Tech

Tech

A Real (Living, Breathing) Health Care Reform Plan: Drop MACRA

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Dear Washington,

Congratulations! You have listened to the AMA and practicing physicians and made it a little easier to comply (at first) with the Medicare Quality Payment Program, part of the massive MACRA “pay for value” law. 

But CMS’ announcements in The Federal Register and “fact sheet” are incomprehensible gobbledygook that will be understood by neither doctors, patients, nor the rest of society. The language personifies the complexity, unwieldiness and confused thinking in this huge national policy. 

MACRA is a $15 billion boondoggle that the best research shows will neither improve quality nor control costs. Paying doctors for quality (e.g., doing a blood pressure exam) or efficiency may make sense theoretically, but it doesn’t work. Rather than making a dent in the continuing upward spiral of healthcare costs in America, it can even result in some doctors avoiding sicker patients because it affects their quality scores and income.

Early, poorly designed research suggested that paying for health or cost savings was effective, but these research designs did not account for already occurring improvements in medical practice that the policymakers took credit for. Decades of stronger, well-controlled research debunked these early findings and conclusively showed no effects of these economic policies.

So why does the Congress and administration continue to press ahead with this same tired and impotent policy?

With Amazon Purchase, it’s Time For Whole Foods to Bring Affordability Instead of Gentrification

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On Friday, Amazon purchased upscale grocery and health food chain Whole Foods for $13.4 billion. Business outlets have praised the deal for both sides by noting that Amazon gains the brick-and-mortar presence that it has long sought while Whole Foods gains a major bump in stagnant stock prices. Squeezed by Costco, Target and Walmart’s increasing forays into the organic produce, Whole Foods was forced on the defensive in recent years, making shareholders unhappy.

Now, with the sale to Amazon, Whole Foods gains a second life as part of the world’s largest internet e-commerce company. Already, speculation has begun regarding how Amazon can leverage its technology to streamline Whole Foods’ operations and how Amazon can leverage the massive network of 460 stores in the US, Canada and UK to extend its relatively recent profitable streak.

But what do these obvious business benefits mean for American consumers?

While it will take time to know for sure, it’s probable that Amazon will add Whole Foods products to its AmazonFresh service, available to Amazon Prime members for an additional $14.99 a month. Competition in the American online grocery delivery service space has been unexpectedly fierce in recent years with companies such as FreshDirect and Instacart holding their own against Amazon and likely slowing AmazonFresh’s expansion into additional cities.

Being Human

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This is the most difficult blog post I’ve ever had to write. Almost 3 months ago, my sister passed away unexpectedly. It’s too painful to talk about the details. We were extremely close and because of that the loss is even harder to cope with.

The story I want to tell you today is about what’s happened since that day and the impact it’s had on how I view the world. In my work, I spend considerable amounts of time with all sorts of technology, trying to understand what all these advances mean for our health. Looking back, from the start of this year, I’d been feeling increasingly concerned by the growing chorus of voices telling us that technology is the answer for every problem, when it comes to our health. Many of us have been conditioned to believe them. The narrative has been so intoxicating for some.

Ever since this tragedy, it’s not an app, or a sensor or data that I turned to. I have been craving authentic human connections. As I have tried to make sense of life and death, I have wanted to be able to relate to family and friends by making eye contact, giving and receiving hugs and simply just being present in the same room as them. The ‘care robot’ that had arrived from China this year as part of my research into whether robots can keep us company, remains switched off in its box. Amazon’s Echo, the smart assistant with a voice interface that I’d also been testing a lot also sits unused in my home. I used it most frequently to turn the lights on and off, but now I prefer walking over to the light switch and the tactile sensation of pressing the switch with my finger. One day last week, I was feeling sad, and didn’t feel like leaving the house, so I decided to try putting on my Virtual Reality (VR) headset, to join a virtual social space. I joined a virtual computer generated room where it was sunny and in someone’s back yard for a BBQ, I could see their avatars, and I chatted to them for about 15 minutes. After I took off the headset, I felt worse.

How Amazon Can Position Itself as the Pharmacy of the Future

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How Amazon can position itself as the pharmacy of the future

We know Amazon has a knack for disruption—over the years it has upended countless brick and mortar bookstores and other major players in the retail industry. The e-commerce behemoth may be at it again, making headlines for its interest in breaking into the pharmacy market in the United States. But delivery of prescription medications to the home already exists for patients with chronic and even acute conditions, while patient portals already give patients online access to payments and prescription refills. So how might we expect Amazon to set itself apart from the competition and grow in the pharmacy space? If it stays true to the tenets of Disruptive Innovation, expect it to further expand its capabilities around healthcare in the home—just as it has kept book, grocery, and other retail shoppers at home over the years.

