Confessions of A Physician EMR Champion, Part 2: Empowering Health IT for the Connected Medical Home

In a post here three weeks ago, I explained that I am engaging physician audiences in a conversation about participatory medicine, using a talk and presentation entitled "Confessions of a Physician EMR Champion.”

I “confess” my own misplaced hope in the EMR movement, and that I’m finally embracing the reality that most investments in health IT have not met expectations.

My broad message is that the key lesson of this failure has been that adoption of health IT without understanding the fundamental interactions between people, business process, and technology wastes both human and economic capital.

To be successful, the adoption of health IT by physicians, nurses, and staff must extend communication and health data exchange beyond their practices and bill payers to include the patient and family members, the patient’s team of health and wellness professionals, and ancillary service providers such as pharmacists and lab technicians in the community.

Health IT must be able to support coordination and continuity of care, as well as accountability for doing the right things for patients. I now realize most EMRs are not sufficient to this task, and I was wrong to think they would evolve in this direction.

Most EMRs are software applications that document care with digital chart notes, and collect information on fee-for-service items so that this information can be sent off to health plans and Medicare for payment. This is basic accounting inside the practice that often leads to better reimbursement.

But it is not accountability.

There is nothing transformational or disruptive about EMRs because they have been designed to meet the functions and features of a status quo business model — not the collaborative and participatory capabilities required of the business models of the future health system.

In this next installment of the conversation, I’d like to suggest some specific capabilities that health IT ought to empower doctors and health care teams to perform on behalf of, and in collaboration with, their patients.

I’m suggesting that we go back to the drawing board and design health IT that is truly a good fit for doctors and patients in a system that rewards quality, safety, and efficiency of care while working to keep people healthy, instead of simply adding up the charges when they’re sick.

In 2007, the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Osteopathic Association, released the "Joint Principles of the Patient-Centered Medical Home."

In this document they state the characteristics of the Patient Centered Medical Home are:

   * Personal Relationships   * Team Approach    * Comprehensive Care     * Coordination of Care        * Quality and Safety    * Expanded Access to Care    * Added Value and Cost Efficiency

These are highly desirable characteristics of not just primary care, but of health care and its delivery at many levels and in many settings. Thinking about how to design health care organizations and how to train health professionals with these characteristics in mind is a good place to start. And in my opinion, it should be obvious.

What is not currently obvious in late 2008 are the best ways in which health IT should be deployed to help reach the characteristics of the connected medical home desired by patients, providers, and payers, and summarized above. It is especially not clear that "one size fits all" when trying to match health IT products and services with the desired characteristics, or how to do so in a manner that is affordable and sustainable across a variety of practice types, large and small, urban and rural, and so on.

The class of health IT software applications known as electronic medical records, or EMRs, may be helpful to some kinds of practices in achieving some of these characteristics. But, as many medical practices and communities around the country have become painfully aware, the mere presence or deployment of EMR software from a commercial vendor, even if “certified,” does not guarantee continuity and coordination of care, nor even communication among providers in the same neighborhood.

I suggest that a wiser approach is to describe the capabilities that health IT ought to provide or enhance if a medical practice is to become a successful medical home in any setting and under most circumstances.

The list below of Empowering Health IT for the Connected Medical Home is not intended to be complete or exclusive. Over time it may expand or be modified according to the evolution of both the concept of the medical home and the technologies themselves. This flexibility is probably a virtue in a time of constant change. However, I believe this is a reasonable description of the health IT that will empower medical practices to become medical homes in the near future.

So, let me go ahead and define Empowering Health IT as computer hardware, software, and related technology that provides or enhances:

1)  The capability to collect, store, manage, and exchange relevant personal health data and information electronically, such that this information is accessible at the times and places where clinical decisions will be or are likely to be made, and such that this accessibility improves the patients’ continuity of care experience between and among various settings of care and different episodes of care. Accessibility of personal health information and continuity of the care experience are linked benefits of health IT that confers the capability of computerized data storage and transmission of the relevant information to the point of care. It almost goes without saying that this capability must include adequate privacy protections.

2)  The capability of providers, patients, and other members of a person’s health care team to communicate with each other and amongst themselves in the processes of care delivery and care management, such that a team approach that assures coordination, quality, and safety of care is encouraged, and that access to care is increasingly available to patients both online and in person. Coordination and continuity are only possible if data and information can be affordably and easily transferred. This does not mean face-to-face visits are always the only, or the best, way to provide continuity of care.

3)  The capability of providers and their practices to collect, store, measure, and report on the processes and outcomes of individual and population performance and quality of care, and that can be used to inform both providers, patients, and payers through reports and graphic displays on the success of efforts to make quality improvements in attaining evidence-based levels of care, especially for chronic conditions and diseases. Collecting and communicating health data without inclusion of analytics is a like a horse with three legs.

4)   The capability of providers and their practices to engage in decision support for evidence-based treatments and tests, and to do this at or close to the point of care, as well as in a manner that is understandable and directly useful to patients and consumers through outreach reminders and alerts, education, and online tools and methods. Dispersed decision support web services are an economical way to do this is the age of information. Knowledge should be wherever the patient is located.

5)   The capability of consumers and patients to be informed and increasingly literate about their health and their medical conditions, and to appropriately self-manage with monitoring and coaching from providers. Health IT that successfully provides or improves this capability will remove barriers and impediments to data, information, knowledge and tools that can contribute to a person meeting his or her wellness or health promotion goals, and will put in place bridges that close the gaps in collaboration and coordination between the medical home provider and patients. Participatory Medicine requires this capability not as an afterthought to care, but an integral and designed aspect of care.

What I’ve done is to suggest that five fairly specific areas of capability are important for health IT to be empowering and disruptive: 1) electronic data and information collection and access;  2) communications among providers and patients; 3) clinical decision support; 4) population quality, performance, and cost reporting ; and 5) consumer/patient education and self-management. 

Many different products already on the market can be helpful in assembling this set of capabilities, including some EMRs, PHRs, e-Prescribing software products, web portals and secure messaging services. Population registries are also examples of health IT that can provide or improve these capabilities.

But it is also the case that emerging and completely new types of health IT platforms can do the job, e.g. community health information exchange systems and state-wide clinical integration web portals. These new products may be especially attractive if they permit components to be added in plug-and-play fashion so that medical practices can grow their health IT in an organic, affordable fashion.

Some web portals currently limited to patient services may evolve in the direction of shared health IT tools that engage both physicians and patients in a participatory web of shared online services, in effect a new species of “electronic health records.”  Exactly how we get there is not as important to me as the affordability, usefulness, and value designed into these new products and services. I think we have to know what we as citizens want before we can help vendors design it and bring it to market. 

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