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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, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

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, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

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, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

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!

Getting Buy-in For Your Second (Or More) EMR Purchase

Posted on August 15, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Michael Shearer is VP of Marketing for SelectHub.

Remember when you rolled out your first EMR?  Many of your doctors were uncertain, frustrated or angry, insurers were rejecting claims left and right and revenue fell as providers struggled to use the new system. Ah, those were lovely days.

Thankfully, in time everyone finally adapted. Through a combination of one-on-one coaching, group training, peer-to-peer mentoring and daily practice, clinicians got used to the system. Your patient volumes returned to normal. Some, though probably not all, of them got comfortable with the EMR, and a few even developed an interest in the technology itself.

Unfortunately, over time you’ve realized that your existing EMR isn’t cutting it. Maybe you want a system with an integrated practice management system. Perhaps your vendor isn’t giving you enough support or plans to jack up prices for future upgrades.  It could be that after working with it for a year or two, your EMR still doesn’t do what you wanted it to do. Whatever your reasons, it’s time to move on and find a system that fits better.

Given how painful the previous rollout was, buying a new EMR could be pretty disruptive and could easily stir up resentments and fears that had previously been laid to rest. But if you handle the process well, you might find that getting EMR buy-in is easier the second (or more) time around. Below are some strategies for getting clinicians on board.

Learn from your mistakes

Before you begin searching for an EMR, make sure that you’ve learned from your past mistakes. Consider taking the following steps:

  • Conduct thorough research on how clinicians (and staff if relevant) see your existing system. This could include a survey posing questions such as:
    • How usable is the EMR?
    • What impact does the EMR have on patient care, and why?
    • Does the EMR meet the needs of their specialty?
    • What features does the existing EMR lack?
    • Are EMR templates helping with documentation?
    • What are the great features of your existing EHR?
  • Compile a list of technical problems you’ve experienced with the system
  • Evaluate your relationship with the EMR vendor, and make note of any problems you’ve experienced
  • Consider whether your purchasing model (perpetual license vs. online subscription) is a good fit

Put clinicians in charge

When you bought your first EMR, you may have been on uncharted ground. You weren’t sure what you wanted to buy or how much to spend, and clinicians were at a loss as well.  Perhaps in the absence of detailed clinical feedback, you moved ahead on your own in an effort to keep the buying process moving.

This time around, though, clinicians will have plenty to say, and you should take their input very seriously. If they’re like their peers, their critiques of the existing EMR may include that:

  • It made documentation harder and/or more time-consuming
  • It wasn’t intuitive to use
  • It got in the way of their relationship with patients
  • It forced them to change their workflow
  • It didn’t present information effectively

These are just a few examples of the problems clinicians have had with their first EMR – you’ll probably hear a lot more. Ignoring these concerns could doom your next EMR rollout.

To avoid such problems, put clinicians in charge of the EMR purchasing process. By this point, they probably know what features they want, how documentation should work, what breaks their workflow, what supports their process and how the system should present patient data.

This will only work if you take your hands off of the wheel and let them drive the EMR selection process. Giving them a chance for token input but buying whatever administrators choose can only breed hostility and distrust.

Look to the future

When EMRs first showed up in medical practice, no one was sure what impact they’d have on patient care. Administrators knew that digitizing medical records would help them produce cleaner claims and shoot down denials, but few if any could explain why that would help their providers offer better care. In some cases, these first-line systems did nothing whatsoever for clinicians while weighing them down with extra work.

Over time, however, providers have begun using pooled EMR data to make good things happen, such as improving the health of entire populations, identifying how genetics can dictate responses to medication and predicting whether a patient is likely to develop a specific health condition. These are goals that will inspire most clinicians. While they may not care what happens in the business office, they care what happens to patients.

These days, in fact, using EMR data to improve care has become almost mandatory. Even if they didn’t bother before, practices are now buying systems better designed to help providers deliver care and improve outcomes. If your clinicians are still unhappy about their first experience, they may have trouble believing this. But make sure that they do.