Is the Direct Primary Care Model Dead?

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A recent Medical Economics article asked “Is the DPC model at risk of failing?”

The piece focuses on two large DPC-like organizations, Qliance Medical Management of Seattle, Washington and Turntable Health of Las Vegas, NV, working in partnership with Iora Health, which recently closed their doors. Qliance and Turntable were not actually DPC practices by strict definition; they were innovative large business operations providing healthcare services to patients and excluding third party payers. Their idea was commendable, but their closure indicates little cause for concern in regard to the growing Direct Primary Care movement.

Robert Berenson, MD, who admits to not being a fan of the DPC model, said “Qliance has been the poster child for DPC… If that one can’t make it… it suggests the business model (of DPC) is flawed.”  He is correct about one thing; the “business” model of medicine is certainly flawed.

What Dr Berenson fails to realize is that DPC is not a “business” model; it is a “care” model. Whether accepting insurance or DPC in structure, we already know solo and two-physician practices deliver the best care and have been doing so for the past 100 years. These intimate clinics know their customers better than anyone else in the industry, and can devote the time necessary to their clientele; these micro-practices should be known as the small giants of healthcare.

Is eClinicalWorks the Next Volkswagen?

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Since the Department of Justice announced the ground-breaking $155 MM settlement with eClinicalWorks (ECW) on Wednesday, industry response has been dizzying.  Let’s collect the facts and review what it means.  I reviewed it all in greater detail yesterday here.

A short summary:  EHR developer eClinicalWorks settled a legal dispute with the Department of Justice that commits them to pay $155 Million, provide free services to customers, and undergo oversight for five years.  The government found that ECW faked certification testing: the EHR software was certified as having capabilities that it didn’t have. Tens of thousands of care providers collected millions of dollars when they attested to the meaningful use of a certified EHR. DOJ therefore states that “ECW caused the submission of false claims for federal incentive payments based on the use of ECW’s software.”

Through social media and (gastp!) real-life conversations, we’ve heard:

  1. Too hot: This is evidence that ONC’s certification program isn’t working and should be rolled back
  2. Too cold:  This is evidence that ONC’s certification program is too easy and should be enhanced
  3. Just right:  This is evidence that ONC’s certification program is appropriate, and expects participants to have integrity

And we’ve heard the analogies:

  1. ECW is the health IT version of Volkswagen:  they faked a test, got caught, and have to pay the price.  Shame on them.
  2. ECW is the health IT version of Uber:  they developed shady software, used it to make millions of dollars, got caught, and have to pay the price.  Shame on them.
  3. ECW is Ray Stoller the car salesman, who sold cars that weren’t safe to unsuspecting purchasers and refused to make good on their commitments.  Shame on them.

Is this an indictment of the certification program?  Not at all.  While the program may not yet be “just right,” without certification, there would be no basis for any legal complaint against ECW, and this would all have remained hidden.  Despite the persistent calls for ONC to roll back the program, this case makes it clear that such a move would be a direct threat to public safety, and would invite more of these shenanigans.  ECW is indeed the VW/Ray Stoller of health IT (I don’t think the Uber metaphor sticks) but just as there are more car manufacturers than just VW who cheated on diesel emissions, there are more health IT developers who cheated too.  Perhaps not so boldly or carelessly as ECW, but I am 100% certain that there are other companies who have done this, and I’m confident that the government is investigating these others.

Parsing eCW’s $155 Million Payment to the Government

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UPDATE:  Here are the public records for the case.  More details there about the original complaint.  Excerpt:

What we’re talking about

The purpose of any certification program is to create a method for the purchasers of a product to have confidence that the product safely and reliably does what it is supposed to do.  One example from USDA:

Turning Point for Meat Inspection  In 1905, author Upton Sinclair published the novel titled The Jungle, taking aim at the poor working conditions in a Chicago meatpacking house. However, it was the filthy conditions, described in nauseating detail—and the threat they posed to meat consumers—that caused a public furor. Sinclair urged President Theodore Roosevelt to require federal inspectors in meat-packing houses.The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) became law on the same day in 1906. The Pure Food and Drug Act prevented the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors. The FMIA prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded meat and meat products for food, and ensured that meat and meat products were slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions.

