Margalit Gur-Arie

Somewhere between the 20th century Bank ATM and the 25th century Tricorder, lays the EMR that we should have today.

Somewhere between the government-designed Meaningful Use EMR and the Holographic doctor in Star Trek, there should be a long stretch of disposable trial-and-error cycles of technology, changing and morphing from good to better to magical. For this to happen, we must release the EMR from its balls and chains. We must release the EMR from its life sentence in the salt mines of reimbursement, and understand that EMRs cannot, and will not, and should not, be held responsible for fixing the financial and physical health of the entire nation. In other words, lighten up folks …

A patient’s medical record contains all sorts of things, most of which diminish in importance as time goes by. Roughly speaking, a medical record contains quantifiable data (numbers), Boolean data (positive/negative), images (sometimes), and lots of plain, and not so plain, English (in the US).

The proliferation of prose and medical abbreviations in the medical record has been attacked a very long time ago by the World Health Organization (WHO), which gave us the International Classification of Disease (fondly known as ICD), attaching a code to each disease. With roots in the 19th century and with explicit rationale of facilitating international statistical research and public health, the codification of disease introduced the concept that caring for an individual patient should also be viewed as a global learning experience for humanity at large. Medicine was always a personal service, but medicine was also a science, and as long as those growing the science were not far removed from those delivering the service, both could symbiotically coexist.

Continue reading “Set My People Free”

On Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of its yearly survey on Electronic Health Records (EHR) adoption for office-based physicians. No surprises. Generally speaking, the majority of physicians in ambulatory practice are now using an EHR, and over half of surveyed doctors say that they intend to seek Meaningful Use incentives. The report is also presenting results broken down by state, so you can learn what folks are doing in your immediate vicinity. The more instructive exercise is to compare last year’s survey results [Fig. 1] to this year’s estimated EHR adoption numbers [Fig. 2].

Continue reading “2011 EHR Adoption Rates”

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Candidate Obama promised an EHR for every American by 2014. The goal was to improve quality of care, reduce disparities and contain costs of health care. When the HITECH act became law in 2009, physicians found themselves under increased pressure to purchase an EHR. Many took action, went out and bought an EHR for their practice, and these are now well positioned to collect the financial incentives put forward by the HITECH act. Many more did not. EHRs are by and large a complex and expensive proposition and the HITECH incentives are not covering the average cost of purchasing and maintaining an EHR. In survey after survey, physicians consistently rank cost associated with EHRs as their top concern when considering transition from paper charts to electronic medical records. This is a bit disconcerting, since physicians have no problem buying other expensive tools and paying for human resources in their practices. How are EHRs any different?

There are three primary stakeholders in health care: those who receive care, those who provide care and those who manage the financial aspects of health care, and no, we are not getting into the quintessential argument of whether there should be only two primary stakeholders. There are several secondary stakeholders as well: those who manufacture medical goods, those who provide ancillary services and those engaged in medical research.

Continue reading “Who Should Pay for EHRs?”

A brand new EMR is being rolled out in a midsize hospital. The EMR is exclusively based on touchscreen technology, with devices strategically placed on the floor. It provides concurrent access to medical records for all team members (physicians, nurses, pharmacists, radiologists, dieticians, secretaries) wherever they may be. Patients are also accessing the EMR. They enter their own histories and describe symptoms in detail through the same touchscreen devices. This patient-centered EMR, built by a team of clinicians and technologists working together, is taking a huge step forward in Clinical Decision Support (CDS). Physicians are not only shown differential diagnoses based on what patients and other team members entered into the system, but are also presented with individualized care plans, possible side effects, dosage recommendations and drug-drug-interaction alerts, all referencing evidence available in medical literature. Longitudinal records, test results and narratives are available by problem and by patient, and the response time is never more than half a second between the thousands of screens available. The place is Vermont, and the year is 1970.

Half a century ago, when work on this EMR was taking place, Healthcare IT was on the cutting edge of technology. The Problem Oriented Medical Information System (PROMIS), the brainchild of Dr. Lawrence Weed, was pushing the envelope on every technology from hardware to operating systems, to network communications, database design and programming languages. By the time this government funded project was finally shut down, the PROMIS team dealt with such issues as mass storage, federated or single database, high availability, human interface design and networking between geographically dispersed locations. It will take several decades for the rest of the world to catch up with Dr. Weed’s, now defunct, innovation and produce something like IBM’s Watson software package, which is yet to be adapted and tested in health care. Somewhere, somehow, we took a wrong turn in Healthcare IT, and it wasn’t the much maligned billing influence, since PROMIS from day one, attempted to integrate billing in its software, with no ill effects.


