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MedStar’s Human Factors Center: An Interview with Dr. Raj Ratwani

Posted on January 10, 2018 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.

Background: Recently, I had a wide ranging interview with Dr. Raj Ratwani, Acting Center Director and Scientific Director of MedStar Health’s National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare.

The center is MedStar’s patient safety, and usability applied research arm. MedStar is the Mid Atlantic area’s largest medical facility non profit operating 10 major hospitals as well as dozens of urgent care, rehab and medical groups.

MedStar set up the center, as part of its Institute for Innovation five years ago. The Institute is an in house service of several centers that conduct research, analysis, development and education. In addition to human factors, the Institute turns MedStar staff’s ideas into commercial products, conducts professional education, encourages healthy lifestyles and develops in house software products.

The Human Factors Center’s work concentrates on medical devices, as well as creating new processes and procedures. The center’s 30 person staff features physicians, nurses, engineers, product designers, patient safety, usability and human factors specialists. The Center’s focus is on both MedStar and on improving the nation’s healthcare system with grants and contracts from AHRQ, ONC, CMS, etc., as well as many device manufacturers.

Dr. Ratwani: Dr. Ratwani’s publications are extensive and were one reason prompting my interview. I met with him in his office in the old Intelsat building along with Rachel Wynn the center’s post doctoral fellow. We covered several topics from the center’s purpose to ONC’s Meaningful Use (MU) program to the center’s examination of adverse event reporting systems.

Center’s Purpose: I started by asking him what he considered the center’s main focus? He sees the center’s mission as helping those who deliver services by reducing their distractions and errors and working more productively. He said that while the center examines software systems, devices take up the lion’s share of its time from a usability perspective.

The center works on these issues in several ways. Sometimes they just observe how users carry out a task. Other times, they may use specialized equipment such as eye tracking systems. Regardless, their aim is to aid users to reduce errors and increase accuracy. He noted how distractions can cause errors even when a user is doing something familiar. If a distraction occurs in the middle of a task, the user can forget they’ve already done a step and will needlessly repeat it. This not only takes time, but can also lead to cascading errors.

Impact: I asked him how they work with the various medical centers and asked about their track record. Being in house, he said, they have the advantage of formal ties to MedStar’s clinicians. However, he said their successes were a mixed bag. Even when there is no doubt about a change’s efficacy, its acceptance can depend on a variety of budget, logistic and personal factors.

EHR Certification: I then turned to the center’s studies of ONC’s MU vendor product certification. Under his direction, the center sent a team to eleven major EHR vendors to examine how they did their testing. Though they interviewed vendor staffs, they were unable to see testing. Within that constraint, they still found great variability in vendor’s approach. That is, even though ONC allowed vendors to choose their own definition of user centered design, vendors often strayed even from these self defined standards.

MU Program: I then asked his opinion of the MU program. He said he thought that the $40 billion spent drove EHR adoption for financial not clinical reasons. He would have preferred a more careful approach. The MU1 and MU2 programs weren’t evidence based. The program’s criteria needed more pilot and clinical studies and that interoperability and usability should have been more prominent.

Adverse Events: Our conversation then turned to the center’s approach to adverse events, that is instances involving patient safety. Ratwani is proud of a change he helped implement in Medstar’s process. Many institutions take a blame game approach to them berating and shaming those involved. MedStar treats them as teaching moments. The object is to determine root causes and how to implement change. Taking a no fault approach promotes open, candid discussions without staff fearing repercussions.

I finally asked him about his studies applying natural language processing to adverse patient safety reports. His publications in this area analyze the free text sections of adverse reporting systems. He told me they often found major themes in the report texts that the systems didn’t note. As a follow on, he described their project to manage and present the text from these systems. He explained that even though these systems capture free text, the text is so voluminous that users have a difficult time putting them to use.

My thanks to Dr. Ratwani and his staff for arranging the interview and their patience in explaining their work.
____________________________________

A word about DC’s old Intelsat building that houses the Institute. Normally, I wouldn’t comment on an office building. If you’ve seen one, etc., etc. Not so here. Built in the 1980s, it’s an example of futurist or as I prefer to call it Sci-Fi architecture and then some. The building has 14 interconnected “pods” with a façade meant to look like, well, a gargantuan satellite.

