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Tag: Tech

Will Tech Revolutionize Health Care This Time?

the scanadu
After decades of bravely keeping them at bay, health care is beginning to be overwhelmed by “fast, cheap, and out of control” new technologies, from BYOD (“bring your own device”) tablets in the operating room, to apps and dongles that turn your smart phone into a Star Trek Tricorder, to 3-D printed skulls. (No, not a souvenir of the Grateful Dead, a Harley decoration or a pastry for the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos, but an actual skullcap to repair someone’s head. Take measurements from a scan, set to work in a cad-cam program, press Cmd-P and boom! There you have it: new ear-to-ear skull top, ready for implant.)

Each new category, we are told, will Revolutionize Health Care, making it orders of magnitude better and far less expensive. Yet the experience of the last three decades is that each new technology only adds complexity and expense.

So what will it be? Will some of these new technologies actually transform health care? Which ones? How can we know?

There is an answer, but it does not lie in the technologies. It lies in the economics. It lies in the reason we have so much waste in health care. We have so much waste because we get paid for it.

Yes, it’s that simple. In an insurance-supported fee-for-service system, we don’t get paid to solve problems. We get paid to do stuff that might solve a problem. The more stuff we do, and the more complex the stuff we do, the more impressive the machines we use, the more we get paid.

A Tale of a Wasteful Technology

A few presidencies back, I was at a medical conference at a resort on a hilltop near San Diego. I was invited into a trailer to see a demo of a marvellous new technology — computer-aided mammography. I had never even taken a close look at a mammogram, so I was immediately impressed with how difficult it is to pick possible tumours out of the cloudy images. The computer could show you the possibilities, easy as pie, drawing little circles around each suspicious nodule.

But, I asked, will people trust a computer to do such an important job?

Oh, the computer is just helping, I was told. All the scans will be seen by a human radiologist. The computer just makes sure the radiologist does not miss any possibilities.

I thought, Hmmm, if you have a radiologist looking at every scan anyway, why bother with the computer program? Are skilled radiologists in the habit of missing a lot of possible tumors? From the sound of it, I thought what we would get is a lot of false positives, unnecessary call-backs and biopsies, and a lot of unnecessarily worried women. After all, if the computer says something might be a tumor, now the radiologist is put in the position of proving that it isn’t.

I didn’t see any reason that this technology would catch on. I didn’t see it because the reason was not in the technology, it was in the economics.

Years later, as we are trending toward standardizing on this technology across the industry, the results of various studies have shown exactly what I suspected they would: lots of false positives, call-backs and biopsies, and not one tumor that would not have been found without the computer. Not one. At an added cost trending toward half a billion dollars per year.

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Download Two of These And Call Me In the Morning

Manpo-Meter Take 2
When it comes to discussing exercise with friends, family and patients, it seems that many of us are at a loss for words. What kind of exercise should we recommend? How much exercise is enough? How much is too much? How do I know that my patient is actually exercising? How do I prescribe exercise?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. adults should engage in moderately intense physical activity for a minimum of 150 minutes each week; this is equivalent to 30 minutes a day, 5 days per week [1]. While it is relatively easy to keep track of the duration and frequency of exercise, it is much more difficult to quantify the intensity of an activity, let alone ensure that the activity is “moderate” for the entire 30 minutes.

In fact, in a 2008 study of women’s understanding of “moderate-intensity” of physical activity as presented in the popular media, the authors found it is not enough to simply hear and read a description of physical activity, but that it requires practice [2].

So, what are we to do? Should we have our patients log their daily activities? Should we have our patients show us sign-in sheets from the local gym?

It turns out that the dilemma of how to quantify physical activity has been a hot topic for more than 50 years. In 1965, a Japanese inventor developed the first pedometer to give people the opportunity to meet measurable goals and, thus, increase their physical activity. The device was called the Manpo-Kei (meaning “10,000 steps meter”) and it was based on research by Dr. Yoshiro Hatano that demonstrated that 10,000 steps per day allowed for a proper balance between the traditional Japanese caloric intake and the activity-based caloric expenditure of walking approximately five miles per day (the average person’s stride length is approximately 2.5 feet long, therefore 2,000 steps/mile) [3].

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Government (Or, How My Cousin the President Nearly Killed My Company)

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 8.03.26 AMI WAS NOW the CEO of a rising medical data company.We built automated systems to handle the administrative chores for thousands of medical practices. They didn’t buy anything from us. Instead, they subscribed to a service on the Internet.

This was what would later be called a cloud-based service, but in these early days of Internet era, we were still searching for a name for it. My partner Todd used to say in speeches that he would give Polynesian fruit baskets for life to anyone who came up with a single name for the combination of software, knowledge and work that we were selling. We had moved back east and had a new headquarters in a historic brick armory building along the Charles River near Boston.

Our future looked fabulous, except for one problem: My cousin, the 43rd president of the United States, was about to sign a bill that could destroy us.

