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Jonathan Bush Loves Health Data–But How Will We Get As Much As He Wants?

Posted on September 24, 2014 I Written By

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

The fervent hope of health care reformers is that someday we will each know as much about our bodies–our vital signs, the health of our organs, the contents of our genomes-as corporations know about our marketing habits. One of the recent expressions of this dream comes in Jonathan Bush’s engaging and readable account of the healthcare system, Where Does It Hurt?.

Bush is a tireless advocate for bottom-up, disruptive forces in healthcare, somewhat in the same camp as Vinod Khosla (whose Health Datapalooza keynote I covered) and Clayton Christensen (who wrote the forward to Bush’s book). What Bush brings to the discussion is hands-on experience at confronting the healthcare behemoth in an explicitly disruptive way (which failed) as well as fitting into the system while providing a bit more light by building athenahealth (which succeeded).

Bush’s book tours the wreckage of the conventional health care system–the waste, errors, lack of communication, and neglect of chronic conditions that readers of this blog know about–as well as some of the promising companies or non-profits that offer a way forward. His own prescription for the health care system rests on two main themes: the removal of regulations that prevent the emergence of a true market, and the use of massive data collection (on physicians and patients alike) to drive a rational approach to health care.

Both government and insurers would have a much smaller role in Bush’s ideal health care system. He recognizes that catastrophic conditions should be covered for all members of society, and that the industry will need (as all industries do) a certain minimum of regulation. (Bush even admitted that he “whined” to the ONC about the refusal of a competitor to allow data exchange.) But he wants government and insurers to leave a wide open field for the wild, new ideas of clinicians, entrepreneurs, and software developers.

Besides good old-fashioned human ingenuity, the active ingredient in this mix is data–good data (not what we have now), and lots of it. Bush’s own first healthcare business failed, as he explains, through lack of data along with the inconsistency of insurance payments. A concern for data runs through this book, and motivates his own entrance into the electronic health records market.

What’s missing from the Where Does It Hurt?, I think, is the importance of getting things in the right order: we can’t have engaged patients making free choices until an enormous infrastructure of data falls into place. I have looked at the dependencies between different aspects of health IT in my report, The Information Technology Fix for Health: Barriers and Pathways to the Use of Information Technology for Better Health Care. Let’s look at some details.

Bush wants patients to have choice–but there’s already a lot of choice in where they get surgery or other procedures performed. As he points out, some of the recent regulations (such as accountable care organizations) and trends in consolidations go in the wrong direction, removing much of this choice. (I have also written recently about limited networks.) One of Bush’s interesting suggestions is that hospitals learn to specialize and pay to fly patients long distances for procedures, a massive extension of the “medical tourism” affluent people sometimes engage in.

But even if we have full choice, we won’t be able to decide where to go unless quality measures are rigorously collected, analyzed, and published. Funny thing–quality measures are some of the major requirements for Meaningful Use, and the very things that health IT people complain about. What I hear over and over is that the ONC should have focused laser-like on interoperability and forgone supposedly minor quests like collecting quality measurements.

Well, turns out we’ll need these quality measures if we want a free market in health care. Can the industry collect these measures without being strong-armed by government? I don’t see how.

If I want a space heater, I can look in the latest Consumer Reports and see two dozen options rated for room heating, spot heating, fire safety, and many other characteristics. But comparable statistics aren’t so easy to generate in health care. Seeing what a mess the industry has made of basic reporting and data sharing in the data that matters most–patient encounters–we can’t wait for providers to give us decent quality measures.

There’s a lot more data we need besides provider data. Bush goes into some detail about the Khosla-like vision of patients collecting and sharing huge amounts of information in the search for new cures. Sites such as PatientsLikeMe suggest a disruptive movement that bypasses the conventional health care system, but most people are not going to bother collecting the data until they can use it in clinical settings.

And here we have the typical vicious cycle of inertia in health care: patients don’t collect data because their doctors won’t use it, doctors say they can’t even accept the data because their EHRs don’t have a place for it, and EHR vendors don’t make a place for it because there’s no demand. Stage 3 of Meaningful Use tries to mandate the inclusion of patient data in records, but the tremendous backward tug of industry resistance saps hope from the implementation of this stage.