Intelsat Building

 

To reach an office, you go down long, open walkways suspended above an atrium. It’s all other unworldly. You wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Princess Leia rounded a corner. It’s not on the usual tourist routes and you can’t just walk in, but if you can wangle it, it’s worth a visit.

Intelsat Building Interior

Burnout is Overused and Under Defined

Posted on December 8, 2017 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.

Recently, John hosted a #HITsm chat on using technology to fight physician burnout (Read the full transcript from the chat here). The topic’s certainly timely, and it got me to wondering just what is physician burnout. Now, the simple answer is fatigue. However, when I started to look around for studies and insights, I realized that burnout is neither easily defined nor understood.

The Mayo Clinic, among others, defines it this way:

Job burnout is a special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. 

So, it is fatigue plus self doubt. Well, that’s for starters. Burnout has its own literature niche and psychologists have taken several different cracks at a more definitive definition without any consensus other than it’s a form of depression, which doesn’t have to be work related.

Unsurprisingly, burnout is not in the DSM-5. It’s this lack of a clinical definition, which makes it easy to use burnout like catsup to cover a host of issues. I think this is exactly why we have so many references to physician or EHR burnout. You can use burnout to cover whatever you want.

It’s easy to find articles citing EHRs and burnout. For example, a year ago April, The Hospitalist headlined, “Research Shows Link Between EHR and Physician Burnout.” The article then flatly says, “The EHR has been identified as a major contributor to physician burnout.” However, it never cites a study to back this up.

If you track back through its references, you’ll wind up at a 2013 AMA study, “Factors Affecting Physician Professional Satisfaction and Their Implications for Patient Care, Health Systems, and Health Policy.” Developed by the Rand Corporation, it’s an extensive study of physician job satisfaction. Unfortunately, for those who cite it for EHR and burnout, it never links the two. In fact, the article never discusses the two together.

Not surprisingly, burnout has found its way into marketing. For example, DataMatrix says:

Physician burnout can be described as a public health crisis especially with the substantial increase over the last couple of years. The consequences are significant and affect the healthcare system by affecting the quality of care, health care costs and patient safety.

Their solution, of course, is to buy their transcription services.

What’s happened here is that physician work life dissatisfaction has been smushed together with burnout, which does a disservice to both. For example, Medscape recently published a study on burnout, which asked physicians about their experience. Interestingly, the choices it gave, such as low income, too many difficult patients – difficult being undefined — are all over the place.

That’s not to say that all physician burnout studies are useless. A recent study, Electronic Health Record Effects on Work-Life Balance and Burnout Within the I3 Population Collaborative, used a simple, five item scale to ask physicians how they viewed their work life. See Figure 1.

Figure 1 Single-Item Burnout Scale.

Their findings were far more nuanced than many others. EHRs played a role, but so did long hours. They found:

EHR proficiency training has been associated with improved job satisfaction and work-life balance.14 While increasing EHR proficiency may help, there are many potential reasons for physicians to spend after-hours on the EHR, including time management issues, inadequate clinic staffing, patient complexity, lack of scribes, challenges in mastering automatic dictation systems, cosigning resident notes, messaging, and preparing records for the next day. All of these issues and their impact on burnout and work-life balance are potential areas for future research.

There’s a need to back off the burnout rhetoric. Burnout’s overused and under defined. It’s a label for what may be any number of underlying issues. Subsuming these into one general, glitzy term, which lacks clinical definition trivializes serious problems. The next time you see something defined as physician or EHR burnout, you might just ask yourself, what is that again?

EHRs and Keyboarding: Is There an Answer?

Posted on November 28, 2017 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.

One of the givens of EHR life is that users, especially physicians, spend excessive time keying into EHRs. The implication is that much keyboarding is due to excessive data demands, poor usability or general app cussedness. There’s no end of studies that support this. For example, a recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in the Annals of Family Medicine found that:

Primary care physicians spend more than one-half of their workday, nearly 6 hours, interacting with the EHR during and after clinic hours. The study broke out times spent on various tasks and found, unsurprisingly, that documentation and chart review took up almost half the time.

Figure 1. Percent Physician’s Time on EHR

This study is unique among those looking at practitioners and EHRs. They note:

Although others have suggested work task categories for primary care,13 ours is the first taxonomy proposed to capture routine clinical work in EHR systems. 