Continue reading “Fulfilling the PROMISe”

Care coordination is one of the four pillars of Meaningful Use, one of the six NCQA Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) standards and one of the main goals of Accountable Care Organizations (ACO). Care coordination, particularly for patients with multiple chronic conditions, is expected to reduce unnecessary repetition of laboratory testing or imaging and the number of avoidable admissions. Other than reducing overall costs, care coordination is also supposed to improve quality of care. According to experts like Joe Flower, “Lack of care coordination is at the core of the mess healthcare is in”, and nobody in their right mind would argue that it is best that medical care remains disorganized and uncoordinated, if it is indeed so. It seems that our fee-for-service, fragmented and fractured (lots of f-words here) health care system is not conducive to care coordination. When patients float around in a sea of hospitals, physicians, nursing homes and other facilities, each care provider gets paid, and is responsible for the piecework performed at their independent entity and nobody is minding the handoff of patients to the next provider of care, and nobody is assembling a comprehensive picture of the entire care process, let alone orchestrating, or coordinating, the progression of patients between stages of care and the overall needs of patients in transit. What would it take then, to see that the bits and pieces of health care we now have, become a safe and affordable continuum of care?

CMS is taking the lead, as it should, in an all-out effort to encourage health care coordination through various carrot-stick initiatives, aligned to ultimately base payment for medical care on value to the patient, as measured on a population level, instead of fee-for-service and no accountability for outcomes. These initiatives fall into three general categories:

  1. Health Information Technology to assist with documentation, information exchange and measurements as required in any coordination effort.
  2. Incentives and penalties for providers based on measures thought to be influenced by care coordination (e.g. preventable hospitalizations, readmission rates, etc.)
  3. Financial and structural encouragement for vertical integration of the delivery system (e.g. ACOs, consolidation, employed physicians, etc.) Continue reading “Coordinating Care Coordination”

Healthcare Information Technology (HIT) and Electronic Health Records (EHR) are at the heart of health care transformation. Everything we want to change and improve upon, hinges on the availability of EHRs in every hospital and every physician practice. We all know that EHRs can improve quality of care by providing evidence-based, patient-centered clinical decision support at the point of care, while measuring outcomes and customer satisfaction, so we can monitor and reward providers for their efforts. But this is not nearly enough. After all, our current health care crisis is not due to hundreds of thousands of citizens succumbing en masse to shoddy medical practices as much as it is due to having to squander 17% of GDP on pampering Americans with unnecessary, excessive and way too technologically advanced diagnostics and therapies. We must cut health care costs or perish. There could be an EHR for that. The following is a blueprint for transforming any EHR into a cost-cutting machine guaranteed to chop health care costs in half in less than one year of use.

Cost Awareness – There’s been much discussion lately revolving around small studies showing that when physicians are made aware of costs, they order fewer tests and save the system money, and it was suggested that EHRs can help place costs of everything in front of ordering providers. Absolutely. There is a tiny problem with obtaining true costs, as opposed to arbitrary prices, but in this era of Data Liberacion, surely we can summon the liberation of all insurance negotiated fee schedules. The innovative computer geeks can take it from there, and if we are missing some numbers here and there, we can make them up just as well as hospitals do. Armed with these data, the CPOE module will display the cost for every test about to be ordered, in a very patient-centered way, since we know what insurance the patient has. This in itself should also reduce disparities since Medicaid pays so much less for everything that we can easily order twice as many tests for Medicaid patients, for the same cost to society. Just so patients don’t feel disempowered, patient portals should clearly display tests and procedures costs as well. We could show the costs to their insurer, but a more deterring shock value would come from displaying the hospital list price, so patients can be better prepared in case the insurer decides to deny payments. Continue reading “The Cost Cutting EHR”

The National Audit Office (NAO) in the UK has recently published a report evaluating the status of “The National Programme for IT in the NHS” (NPfIT). The program is a very ambitious top down initiative to deploy Health Information Technology across all NHS facilities in an attempt to provide an electronic care record for every patient in the UK. The blunt conclusion of the report states that “The original vision for the National Programme for IT in the NHS will not be realized” and “This is yet another example of a department fundamentally underestimating the scale and complexity of a major IT-enabled change programme”. Is this gloom ridden report in any way pertinent to our own quest for an EHR for every patient by 2014? Of course not. We don’t have a Socialist system where the government can decide on a particular EHR product, buy it, contract billions of dollars in services, and force all hospitals and doctors to install it and use it in their facilities on a government dictated schedule.

