.

MGMA’s a major and important player with a record of service to its members. In this case, it’s using its access to important practice information in support of an antiregulatory policy goal rather than to help determine HIT’s real status.

September 15, 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.

What Do Med Students Need To Know About EMRs?

Recently, I was asked to write an introduction to EMRs, focusing on what medical students needed to know in preparation for their future careers. This actually turned out to be a very interesting exercise, as it called for balancing history with the future, challenges with benefits and predictable future developments with some very interesting possibilities. Put another way, the exercise reminded me that any attempt to “explain” EMR technology calls for some fancy dancing.

Here’s some of the questions I tackled:

  • Do future doctors need to know more about how EMRs function today, or how they should probably function to support increasingly important patient management approaches like population health?
  • Do med students need to understand major technical discussions – such as the benefits of FHIR or how to wrangle Big Data – to perform as doctors? If so, how much detail is helpful?
  • How important is it to prepare med students to understand the role of data generated outside of traditional patient care settings, such as wearables data, remote monitoring and telemedicine consults? What do they need to know to prepare for the gradual integration of such data?
  • What skills, attitudes and practices will help physician trainees make the best use of EMRs and ancillary systems? And how should they obtain that knowledge?

These questions are thornier than they may appear at first glance, in part because there no hard-and-fast standards in place as to how doctors who’ve never run a practice on paper charts should conduct themselves. While there have been endless discussions about how to help doctors adopt an EMR for the first time, or switch from one to the other, I’m not aware of a mature set of best practices available to med students on how next-gen, health IT-assisted practices should function.

Certainly, offering med school trainees a look at the history of EMRs makes sense, as understanding the reasons early innovators developed the first systems offers some interesting insights. And introducing soon-to-be physicians to the benefits of wearable or remote monitoring data makes sense. Physicians will almost certainly improve the care they deliver by understanding EMRs then, now and their near-term evolution as data sources.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it makes sense to indoctrinate med students in today’s take on evolving topics like population health management or interoperability via FHIR. These paradigms are evolving so rapidly that pinning down a set of teachable ideas may be a disservice to these students.

Morever, telling students how to think about EMRs, or articulating what skills are needed to manage them, might actually be a bad idea. I’m optimistic enough to think that now that the initial adoption frenzy funded by HITECH is over, EMRs will become far more usable and physician-shapeable over the next few years, allowing new docs to adapt the tool to them rather than adapt to the tool.

All that being said, educating med students on EMRs and health IT ancillary tools is a great idea. I just hope that such training encourages them to keep learning well after the training is over.

August 16, 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.

Our Uncontrolled Health Care Costs Can Be Traced to Data and Communication Failures (Part 1 of 2)

A host of scapegoats, ranging from the Affordable Care Act to unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies, have been blamed for the rise in health care costs that are destroying our financial well-being, our social fabric, and our political balance. In this article I suggest a more appropriate target: the inability of health care providers to collaborate and share information. To some extent, our health care crisis is an IT problem–but with organizational and cultural roots.

It’s well known that large numbers of patients have difficulty with costs, and that employees’ share of the burden is rising. We’re going to have to update the famous Rodney Dangerfield joke:

My doctor said, “You’re going to be sick.” I said I wanted a second opinion. He answered, “OK, you’re going to be poor too.”

Most of us know about the insidious role of health care costs in holding down wages, in the fight by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker over pensions that tore the country apart, in crippling small businesses, and in narrowing our choice of health care providers. Not all realize, though, that the crisis is leaching through the health care industry as well, causing hospitals to fail, insurers to push costs onto subscribers and abandon the exchanges where low-income people get their insurance, co-ops to close, and governments to throw people off of subsidized care, threatening the very universal coverage that the ACA aimed to achieve.

Lessons from a ground-breaking book by T.R. Reid, The Healing of America, suggests that we’re undergoing a painful transition that every country has traversed to achieve a rational health care system. Like us, other countries started by committing themselves to universal health care access. This then puts on the pressure to control costs, as well as the opportunities for coordination and economies of scale that eventually institute those controls. Solutions will take time, but we need to be smart about where to focus our efforts.

Before even the ACA, the 2009 HITECH act established goals of data exchange and coordinated patient care. But seven years later, doctors still lag in:

  • Coordinating with other providers treating the patients.

  • Sending information that providers need to adequately treat the patients.

  • Basing treatment decisions on evidence from research.

  • Providing patients with their own health care data.

We’ll look next at the reports behind these claims, and at the effects of the problems.

Why doctors don’t work together effectively

A recent report released by the ONC, and covered by me in a recent article, revealed the poor state of data sharing, after decades of Health Information Exchanges and four years of Meaningful Use. Health IT observers expect interoperability to continue being a challenge, even as changes in technology, regulations, and consumer action push providers to do it.

If merely exchanging documents is so hard–and often unachieved–patient-focused, coordinated care is clearly impossible. Integrating behavioral care to address chronic conditions will remain a fantasy.

Evidence-based medicine is also more of an aspiration than a reality. Research is not always trustworthy, but we must have more respect for the science than hospitals were found to have in a recent GAO report. They fail to collect data either on the problems leading to errors or on the efficacy of solutions. There are incentive programs from payers, but no one knows whether they help. Doctors are still ordering far too many unnecessary tests.

Many companies in the health analytics space offer services that can bring more certainty to the practice of medicine, and I often cover them in these postings. Although increasingly cited as a priority, analytical services are still adopted by only a fraction of health care providers.

Patients across the country are suffering from disrupted care as insurers narrow their networks. It may be fair to force patients to seek less expensive providers–but not when all their records get lost during the transition. This is all too likely in the current non-interoperable environment. Of course, redundant testing and treatment errors caused by ignorance could erase the gains of going to low-cost providers.

Some have bravely tallied up the costs of waste and lack of care coordination in health care. Some causes, such as fraud and price manipulation, are not attributable to the health IT failures I describe. But an enormous chunk of costs directly implicate communications and data handling problems, including administrative overhead. The next section of this article will explore what this means in day-to-day health care.

April 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.