They also make the point that they captured physician EHR use not total time spent with patients. Other studies have reached similar EHR use conclusions. The consensus is there too much time keyboarding and not enough time spent one to one with the patient. So, what can be done? Here, I think, are the choices:

  1. Do Nothing. Assume that this is a new world and tough it out.
  2. Use Scribes. Hire scribes to do the keyboarding for physicians.
  3. Make EHRs Easier. Improve EHRs’ usability.
  4. Make EHRs Smarter. Adapt EHRs to physician’s needs through artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.
  5. Offload to Patients. Use patient apps to input data, rather than physician keyboarding.

Examining the Alternatives

 1. Do Nothing. Making no change in either the systems or practioners’ approach means accepting the current state as the new normal. It doesn’t mean that no changes will occur. Rather, that they will continue at an incremental, perhaps glacial, pace. What this says more broadly is that the focus on the keyboard, per se, is wrong. The question is not what’s going in so much as what is coming out compared to old, manual systems. For example, when PCs first became office standards, the amount of keyboarding vs. pen and paper notations went viral. PCs produced great increases in both the volume and quality of office work. This quickly became the new norm. That hasn’t happened with EHRs. There’s an assumption that the old days were better. Doing nothing acknowledges that you can’t go back. Instead, it takes a stoic approach and assumes things will get better eventually, so just hang in there.

2. Scribes. The idea of using a scribe is simple. As a doctor examines a patient, the scribe enters the details. Scribes allow the physician to offload the keyboarding to someone with medical knowledge who understands their documentation style. There is no question that scribes can decrease physician keyboarding. This approach is gaining in popularity and is marketed by various medical societies and scribe services companies.

However, using scribes brings a host of questions. How are the implemented? I think the most important question is how a scribe fits into a system’s workflow. For example, how does an attending review a scribe’s notes to determine they convey the attending’s clinical findings, etc. The attending is the responsible party and anything that degrades or muddies that oversight is a danger to patient safety. Then, there are questions about patient privacy and just how passive an actor is a scribe?

If you’re looking for dispositive answers, you’ll have to wait. There are many studies showing scribes improve physician productivity, but few about the quality of the product.

3. Make EHRs Easier. Improving EHR usability is the holy grail of health IT and about as hard to find. ONC’s usability failings are well known and ongoing, but it isn’t alone. Vendors know that usability is something they can claim without having to prove. That doesn’t mean that usability and its good friend productivity aren’t important and are grossly overdue. As AHRQ recently found:

In a review of EHR safety and usability, investigators found that the switch from paper records to EHRs led to decreases in medication errors, improved guideline adherence, and (after initial implementation) enhanced safety attitudes and job satisfaction among physicians. However, the investigators found a number of problems as well.

These included usability issues, such as poor information display, complicated screen sequences and navigation, and the mismatch between user workflow in the EHR and clinical workflow. The latter problems resulted in interruptions and distraction, which can contribute to medical error.

Additional safety hazards included data entry errors created by the use of copy-forward, copy-and-paste, and electronic signatures, lack of clarity in sources and date of information presented, alert fatigue, and other usability problems that can contribute to error. Similar findings were reported in a review of nurses’ experiences with EHR use, which highlighted the altered workflow and communication patterns created by the implementation of EHRs.

Improving EHR usability is not a metaphysical undertaking. What’s wrong and what works have been known for years. What’s lacking is both the regulatory and corporate will to do so. If all EHRs had to show their practical usability users would rejoice. Your best bet here may be to become active in your EHR vendor’s user group. You may not get direct relief, but you’ll have a place, albeit small, at the table. Otherwise, given vendor and regulatory resistance to usability improvements, you’re better off pushing for a new EHR or writing your own EHR front end.

4. Make EHRs Smarter. If Watson can outsmart Kent Jennings, can’t artificial Intelligence make EHRs smarter? As one of my old friends used to tell our city council, “The answer is a qualified yes and a qualified no.”

AI takes on many, many forms and EHRs can and do use it. Primarily, these are dictation – transcription assistant systems. They’re known as Natural Language Processing (NLP). Sort of scribes without bodies. NLP takes a text stream, either live or from a recording, parses it and puts it in the EHR in its proper place. These systems combine the freedom of dictation with AI’s ability to create clinical notes. That allows the theory maintains, a user to maintain patient contact while creating the note, thus solving the keyboarding dilemma.