The truth is, there will always be someone who doesn’t like technology, or refuses to take part in the buying process, and it’s unlikely you’ll win them over. But if your EMR actually enhances their ability to provide care, most will be happy to use it, and even evangelize the system to their colleagues. That’s the kind of buy-in you can expect if you deliver a system that meets their needs.

Michael Shearer is VP of Marketing for SelectHub, which offers selection tools for EMRs and practice management systems.

 

EHR Lifecycle

Posted on May 30, 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.

Far too many organizations look at the EHR go live as the end all be all to EHR implementations. Unfortunately, this fallacy in thinking has caused many EHR implementations to suffer after the EHR go live. The reality of an EHR implementation is that it’s never done.

This was highlighted really well in this graphic that The Advisory Board Company put out about the EHR life cycle. They compare the EHR lifecycle to that of raising a child. The most poignant part of this chart to me are the final 3 phases of the EHR lifecycle which are all after the EHR go live event. These final 3 phases are listed as ongoing. In other words, these final 3 phases will never end.

See the details in the graphic below (click on it to see a larger version):

If you don’t have a process in place to improve your EHR use, performance, and the benefits you receive from your EHR, then you should get one now.

E-Patient Update: Doctors Need To Lead Tech Charge

Posted on April 7, 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.

Doctors, like any other group of people, vary in how comfortable they are with technology. Despite the fact that their job is more technology-focused than ever before, many clinicians use tech tools because they must.

As a result, they aren’t great role models when it comes to encouraging patients to engage with portals, try mobile apps or even pay their healthcare bills online. I too am frustrated when doctors can’t answer basic tech questions, despite my high comfort level with technology. I like to think that we’re on the same page, and I feel sort of alienated when my doctors don’t seem to care about the digital health advantage.

This needs to change. Given the extent to which technology permeates care delivery, physicians must become better at explaining how basic tech tools work, why they’re used and how they benefit patients.

Below, I’ve listed three tools which I consider to be critical to current medical practices, based on both my patient experiences and my ongoing research on health IT tools. To me, knowing something about each of them is unavoidable if doctors want to keep up with trends and improve patient care.

The top three tools I see as central to serving patients effectively are:

  • Patient portals: This is arguably the most important technical option doctors can share with patients. To get the most value out of portals, every doctor – especially in primary care – should be able to explain to patients why accessing their data can improve their health and lives.
  • Connected health: For a while, connected health/remote monitoring solutions were a high-end, expensive way to track patient health. But today, these options are everywhere and accessible virtually anyone. (My husband bought a connected glucose monitor for $10 a few weeks ago!) If nothing else, clinicians should be able to explain to patients how such devices can help tame chronic diseases and prevent hospitalizations.
  • Mobile apps: While few apps, if any, are universally trusted by doctors, there’s still plenty of them which can help patients log, measure and monitor important data, such as medication compliance or blood pressure levels. While they don’t need to understand how mobile apps work, they should know something of why patients can benefit from using them.

Of course, this list is brief, but it’s a decent place to start. After all, I’m not suggesting that physicians need to get a master’s in health IT to serve patients adequately; I’m just recommending that they study up and prepare to guide their patients in using helpful tools.

Ultimately, it’s not as important that clinicians use or even have a deep understanding of digital health tools, health bands, smartwatches, sensor-laden clothing or virtual reality. They don’t have to understand cybersecurity or know how to reboot a server. They just have to know how to help patients navigate the healthcare world as it is.

By this point, in fact, I’d argue that it’s irresponsible to avoid learning about technologies that can help patients manage their health. Bear in mind that even if they don’t act like it, even confident, experienced patients like me truly admire our doctors and take what they say seriously. So if I am enthusiastic about using tech tools to manage my health, but my doctor’s eyes glaze over when I talk about them, even I feel a bit discouraged. So why not learn enough to encourage me on my journey?

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, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

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.

Paper Records Are Dead

Posted on March 14, 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.

Here’s an argument that’s likely to upset some, but resonate with others. After kicking the idea around in my head, I’ve concluded that given broad cultural trends, that the healthcare industry as a whole has outgrown the use of paper records once and for all. I know that this notion is implicit in what health IT leaders do, but I wanted to state this directly nonetheless.

