Interoperability

Niam YaraghiIn his 2015 State of the Union address President Obama announced the launch of his precision medicine initiative, an audacious initiative to address these issues. In a nutshell, precision medicine customizes health care; That is, medical decisions are tailored based on the individual characteristics of the patients, ranging from their genes to their lifestyle. To have a clear understanding of the relationship between individual characteristics of patients and medical outcomes, it is necessary to collect various types of data from a large population of individuals. The precision medicine initiative requires a longitudinal cohort of one million individuals to provide researchers with various data types including DNA, behavioral data, and electronic health records. Assembling such a large sample of many different data types proposes two unique challenges pertaining to healthcare information technology: interoperability and privacy.

The federal government has already spent $28 billion to incent medical providers to adopt electronic health record (EHR) systems. As a result, almost all of the medical providers in the United States currently compile an electronic archive of their patients’ medical records. However, most of the EHR systems are not able to exchange information with each other. This is a strange problem in the age of information technology and Internet connectivity. There are a variety of technical and economic reasons, which make it especially complicated and difficult to solve.

Given the current lack of interoperability between EHR systems, it seems highly unlikely to be able to obtain a complete medical history of one million Americans. To succeed, the precision medicine initiative has to either overcome the lack of interoperability problem in the nation’s health IT system or to find a way around it. Congress members in both the House and Senate are considering new rules that would stop EHR vendors from interfering with medical providers that had already started transferring records. These efforts are fraught with difficulty and will take a very long time to produce tangible results. Continue reading “Precision Medicine’s First Real Patient: The National Health IT System”

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 9.22.36 PMIt may have been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, but not in Washington DC.  Last week, we saw the introduction of two congressional bills here (SGR fix) and here (EHR interoperability) and two proposed rules from HHS (one from CMS and one from ONC) – all of which would have substantive impact on health care in the US, and the role of information technology in how health is optimized and care is delivered.  While the iron’s still hot, let’s take a 30,000-foot view at all of this.   I’ll follow up later in the week with a more detailed overview of the ONC and CMS proposed rules with a bit more of an editorial voice on the SGR fix and Burgess’ interoperability bill.

  1. The first document to land – way back on March 10th – was the bill from Representative Burgess.

Some context: he’s a physician.  He understands the physician perspective – and is – like many physicians – confused by the paradox that several years and $20B after the passage of HITECH – we don’t have plug-and-play interoperability between health IT systems yet.  He might be asking: “isn’t this what was supposed to happen by now?”  Compelled by his training as a physician and (as my wife would argue) a human with a Y chromosome, Rep Burgess sees a problem and wants to fix it – hence this legislation.  HHS didn’t fix this?  Industry didn’t fix it?  Well, then, let’s see if Congress can fix it!  What’s the approach?

  1. The bill attempts to redefine interoperability as:

“open access”

“complete access”

and

“does not block access.”

Continue reading “Spring Deliveries from Washington”

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Epic’s Faulkner Shares Charitable Foundation Plans

In an interview with Modern Healthcare, Epic founder/CEO Judith Faulkner reveals that she will leave much of her wealth to a specially created charitable foundation that will operate and fund not-for-profit organizations in healthcare and other areas. The 71-year-old Faulkner says that almost all her shares of Epic stock will go to the foundation upon her death, or sooner if she chooses.

The plan is also designed to keep Epic private. “My stock will go to the foundation,” Faulkner said. “The foundation will control the stock. This plan is designed to preserve the company as a private company forever.”

Faulkner, who has an estimated worth of $2.8 billion, says she never wanted the money personally or for her family and wonders, “What would you want with all that money? It doesn’t seem right and I can’t tell you why.”

What’s not to like about Faulkner’s values or her plan?

Continue reading “HIT Newser: The Judy Faulkner Foundation or Whatever We’re Calling It”

Optimized-SalwitzIt is a heart pounding, head spinning, edge of your seat page-turner; the sort of rare saga that takes your breath away as it changes you, forever.  It hints at a radically different future, a completely new world a few years away, which will disrupt the lives of every man, woman and child.  Available now, from the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), Office of the Secretary, United States Department of Health and Human Services, is finally, without further ado; the Federal Health IT Strategic Plan 2015 – 2020.

You think I am kidding.  A satirical dig at another monstrous, useless, governmental report?  Absolutely not.  The concepts outlined in this blueprint will transform healthcare.  It is a tight, clear, document, which at only 28 pages, delivers almost as much change per word as the Declaration of Independence.  This may be the most powerful application yet of computerized information technology.