 The best-known NLP system Nuance’s Dragon Medical One, etc. Several EHR vendors have integrated Dragon or similar systems into their offerings. As with most complex, technical systems, though, NLP implementation requires a full-scale tech effort. Potential barriers are implementation or training shortcuts, workflow integration, and staff commitment. NLP’s ability to quickly gather information and place it is a given. What’s not so certain is its cost-effectiveness or its product quality. In those respects, its quality and efficacy is similar to scribes and subject to much the same scrutiny.

One interesting and wholly unexpected NLP system result occurred in a study by the University of Washington Researchers. The study group used an Android app NLP dictation system, VGEENS, that captured notes at the bedside. Here’s what startled the researchers:

….Intern and resident physicians were averse to creating notes using VGEENS. When asked why this is, their answers were that they have not had experience with dictation and are reluctant to learn a new skill during their busy clinical rotations. They also commented that they are very familiar with creating notes using typing, templates, and copy paste.

The researchers forgot that medical dictation skills are just that, a skill and don’t come without training and practice. It’s a skill of older generations and that keyboarding is today’s given. 

5. Offload to Patients. I hadn’t thought of this one until I saw an article in the Harvard Business Review. In a wide-ranging review, the authors saw physicians as victims of medical overconsumption and information overload:

In our recent studies of how patients responded to the introduction of a portal allowing them to e-mail health concerns to their care team, we found that the e-mail system that was expected to substitute for face-to-face visits actually increased them. Once patients began using the portal, many started sharing health updates and personal news with their care teams.

One of their solutions is to offload data collection and monitoring to patient apps:

Mightn’t we delegate some of the screening work to patients themselves? Empowering customers with easy-to-use tools transformed the tax reporting and travel industries. While we don’t expect patients to select what blood-pressure medications to be on, we probably can offload considerable amounts of the monitoring and perhaps even some of the treatment adjustment to them. Diabetes has long been managed this way, using forms of self-care that have advanced as self-monitoring technology has improved.

This may be where we are going; however, it ignores the already crowded app field. Moreover, every app seems to have its own data protocol. Health apps are a good way to capture and incorporate health data. They may be a good way to offload physicians’ keyboarding, but health apps are a tower of protocol Babel right now. This solution is as practical as saying that the way to curb double entering data in EHRs is to just make them interoperable.

What’s an EHR User to Do?

If each current approach to reducing keyboarding has problems, they are not fatal. I think that physician keyboarding is a problem and that it is subject to amelioration, if not solution.

For example, here’s Nordic’s Joel Martin on EHR usability:

… In reality, much of this extra work is a result of expanded documentation and quality measure requirements, security needs, and staffing changes. As the healthcare industry shifts its focus to value-based reimbursement and doing more with less, physician work is increasing. That work often takes place in the EHR, but it isn’t caused by the EHR’s existence.

Blaming the EHR without optimizing its use won’t solve the problem. Instead, we should take a holistic view of the issues causing provider burnout and use the system to create efficiencies, as it’s designed to do.  

The good news is that optimizing the EHR is very doable. There are many things that can be done to make it easier for providers to complete tasks in the EHR, and thereby lower the time spent in the system.

Broadly speaking, these opportunities fall into two categories.

First, many organizations have not implemented all the time-saving features that EHR vendors have created. There are features that dramatically lower the time required to complete EHR tasks for common, simple visits (for instance, upper respiratory infections). We rarely see organizations that have implemented these features at the time of our assessments, and we’re now working with many to implement them.

In addition, individual providers are often not taking advantage of features that could save them time. When we look at provider-level data, we typically see fewer than half of providers using speed and personalization features, such as features that let them rapidly reply to messages. These features could save 20 to 30 minutes a day on their own, but we see fewer than 50 percent of providers using them.

Optimization helps physicians use the EHR the way it was intended – in real-time, alongside patient care, to drive better care, fewer mistakes, and higher engagement. Ultimately, we envision a care environment where the EHR isn’t separate from patient care, but rather another tool to provide it. 

What does that mean for scribes or NLP? Recognize they are not panaceas, but tools. The field is constantly changing. Any effort to address keyboarding should look at a range of independent studies to identify their strengths and pitfalls. Note not only the major findings but also what skills, apps, etc., they required. Then, recognize the level of effort a good implementation always requires. Finally, as UW’s researchers found, surprises are always lurking in major shake-ups.

Join us for this week’s #HITsm chat on Using Technology to Fight EHR Burnout to discuss this topic more.

Usability, Interoperability are Political Questions: We Need an EHR Users Group

Posted on October 6, 2017 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.

