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THCB

Live from HIMSS12: ICD-10, Meaningful Use & Social Media

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There has been a lot of buzz around two pieces of news –in one case, lack of news—in the past week. Last Thursday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius responded to heavy pressure from the American Medical Association and announced a delay to the ICD-10 implementation deadline, currently set for October 2013.

Meanwhile, the health IT universe continues to wait with baited breath for Sebelius and/or leadership at CMS or ONC to publish the proposed regulations for Stage 2 of the “meaningful use” EHR incentive program. The proposal was supposed to have been out before 35,000 or so health IT industry types descended on Las Vegas for HIMSS12, but it was not to be. As with any major federal rule-making, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget has to vet every word, so it is out of Sebelius’ hands for the moment.

Rumors spreading through the Sands Expo Center and the adjacent Venetian and Palazzo hotels have pegged Wednesday or Thursday for the release date, since national health IT coordinator Dr. Farzad Mostashari is leading a session on Stage 2 meaningful use with other ONC and CMS representatives Wednesday morning, then delivering a keynote address the following day.

In the wake of the ICD-10 bombshell last week, HIMSS itself and other IT-related groups are telling their membership and anyone else who will listen not to slack off when it comes to ICD-10 preparedness. HIMSS CEO Steve Lieber noted in his annual press conference Tuesday that the official HHS statement said the department would “initiate a process to postpone the date by which certain healthcare entities” must meet the requirements. That, to Lieber, suggests the possibility of a delay for physician practices or perhaps small hospitals, but not for larger organizations.

The Medical Chart: Ground Zero for the Deterioration of Patient Care

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EMR Alert – Featuring radiologist note in illegible font color

For the past couple of years I’ve been working as a traveling physician in 13 states across the U.S.

I chose to adopt the “locum tenens lifestyle” because I enjoy the challenge of working with diverse teams of peers and patient populations.

I believe that this kind of work makes me a better doctor, as I am exposed to the widest possible array of technology, specialist experience, and diagnostic (and logistical) conundrums. During my down times I like to think about what I’ve learned so that I can try to make things better for my next group of patients.

This week I’ve been considering how in-patient doctoring has changed since I was in medical school. Unfortunately, my experience is that most of the changes have been for the worse.

While we may have a larger variety of treatment options and better diagnostic capabilities, it seems that we have pursued them at the expense of the fundamentals of good patient care.

What use is a radio-isotope-tagged red blood cell nuclear scan if we forget to stop giving aspirin to someone with a gastrointestinal bleed?

The Opening Act

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That past month of debate over the botched launch of the health care exchanges has brought the programming geeks, and their hired mouthpieces, out in the open to defend the indefensible. As painful as this has been for so many Americans, we cannot help but be amused to hear so many commentators doing their best impression of Captain Renault and expressing their shock that the federal procurement system could have produced such an outcome. Of course, most of this is a sideshow, the opening act to an even more serious drama in the making.

Let us be clear from the outset, the rollout of Healthcare.gov is an embarrassment. However, this only becomes a real problem if it dissuades enough people who were already marginal customers with respect to their purchase of health insurance on the exchanges to simply pay the penalty and avoid the hassle of staring at a computer screen, waiting on hold for hours, or refusing to try again once the geeks get this all sorted out.

While the self-appointed technology experts on both sides of the aisle have been debating the causes of the web site debacle, attention has been diverted away from the necessarily frank discussions we must have about the real potential benefits and looming costs of the exchanges.

In a valiant attempt to steer the conversation towards the benefits of the ACA, President Obama held a rose garden press event where he repeatedly claimed that the health insurance on the exchanges is good product. But as is all too often the case, the President talked about the benefits and side stepped the difficult conversation about the costs.

At least he is half right. If they can ever fix the web sites, people with pre-existing conditions who shop on the exchanges will gain access to insurance at a more affordable price. Enrollees may save thousands of dollars. But let’s not kid ourselves.

The exchanges do not reduce the cost of medical care; they only change who pays for it. And we all know who that is.

Vermont’s Bold Experiment

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I was delighted to see the lead article in Health Affairs describing Vermont’s new single payer health care financing system. Harvard Professor William Hsiao and his coauthors describe this as a “Bold Experiment” and I couldn’t agree more. It is also a very welcome experiment. For over thirty years I have heard the rhetoric that a single payer system would never work in the United States. For that matter, I have heard that a true market-based system (with vouchers) would never work either. Why not let the states experiment and find out what will and won’t work? Thankfully, the Vermont legislators and Governor Shumlin had the courage to take this leap of faith.