So I like Bush’s vision, but have to ask: how will we get there? athenahealth seems to be doing its part to help. New developments such as Apple’s HealthKit may help as well. Perhaps Where Does It Hurt? can help forward-thinking vendors, doctors, health information exchanges, entrepreneurs, and ordinary people pull together into a movement to make a functioning system out of the pieces lying around the landscape.

EHR Is Not Disruptive…And Never Will Be

Posted on April 28, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

Ben Wanamaker and Devin Bean have an outstanding blog post on the Disruptive Innovation blog (Clayton Christensen Institute for those following at home) called Why EHRs are not (yet) disruptive. If you care about the EHR market, you should go and give it a slow thorough read. Well worth pondering what they’re saying. For those who don’t want to read the whole article, here’s a small excerpt:

The reason EHRs are not “roiling the health care landscape” with disruption is not that the technology is bad—rather it’s the business model in which they are being implemented. While there is some evidence that EHRs can help increase clinical quality, the technology is by and large being crammed into sustaining business models and used as an expensive sustaining innovation to replace paper records with complex electronic systems. Implementing new technology to sustain the way you already make money almost always keeps costs high and prevents true disruption. Indeed, the history of innovation is littered with companies that had a potentially disruptive technology such as EHRs within their grasp but failed to commercialize it successfully because they did not couple it with a disruptive business model.

Plus, this powerful quote:

EHRs have little reason to use the new electronic system differently from the old paper system, and so EHRs often neither decrease cost nor increase quality. They’re just next year’s more expensive model of paper-based patient records.

As I read this I thought, EHR weren’t meant to be and they won’t ever be disruptive. In fact, they cement in the status quo. I think we see this playing out more and more every day.

To be disruptive, we’ll need something to come from outside of EHR. It likely will have to buck the current reimbursement model. Payers and government really control the environment. As Steve Case said at SXSW V2V, government is the biggest customer of healthcare. That makes disruption difficult unless you go outside the current system.

The disruptive technology that comes will in many ways feel like an EHR, but it won’t be an EHR like we know it. My point is that technology will disrupt healthcare and many in the EHR world will see the disruptive technology and say that it looks very much like the EHR software of today. However, what they won’t realize is that it’s not the technology, but the business model that’s paired with the technology that’s so disruptive.

EMRs Investors Stuck In Old Patterns

Posted on November 7, 2012 I Written By

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

Today I read an intriguing piece in The New York Times which looked at different ways capital can be invested, and how over-reliance on one style may be cramping our economy.

In the piece, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen asserts that there are three main models for investing in innovation:

Empowering: These innovations “transform complicated and costly available to a few into simpler, cheaper products available to many,” Christensen says.  Obviously, the reduction of the mainframe into consumer desktops is one example.  These products open up new markets.

Sustaining:  These innovations replace old products with newer ones that improve on the old (his example: The Toyota Prius hybrid).  They don’t necessarily open new markets, as people often buy the improved model instead of the previous version, but they do keep the market moving.

Efficiency:  These innovations reduce the cost of making and distributing products and services, making capital available to keep the improvement process. They generally don’t expand markets at all.

In Christensen’s model, industries cycle through each of these stages and create new markets and jobs in the process. But that engine seems to be stuck in neutral of late, he suggests.

At this point, he argues, VCs and companies with excess cash are focused on a new finance model which discourages investment in brand new, empowering innovations. Capitalists want to make big money but are being channeling into spending only on the third stage of the cycle.

So, why all of this economic analysis in an EMR publication?  Well, because I’d argue that the EMR business has already fallen into just such a stall.  Rather than come up with paradigm-shifting innovations which really empower doctors, vendors are falling over themselves to create more efficient models of the same basic thing.

Not only is that bad for the health IT economy, it’s bad for end users, few of whom are rapturously happy with the basic EMR paradigm.  It discourages innovations that are patient-facing — such as a fascinating three-dimensional avatar I just heard about which can be used as a PHR — since there’s little if any funding for such projects.

Worst of all, focusing on efficiency doesn’t inherently improve patient care either, something we’d hope would be the fundamental goal of any EMR.

Given the stakes involved, let’s hope investors decide that chasing efficiency by reworking old models isn’t the best way to keep the EMR business alive.  Otherwise, we may stay bogged down for many years to come.