Over the years, writers on blogs such as this and EMRandHIPAA have vented their frustration with lousy EHR usability and interoperability problems. Usability has shown no real progress unless you count all the studies showing that its shortcomings cost both time and money, drives users nuts, and endangers patient lives.

The last administration’s usability approach confused motion with progress with a slew of roadmaps, meetings and committees. It’s policies kowtowed to vendors. The current regime has gone them one better with a sort of faith based approach. They believe they can improve usability as long it doesn’t involve screens or workflow. Interoperability has seen progress, mostly bottom up, but there is still no national solution. Patient matching requires equal parts data, technique and clairvoyance.

I think the solution to these chronic problems isn’t technical, but political. That is, vendors and ONC need to have their feet put to the fire. Otherwise, in another year or five or ten we’ll be going over the same ground again and again with the same results. That is, interop will move ever so slowly and usability will fade even more from sight – if that’s possible.

So, who could bring about this change? The one group that has no organized voice: users. Administrators, hospitals, practioners, nurses and vendors have their lobbyists and associations. Not to mention telemed, app and device makers. EHR users, however, cut across each of these groups without being particularly influential in any. Some groups raise these issues; however, it’s in their context, not for users in general. This means no one speaks for common, day in day out, EHR users. They’re never at the table. They have no voice. That’s not to say there aren’t any EHR user groups. There are scads, but vendors run almost all of them.

What’s needed is a national association that represents EHR users’ interests. Until they organize and earn a place along vendors, etc., these issues won’t move. Creating a group won’t be easy. Users are widely dispersed and play many different roles. Then there is money. Users can’t afford to pony up the way vendors can. An EHR user group or association could take many forms and I don’t pretend to know which will work best. All I can do is say this:

EHR Users Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose, But Your Frustrations!

There’s a New Medicare ID Coming in April – CMS Dumps SSN

Posted on September 26, 2017 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.

Following a 2015 Congressional directive, CMS is abandoning its Social Security based Medicare ID for a new randomly generated one. The new card will be hitting beneficiary’s mailboxes in April with everyone covered by a year later.

The old ID is a SSN plus one letter. The letter says if you are a beneficiary, child, widow, etc. The new will have both letters and numbers. It is wholly random and drops the coding for beneficiary, etc. Fortunately, it will exclude S, L, O, I, B and Z, which can look like numbers. You can see the new ID’s details here.

                           New Medicare ID Card

Claimants will have until 2020 to adopt the new IDs, but that’s not the half of it. For the HIT world, this means many difficult, expensive and time consuming changes. CMS sees this as a change in how it tracks claims. However, its impact may make HIT managers wish for the calm and quiet days of Y2K. That’s because adopting the new number for claims is just the start. Their systems use the Medicare ID as a key field for just about everything they do involving Medicare. This means they’ll not only have to cross walk to the new number, but also their systems will have to look back at what was done under the old.

Ideally, beneficiaries will only have to know their new number. Realistically, every practice they see over the next several years will want both IDs. This will add one more iteration to patient matching, which is daunting enough.

With MACRA Congress made a strong case for Medicare no longer relying on SSNs for both privacy and security reasons. Where it failed was seeing it only as a CMS problem and not as a HIT problem with many twists and turns.

Sorting Through HIT’s Cultural Revolutions

Posted on June 15, 2017 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.

HIT is a small ship in the large IT sea. Whether we like it or not whatever stirs IT will rock HIT’s boat – to stretch an analogy. Sometimes it’s a tidal change in how we do business. Dial up modems, for example, gave way to high speed lines revolutionizing all that they touched.

Sometimes these revolutions – to switch analogies are much welcome and undeniable. No one is going back to MS-DOS or parallel interfaced printers. Sometimes, though, IT gets caught up in cultural revolutions (CRs) that eventually fade and disappear, but take a toll before their done and gone.

Chinese Cultural Revolution Poster

Chinese Cultural Revolution Poster. Source: chineseposters.net

By cultural revolutions I don’t mean the extremes of Chairman Mao’s creation, with Red Guards who destroyed everything and everyone in their path. We’re far more kinder and gentler than that. The CRs I’m talking about are organizational or technical fads noted for their promoters’ evangelical zeal. Heavily promoted they soak up organizational time and effort often with little to show.