The biggest obstacle to implementation appears to be ERISA, which limits the extent to which states can regulate self-funded plans. Apparently, self-insured employers could object to having their tax payments used to support the plan. But Vermont can apply for an ERISA waiver under terms in the Affordable Care Act and the state hopes to begin its bold experiment in 2015.

As bold as the plan might be, Hsiao et al. might be even bolder in projecting the potential cost savings, which they peg at 25.3 percent. Academics rarely go out on a limb with projections like this that can easily be assessed in a few years time. And academics are rarely so optimistic. I wish I could share that optimism.

Five Potential Healthcare Applications for Google Glass

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Last week I had the opportunity to test Google Glass.

It’s basically an Android smartphone (without the cellular transmitter) capable of running Android apps, built into a pair of glasses.  The small prism “screen” displays video at half HD resolution.  The sound features use bone conduction, so only the wearer can hear audio output.   It has a motion sensitive accelerometer for gestural commands.    It has a microphone to support voice commands.   The right temple is a touch pad.  It has WiFi and Bluetooth.   Battery power lasts about a day per charge.

Of course, there have been parodies of the user experience but I believe that clinicians can successfully use Google Glass to improve quality, safety, and efficiency in a manner that is less bothersome to the patients than a clinician staring at a keyboard.

Here are few examples:

1.  Meaningful Use Stage 2 for Hospitals – Electronic Medication Admission Records must include the use of “assistive technology” to ensure the right dose of the right medication is given via the right route to the right patient at the right time.   Today, many hospitals unit dose bar code every medication – a painful process.   Imagine instead that a nurse puts on a pair of glasses, walks in the room and wi-fi geolocation shows the nurse a picture of the patient in the room who should be receiving medications.  Then, pictures of the medications will be shown one at a time.  The temple touch user interface could be used to scroll through medication pictures and even indicate that they were administered.

2.  Clinical documentation – All of us are trying hard to document the clinical encounter using templates, macros, voice recognition, natural language processing and clinical documentation improvement tools.     However, our documentation models may misalign with the ways patients communicate and doctors conceptualize medical information per Ross Koppel’s excellent JAMIA article.  Maybe the best clinical documentation is real time video of the patient encounter, captured from the vantage point of the clinician’s Google Glass.   Every audio/visual cue that the clinician sees and hears will be faithfully recorded.

The Really Bad Math Behind the Social Security Cuts

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Among the sacrifices Congressional representatives placed on the altar of deficit negotiations is an “inflation adjustment” that will shave “only” a few hundred dollars from an average, newly retired Social Security beneficiary’s income each year. But the cruel hoax is that the reduction will amount to as much as $1600 when the beneficiary is older, poorer, and sicker.  Many seniors already have a tough time paying for food, rent, and medical care.

Even worse,  reductions in beneficiaries’ incomes may well cost government more for potentially preventable hospital and long-term care.  Senator Elizabeth Warren and other New England lawmakers should be lauded for splitting from Democratic representatives and the Administration regarding this ill-conceived proposal.

Many senior citizens are already vulnerable to economic hardship.  A recent US Census analysis that counts rising medical expenses found that over 1 in 6 elderly people live in poverty, unable to meet basic living expenses, and almost 20% more are living just above the poverty line. Social Security is the only or largest source of income for about 70% of seniors; the average monthly check is only about $1200.

The typical retirement savings of seniors is a paltry $50,000 — barely enough to get through several years’ living expenses, let alone 20-30 years of retirement.  This is not the result of cavalier actions by the older generation; these are the Americans whose home values have plummeted, whose defined-benefit pension plans have been decimated or disappeared, and whose retirement accounts were eviscerated by the Wall Street meltdown of the last decade. Yet the current proposal punishes these Americans as if they were at fault for their poverty.

Fidelity Investments has estimated that the average retired couple will need more than $200,000 to pay their out-of-pocket medical expenses during retirement, and that figure is probably conservative.

The arithmetic of Social Security benefit reductions just doesn’t fit with this reality.

Ask Me Anything with CDC Director Tom Frieden

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Tom Frieden optimizedThe Ebola outbreak in West Africa is an international public health emergency. As the world responds, there is a risk that American responders working on the ground may be exposed to the virus or become ill. This summer, two American health care workers infected with Ebola while working in West Africa were successfully treated at Emory University Hospital.  Their health care team used the proper infection control practices and there was no transmission of the virus to the health care team or others in the hospital and community.

Now two more American health care workers working in West Africa have become infected with Ebola virus and are being treated in the United States.

CDC has already consulted with state and local health departments on almost 100 cases where travelers had recently returned from West Africa and showed symptoms that might have been caused by Ebola. Of those cases, only eleven of were considered to be truly at risk. Specimens from all eleven patients were tested and fortunately Ebola was ruled out in all cases.