If you want to know where healthcare and health IT are headed, The Plan is absolutely worth a read.

I have only one complaint; it is coated with too much sugar.  Restricted by policy structure and jargon, the report does not go far enough.

Continue reading “Grading the Federal Health IT Strategic Plan”

One of the most critical issues facing our healthcare system is the fact that the IT systems we’ve put in place have not yet led to a more connected, intelligent approach to patient care.

While we have made notable headway toward interoperability through health information exchange solutions, we must dramatically accelerate our progress to support the transition to value-based care and realize our full potential as an industry.

With this vision in mind, McKesson, Cerner and other leading healthcare IT companies announced the CommonWell Health Alliance last year at HIMSS13. Members of the Alliance are united by a shared commitment to develop a core set of interoperability services and standards that will enable patient data to be shared securely across care settings and electronic health record (EHR) platforms.

In the twelve months since, tremendous progress has been made in making this aspiration a reality. CommonWell is running robust initial projects and collaborating with a myriad of practices. We’re also continuing to expand with new members who share our ideal of the trusted exchange of patient data, regardless of vendor, system, or setting.

Now, the Alliance is welcoming its first pharmacy member in CVS Caremark. This is a watershed event for several reasons.

CVS Caremark is one of the nation’s largest retail pharmacy chains and pharmacy benefit management companies. Few organizations in any segment of healthcare have more access to patient data and more trusted influence.

But CVS Caremark’s role in driving innovation in our healthcare system, and its importance to the goal of interoperability, is vital for other reasons.

Continue reading “CVS Caremark Enters CommonWell”

If one were writing about the improvement of gastronomy in America, one would probably not celebrate “over 300 billion hamburgers served.”  But that’s very much the type of success Dr. Ashish Jha is celebrating in last week’s piece on recent US healthcare IT sales. Unfortunately, the proliferation of Big Macs does not reflect superior cuisine, and healthcare IT (HIT) sales do not equate with better healthcare or with better health. Quantity does not equal quality of care.

To be sure, Dr. Jha acknowledges the challenges of rolling out HIT throughout US hospitals. And he should be strongly commended for his admission that HIT doesn’t capture care by many specialists and doesn’t save money. In addition, Dr. Jha points to the general inability of hospitals, outpatient physicians and laboratories to transfer data among themselves as a reason for HIT’s meager results.

But this is a circular argument and not an excuse. It is the vendors’ insistence on isolated proprietary systems (and the government’s acquiescence to the vendors) that created this lack of communication (non-interoperability) which so limits one of HIT’s most valuable benefits.

In our opinion, the major concern is that the blog post fails to answer the question we ask our PhD students:

So what? What is the outcome?

This entire effort is fueled by $29 billion in government subsidies and incentives, and by trillions of dollars spent and to be spent by hospitals, doctors and others [1].

So where is the evidence to back up the government’s and industry’s promises of lower mortality, improved health and lower health care costs?

Single studies tell us little. Sadly, as many as 90% of health IT studies fail the minimal criteria of the respected international literature syntheses conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration.

In other words, studies with weak methodology or sweetheart evaluation arrangements just don’t count as evidence.
Continue reading “More Work Is Needed on the Safety and Efficacy of Healthcare Information Technology”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s long-awaited (in health IT circles, anyway) decision on the Department of Defense’s core health IT system has been made. The VA’s VistA system is out as the preferred DoD. Unless it’s not.

I’ll explain.

In his May 21 memo, Hagel directed the DoD to initiate a competitive process for a commercially available electronic health record (EHR) solution.  Understandably, the secretary has to create a level playing field, a competitive process, so he can tell Congress with certainty that due diligence was done. Hate it a lot or hate it a little, this is the nature of our political process.

Already, many are spinning Hagel’s decision as a huge win for proprietary solutions; popular blogger Mr. HIStalk has already established Epic as the frontrunner in the upcoming DoD derby.

But before we simply anoint Judy Faulkner the queen of American health IT, I want, as the Brits say, to throw a spanner in the works.

Commercial ≠ Proprietary

A careful review of the Hagel memo and other recent statements from his top lieutenants reveal a more progressive vision and clear requirements for an open architecture and service model.