In this case, the government moved to protect the public because a subset of meat packers was putting profit above public health.  After The Jungle was published, public outcry caused the government to step in and regulate the industry.  Regulation is not, therefore, a four letter word.  It’s there to protect us from evildoers.

Before Health IT Certification

You may not remember this, but I do.  Before there was certification, Health IT development companies (some people call them “vendors”) created software and sold the software with claims of improved provider productivity, improved public health, and (yup) improved billing (among other impressive capabilities). Sometimes these claims were completely valid.  Sometimes they were not.  In the case where the developers’ functional claims were not quite valid, buyers had little recourse.  One might say “well, the markets will take care of that.  Bad actors will lose sales.”  But that’s not the case here for several reasons:

  1. The buyer may not be the one using the software.  A hospital buys software for clinicians.  Clinicians complain to hospital.  Hospital may or may not be a strong advocate with developer.
  2. It’s very hard to migrate from one system to another.  EHR purchase / deployment / optimization is a multi-year initiative.  If you bought a lemon, you may try to make lemonade as the though of migrating to something else will give you R11.0.
  3. Shame.  You don’t want your patients / competitors / peers to know that your EHR doesn’t work as expected.  You made a mistake.  Human nature is to hide our mistakes rather than treasure them as educational opportunities.

Information Blocking Under Attack: The Challenges Facing EHR Developers and Vendors

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In March 2017 Milbank Quarterly, researchers Julia Adler-Milstein and Eric Pfeifer found that information blocking — which they define as a set of practices in which “providers or vendors knowingly and unreasonably interfere with the exchange or use of electronic health information in ways that harm policy goals” – occurs frequently, and is motivated by revenue gain and market-share protection.

Among the practices most often cited were deployment of products with limited interoperability (49%) and high fees for health information exchange unrelated to [actual] cost (47%).  Of note: This is the first empirical research identifying and quantifying the specific information blocking practices reported by a group of information exchange experts.

The authors concluded “Information blocking appears to be real and fairly widespread. Policymakers have some existing levers that can be used to curb information blocking and help information flow to where it is needed to improve patient care. However, because information blocking is largely legal today, a strong response will involve new legislation and associated enforcement actions.”

The legal situation regarding the controversial subject of information blocking may have already changed dramatically.  Two important events occurred since this research was undertaken.  First, the strongly bipartisan-backed 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law by President Obama late last year.  The health information technology (HIT) provisions of the law now make it illegal for a vendor or provider to engage in information blocking. Second, the new law provides the nation with a new and comprehensive statutory definition of information blocking:

The Delta of Discomfort and
the Agony of Despair

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I’m a radiologist. I spend my day looking at CT scans and MRI scans. When it’s a good day, I have interesting scans to review, but much of my work is not too dissimilar from a TSA screener’s. One normal scan after the next, it’s akin to trying to stay alert so that the gun someone’s trying to sneak through in their luggage isn’t missed. In my case, of course, it’s a cancer or other unexpected medical abnormality finding.

Computer-Assisted Diagnosis

Most of my day I work on a computer workstation presenting the exams. In my dream, my workstation does more than simply display the exam. It assists in reading the case. If there’s an abnormality, I can click on the area, and the workstation takes the image and compares it to millions of other cases in the cloud. It tells me, based on that patient’s age and sex and other information, how likely it is the finding is a tumor and maybe even, if so, what kind of tumor. At other times the workstation tells me whether a study is normal or not, freeing me to do other activities. However, this dream is not shared by all of my colleagues.

When I mentioned this work-flow scenario to one of my residents—this idea of computer-assisted diagnosis with constant improvement, or what is known as artificial intelligence, or AI—he said it sounded awesome, but he really didn’t want to have it if it was available to everyone. His comment is something of a mixed message: Yes, I see value but no, I don’t want it.

It’s largely based on fear of being replaced by computers. And it’s a song I’ve heard before.

Is Health Privacy a Human Right?

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Health privacy sits at an uncomfortable junction between three interests: individual human rights, public / population health, and private business interests. There’s no obvious reason for these three interests to be misaligned but a lot of pain and money are involved so either politics or competition are typically in the picture.

Health privacy is a subset of the human right to privacy, what Supreme Court Justice Brandeis called “the right to be left alone”. But privacy has never been defined, and is seldom enforced, in health care because of the competing interests of society to manage populations, and a $100 Billion industry in data brokerage that’s hidden from public view. Big Healthcare business seeks our trust on the one hand while doing their best to manipulate prices on the other.