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Tag: Tech

What’s Next for Healthcare.gov?

The launch of HealthCare.gov certainly didn’t go as planned. Due to technical errors, millions of Americans were sent to the functional equivalent of a waiting room before they could enter the shopping portion of the site.

Historically, projects of such complexity and demand have encountered early problems yet still often achieve great success. While much of the commentary has focused on coding problems, the site still has the potential to spur innovation — be it public or private —  that will result in quality improvement and lower costs.

For context, the HealthCare.gov site is merely the front door to an incredibly complex technological undertaking tasked with organizing insurance plans, assessing program eligibility, facilitating consumer enrollment, managing financial services, and providing all of the associated customer support.

An estimated 19 million people visited the site through Sunday, and many did so at the same time; at peak periods, there were five times as many simultaneous visitors as had been expected. In rapid response to that surge, the HealthCare.gov team tried to restrict the number of visitors to the area of the site where they could establish accounts and begin shopping.

Naturally, this was not ideal, but it was preferable to the alternative.

When Internet entrepreneurs prepare to launch a new service, they tend to anticipate two scenarios. The first, and worst, is that nobody visits. The other is that too many people do.

Rise of a new platform

Drawing from my experience as CTO in President Barack Obama’s first term, we overcame initial technical challenges in popular programs such as “Cash for Clunkers” or the Post-9/11 GI Bill of Rights for veterans through an analysis of the root cause problems — and a systematic plan to address them.

I’m confident that the HealthCare.gov team will similarly fix the technology with the help of experienced technical talent – in and out of government – to work through its punch list. The site should continue to improve in the weeks ahead, building toward Dec. 15.

But the real story, likely to play out over the coming months, will be its rise as a new platform for innovation – one that will lead to the creation of new private sector services to improve our nation’s health.

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* Patients Not Included

A few weeks ago, I went for the first time to Stanford’s Medicine X conference. It’s billed as a conference that brings a “broad, academic approach to understanding emerging technologies with the potential to improve health and advance the practice of medicine.”

Well, I went, I saw, and I even briefly presented (in a workshop on using patient-generated data).

And I am now writing to tell you about the most important innovations that I learned about at Medicine X (MedX).

They were not the new digital health technologies, even though we heard about many interesting new tools, systems, and apps at the conference, and I do believe that leveraging technology will result in remarkable changes in healthcare.

Nor were they related to social media, ehealth, or telehealth, even though all of these are rapidly growing and evolving, and will surely play important roles in the healthcare landscape of the future.

No. The most remarkable innovations at MedX related to the conference itself, which was unlike any other academic conference I’ve been to. Specifically, the most important innovations were:

  • Patients present to tell their stories, both on stage and in more casual conversational settings such as meals.
  • Patient participation in brainstorming healthcare solutions and in presenting new technologies. MedX also has an ePatient Advisors group to help with the overall conference planning.

These innovations, along with frequent use of storytelling techniques, video, and music, packed a powerful punch. It all kept me feeling engaged and inspired during the event, and left me wishing that more academic conferences were like this.

These innovations point the way to much better academic conferences. Here’s why:

The  power of patient presence

I wasn’t surprised to see lots of patients at Medicine X, because I knew that the conference has an e-patient scholars program, and that many patients would be presenting. I also knew that the director of MedX, Dr. Larry Chu, is a member of the Society of Participatory Medicine. (Disclosure: I’ve been a member of SPM since last December.)

I was, on the other hand, surprised by how powerful it was to have patients on stage telling their stories.

How could it make such a difference? I am, after all, a practicing physician who spends a lot of time thinking about the healthcare experience of older adults and their caregivers.

But it did make a difference. I found myself feeling more empathetic, and focused on the patient and family perspective. And I felt more inspired to do better as a physician and as a healthcare problem-solver.

In short, having patients tell their stories helped me engage with the conference presentations in a more attentive and meaningful way.

Now, some will surely be tempted to wave this off as a gauzy touchy-feely experience that is peculiar to the fruit-cakes of the Bay Area; a nice conference touch that isn’t materially important to the purpose of an academic conference.

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Why Calling it a “Tech Surge” May Not Be the Best Idea in History

Now that our federal government is back at work and the short term debt ceiling thing is resolved, it should be no surprise that the news cycle is now obsessed with Obamacare and its flawed implementation. Over the weekend I must have seen a dozen articles about this online and in the NY Times, and then I woke up this morning to a bunch of new things about the Healthcare.gov site underlying tech, how screwed up it is, and what / how the Health and Human Services agency is going to do to fix it.

The punch line – a tech surge.

To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering.

Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.  We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them.  We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.

From my perspective, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Many years ago I read Fredrick Brooks iconic book on software engineering – The Mythical Man-Month. One of his key messages is that adding additional software engineers to an already late project will just delay things more. I like to take a different approach – if a project is late, take people off the project, shrink the scope, and ship it faster.

I think rather than a tech surge, we should have a “tech retreat and reset.” There are four easy steps.

