OP-ED

OP-ED

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Digital DoctorFollowing the recession, the Obama administration sought shovel-ready projects.

One unlikely shovel wielding aggregate demand was health information technology. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act passed in 2009 directed 5 % of the stimulus towards digitizing medical records.

Computerization of medical records doesn’t induce the images of public works as building freeways during the Great Depression does, but the freeway is a metaphor for exchange of information between electronic health records with the implication that such an exchange is a public good and so government intervention is justified.

Robert Wachter, voted the most influential physician by Modern Healthcare, sums the optimism and frustration with the electronic health record (EHR) in Digital Doctor – which stands to be a classic.

It was Bush Jr., not Obama, who started the digitization. Seeking bipartisanship after the war in Iraq, Bush was inspired by his closest ally, Tony Blair, who was wiring the National Health Service (NHS) – a $16 billion initiative which has since failed, spectacularly.

Bush founded the Office of National Coordinator of Health Information Technology (ONC) and appointed David Brailer – a physician, quant and entrepreneur – as head. Brailer wanted interoperability so that hospitals shared information. It is because of interoperability that we can use our debit cards in New York and Singapore. The market must agree on a common language, such as the TCP/ IP for the internet, to achieve interoperability.

Patients suffer when systems can’t talk. Were patients, not a third party, bearing the full costs of care – a free market – they might have forced hospital information systems to talk. Rightly or not, healthcare is not a free market and hospitals have little motivation in making cross-talking simpler.

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Joe FlowerThe collision between the “volume-to-value” movement and the pharmaceutical and biotech industries over the next few years will have a powerful impact on them and on the healthcare industry and on us as customers, patients, and payers. 

On the one hand, pharma is perhaps the part of the healthcare industry least exposed to direct price regulation under the Obama reforms. The actual costs of pharmaceuticals have been rising as a percentage of what people spend on healthcare, and are seen as the part they have the least influence on. At the same time, many new drugs for cancer and other life-threatening diseases have come with astonishingly high price tags, often not fully covered by insurance (due to the high deductibles and co-pays of the new plans), and with few ways for regulators or the market to push back on them. The public perceives these huge price tags as threatening people with a Hobson’s choice of bankruptcy or death. In the volatile political atmosphere of the 2016 elections, this leaves the pharmaceutical industry highly exposed to political attack and actual new price regulation.

On the other hand, the pharmaceutical and biotech industries also potentially offer some of the best answers to bringing the cost of healthcare down through the use of personalized medicines, smart medicines, new methods of administration such as implants, as well as the possibilities glimmering at us from recent research of real breakthroughs in such important chronic disease areas as Alzheimers, diabetes, addiction, behavioral medicine, and functional medicine. For the most part, though, these answers remain potential. We will not see them adding to the “value” side of the equation until they become fully integrated into a system that is at risk for the health of its customers and using every trick in the handbook to bring those costs in line.

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flying cadeuciiLast Friday ONC (the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT) released a long-awaited Report On Health Information Blocking. The ONC blog capsulizes the report:

Health information blocking occurs when persons or entities knowingly and unreasonably interfere with the exchange or use of electronic health information. Our report examines the known extent of information blocking, provides criteria for identifying and distinguishing it from other barriers to interoperability, and describes steps the federal government and the private sector can take to deter this conduct.

We were struck with two major reactions to the ONC Info Blocking Report:

  • It’s a solid double: it does a credible job of recognizing that the major problems of interoperability and blocking are not technical or due to a lack of standards, but rather due to business practices and business models. The report also proposes a baseline of potential solutions.
  • It’s not a home run: the report misses the opportunity to describe a comprehensive approach to combat information blocking.

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Adrian GropperAt a time when patients, physicians, and even congress are all clamoring for the interoperability we were promised with the HITECH incentives, the principal EHR vendor organization has figured out yet another way to add to their barricades. HIMSS has just released their “Recommended Identity Assurance for Patient Portals” provide cover for more impediments to the patient’s right to access our own health information.

The parallels to voter ID initiatives is striking. A self-assembled “HIMSS Identity Management Task Force” decides to invent a security threat that is undocumented and then propose a self-serving solution. I had the privilege of witnessing this process first hand.

The use of HIPAA as a barrier to patient access is well known. Almost all of us, as patients, have experienced denial of access to our own health information “because of HIPAA”. This misinterpretation of the law is so pervasive that the Office for Civil Rights, in September 2013, issued a right to access memo  that articulates the patient’s right to an electronic copy of her record and to have that record sent to someone else. Later, in comments designed to encourage adoption of the Blue Button initiative, the Office for Civil Rights made clear that the patient’s right of access included the right to insist on transmission of the record by insecure means if that was what they wanted. (By the way, how many of you have actually received a useful Blue Button file from private-sector hospital?)

18 months and maybe $15 Billion of HITECH incentive payments after the OCR memo, the EHR vendors have come up with their interpretation of the HIPAA patient right of access. I urge all of you to read the 3-page HIMSS recommendation and try to understand what this means to you as a patient.

Secure and privacy-preserving patient identity is currently under consideration by the IDESG Healthcare Committee https://www.idecosystem.org/group/healthcare-committee. On this page you will find the contact info for the leadership and I hope you will send your comments and even consider participating. Or, just comment below.

Adrian Gropper, MD is the CTO of Patient Privacy Rights.