There is understandably a lot of fear surrounding Ebola. The health care workers who might need to care for Ebola patients are right to be concerned – and they should use that concern to increase their awareness and motivation to practice the meticulous infection control measures we know will prevent transmission of the virus.

Healthcare’s Tech Disconnect: Why Aren’t We Building the Products Patients Really Need?

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Having been supported by several small business grants from the National Cancer Institute to create online interventions for cancer patients, I have been learning gradually about commercialization models to get our work out to the public. I am dismayed about the major disconnect between eHealth entrepreneurs and eHealth intervention researchers (my personal reference group).

Last year I attended Stanford Medicine X and last week I did a demo of one of our web sites at Health 2.0 in Santa Clara. Both times, I was struck by the assumption in the IT developer and consumer community that giving people realtime feedback about their health will automatically result in major positive changes in behavior, not to mention cost savings for insurers.

The Connected Patient movement seems particularly naïve to me. Psychologists have been using self-monitoring, i.e. recording behaviors such as smoking, eating, and exercise, for at least 30 years to promote behavior change. First we used paper-and-pencil diaries, but researchers like Saul Schiffman quickly adapted the first handheld computers to prompt people to record their behaviors in realtime, greatly increasing the accuracy and power of self-monitoring.

As technology has advanced, so have our means of self-monitoring. Overall, however, the technology matters far less than the procedure itself. For most people, tracking their smoking, calories, mood, or steps does change unhealthy behaviors somewhat, for a limited period of time. A small group of highly educated, motivated people is more successful in using self-monitoring to make larger, more lasting changes.

I was reminded of this last year in a seminar on tracking at Stanford Medicine X, when a concierge physician from San Francisco and several of his patients talked about being empowered to change their health by using feedback from various types of sensors. One had paid out of pocket for a continuous blood glucose monitor since his insurance would not cover the costs to use it for his Type II diabetes.

Another doggedly demanded access to the data from his cardiac defibrillator. They believed their experiences heralded a sea change in health care in the United States. I am all for empowering patients with knowledge, tracking tools, and social support.

However, if knowledge and feedback was all it took to change unhealthy behaviors, psychologists would be superfluous in the world.

Save the Country with Preventive Care

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We are entering the season of presidential politics, of bunting and cries of “What about the children?” and star-spangled appeals to full-throated patriotism.

So here’s mine: Do you count yourself a patriot? Do you care about the future of this country? (And while we are at it, the future of your hospital.) If so, bend your efforts to find ways to care for the least cared for, the most difficult, the chronically complex poor and uninsured.

“But we can’t afford compassion!” Wrong, brothers and sisters, we cannot afford to do without compassion. “But why should we pay to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves?” Because we are (you are) already paying for them — so let’s find the way we can pay the least.

The problem of the overwhelming cost of the “frequent fliers,” people with multiple poorly tracked chronic conditions, has always been that the cost was an SEP — “somebody else’s problem.” Now, increasingly, hospitals and health systems are finding that they are unable to avoid the crushing costs of pretending it’s not their problem, are not being paid for re-admits, and are finding themselves in one way or another at risk for the health of whole populations. They’re also facing more stringent IRS 990 demands that they demonstrate a clear, accountable public benefit.

At the same time, employers and payers are realizing that they end up paying the costs of the uninsured as well as those of the insured who are over-using the system because they are not being tracked. These costs become part of the costs of the system, and the costs are (and must be) shifted to those who do pay. There is no magic money well under the hospital.

Life Saving Errors

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On March 28, 1979 the Three-Mile Island Unit-2 nuclear power plant experienced a feed system failure which prevented the steam generators from removing heat from the plant. The reactor automatically shutdown but, without the feed system to cool the primary, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase. In order to prevent that pressure from becoming excessive, a relief valve opened. The valve should have re-closed once the pressure dropped by a small amount, but it didn’t. The only indication available in the control room showed the valve in the closed position, but that indication was erroneous, representing only that the signal to close the valve (pressure below a set value) had been sent to the valve. Nothing in the system verified the actual valve position. This stuck-open valve caused the pressure to continue to decrease in the system (and ultimately provided a path for spewing thousands of curies of radioactive material into the atmosphere), but the false shut indication prevented the operators from taking actions to mitigate their severe loss of coolant accident.

The primary relief valve design had a history of sticking. That same valve had been involved in at least nine other minor incidents prior to the TMI incident. Most notably, eighteen months before TMI, a similar incident had occurred in another nuclear plant involving a loss of feed and rising temperatures shutting down the plant. In that incident, the plant was just starting up after a maintenance shutdown, so the power level and temperature of the system were not as dangerously high as at Three-Mile Island.