European health care systems are already awash in “big data.” The United States is rushing to catch up, although clumsily thanks to the need to corral a century’s worth of heterogeneity. To avoid confounding the chaos further, the United States is postponing the adoption of the ICD-10 classification system. Hence, it will be some time before American “big data” can be put to the task of defining accuracy, costs and effectiveness of individual tests and treatments with the exquisite analytics that are already being employed in Europe. From my perspective as a clinician and clinical educator, of all the many failings of the American “health care” system, the ability to massage “big data” in this fashion is least pressing. I am no Luddite – but I am cautious if not skeptical when “big data” intrudes into the patient-doctor relationship.
The driver for all this is the notion that “health care” can be brought to heel with a “systems approach.”
This was first advocated by Lucien Leape in the context of patient safety and reiterated in “To Err is Human,” the influential document published by the National Academies Press in 2000. This is an approach that borrows heavily from the work of W. Edwards Deming and later Bill Smith. Deming (1900-1993) was an engineer who earned a PhD in physics at Yale. The aftermath of World War II found him on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff offering lessons in statistical process control to Japanese business leaders. He continued to do so as a consultant for much of his later life and is considered the genius behind the Japanese industrial resurgence. The principal underlying Deming’s approach is that focusing on quality increases productivity and thereby reduces cost; focusing on cost does the opposite. Bill Smith was also an engineer who honed this approach for Motorola Corporation with a methodology he introduced in 1987. The principal of Smith’s “six sigma” approach is that all aspects of production, even output, could be reduced to quantifiable data allowing the manufacturer to have complete control of the process. Such control allows for collective effort and teamwork to achieve the quality goals. These landmark achievements in industrial engineering have been widely adopted in industry having been championed by giants such as Jack Welch of GE. No doubt they can result in improvement in the quality and profitability of myriad products from jet engines to cell phones. Every product is the same, every product well designed and built, and every product profitable.
The case studies include a chapter comparing America’s two most broadly deployed EHRs: The VA’s VistA and Epic. The tale RAND tells is not one of different EHR technologies, as both VistA and Epic both employ the MUMPS programming language and file-based database. Rather, it is about how different origins, business models and practices have dramatically influenced the respective systems. As the report itself says, the contrast offers “useful insights into the development, diffusion, and potential future of EHRs.”
VistA, “the archetype of an enterprise-wide EHR solution,” supports the Veterans Health Administration, “the largest integrated delivery system in the United States.” Initial VistA development was a collaborative, distributed, grass-roots effort where individual VA medical centers built out new clinical functionality on a common platform.
In the mid 90’s, VistA became the instrument of change at the VA.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m not dying and there doesn’t appear to be anything major wrong with me.
I know, you hate spoilers. But I thought I’d get that one out of there way. It makes the rest of this considerably more pleasant for us both.
I’ve got a new personal electronic medical record. I’m able to store and track my health history. I can add and edit my own notes. I can pull in data from external sources like my quantified self gadgets. I can share data with my provider, or family members. It’s secure, it’s cloud-based, it’s mobile and it’s on all major platforms.
For the uninitiated, Evernote is a cloud-based, free service with apps on every major desktop and mobile platform. It’s general purpose is to store, sort and help you find anything you throw at it. You can upload a PDF, email a note, clip an image from a website. You name it, and Evernote can probably store it. Take a picture of a wine label, and Evernote will transcribe the text in the image usin goptical character recognition, so when you search for Zinfendel, you’ll find the image of the wine bottle. But wait there’s more. Since you took the picture with your phone, Evernote also has the gps data, time and date attached to the image. You can add some tags such as “California”, “zin”, and “jammy” to make the note even more specic and personal.
Evernote has a widely supported API (applications programmers’ interface), so many other apps can read and write data into Evernote. For instance, the web-based automation service if this then that, IFTT as it’s known, will, for instance, append a line to an Evernote note every time you get a tweet; creating an effective backup solution.
A question: What is the opposite of health IT return on investment?
The answer: Unintended financial consequences, or UFCs, for short.
The scenario: A sophisticated medical center health system begins to roll out an expensive proprietary EHR and shortly thereafter sustains an operating loss, leaving no choice but to put the implementation on hold. The operating loss is attributed to “unintended financial consequences” directly related to buying a very expensive EHR system.
… has suffered an operating loss of $13.4 million in the first half of its fiscal year. The rollout of MaineHealth’s estimated $160 million electronic health record system, which has resulted in charge capture issues that are being fixed, was among several reasons Maine Med’s CEO cited for the shortfall.
“Through March (six months of our fiscal year), Maine Medical Center experienced a negative financial position that it has not witnessed in recent memory,” Richard Peterson, president and CEO of the medical center, wrote in the memo to employees.
Peterson’s memo outlines the specific UFCs that explain, in part, MaineHealth’s operating loss:
Declines in patient volume because of efforts to reduce re-admissions and infections
Problems associated with being unable to accurately charge for services provided due to the EHR roll out
An increase in free care and bad debt cases
Continued declining reimbursement from Medicare and MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program
These challenges are common to just about any medical system in the country, making MaineHealth potentially a harbinger of things to come for those hospitals and health systems that pay multi-millions of dollars for a health IT system.
Several months ago, I wrote a blog post comparing customers’ experience with Epic with the Stockholm Syndrome.