To be sure IT’s not the only organizational sphere with fads. DOD’s Program, Performance Budgeting System (PPBS) is a famous 1960s example. It promised an almost mechanical solution to DOD’s major logistical, operational and performance review problems. It didn’t. Little changed. That doesn’t mean PPBS didn’t have some practical aspects, or that it didn’t leave behind some improvements. However, little justified its over blown hype and massive organizational disruption.

IT and HIT have had their share. Six Sigma, CMMI, and ISO 9000 quickly come to mind. I would add XML and Big Data. Advocates pushed these in the name of curing many woes or reaching new heights by adopting a new way of thinking or doing. However, CRs almost always just put old beer in new bottles.

Spotting a Cultural Revolution

Each day brings something new in IT/HIT. Here some ways to determine if what you’re facing is a fad or not:

  • Advocates. Who’s promoting it? Who certified them and what did that entail?
  • Analogues. Who’s implemented the CR and can you speak to them freely?
  • Client Demand. What do your clients think? Do they want you to adopt the new ways?
  • Effort. What effort will it take to adopt the CR? What are the opportunity costs?
  • Focus. Does the CR require your staff to stop what it’s doing and attend lengthy, expensive seminars?
  • Jargon. Do the advocates speak terms you know, or do they promote a whole new language you’ll have to master?
  • Organizational Fit. How well does the CR fit into your current way of doing things?
  • Payoff. What are the CR’s specific, definable advantages?
  • Segments. Does the CR give you a menu of choices or is it an all or nothing approach?
  • Sponsors. Who’s the CR author? Is it a standards organization, a movement by knowledgeable users or a self referencing group?

CRs aren’t a simple matter of useful or not. Sometimes even fads can bring a useful approach wrapped up in hyperbole.  For example, XML advocates claimed it would change everything. After that promotional tide receded, XML became another tool. The challenge, then, is being able to see if the current CR really offers anything new and what it really is.

Two Worth Reading

Posted on April 6, 2017 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.

HIT is a relatively small world that generates no end of notices, promotions and commentaries. You can usually skim them, pick out what’s new or different and move on. Recently, I’ve run into two articles that deserve a slow, savored reading: Politico’s Arthur Allen’s History of VistA, the VA’s homegrown EHR and Julia Adler-Milstein’s take on interoperability’s hard times.

VistA: An Old Soldier That May Just Fade Away – Maybe

The VA’s EHR is not only older than just about any other EHR, it’s older than just about any app you’ve used in the last ten years. It started when Jimmy Carter was in his first presidential year. It was a world of mainframes running TSO and 3270 terminals. Punch cards still abounded and dialup modems were rare. Even then, there were doctors and programmers who wanted to move vet’s hard copy files into a more usable, shareable form.

Arthur Allen has recounted their efforts, often clandestine, in tracking VistA’s history. It’s not only a history of one EHR and how it has fallen in and out of favor, but it’s also a history of how personal computing has grown, evolved and changed. Still a user favorite, it looks like its accumulated problems, often political as much as technical, may mean it will finally meet its end – or maybe not. In any event, Allen has written an effective, well researched piece of technological history.

Adler-Milstein: Interoperability’s Not for the Faint of Heart

Adler-Milstein, a University of Michigan Associate Professor of Health Management and Policy has two things going for her. She knows her stuff and she writes in a clear, direct prose. It’s a powerful and sadly rare combination.

In this case, she probes the seemingly simple issue of HIE interoperability or the lack thereof. She first looks at the history of EHR adoption, noting that MU1 took a pass on I/O. This was a critical error, because it:

[A]llowed EHR systems to be designed and adopted in ways that did not take HIE into account, and there were no market forces to fill the void.

When stage two with HIE came along, it meant retrofitting thousands of systems. We’ve been playing catch up, if at all, ever since.

Her major point is simple. It’s in everyone’s interest to find ways of making I/O work and that means abandoning fault finding and figuring out what can work.

Health IT End of Year Loose Ends

Posted on December 13, 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.

In that random scrap heap I refer to as my memory, I’ve compiled several items not worthy of a full post, but that keep nagging me for a mention. Here are the ones that’ve surfaced:

Patient Matching. Ideally, your doc should be able to pull your records from another system like pulling cash from an ATM. The hang up is doing patient matching, which is record sharing’s last mile problem. Patients don’t have a unique identifier, which means to make sure your records are really yours your doctor’s practice has to use several cumbersome workarounds.