  • 1. Shut down everything including taking all the existing sites offline.
  • 2. Set a new launch date of July 14, 2014.
  • 3. Fire all of the contractors.
  • 4. Hire Harper Reed as CTO of Healthcare.gov, give him the ball and 100% of the budget, and let him run with it.

If Harper isn’t available, ask him for three names of people he’d put in charge of this. But put one person – a CTO – in charge. And let them hire a team – using all the budget for individual hires, not government contractors or consulting firms.

Hopefully the government owns all the software even though Healthcare.gov apparently violates open source licenses. Given that, the new CTO and his team can quickly triage what is useful and what isn’t. By taking the whole thing offline for nine months, you aren’t in the hell of trying to fix something while it’s completely broken. It’s still a fire drill, but you are no longer inside the building that is burning to the ground.

It’s 2013. We know a lot more about building complex software than we did in 1980. So we should stop using approaches from the 1980s, admit failure when it happens, and hit reset. Doing a “tech surge” will only end in more tears.

Brad Feld is the managing director at the Foundry Group. This post originally appeared at his site, FeldThoughts.

Knocking on Health 2.0’s Door

I recently attended the flagship Health 2.0 conference for the first time.

To avoid driving in traffic, I commuted via Caltrain, and while commuting, I read Katy Butler’s book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

Brief synopsis: healthy active well-educated older parents, father suddenly suffers serious stroke, goes on to live another six years of progressive decline and dementia, life likely extended by cardiologist putting in pacemaker, spouse and daughter struggle with caregiving and perversities of healthcare system, how can we do better? See original NYT magazine article here.

(Although the book is subtitled “The Path to a Better Way of Death,” it’s definitely not just about dying. It’s about the fuzzy years leading up to dying, which generally don’t feel like a definite end-of-life situation to the families and clinicians involved.)

The contrast between the world in the book — an eloquent description of the health, life, and healthcare struggles that most older adults eventually endure — and the world of Health 2.0’s innovations and solutions was a bit striking.

I found myself walking around the conference, thinking “How would this help a family like the Butlers? How would this help their clinicians better meet their needs?”

The answer, generally, was unclear. At Health 2.0, as at many digital health events, there is a strong bias toward things like wellness, healthy lifestyles, prevention, big data analytics, and making patients the CEOs of their own health.

Oh and, there was also the Nokia XPrize Sensing Challenge, because making biochemical diagnostics cheap, mobile, and available to consumers is not only going to change the world, but according to the XPrize rep I spoke to, it will solve many of the problems I currently have in caring for frail elders and their families.

(In truth it would be nice if I could check certain labs easily during a housecall, and the global health implications are huge. But enabling more biochemical measurements on my aging patients is not super high on my priority list.)

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Why Badly Designed iPad Apps Put Patients at Risk: EMS and ePCR

Everyone who knows my writing can attest that I neither pull punches nor play politics. It may distress people, and hopefully it won’t harbinger my demise.  But as CEO of a young firm bringing overdue innovations to the Fire and Emergency Medical Services industry, there are only four groups to whom I am duty-bound: our partner-clients, their patients, our team members, and our investors (in no specific order).  To remain mum on topics that could affect the physical or financial health and wellbeing of any of these parties would be a disservice.

When I was in the magazine business, I often used the phrase “Respect the medium.”  The meaning was simple: when every industry player surfing the waves of innovation is trying something new, how many are asking whether the form is appropriate to the intended function?  What changes need to be made to magazine’s font so its text can be read clearly on a small, backlit screen?  What interactivity can be embedded into a digitally delivered? How will the user’s experience change when network access is down?  (In February 2012, I wrote about these topics for Electronic Design Magazine.)

Failure to ask these questions is often the downfall of the delivery method: either the medium changes or its use declines; rarely do customers acclimate.  In the publishing world, if your readers ignore you, you go away—no lasting harm or foul.  Not so in healthcare or public safety. Especially during emergencies, if a product fails to work as intended—or to work at all—it can mean lost productivity, mountainous legal fees, brain death, or loss of life, limb and property.

Healthcare IT offers outsized benefits to Emergency Response teams, which depend on speed, ease of training and use, data accuracy, and interoperability.  But the stakes of failure or disruption are so high that one can say there are few areas of development with a more desperate need for criticism.

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How Identity Verification Caused Chaos on the State and Federal Exchanges

We may be getting a better idea why the federal exchange and so many state exchanges aren’t working.

An article in Saturday’s Baltimore Sun, regarding Maryland’s problems, provides insight I have not seen elsewhere:

Problems began immediately after the exchange launched Tuesday, as people tried to create accounts and log onto the site.

State officials blamed the account creation process, in which people were routed to a federal questionnaire to verify their identity. The system, they said, became overwhelmed when so many people tried to access it.

So, it appears all of the exchanges are facing the same bottleneck at the federal level–the identity verification software the feds are running for themselves and the state exchanges.

Then the Sun article provided more insight:

Requiring people to create accounts to access the system may be one of the problems, said Jonathan Wu, co-founder of consumer finance website ValuePenguin, who has a computer science background. Some states, including Kentucky [which as been about the only state running well], let people browse insurance plans without an account, which was only needed to purchase insurance. Kentucky did not have as big a backlog, he said.