I reminded people of the syndrome:
Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.
Then, I noted:
What is striking about this company is the degree to which the CEO has made it clear that she is not interested in providing the capability for her system to be integrated into other medical record systems. The company also “owns” its clients in that it determines when system upgrades are necessary and when changes in functionality will be introduced. And yet, large hospitals sign up for the system, rationalizing that it is the best.
I quoted an article by Kenneth Mandl and Zak Kohane in the New England Journal of Medicine:
We believe that EHR vendors propagate the myth that health IT is qualitatively different from industrial and consumer products in order to protect their prices and market share and block new entrants. In reality, diverse functionality needn’t reside within single EHR systems, and there’s a clear path toward better, safer, cheaper, and nimbler tools for managing health care’s complex tasks.
A year ago,Forbes noted, “By next year 40% of the U.S. population–127 million patients–will have their medical information stored in an Epic digital record.”
It is this last point that we must now address, as I hear from my colleagues in the EHR world—no, not Epic’s competitors– that Epic engages in practices that well help cement that market share for years to come.
Arguably, the biggest news story coming out of HIMSS last month was the announcement of the CommonWell Health Alliance – a vendor-led initiative to enable query-based, clinical data sharing. So much has been written about CommonWell that there is little need to rehash what has been said before.
What has not been said, or at least has been sensationalized nearly to the point of irrelevance is the whole controversy surrounding Epic and how they were not invited to join the CommonWell Alliance until after the announcement. None other than Epic’s own founder and CEO, Judy Faulkner, has gone on record stating the Epic was unaware of CommonWell prior to the announcement. Faulkner has gone on to question the motives of CommonWell, in an effort to subvert it, in her highly influential role on the Dept of Health & Human Services HIT workgroup committee.
That was the last straw.
It is one thing to moan and groan at the HIT love fest that is HIMSS, where vendors commonly discount the announcements of competitors. But it is quite another thing to be a part of a highly influential body that is defining nationwide HIT policy and make the same claims over again, especially when they are frankly not true.
Almost 20 years ago close to 4,000 people from 200 companies gathered in San Diego for a conference to discuss the future of health-care information technology. This was before the Web. This was back when computers in physicians’ offices, to the extent they were present at all, were used only for scheduling and billing patients. Paper charts bulged out of huge filing cabinets.
It was one of the first big conferences held by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). I was among a grab bag of physicians, technologists, visionaries, engineers and entrepreneurs who shared one idealistic goal: to use information systems and technology to fundamentally change health care.
We didn’t just want to upgrade those old systems. We imagined a future that looked a lot like what we were being promised throughout the economy as it sped into the Internet era. Computers would enable improvements in the practice of medicine—and make it safer, higher quality, more affordable and more efficient—all at the same time. We wanted people to be healthier.
Early this week Greg Masters and Pat Salber chatted with me for a fun convo about EMRs, NOLA, HIMSS, and alot more. It’s part of their overall series for the HIBCtv (Health Innovation Broadcast Network Consortium). And be warned they are giving me keys to the car for 90 minutes at HIMSS next Weds! You should be able to click on the player above to hear. If not click to this.
I’m well aware that a good fraction of the people in this country – let’s call them Rush fans – spend their lives furious at the New York Times. I am not one of them. I love the Grey Lady; it would be high on my list of things to bring to a desert island. But every now and then, the paper screws up, and it did so in a big way in its recent piece on the federal program to promote healthcare information technology (HIT).
Let’s stipulate that the Federal government’s $20 billion incentive program (called “HITECH”), designed to drive the adoption of electronic health records, is not perfect. Medicare’s “Meaningful Use” rules – the standards that hospitals’ and clinics’ EHRs must meet to qualify for bonus payments – have been criticized as both too soft and too restrictive. (You know the rules are probably about right when the critiques come from both directions.) Interoperability remains a Holy Grail. And everybody appreciates that today’s healthcare information technology (HIT) systems remain clunky and relatively user-unfriendly. Even Epic, the Golden Child among electronic medical record systems, has been characterized as the “Cream of the Crap.”
Anyone who understands the importance of continuity of care knows that health information exchange is essential. How are we supposed to cut waste and duplication from the healthcare system and truly focus on patient welfare if doctor B has no idea what tests doctor A conducted, or what the results were?
The predominant proprietary HIT vendors know this, yet have engaged in prolonged foot-dragging on interoperability and even basic data interfacing. Yes healthcare IT is their business, but interoperability is not in their nature.
The proprietary business model makes the vendor the single source of HIT for hospital clients. Complexity and dependence are baked into both solutions and client relationships, creating a “vendor lock” scenario in which changing systems seems almost inconceivable.
In the proprietary world, interfacing with third-party products is a revenue generation strategy and technical challenge; the latter, though unnecessary, justifies the former. When we go looking for the reasons that healthcare is a laggard compared with other industries, this single-source model—the obstacle to much-needed competition and innovation—is a primary culprit.
To be fair, provider organizations, with little if any incentive to exchange patient data before the advent of Meaningful Use, haven’t shown much collaborative spirit either. In the fee-for-service model, why would a healthcare organization let patients slip from their grasp? Health reform is finally mandating needed change, but when will proprietary vendors actually enable the interoperability hospitals and practices soon have to demonstrate?
Recent rumblings from Washington, DC, suggest the feds are losing patience.