The 21st Century Cures Act calls for GAO to study ONC’s approach to patient matching and determine if there’s a need for a standard set of data elements, etc. With luck, GAO will cut to the chase and address the need for a national patient ID.

fEMR. In 2014, I noted Team fEMR, which developed an open source EHR for medical teams working on short term – often crises — projects. I’m pleased to report the project and its leaders Sarah Diane Draugelis and Kevin Zurek are going strong and recently got a grant from the Pollination Project. Bravo.

What’s What. I live in DC, read the Washington Post daily etc., but if I want to know what’s up with HIT in Congress, etc., my first source is Politico’s Morning EHealth. Recommended.

Practice Fusion. Five years ago, I wrote a post that was my note to PF about why I couldn’t be one of their consultants anymore. Since then the post has garnered almost 30,000 hits and just keeps going. As pleased as I am at its longevity, I think it’s only fair to say that it’s pretty long in the tooth, so read it with that in mind.

Ancestry Health. A year ago September, I wrote about Ancestry.com’s beta site Ancestry Health. It lets families document your parents, grandparents, etc., and your medical histories, which can be quite helpful. It also promised to use your family’s depersonalized data for medical research. As an example, I set up King Agamemnon family’s tree. The site is still in beta, which I assume means it’s not going anywhere. Too bad. It’s a thoughtful and useful idea. I also do enjoy getting their occasional “Dear Agamemnon” emails.

Jibo. I’d love to see an AI personal assistant for PCPs, etc., to bring up related information during exams, capture new data, make appointments and prepare scripts. One AI solution that looked promising was Jibo. The bad news is that it keeps missing its beta ship date. However, investors are closing in on $100 million. Stay tuned.

 

Hospitals and General Grant Have a Lot in Common

Posted on October 20, 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.

A few weeks ago, I was having a bad dream. Everything was turning black. It was hard to breath and moving was equally labored. It wasn’t a dream. I woke up and found myself working hard to inhale. Getting out of bed took determination.

I managed to get to our hallway and call my wife. She called 911 and DC’s paramedics soon had me on my way to Medstar’s Washington Hospital Center’s ER. They stabilized me and soon determined I wasn’t having a heart attack, but a heart block. That is, the nerve bundles that told my heart when to contract weren’t on the job.

A cardiology consult sent me to the Center’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Suite (EP Clinic), which specializes in arrhythmias. They ran an ECG, took a quick history and determined that the block wasn’t due to any meds, Lime disease, etc. Determining I needed a pacemaker, they made me next in line for the procedure.

Afterwards, my next stop was the cardiac surgery floor. Up till then, my care was by closely functioning teams. After that, while I certainly wasn’t neglected, it was clear I went from an acute problem to the mundane. And with that change in status, the hospital system’s attention to detail deteriorated.

This decline led me to a simple realization. Hospitals, at least in my experience, are much like Ulysses Grant: stalwart in crisis, but hard pressed with the mundane. That is, the more critical matters became in the Civil War, the calmer and more determined was Grant. As President, however, the mundane dogged him and defied his grasp.

Here’re the muffed, mundane things I encountered in my one overnight stay:

  • Meds. I take six meds, none exotic. Despite my wife’s and my efforts, the Center’s system could not get their names or dosages straight. Compounding that, I was told not to take my own because the hospital would supply them. It couldn’t either find all of them or get straight when I took them. I took my own.
  • Food. I’d not eaten when I came in, which was good for the procedure. After it, the EP Clinic fed me a sandwich and put in food orders. Those orders quickly turned into Nothing by Mouth, which stubbornly remained despite nurses’ efforts to alter it. Lunch finally showed up, late, as I was leaving.
  • Alarm Fatigue. At three AM, I needed help doing something trivial, but necessary. I pressed the signaling button and a nurse answered who could not hear me due to a bad mike. She turned off the alert. I clicked it on again. Apparently, the nurses have to deal with false signals and have learned to ignore them. After several rounds, I stumbled to the Nurses’ Station and got help.
  • Labs. While working up my history, the EP Clinic took blood and sent for several tests. Most came back quickly, but a few headed for parts unknown. No one could find out what happened to them.
  • Discharge. The EP Clinic gave me a set of instructions. A nurse practitioner came by and gave me a somewhat different version. When we got home, my wife called the EP Clinic about the conflict and got a third version.
  • EHR. The Hospital Center is Washington’s largest hospital. My PCP is at the George Washington University’s Medical Faculty Associates. Each is highly visible and well regarded. They have several relationships. The Center was supposed to send GW my discharge data, via FAX, to my PCP. It didn’t. I scanned them in and emailed my PCP.

