Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 9.26.00 AMThis week a host of organizations responded to a Senate Finance Committee request for feedback on how to better use healthcare data.

The inquiry is timely, given the widespread frustration providers have with health information technology (HIT), and electronic health records (EHR) systems in particular. This frustration stems from many HIT/EHR systems are locked in proprietary systems. This hinders technology’s ability to connect and exchange information freely between disparate systems, devices and sensors along the care continuum, thus undermining the overall goal of using HIT to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.

An example illustrates the point. Because HIT systems don’t work together, most hospitals use nurses to manually double check input from disparate “smart” devices. For instance, an infusion pump reports the level of pain medication being administered to a patient, as does the EHR. But these numbers sometimes don’t match, and must be double checked by at least two nurses to confirm the right dosing. Not only is this a step back for efficiency, but it’s also another manual process that has the potential to create errors and patient safety issues.

There are also economic consequences of data fragmentation. According to the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC), U.S. providers are spending $8 billion a year due to the lack of interoperability.

To address this problem and reduce the unnecessary fragmentation of healthcare data, it’s time to require the use of open and secure applications programming interfaces (APIs).

In April, a group of America’s leading scientists, named JASON, published a report that found the current lack of interoperability among HIT data sources is a major impediment to the exchange of health information. They recommended that EHR vendors be required to develop and implement APIs that support health data architecture. The recommendation was also endorsed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in May. Requiring open APIs as a foundational standard for healthcare data would reverse the current legacy of locked systems and enable the real-time exchange of information in EHR systems to reduce costs and improve patient safety.

Continue reading “An Open Letter on Open Healthcare Data”

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Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 11.45.17 AM“The patient is the one with the disease.”  This medical aphorism, often quoted as rule number four from Samuel Shem’s 1978 novel, The House of God, has probably been around as long as medicine itself.  Its point is that doctors need to learn to accept their own vulnerability and fallibility before they can devote themselves fully to the care of their patients.  And so long as medicine was built on the relationship between two parties, patients and doctors, the rule worked reasonably well.

More recently, however, the party is being transformed into a crowd.  A third player is increasingly encroaching on the doctor-patient relationship, and more and more doctors are beginning to suspect that it may be the vector of much of contemporary healthcare’s pathology.  Who is the third party?  Its precise identity is often difficult to pin down, but its seat in the doctor’s office and at the patient’s bedside is often occupied by a hospital, a health insurer, or a government agency.

This third party usually does not see individual patients.  Instead it sees aggregates, such as rates of mortality, disease incidence, and the utilization rates of particular tests, procedures, and pharmaceuticals.  It tends to be particularly interested in parameters such as efficiency, safety, cost, and revenue.  Because it is largely blind to individuals, however, its risk of developing certain disorders is dramatically increased.  And when it falls ill, both patients and doctors suffer.

Before patients and doctors can respond effectively to such pathologies, they must first recognize that they exist.  One of the first steps in recognizing a disorder is applying a name to it, and one physician who has taken up this challenge is Adam Ratner, MD, one of the founders of the San Antonio-based non-profit, The Patient Institute.  Ratner, who has been struggling to clarify the nature of these pathologies for many years, believes that healthcare is in the midst of an unrecognized epidemic.

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Tom Frieden optimizedFor more than four decades, Ebola virus had only been diagnosed in central or eastern Africa.

Then late this past March, the first cases of Ebola began appearing in a surprising part of the continent. The Ministry of Health in Guinea notified WHO of a rapidly evolving outbreak of Ebola virus disease. The outbreak in Guinea was the first sign the virus had made the jump across the continent.

Ebola then spread quickly to Sierra Leone and Liberia, and then to Nigeria.

As the world learned of the cases, CDC began receiving questions from American hospital labs. They were looking for guidance on how to handle testing for patients who had recently returned to the U.S. from West Africa with potential Ebola symptoms.

If U.S. hospitals were to run laboratory tests on these patients, how could they be sure their staff could safely handle materials that might contain this dangerous virus? Did they need the kind of personal protective equipment they saw CDC scientists using when they were testing for Ebola?