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Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 7.20.19 PMDr. Samuels’ day-long training experience is unfortunate, but it’s only the opening chords of a much longer symphony of time commitments required by electronic medical records (EHRs).  Many studies document the extra time that EHRs impose on doctors and patients. Research in U.S. hospitals and medical offices suggest that these systems can add a half-hour or much more time to a day. A study by McDonald et al (2013 JAMA Internal Medicine) found EHRs added 48 minutes/day to ambulatory physicians, and Hill et al found that in a large  community hospital emergency room 43% of all physician time was spent entering data into the EHR. This almost doubled the time spent caring for patients, and tripled the time needed to interpret tests and records. (Annals of Emergency Medicine, 2014).

Some of that extra time is spent with clunky interfaces and  hide-n-go seeking for information that should be immediately available, such as arbitrary or unexpected  presentations of data, e.g., having to find a patient’s history by clicking on her current room number, or lab reports that may be arranged by chronology, by reverse chronology, by the lab company, by the organ system, by who ordered them, or by some informal heading, such as “blood work” or “tests” or “labs.”  Then there’s the constant box clicking (or what clinicians call “clickarrhea”).  EHRs also send thousands of usually irrelevant alerts that desensitize doctors to legitimate clinical recommendations.

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https://twitter.com/mcuban/status/583468799145349120

To his credit, Mark Cuban, engaged on Twitter in response to my post.

Mark, I’m sorry I had to leave Twitter abruptly. My wife threatened to kill me and then divorce me – in that order – if I didn’t get off Twitter instantly and get the groceries.

However, I caught the tail end of the Tweets. I’ll do my best to respond.

1. “Why is this contingency all radiologists?”

Mark wondered why everyone on a thread about overtesting were radiologists. It would be a great question if radiologists, who deal with testing, overtesting, limitations of testing, harms of testing, benefits of testing, appropriateness of testing, in other words the science of testing, would be offering advice on financial planning or offering the White House advice on their ISIS policy.

I can do no better than quote @jeffware.

“Exactly Mark – why are the Drs. who specialize in testing trying to explain the dangers of overtesting?”

That was a rhetorical question. But there are some entrepreneurial radiologists who are licking their lips at the epidemic of overtesting. I can hear them say “Mark and acolytes, bring it on.”

To wit, overtesting is better business for us. So our objection is not financially motivated. Let me make this even clearer. The more blood tests and genomic tests the “must prove that I’m healthy” brigade have, more $$$ for radiologists.

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Businessman and maverick, Mark Cuban recently opined “if you can afford to have your blood tested for everything available, do it quarterly so you have a baseline of your own personal health.” I’m unsure why he said quarterly, not weekly, daily or hourly. ‘ 

He further opined that this must be done to “create your own personal health profile and history. It will help you and create a base of knowledge for your children, their children, etc.” I assume etc. refers to grandchildren’s children.

I’m unclear what my grandchildren would gain from knowing my serum free testosterone levels in 2014. That’s a lot of data to enter in ancestry.com. For that matter, the size of my grandfather’s spleen in 1956 probably doesn’t affect the way I think about my mortality. That year he had a bout of Leishmaniasis, which, thankfully, isn’t a problem in Philadelphia.

Cuban further explained “a big failing of medicine = we wait till we are sick to have our blood tested and compare the results to “comparable demographics.”

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flying cadeuciiIn January, Ezekiel Emanuel – one of the country’s foremost health experts – threw a presumptive grenade into the national discourse: the annual physical is worthless. As we watched the initial burst of reactionary fervor following hisNew York Times opinion piece, we weren’t quite sure what to think.

Then we realized why: in our training and burgeoning careers in primary care, neither of us has ever scheduled an “annual physical” for a patient. To us, the notion of such a visit – for scheduled, non-urgent care, and one not specifically for chronic disease management – is already dated. Given current trends in American health care delivery and professional training, we argue it is one that may well soon be obsolete.

But does that obsolescence change the value of that time – whether 15 minutes or 60 – with a patient, on a regular interval? Our perspective from medicine’s emerging front line offers a resounding no.

The most obvious argument for regular primary care visits is preventive care. Dr. Emanuel bases much of his argument on the validity (or lack thereof) of annual physicals. Drawing off that same evidence base, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force sets recommendations for evidence-based screening in various populations. Even the young and healthy benefit from cervical cancer screening, initiated at 21 years of age and continued every three years provided negative results until the age of 30 (when the recommendations change slightly). Patients with higher risk earn further screenings, based on whether they smoke, their weight, their age and their family history.

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flying cadeuciiIt’s really quite easy to kill a doctor. Here’s a step-by-step process guaranteed to succeed at least 400 times a year:

Start early.

Be sure to denigrate medical students whenever possible. Even if they’ve come to the profession later in life and have accomplished all kinds of amazing things personally and professionally (which don’t count, of course, since those are other professions) they don’t know squat about medicine and you do. Make sure to emphasize their ignorance and inexperience at every turn, because it’s the only way to prove that you know more than they do, which of course means that you’re a better person than they are. The fact that as a group they’re all at the very top of their peer group in motivation and intelligence is irrelevant.

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Pharos Cover Art

In 1994, I recorded a fictitious interview with the person whom I imagined to be the last well person on earth. (1)  I mistakenly thought well people were disappearing and I wanted to call attention to their disappearance. I missed the big picture and now want to correct my misconceptions. Well people are not disappearing; instead, a new species of man is emerging:  homo clinicus.

An evolution of the symbiotic relationship between man and medicine has been going on for some time. Lewis Thomas deserves the credit for an early spotting of the new species, first observed in America. He called our attention to this phenomenon in the 1970s.

Nothing has changed so much in the health-care system over the past 25 years as the public’s perception of its own health. The change amounts to a loss of confidence in the human form. The general belief these days seems to be that the body is fundamentally flawed, subject to disintegration at any moment, always on the verge of mortal disease, always in need of continual monitoring and support by health-care professionals. This is a new phenomenon in our society.