Last week, Don Berwick completed his 17 month tenure as administrator of Medicare and Medicaid. The nation should be grateful that such a visionary was at the helm. The nation should frustrated that he was never confirmed.
In his parting interview with the press, he noted that 20 percent to 30 percent of health spending is “waste” that yields no benefit to patients.
Berwick listed five reasons for the enormous waste in health spending:
*Patients are overtreated
*There is not enough coordination of care
*US health care is burdened with an excessively complex administrative system
*The enormous burden of rules
Certainly regulatory reform is needed, but electronic health records can go far to addressing each of these issues.
Patients are over treated
When I was an emergency department resident 20 years ago, the faculty and staff of Harbor-UCLA medical center taught me best practices for safe, quality, efficiency care. When I make decisions today, I reflect back on that intense training. However, thousands of journal articles have been written since then, there’s new evidence suggesting more effective treatment plans, and new therapies are available. How do I ensure the just the right amount of care is delivered – neither too much, nor too little? Decision support embedded in electronic health records.
EHRs can provide alerts and reminders – just in time advice as to what my patients need. Educational materials and literature can be embedded in the workflow for easy reference. Population/panel health tools can identify those patients who need followup or are deviating from care plans.
There is not enough coordination
The United States does not have a healthcare system – it has a disconnected array of clinics, pharmacies, labs, hospitals, and imaging centers. Meaningful Use Stage 2 is likely to require significant healthcare information exchange as well as the transport, vocabulary, and content standards needed to support it. Although the journey to a completely connected healthcare system will take a few years, the next 24 months will include a quantum leap in care coordination as state health information exchanges connect patients, providers, and payers.
US healthcare is burdened with excessively complex administrative system
Like the tax code, healthcare regulations are dizzying in their complexity and volume. Some are so arcane that experts cannot agree on the interpretation. If rules can be built into EHRs such as the precise definitions for quality reporting, automated electronic coding of visits based on structured documentation/natural language processing, and payments made on objectively measured processes/outcomes instead of the quantity of care delivered, regulatory complexity can be reduced and money saved.
The enormous burden of the rules
Approximately 25% of my IS staff work on compliance related software requests – building new functional or purchasing new products to meet every increasing numbers of rules. We all want to do the right thing, but if no one can understand the rules and the amount of overhead needed to comply is financially unsustainable, the rules are too burdensome.
Electronic health records can enforce automated care plans, provide feedback at the point of care and support administrative simplification with bidirectional electronic transactions between payers and providers.
Although no system is foolproof, electronic health records can reduce fraud by automating the kind of data transfers that will help detect fraud and abuse. Emerging new analytics companies are already working on techniques to discover patterns of care that do not make sense – Medicare billing for deceased patients, redundant procedures or services, and variation in billing practices among physicians that can identify outliers.
In addition to these 5 areas of waste reduction, electronic health records are an essential part of a learning healthcare system which gathers data for clinical trials, clinical research, and unique population health measurement such as pharmacovigelence, syndromic surveillance, and immunization compliance. Don Berwick is a great supporter of the EHR’s potential to increase quality, safety, and efficiency while reducing waste.
Although healthcare reform is controversial, healthcare IT reform – the federal 5 year plan to increase the use of electronic health records and healthcare information exchange – has broad bipartisan support.
As Don Berwick returns to the private section, I’m hopeful that he’ll turn his energy back to fixing the US healthcare system and that he’ll be a tireless champion for electronic health records.
John D. Halamka, MD, MS, is Chief Information Officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Chief Information Officer at Harvard Medical School, Chairman of the New England Healthcare Exchange Network (NEHEN), Co-Chair of the HIT Standards Committee, a full Professor at Harvard Medical School, and a practicing Emergency Physician. He’s also the author of the popular Life as a Healthcare CIO blog.