Last week’s NCVHS hearings on meaningful use highlighted the growing disconnect between the change that many hope to see health IT support in our healthcare system and the emerging definition of “meaningful use.”
Improving our healthcare system will require much more than paying clinicians to implement health IT systems (certified or otherwise) or report clinical outcome measures. It will require incorporation of health IT into the daily processes of care delivery…as well as changes in clinician behavior.
I propose a definition of meaningful use, especially for the small physician practices that deliver that deliver most care, that is tightly linked with the changes in behavior that will be necessary for actual improving the quality, safety, and coordination of care.
First, the initial requirements for meaningful use should require both the implementation of a “certified” EHR and the “certification” by the appropriate regional extension service that the practice has considered process redesign issues in implementing and using its system. While this will require extensive interaction of practices with the forthcoming extension services (funded as part of ARRA), it will drive clinicians to available resources and encourage the kinds of process redesign changes necessary for improving care processes.
Next, the initial requirements for meaningful use should require that healthcare providers sign (electronically or paper) data sharing agreements with the majority of healthcare providers that interact with the majority of their patients. While this will require the government to (follow through on its HISPC efforts) and develop and make available standard state-level (and inter-state) data sharing agreements (that include liability protection), it is an action that does not require the existence of HIE infrastructure and other yet-to-be build dependencies. It simply requires clinicians to know who their patients are, to know what other providers see their patients, and to formalize the basis for working together to coordinate their care. Perhaps the use of social networking tools could further reduce the burden of this process. The failure of most HIEs and RHIOs to gain participation of the clinicians in their communities reflects the reality that sharing information among practices is not something that is natural for them: without standard data sharing agreements (with liability protection), sharing data quickly devolves into a resource-sucking, risk shifting legal battle. Spending hundreds of millions on HIE infrastructure…and then expecting clinicians to use it, which is, of course, the current thinking, is bound to fail.
While future requirements for meaningful use should require reporting of a variety of process and outcome measures, initial requirements should be tightly coupled with the behavior at the individual clinical-level that reflects actual clinical use of EHRs (i.e. not just for documentation / billing). Such measures as the percent of practices that are using “problem lists” in their EHRs, the percent of immunizations that have been recorded in a structured way (vs. in notes), the number and use of CDS alerts, and the number of electronic prescriptions and others orders by clinicians are all ways to assess whether practices are actually using their EHRs . We learned at the NCVHS hearing that Micki Tripathi uses such measures in assessing the “meaningful” use of EHRs by clinicians in Massachusetts.
Finally, the initial definition of meaningful use should require practices to demonstrate the ability to develop an accurate panel of patients for a chronic disease population of their choosing. While this might seem like a trivial requirement by some who wish to hold practices accountable for outcomes, it will challenge many, many practices (to say nothing of most “certified” EHRs on the market today). Developing panels of patients is the foundation for quality improvement activities. If we want practices (or communities) to support quality improvement, this represents a good start. And it will push vendors to support this functionality in their products.
While these initial measures of meaningful use fall short of the outcome-based accountability-that some would like (and requires much more than simply buying and “implementing” certified health IT), it clearly ties health IT to behavioral change at the practice and community levels…and sets the stage for greater future expectations. In addition, these measures respect the awesome burdens that transformation will place on individual practices.
Establishing requirements of this type, I hope, will lead clinicians in communities to realize that taking a collaborative approach from the start will allow them to become meaningful users faster, better, and cheaper than if they take an approach on a practice by practice basis.
By setting the bar too low or too high (and not tightly linked with achievable, measurable activities by practices), the administration risks funding the implementation of health IT systems at the individual practice level that don’t support better coordination of care…and funding HIEs (health information exchanges) and other infrastructure that clinicians don’t use. Aligning initial definitions of meaningful use with achievable, logical steps and actual desired behavior at the practice level, the administration can set the foundation for improving care delivery and drive success in more rigorous future requirements.