Let me start out by noting that I’m not coming down on the minority of practices (and the even smaller percentage of hospitals) which still run on old-fashioned paper charts. No solution is right for absolutely everyone, and particularly in the case of small, rural medical practices, paper charts may be just the ticket.

Also, there are obviously countless reasons why some physicians dislike or even hate current EMRs. I don’t have space to go into them here, but far too many, they’re hard to use, expensive, time-consuming monsters. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that doctors that have managed to cling to paper are just being contrary.

Still, for all but the most isolated and small providers, over the longer term there’s no viable argument left for shuffling paper around. Of course, the healthcare industry won’t realize most of the benefits of EMRs and digital health until they’re physician-friendly, and progress in that direction has been extremely slow, but if we can create platforms that physicians like, there will be no going back. In fact, for most their isn’t any going back even if they don’t become more physician firendly. If we’re going to address population-wide health concerns, coordinate care across communities and share health information effectively, going full-on digital is the only solution, for reasons that include the following:

  • Millennial and Gen Y patients won’t settle for less. These consumers are growing up in a world which has gone almost completely digital, and telling them that, for example they have to get in line to get copies of a paper record would not go down well with them.
  • Healthcare organizations will never be able to scale up services effectively, or engage with patients sufficiently, without using EMRs and digital health tools. If you doubt this, consider the financial services industry, which was sharing information with consumers decades before providers began to do so. If you can’t imagine a non-digital relationship with your bank at this point, or picture how banks could do their jobs without web-based information sharing, you’ve made my point for me.
  • Without digital healthcare, it may be impossible for hospitals, health systems, medical practices and other healthcare stakeholders to manage population health needs. Yes, public health organizations have conducted research on community health trends using paper charts, and done some effective interventions, but nothing on the scale of what providers hope (and need) to achieve. Paper records simply don’t support community-based behavioral change nearly as well.
  • Even small healthcare operations – like a two-doctor practice – will ultimately need to go digital to meet quality demands effectively. Though some have tried valiantly, largely by auditing paper charts, it’s unlikely that they’d ever build patient engagement, track trends and see that predictable needs are met (like diabetic eye exams) as effectively without EMRs and digital health data.

Of course, as noted above, the countervailing argument to all of this is the first few generations of EMRs have done more to burden clinicians than help them achieve their goals, sometimes by a very large margin. That seems to be largely because most have been designed — and sadly, continue to be designed — more to support billing processes than improve care. But if EMRs are redesigned to support patient care first and foremost, things will change drastically. Someday our grandchildren, carrying their lifetime medical history in a chip on their fingernail, will wonder how providers ever managed during our barbaric age.

 

External Incentives Key Factor In HIT Adoption By Small PCPs

Posted on January 25, 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.

A new study appearing in The American Journal of Managed Care concludes that one of the key factors influencing health IT adoption by small primary care practices is the availability of external incentives.

To conduct the study, researchers surveyed 566 primary care groups with eight or fewer physicians on board. Their key assumption, based on previous studies, was that PCPs were more likely to adopt HIT if they had both external incentives to change and sufficient internal capabilities to move ahead with such plans.

Researchers did several years’ worth of research, including one survey period between 2007 and 2010 and a second from 2012 to 2013. The proportion of practices reporting that they used only paper records fell by half from one time period to the other, from 66.8% to 32.3%. Meanwhile, the practices adopted higher levels of non-EMR health technology.

The mean health IT summary index – which tracks the number of positive responses to 18 questions on usage of health IT components – grew from 4.7 to 7.3. In other words, practices implemented an average of 2.6 additional health IT functions between the two periods.

Utilization rates for specific health IT technologies grew across 16 of the 18 specific technologies listed. For example, while just 25% of practices reported using e-prescribing tech during the first period of the study, 70% reported doing so during the study’s second wave. Another tech category showing dramatic growth was the proportion of practices letting patients view their medical record, which climbed from one percent to 19% by the second wave of research.