In last five years, I’ve had similar experiences in two other hospitals. They do great jobs dealing with immediate and pressing problems, but their systems are often asleep doing the routine.

I’ve found two major issues at work:

  • Incomplete HIT. While these hospitals have implemented EHRs, they’ve left many functions big and small on paper or on isolated devices. This creates a hybrid system with undefined or poorly defined workflows. There simply isn’t a fully functional system, rather there are several of them. This means that when the hospital staff wants to find something, first they’ll look in a computer. Failing that, they’ll scour clipboards for the elusive fact. It’s like they have a car with a five speed transmission, but only first and second gear are automatic.
  • Isolated Actors. Outside critical functions, individuals carry out tasks not teams. That is, they often act in isolation from those before or after them. This means issues are looked at only from one perspective at a time. This sets the stage for mistakes, omissions and misunderstandings. A shared task list, a common EHR function, could end this isolation.

The Hospital Center is deservedly a well regarded. It’s heart practice is its special point of pride. However, its failure to fully implement HIE is ironic. That’s because Medstar’s National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare isn’t far from the Hospital.

The problems I encountered aren’t critical, but they are troublesome and can easily lead to serious even life endangering problems. Most egregious is failure to fully implement HIT. This creates a confusing, poorly coordinated system, which may be worse than no HIT at all.

I’m Now a Thing on the Internet of Things

Posted on October 11, 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.

Thanks to a Biotronik Eluna 8 DR-T pacemaker that sits below my clavicle, I’m now a thing on the internet of things. What my new gizmo does, other than keeping me ticking, is collect data and send it to a cell device sitting on my nightstand.

biotronik-eluna
Once a day, the cell uploads my data to Biotronik’s Home Monitoring website, where my cardiologist can see what’s going on. If something needs prompt attention, the system sends alerts. Now, this is a one way system. My cardiologist can’t program my pacemaker via the net. To do that requires being near Biotronik’s Renamic inductive system. That means I can’t be hacked like Yahoo email.

The pacemaker collects and sends two kinds of data. The first set shows the unit’s functioning and tells a cardiologist how the unit is programmed and predicts its battery life, etc. The second set measures heart functioning. For example, the system generates a continuous EKG. Here’s the heart related set:

  • Atrial Burden per day 

  • Atrial Paced Rhythm (ApVs) 

  • Atrial Tachy Episodes (36 out of 48 criteria) 

  • AV-Sequences 

  • Complete Paced Rhythm (ApVp)
  • Conducted Rhythm (AsVp) 

  • Counter on AT/AF detections per day 

  • Duration of Mode Switches
  • High Ventricular Rate Counters
  • Intrinsic Rhythm (AsVs) 

  • Mode Switching
  • Number of Mode Switches 

  • Ongoing Atrial Episode Time
  • Ventricular Arrhythmia

Considering the pacemaker’s small size, the amount of information it produces is remarkable. What’s good about this system is that its data are available 24/7 on the web.

The bad news is Biotronik systems don’t directly talk to EHRs. Rather, Renamic uses EHR DataSynch, a batch system that complies with IEEE 11073-10103, a standard for implantable devices. EHR DataSynch creates an XML file and ships it along with PDFs to an EHR via a USB key or Bluetooth. However, Renamic doesn’t support LANs. When the EHR receives the file, it places the data in their requisite locations. The company also offers customized interfaces through third party vendors.

For a clinician using the website or Renamic, data access isn’t an issue. However, access can be problematic in an EHR. In that case, the Biotronik data may or may not be kept in the same place or in the same format as other cardiology data. Also, batch files may not be transferred in a timely fashion.

Biotronik’s pacemaker, by all accounts, is an excellent unit and I certainly am glad to have it. However, within the EHR universe, it’s one more non-interoperable device. It takes good advantage of the internet for its patients and their specialists, but stops short of making its critical data readily available. In Biotronik’s defense, their XML system is agnostic, that is, it’s one that almost any EHR vendor can use. Also, the lack of a widely accepted electronic protocol for interfacing EHRs is hardly Biotronik’s fault. However, it is surprising that Biotronik does not market specific, real time interfaces for the products major EHRs.