Continue reading “CDC Laboratory Guidance on Ebola”

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Tech Skool

An article in Information Week caught my eye recently . It reviews a new program offered by Texas A&M with support from Dell to help medical students and other healthcare professionals “come to terms with  the ways technology is changing their jobs”. The article, Doctors Can Go Back to Tech School, says Texas A&M will launch its new health technology academy later this year as part of its continuing medical education program.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for education and career improvement. I’m just not sure that the best way to improve Health IT is to get more physicians trained in IT so they can, as the article suggests, move into IT roles. How about giving full time clinicians who have an interest in improving Health IT some extra support and time so they can help those who work in IT better understand what clinicians need to do their jobs efficiently and safely? How about just a little paid time away from the daily treadmill of patient care to educate IT about the nuances of medicine and clinical workflow? I believe understanding that would do more to help IT deliver better solutions.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been many things. First and foremost, I am a physician. Only a true clinician understands how clinicians think and work. For many years, I continued to practice even when it no longer made a whole lot of sense with regards to my income or available time. I was a biology major in college. I went to medical school and did a residency in family medicine. I never had any formal training in either business or technology. I learned the ropes by doing. It was often trial by fire. I’ve had my share of success as well as a few failures along the way. When I advanced into the role of a hospital CIO and CMIO, it wasn’t because I knew tech. When my then CEO asked me to step into the CIO role, I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “I want to put a civilian in charge of the military”, meaning a doctor in charge of a department that existed to serve clinicians and their patients but had become a renegade army running out of control and way over budget.

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VA Chron

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate passed a Department of Veterans Affairs health reform bill in response to scandals in patient care at VA centers. The $16.3-billion bill,signed by President Barack Obamaincludes measures that will attempt to overhaul information technology and introduce telemedicine procedures at VA clinics and hospitals.

But who’s going to implement these reforms? Infield Health President Doug Naegele talked with G2Xchange Health Cofounders David Blackburn and Eric Klos to understand how the bill might create new opportunities for health entrepreneurs. 

Can you talk for a minute about how some of the bill’s provisions make room for entrepreneurs?

This bill has a number of specific information technology mandates for the VA that are ripe for innovation. Many of the mandates are a direct response to excessive wait times, the need for information sharing when our veterans access care outside the VA, and the gaming that was done by VA staff to hide wait time issues at VA facilities. Three examples of opportunity areas for entrepreneurs include:

1)     Digital Waiting List – You may have seen billboards on the highway that show the Emergency Room wait time at a local hospital. This is an example of the type of transparency that would permit veterans to monitor the average wait times by facility and type of care.

2)     The VA has 90 days to establish a system to monitor and issue Veterans a “Veterans Choice Card,” which will facilitate the receipt of care from non-VA health providers.

3)     Data for patient safety, quality of care and outcomes must be extrapolated from the existing VA electronic health records (VistA) and published as a comprehensive database within 180 days. This data must be “fed”’ into the HHS Hospital Compare website. Again, transparency is a key driver for the VA.

Continue reading “HIT: How the VA Reform Bill Benefits Entrepreneurs”

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Dear Doctor,

The future is in your hands.

You have the opportunity to make primary care better.

More efficient.
More accessible.
And more affordable.

We know you and other primary care doctors have more responsibilities than ever. But you also have great influence, along with the ability and opportunity to change this country’s health care system for the better.

Primary care is essential to the quality of health care, and we need you now more than ever.

Maneuvering the Minefield

According to research firm Harris Interactive, “the practice of medicine is … a minefield. … Physicians today are very defensive – they feel under assault on all fronts.’’* Harris questions, “how much fight the docs have left in them. Some are still fired up … while others have already been beaten down.’’

Those who feel frustration, anger and burnout say they are squeezed by administrators, regulators, insurance companies and more. They worry about the possibility of a lawsuit that could destroy your career.

The question is: What can be done about it? Some of you may choose to remain in the status quo. Some of you have chosen to retire early or otherwise leave the field of medicine entirely. Yet some of you have said enough is enough and found specific solutions that mark a pathway forward. You sought – and found – specific solutions that mark a pathway forward.

If you’ve rejected the status quo and joined your fellows in search of innovations from other practices that you have applied at home, congratulations. You’re a physician leader who’s doing great things for your patients, your colleagues and yourself. You are undoubtedly more satisfied in your work than before, and you are quite likely providing better care.