This bill, like so many governments initiatives, stemmed from the best of intentions. The idea was to encourage the migration of the health care industry from cumbersome binders full of paper to electronic records. How was this to be accomplished? Well, hospitals and doctors were forbidden by so-called anti-kickback laws from exchanging services, information or products of value with each other. (It’s a law that infuriates me, for reasons I’ll go into later.) The bill before Congress in 2004 offered a regulatory safe harbor for hospitals to provide doctors with all the digital technology the bureaucrats could think of: servers, software licences, and training. That was absolutely the right answer . . . for 1982. The long and short was that hospitals could buy all the old stuff from our competitors, but none of the new still-to-be-named services from us. As often happens, the technology was advancing much faster than the law.

I caught the shuttle down to Washington and commenced lobbying with the fervor of a man with a gun to his head. I raced up and down the marble halls Congress, looking for someone, anyone, who would take the time to learn why this bill was so very wrong, so backward, so devastating, so lethal—at least to athenahealth.

But let me tell you, if you walk into Congressional offices sputtering about a clause in a bill that practically no one has read, something that has to do with hardware and software and online services, people tend to hurry away, or point you toward the door. I could find no one to pay attention. And as I grew more frantic, I started talking louder and faster. That didn’t help things.

Some might find my frustration strange, considering that during this drama my cousin was sitting a mile away, in the Oval Office. Wouldn’t a Bush, facing legislative trouble in Washington, contact someone in the White House entourage? The answer is no. Placing a call to him was not even a remote possibility. For starters, it’s unethical. It is also politically foolish. It would place him, me, and my company in scandal and bring shame upon our family. I would be much more willing to climb the steeple of the tallest church and bungee jump naked in the middle of the night than to call my cousin. And even if I were dumb enough to make the call, I trust George would have the good sense to tell me to get lost.

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Hacking the Hospital: Medical Devices Have Terrible Default Security

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Scott Erven is head of information security for a healthcare provider called Essentia Health, and his Friday presentation at Chicago’s Thotcon, “Just What The Doctor Ordered?” is a terrifying tour through the disastrous state of medical device security.

Wired’s Kim Zetter summarizes Erven’s research, which ranges from the security of implanted insulin pumps and defibrillators to surgical robots and MRIs. Erven and his team discovered that hospitals are full of fundamentally insecure devices, and that these insecurities are not the result of obscure bugs buried deep in their codebase (as was the case with the disastrous Heartbleed vulnerability), but rather these are incredibly stupid, incredibly easy to discover mistakes, such as hardcoded easy default passwords.

For example: Surgical robots have their own internal firewall. If you run a vulnerability scanner against that firewall, it just crashes, and leaves the robot wide open.

The backups for image repositories for X-rays and other scanning equipment have no passwords. Drug-pumps can be reprogrammed over the Internet with ease. Defibrillators can be made to deliver shocks — or to withhold them when needed.

Doctors’ instructions to administer therapies can be intercepted and replayed, adding them to other patients’ records.

You can turn off the blood fridge, crash life-support equipment and reset it to factory defaults. The devices themselves are all available on the whole hospital network, so once you compromise an employee’s laptop with a trojan, you can roam free.

You can change CT scanner parameters and cause them to over-irradiate patients.Continue reading…

Health Information Technology: Sorry, There’s No Turning Back!

flying cadeuciiThe American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), sometimes called the Stimulus Actwas an $831 billion economic stimulus package enacted by the 111th Congress in February 2009 and signed into law on February 17, 2009 by the President.

It included $22 billion as incentives to encourage adoption of certified electronic medical records in hospitals and medical practices. The rationale behind the policy directive was clear: system-wide implementation of electronic medical records enables improvement in diagnostics and treatment coordination, fewer errors, and better coordination of patient care by teams of providers.

Almost immediately, the medical community cried foul.

Their primary beef: the cost to implement these new systems would not be recovered by the incentives.

Similarly, physicians pushed back on the conversion of the U.S. coding system from ICD-9 to ICD-10. They did not question the need for the upgrade: the increase from 19,000 to 68,000 codes is necessary to more accurately capture all relevant clinical aspects of a patient’s condition and align our data gathering with 20 other developed systems of the world where ICD-10 is already used.

That health insurers, medical groups, hospitals and others must use the same coding system that reflects advances in how we diagnose and treat seems a no brainer. But some physicians pushed back due to costs and disruption in their practices.

Last week, physicians won a battle: the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) announced it was delaying the deadline for implementation of ICD-10 for a year, to October 1, 2015.

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An Example of Bad Design: This App’s Interface for Entering Blood Pressure

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 7.24.01 PM

Here’s a design approach that I really, really dislike: the scrolling wheel that is often used for number entry in iOS apps:

I find that the scrolling wheel makes it very tiresome to enter numbers, and much prefer apps that offer a number pad, or another way to touch the number you need. (Or at least decrease the number at hand in sensible increments.)

You may think I’m being too picky, but I really think our ability to leverage technology will hinge in part on these apps and devices being very usable.

And that usability has to be considered for everyone involved: patients, caregivers, and clinicians.

Why am I looking at an app to enter blood pressure?