Instead, the United States Government is building a National EHR, and I find the business model fascinating. No, the Feds did not hire a team of software developers, did not set up a business entity and didn’t even hire a defense contractor to do all these things. Instead, they legislate and engage in a flurry of rule makings which are then applied in quick succession, like giant levers, to the delivery side of our health care system. This is nothing short of brilliant. Continue reading “NPfIT Blazing the Trail”

According to the recently published CMS Accountable Care Organization (ACO) rules, an ACO needs to care for at least 5000 Medicare beneficiaries. Theoretically, two primary care physicians and a nurse, practicing in a garage, or cottage, in Boonville Missouri (yes, there is such a place), seeing nothing but Medicare folks, could become an ACO. Of course, they would have to set up a business entity with a board of directors, hire a couple of lawyers, several accountants and contract with a hospital or two and a score of specialists, and be ready to accept financial risk for their patients in a couple of years; all this on top of seeing twenty to thirty elderly and complex patients every single day. Nope. Not going to happen.

ACOs are for the big boys, hospitals and/or extra-large multi-specialty groups, to set up, manage and perhaps eventually benefit from. Big systems, as we all know, enjoy economies of scale, are better able to manage and coordinate care, and are therefore uniquely equipped to solve our health care crisis by providing better care at lower costs, and ACOs are just the vehicle by which these systems will be rewarded for all that good work. If you care for people in a small primary care practice, you could bite the bullet and sell out to a large system, or you could retire if you are one of those last standing dinosaurs, or you could become a concierge practice, or you could sit still and watch your practice dwindle and die, or you could buy an EHR, which is the last best hope to keep primary care independent.

Science, the type of science that employs mathematical hypotheses, theorems, proofs and equations, is timidly asserting that the emperor is in need of some serious clothing. A 2009 paper published in a non-medical, non-health care venue, “examines the staffing, division of labor, and resulting profitability of primary care physician practices”. The authors who are researchers from the University of Rochester and Vanderbilt University conclude that “many physicians are gaining little financial benefit from delegating work to support staff. This suggests that small practices with few staff may be viable alternatives to traditional practice designs.” Although I did not check the math, which is extensive, I would have expected that such controversial conclusion would make headline news in health care policy forums for at least two or three days. It did not. Continue reading “The Last Best Hope”

Dr. P patted the middle aged patient on the back, helped him off the elevated exam table and guided him to the chair by the sink. He picked up the chart and using the exam table as his desk he flipped through the chart, pulling out several pieces of paper, spreading them to his right, while making small talk with his patient. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a battered silver recorder and without any warning started dictating: “Mr. H is a 60 year old mildly obese gentleman presenting with…..“.

He had a pen now in his right hand, and as he was talking into his recorder, shuffling the various papers in front of him, he was also writing orders and prescriptions as fast as he was dictating. “….follow up in two weeks” was the last thing he said. He didn’t write that one down, but turned around, handed the patient a bunch of scripts, told him to stop by the front desk and make an appointment two weeks out and stop by the lab on the fourth floor to pick up a container for the urine test. Two minutes, tops, including the small talk. It was my turn now and I was sweating bullets because I knew exactly what he is about to say. “Can I do this in the EMR?”

EHR usability has finally arrived to Washington as the guest of honor at the most recent ONC HIT Policy Committee hearing. ONC seems to be considering the regulation and certification of EHR usability. NIST has created a testing procedure and just like its Meaningful Use testing procedures, it is superficial and doesn’t really test anything of any consequence. Those who represented “providers” and patients argued for the need to improve usability and those who represented academia and grant funded research argued for more funded research. Predictably, usability experts, argued for hiring more usability experts. Large vendors eloquently stated their objections to government mandating what EHRs should look like and small vendors argued that the more mandates, the better, since this will automatically remove the built-in competitive advantage of those with larger budgets and larger usability departments. As is customary, EHRs were compared to ATM machines, cars, iPhones, Google and a variety of “other industries” that are all so much more advanced than health care when it comes to usability. Continue reading “(Over)Simplifying EHR Usability”

For over a hundred years the paper chart has been a trusted partner and best friend to many physicians and nurses. The paper chart was born the day a new patient walked into the office, a pristine, crisp and neatly color-coded folder, with just the right markings in carefully shaped calligraphy on its covers. As the years went by, the paper chart grew in size, acquired meaning and wisdom, and like most of us, became a bit tattered around the edges and heftier in the middle. It felt good to hold the elderly paper chart in your hands and its voluminous physical presence inspired confidence and trust. The paper chart is dead. In some places the paper chart’s pages are still turning slowly, but we all know its long, productive life has come to an end and someone should pull the plug and call it. Or do we?

In 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed a 5 stage model for typical grieving behavior. The various reactions from the clinical community to the apparent demise of the paper chart exhibit almost textbook adherence to the Kübler-Ross model, with each clinician advancing through the five stages of grief at his/her own pace*.

Denial – This is a joke. These people don’t understand medicine and this entire Obamacare thing will soon go away and we’ll return to normalcy. My practice is doing just fine on paper and my patients get all this fancy medical home care right here and always had. They actually get better care. Besides, I have patients to see and I am too busy to tinker with these fads that come and go every five years or so. Continue reading “The Kübler-Ross Model of EHR Adoption”


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