Continue reading “An Open Letter to Primary Care Physicians”

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Jeff GoldsmithOrginally published June 6th 2014, back by popular demand. – The Eds

Sometimes big game hunters find frustration when their prey moves by the time they’ve lined up to blast it. That certainly appears to be the case with the health policy target de jour: whether providers, hospital systems in particular, exert too much market power. A recent cluster of papers and policy conferences this spring have targeted the question of whether hospital mergers have contributed to inflation in health costs, and what to do about them.

Hospitals’ market power appears to be one of those frustrating moving targets. The past eighteen months have seen a spate of hospital industry layoffs by market-leading institutions, and also a string of terrible earnings releases from some of the most powerful hospital systems and “integrated delivery networks” in the country. These mediocre operating results raise questions about how much market power big hospital systems and IDNs do, in fact, exert.

The two systems everyone points to as poster children for excessive market power-California-based Sutter Health and Boston’s Partners Healthcare, both released abysmal operating results in April. Mighty Partners reported a paltry $3 million in operating income on $2.7 billion in revenues in their second (winter) quarter of FY14. Partners cited a 4.5 percent reduction in admissions and a 1.6 percent decline in outpatient visits as main drivers. Captive health insurance losses dragged down Partners’ patient care results. Sutter did even worse, losing $22 million on operations in FY13 (ended in December), — compared to a gain of $697 million in FY11 — on more than $9.6 billion in revenues.  A 3 percent decline in admissions led to FY13 revenue growth of 0.9 percent (that is, nine-tenths of one percent), against 7.3 percent in expense growth.

Continue reading “How Much Market Power Do Hospitals Really Have?”

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Apple store NYC

MU stage 2 is making everyone miserable.  Patients are decrying lack of access to their records and providers are upset over late updates and poor system usability. Meanwhile, vendors are dealing with testy clients and the MU certification death march.  While this may seem like an odd time to be optimistic about the future of HIT, nevertheless, I am.

The EHR incentive programs have succeeded in driving HIT adoption. In doing so, they have raised expectations of what electronic health record systems should do while bringing to the forefront problems that went largely unnoticed when only early adopters used systems.  We now live in a time when EHR systems are expected to share information, patients expect access to their information, and providers expect that electronic systems, like their smartphones, should make life easier.

Moving from today’s EHR landscape to fully-interoperable clinical care systems that intimately support clinical work requires solving hard problems in workflow support, interface design, informatics standards, and clinical software architecture.  Innovation is ultimately about solving old problems in new ways, and the issues highlighted by the current level of EHR adoption have primed the pump for real innovation.   As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in the case of HIT, necessity has a few helpers.

Continue reading “Why I Am Still Optimistic About the Future of HIT”

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Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 10.04.17 AMIt’s a seductive idea. We doctors possess knowledge and experience which can not only help people, but can save their lives. We get opportunities to be the right person at the right time to offer the right help that makes all of the difference. It’s one of the greatest things about our profession. It’s also one of its greatest traps.

I’ve heard many doctors refer to themselves as “healers,” as if we have some special power to bring about healing in our patients. This idea confers some sort of a higher status and originates, to some, from a “higher calling” to a more noble life. Again, this is a logical step, in that we have opportunities on a regular basis to help and even save the lives of people. It’s natural to believe that somehow the healing power comes from our touch, or even from our knowledge.

It doesn’t. I am not a healer.

Healing is what the patient does, not the doctor. As a physician, I am certainly one who can help the patient find a faster road to healing, but I don’t heal. I help.

Why am I taking the time to talk about this? Why get stressed out over whether I am a helper or a healer? I think that the belief in doctors as healers causes significant harm to both doctors and patients, and that getting a better perspective about the roles of each will greatly improve the care given. Here’s why I believe this is a topic that needs addressing:

1. Doctors Often Fail at Healing (And Will Always Ultimately Fail)

There are many patient problems that do not get better, despite my best efforts. There are countless pains I can’t remove, and many problems I do not solve. Even when I succeed, the success is always temporary, as a new problem will eventually come back. And if healing is our ultimate goal as physicians, we all are total failures, as all of our patients eventually die. If healing is held as our goal, we fight a losing battle. We are the soldiers in the Alamo, offering impotent resistance to an overwhelming force.

Continue reading “Why Doctors Shouldn’t Be Healers”

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Contributing Editor

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