From the Hagel memo:

I am convinced that a competitive process is the optimal way to ensure we select the best value solution for DoD … A competitive process will allow DoD to consider commercial alternatives that may offer reduced cost, reduced schedule and technical risk, and access to increased current capability and future growth in capability by leveraging ongoing advances in the commercial marketplace … Also, based on DoD’s market research, a VistA-based solution will likely be part of one or more competitive offerings that DoD receives.

To sum up, the secretary has directed the DoD to go commercial instead of developing and maintaining their own VistA-based solution, but commercialized VistA-based solutions will be included in the competitive process.

Continue reading “Defense Probably Goes Commercial, Not Necessarily Proprietary”

Those of us who have spent years arguing in favor of standards based health information exchange (HIE) have just had a few good months. The federal government has asked IT vendors and providers what it can do to advance health information sharing across organizations. This has drawn new attention to “interoperable” health IT systems and the quality and economy of care delivered to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

In late March, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) awarded cooperative agreement grants to two non-profit trade groups working to certify and credential electronic health records (EHRs) and health exchange service providers whose products are capable of secure data sharing — that is, of “talking to one another.”  (Disclosure: I am the President and CEO of one of these alliances, DirectTrust.)  The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.

My sense, though, is that most people still don’t have a firm grasp on the issues. They remain uncertain or confused about what interoperable health information exchange really means to providers and patients, how it can be achieved, the barriers that remain to be overcome, and who is making the decisions about these matters. So this seems like a good time for both an update and a refresher of sorts on the nature of health information exchange, and to explain why this is not a good time to reduce spending on health IT in America.

Let’s start with what is probably the most important thing to understand: we are very, very close to national deployment of a relatively simple standard, known as Direct, that enables secure Internet transport of health information between people, organizations, and software. Direct exchange permits users of any EHR to send and receive messages and files from any users ofany other EHRs, regardless of operating system or vendor. In fact, Direct facilitates secure messaging, with attachments, to and from anyone with Internet access. It makes EHRs interoperable with one another, but also facilitates secure communication with providers and patients using Internet devices of almost any kind.

Continue reading “Straight Talk About Direct”

It’s a busy time in Washington, DC. June 3 marks the Datapalooza and begins a week of cheering and reflection on the success of federal initiatives designed to improve health while reducing cost. This year, the big claim is “information following patients” – a combination of federal Stage 2 Meaningful Use regulations, federal Health Information Exchange guidelines and federal open pricing data policies. We’re surely beyond 1,000 pages of federal initiatives around health data and the policy fog seems to be getting thicker every day. The Independent Purchase Decision Support Test is my beacon for whether we’re headed in the right direction.

Here’s a quote from the Meaningful Use Implementation Guidelines to Assure Security and Interoperability just released by ONC:

“In effect, HISPs are creating “islands of automation using a common standard.” This will hamper information following patients where they seek care―including across organizational and vendor boundaries―to support care coordination and Meaningful Use Stage 2 requirements.”

How will “information following patients” improve health while reducing cost?

It all depends on where the patient goes to get what. Not surprisingly, federal Accountable Care Organizations and related accountable quality contracts with private payers are exactly about where the patient goes too. The difference between these health reform innovations and the old managed care approach is supposed to be the patient’s ability to choose where to go for a healthcare service. Will Stage 2 and the new federal health information exchange implementation guidelines actually lead to effective patient engagement or is it time to “reboot” the HITECH incentives as some have suggested?

The Independent Purchase Decision Support Test cuts through the techno-jargon and paternalistic framing and goes straight to the heart of the policies that influence the physician-patient decisions to drive health care quality and cost. This the essence of patient engagement and the place where the money in healthcare is actually spent.

Continue reading “The Independent Purchase Decision Support Test”

A recent blog posting calls for a “universal EMR” for the entire healthcare system. The author provides an example and correctly laments how lack of access to the complete data about a patient impedes optimal clinical care. I would add that quality improvement, clinical research, and public health are impeded by this situation as well.

However, I do not agree that a “universal EMR” is the best way to solve this problem. Instead, I would advocate that we need universal access to underlying clinical data, from which many different types of electronic health records (EHRs), personal health records (PHRs), and other applications can emerge.

What we really need for optimal use of health information is not an application but a platform. This notion has been advanced by many, perhaps most eloquently by Drs. Kenneth Mandl and Isaac Kohane of Boston Children’s Hospital [1,2]. Their work is being manifested in the SMART platform that is being funded by an ONC SHARP Award.

Continue reading “Universal EHR? No. Universal Data Access? Yes.”

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