“It’s kind of an architectural and software issue,” Wu said. “You are not accounting for how people want to use the system.”

With personal accounts, the computer system has to work harder, storing information about everyone who accesses the website, he said. It also has to repeatedly confirm the identity of the person, which also can bog down the system, Wu said. He noted that all the functions on the website that don’t require an account have run smoothly.

“It has to match your account every step you make,” Wu said. “This causes extra overhead.”

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The Real Problem with Board Exams-and How to Solve It

This week there’s been a debate brewing about why so many young doctors are failing their board exams. On one side John Schumann writes that young clinicians may not have the time or study habits to engage in lifelong learning, so they default to “lifelong googling.” On the other, David Shaywitz blames the tests themselves as being outmoded rites of passage administered by guild-like medical societies. He poses the question: Are young doctors failing their boards, or are we failing them?

The answer is: (C) All of the above.

I can say this with high confidence because as a young doctor-in-training who just completed my second year of medical school, I’ve become pretty good at answering test questions. Well before our White Coat Ceremonies, medical students have been honed into lean, mean, test-taking machines by a series of now-distant acronyms: AP, SAT, ACT, MCAT. Looming ahead are even more acronyms, only these are slightly longer and significantly more expensive: NBME, COMLEX, USMLE, ABIM. Even though their letters and demographics differ, what each of these acronyms share is the ability to ideologically divide a room in less time than Limbaugh.

This controversy directly results from the clear dichotomy* between the theory behind the exams and their practical consequences. In theory these exams do serve necessary and even agreeable purposes, including:

1)     Ensuring a minimum body of knowledge or skill before advancing a student to the next level in her education,

2)     Providing an “objective” measure to compare applicants in situations where demand for positions exceeds supply.

So apart from the common, albeit inconvenient, side effects that students experience (fatigue, irritability, proctalgia), what are the problems with these tests in practice? These are five of the core issues that are cited as the basis for reformations to our current examination model:

1)     Lack of objectivity. Tests are created by humans and thus are inherently biased. While they aim to assess a broad base of knowledge or skills, performance can be underestimated not due to a lack of this base but due to issues with the testing format, such as duration, question types, and scoring procedure (e.g. the SAT penalizes guessers, whereas the ACT does not). Just as our current model of clinical trial testing is antithetical to personalized medicine (What is a standard dose? Or, more puzzlingly, a standard patient?), our current model of testing does not take into account these individual differences.

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Are Young Doctors Failing Their Boards? Or Are We Failing Them?

A short piece in The Health Care Blog  reveals (albeit unintentionally) why so many outside of healthcare think the medical establishment still doesn’t get it.

The post, written by a general internist and residency program director, asked why an increasing number of internal medicine doctors are failing their internal medicine board exams.  The pass rate has reportedly declined over the last several years from 90% to 84%.  (Disclosure: I passed this required test about a decade ago.)

His differential included two possibilities:

(1)    The test is getting harder – The testing agency said this wasn’t the case.

(2)    Millennials lack the study habits of their elders, and have become great “looker-upers.” – The author suggested this was a key factor, and several commentators enthusiastically agreed.

The basic thesis here that in the Days of Giants, doctors worked harder, learned more, and were better.  Nowadays, doctors are relatively complacent, less invested, less informed, and are generally worse – which is what’s reflected on the board exams.

Let me suggest a third possibility – perhaps today’s doctors are providing better care to patients than their predecessors were a generation ago.  Maybe today’s doctors have figured out that in our information age, your ability to regurgitate information is less important than your ability to access data and intelligently process it.  Maybe what makes you a truly effective doctor isn’t your ability to assert dominance by the sheer number of facts you’ve amassed, but rather how well you are able to lead a care team, and ensure each patient receives the best care possible.

In other words, what if the problem isn’t the doctors, who are appropriately adapting, but rather the tests (and the medical establishment), which may not be?

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Designing for Caregivers

What user personas do healthcare technology designers and entrepreneurs have in mind as they create their products? And how often is it the family caregiver of an elderly person?

This is the question I found myself mulling over as I wandered around the Health Refactored conference recently, surrounded by developers, designers, and entrepreneurs.

The issue particularly popped into my head when I decided to try Microsoft Healthvault after listening to Microsoft’s Sean Nolan give a very good keynote on the perils of pilots and the praises of platforms (such as HealthVault).

As some know, I’ve been in search of apps and services that can help older adults and their families keep track of lengthy and frequently-changing medication lists. For years now I’ve been urging family caregivers to maintain some kind of online list of medications, but so far I haven’t found a specific app or service to recommend.

Why? Because they all require way too much effort to enter long medication lists. Which means they are hardly usable for my patients’ families.

Could HealthVault do better? Having heard generally promising things about the service these past several months, I signed up and decided to pretend I was the daughter of one of my elderly patients, who had finally decided to take Dr. Kernisan’s advice and find some online way to keep track of Mom’s 15 medications.

Sigh. It’s nice and easy to sign up for HealthVault. However, it’s not so easy to add 15 medications into the system. When I click the “+” sign next to current medications, I am offered a pop-up box with several fields to complete.

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