Let me start by saying that ideally nobody should be entering vitals data manually. (Not me, not the patient, not the caregivers, not the assisted-living facility staff.)

Instead, we should all be surrounded by BP machines that easily send their data to some computerized system, and said system should then be able to display and share the data without too much hassle.

But, we don’t yet live in this world, to my frequent mild sorrow. This means that it’s still a major hassle to have regular people track what is probably the number one most useful data for us in internal medicine and geriatrics: blood pressure (BP) & pulse.

Why is BP and pulse data so useful, so often?

To begin with, we need this data when people are feeling unwell, as it helps us assess how serious things might be.

And of course, even when people aren’t acutely ill, we often need this data. That’s because most of our patients are either:

  • Taking medication that affects BP and pulse (like cardiovascular meds, but many others affect as well)
  • Living with a chronic condition that can affect BP and pulse (such as a-fib)
  • All the above

As we know, the occasional office-based measurement is a lousy way to ascertain usual BP (which is relevant for chronic meds), and may not capture episodic disturbances.

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Cracking the Code on Health Information Exchange. Is It Time to Wipe the Slate Clean and Start Anew?

Three related columns in HealthcareITNews caught my attention recently.

The headlines pretty much say it all:

1. Satisfaction with HIE solutions drops.

2.  Vendors missing boat on HIE needs.

3.  CommonWell names 3 biggest HIE hurdles.

Over the years, I’ve written more than a few HealthBlog posts on the topic of health information exchange (HIE) and why I feel so strongly that most of the initiatives currently underway are missing their mark.

As I’ve stated before, during my worldwide travels I haven’t yet come across a country that has accomplished a truly national, interoperable, bi-directional, fully functional HIE.

Those few countries that come close are more like a large American city or small state in size, perhaps mirroring some of the moderately successful regional or state-wide exchanges currently operating in America. Over the years I’ve also watched implosions of national HIE attempts in several countries that have failed miserably despite billions of dollars being spent on the efforts.

Reading each of the articles referenced above, I once again reach the conclusion that what I have been evangelizing as a better model for HIEs still rings true.

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Commentology: Actually, High-Tech Imaging Can Be High-Value Medicine

Our comments regarding this interesting blog,  and the comments to the blog, may seem tangential to the author’s points.

The blog and comments point, we think, to a confusing set of principles being considered, perhaps, out of context?

Those comments range from: ACOs will lead to better figuring out what is best (impossible) –  to mismatched information regarding a specific clinical case (reasonable).  What is striking is that we have medical students worrying about costs of care.

Instead, shouldn’t we be teaching them to understand the value of information for decision-making? Shouldn’t we be teaching them the concepts of co-dependent testing leading to all tests being less useful than we think?

Shouldn’t we be teaching students the concepts of decision-analysis, and thresholds, and patient’s being involved in the decisions? Shouldn’t we be teaching that it is better to know than to think we know? Shouldn’t we be doing studies rather than scratching at the “tragedy of the commons” (so many physicians feasting on the grassy fields of a sick patient)?

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How Mayo Clinic Is Using iPads to Empower Patients

Throughout the world, companies are embracing mobile devices to set customer expectations, enlist them in satisfying their own needs, and get workers to adhere to best practices. An effort under way at the Mayo Clinic shows how such technology can be used to improve outcomes and lower costs in health care.

Defining the care a patient can expect to receive and what the road to recovery will look like is crucial. When care expectations are not well defined or communicated, the process of care may drift, leading to unwarranted variation, reduced predictability, longer hospital stays, higher costs, poorer outcomes, and patient and provider dissatisfaction.

With all this in mind, a group at the Mayo Clinic led by the four of us developed and implemented a standardized practice model over a three-year period (2010-2012) that significantly reduced variation and improved predictability of care in adult cardiac surgery.

One of the developments that germinated in that effort was the interactive Mayo myCare program, which uses an iPad to provide patients with detailed descriptions of their treatment plans and clinical milestones, educational materials, and a daily “To Do” list, and to report their progress and identify problems to their providers.

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Uber for Health Care?? Not So Much.

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way:

We love Uber.

As physicians with roots in the Bay Area, we use Uber all the time. The service is convenient, (usually) swift and consistently pleasant. With a few taps of a smartphone, we know where and when we’ll be picked up — and we can see the Uber driver coming to get us in real time.

When the vagaries of San Francisco public transit don’t accommodate our varying schedules, it’s Uber that’s the most reliable form of transportation. (It might be that we like having some immediate gratification.)

So when we caught wind of the news that Uber’s founding architect, Oscar Salazar, has taken on the challenge of applying the “Uber way” to health care delivery, there was quite a bit to immediately like. From our collective vantage point, Uber’s appeal is obvious. When you’re feeling sick, you want convenience and immediacy in your care — two things Uber has perfected.

And who wouldn’t be excited by the idea of keeping patients out of overcrowded emergency rooms and urgent care waiting rooms? The concept of returning those patients to their homes (where they can then be evaluated and receive basic care) seems so simple that it’s brilliant.

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