Researchers also took a look at the impact factors like practice size, ownership and external incentives had on the likelihood of health IT use. As expected, practices owned by hospitals instead of doctors had higher mean health IT scores across both waves of the survey. Also, practices with 3 to 8 physicians onboard had higher scores than those were one or two doctors.

In addition, external incentives were another significant factor predicting PCP technology use. Researchers found that greater health IT adoption was associated with pay-for-performance programs, participation in public reporting of clinical quality data and a greater proportion of revenue from Medicare. (Researchers assumed that the latter meant they had greater exposure to CMS’s EHR Incentive Program.)

Along the way, the researchers found areas in which PCPs could improve their use of health IT, such as the use of email of online medical records to connect with patients. Only one-fifth of practices were doing so at the time of the second wave of surveys.

I would have liked to learn more about the “internal capabilies” primary care practices would need, other than having access to hospital dollars, to get the most of health IT tools. I’d assume that elements such as having a decent budget, some internal IT expertise and management support or important, but I’m just speculating. This does give us some interesting lessons on what future adoption on new technology in healthcare will look like and require.

Diagnosis And Treatment Of “Epic Finger”

Posted on January 20, 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.

The following is a summary of an “academic” paper written by Andrew P. Ross, M.D., an emergency physician practicing in Savannah, GA. In the paper, Dr. Ross vents about the state of physician EMR issues and repetitive EMR clicking (in quite witty fashion!). Rather than try and elaborate on what he’s said so well, I leave you with his thoughts.

At long last, medical science has identified a subtle but dangerous condition which could harm generations of clinicians. A paper appearing in the Annals of Emergency Medicine this month has described and listed treatment options for “Epic finger,” an occupational injury similar to black lung, phossy jaw and miner’s nystagmus.

Article author Andrew Ross, MD, describes Epic finger, otherwise known as “Ross’s finger” or “the furious finger of clerical rage,” as a progressive repetitive use injury. Symptoms of Epic finger can include chronic-appearing tender and raised deformities, which may be followed by crepitus and locking of the finger. The joint may become enlarged and erythematous, resembling “a boa constrictor after it has eaten a small woodland mammal.”

Patients with Epic finger may experience severe psychiatric and comorbid conditions. Physical complications may include the inability to hail a cab with one’s finger extended, play a musical instrument or hold a pen due to intractable pain.  Meanwhile, job performance may suffer due to the inability to conduct standard tests such as the digital rectal exam and percussion of the abdomen, leading in turn to depression, unhappiness and increased physician burnout.

Dr. Ross notes that plain film imaging may show findings consistent with osteoarthritic changes of the joint space, and that blood work may show a mild leukocytosis and increased nonspecific markers of inflammation. Ultimately, however, this elusive yet disabling condition must be identified by the treating professional.

To treat Epic finger, Dr. Ross recommends anti-inflammatory medication, aluminum finger splinting and massage, as well as “an unwavering faith in the decency of humanity.”  But ultimately, to reverse this condition more is called for, including a sabbatical “in some magnificent locale with terrible wi-fi and a manageable patient load.”

Having identified the syndrome, Dr. Ross calls for recognition of this condition in the ICD-10 manual. Such recognition would help clinicians win acceptance of such a sabbatical by employers and obtain health and disability insurance coverage for treatment, he notes. In his view, the code for Epic finger would fit well in between “sucked into jet engine, subsequent encounter,” “burn due to water skis on fire” and “dependence on enabling machines and devices, not elsewhere classified.”

Meanwhile, hospitals can do their part by training patients to recognize when their healthcare providers are suffering from Epic finger. Patients can “provide appropriate and timely warnings to hospital administrators through critical Press Ganey patient satisfaction scorecards.”

Unfortunately, the prognosis for patients with Epic finger can be poor if it remains untreated. However, if the condition is recognized promptly, treated early, and bundled with time spent in actual patient care, the author believes that this condition can be reversed and perhaps even cured.

To accomplish this result, clinicians need to stand up for themselves, he suggests: “We as a profession need to recognize this condition as an occult manifestation of our own professional malaise,” he writes. “We must heal ourselves to heal others.”