“Physician, Heal Thyself – Luke 4:23”
Not knowing the originator of this phrase, I found this description on Wikipedia: “The moral of the proverb is counsel to attend to one’s own defects rather than criticizing defects in others.” It’s common for those of us in the tech industry to lament how appallingly out-of-date healthIT is. Taking the glass-is-half-full approach, one can see opportunity in that – Why It’s Good News HealthIT is So Bad.
There are a number of reasons why this is the case — convoluted decisions processes, for example — and that health systems are spending billions to prepare for the last battle. However, I’m much more interested in how we fundamentally change the equation than why we’re in our current predicament. The same tech companies that have kvetched about healthcare being behind on technology can address that defect by taking some simple actions.
Over the 11 years I spent building the network at Epocrates, I learned a lot about physician behavior, motivation and the use of incentives. And while influencing nearly 50% of U.S. physicians to use a product requires that it meet a true need, fit into their workflow and be extremely easy to use – building one of the most trusted brands in healthcare goes beyond the product. It’s about being fanatical about understanding your users, engaging them at the right time, helping them support you and ultimately creating incredible loyalty.
Though we had a very analytical approach to user acquisition and brand strategy, I want to focus this article on something more fundamental – behavioral psychology. Truly understanding not just physician behavior but human behavior was core to the business at Epocrates and permeated throughout our business, marketing and product strategy. We focused early on in engaging physicians as consumers – B2C rather than B2B. Though a significant percentage of MDs are characterized as “small business owners”, we saw them as consumers first – hence, understanding human behavior, motivation, and influence drove product adoption and usage.
I was reminded of this recently listening to Dr. Robert Cialdini, speak at the 4th Annual Consumer Medicine Summit. If you haven’t read it, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” is one of those dog eared marketing “bibles” that has remained on my shelf for years because its lessons on how to influence people are universal and timeless. In fact, I made it required reading for some members of my team. (Future postings on other favorites such as Nudge and Predictably Irrational, coming soon!).
On October 18 2010, Dr. Blumenthal published a letter to EHR vendors titled "Health IT and Disparities" urging them to “include providers who serve minority communities in their sales and marketing efforts”. Reiterating the assumed benefits of Health IT to both quality of care and efficiency of care delivery, the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology stressed the importance of EHR vendors working together “to provide EHR adoption opportunities for physicians and other healthcare providers working within underserved communities of color”. This is obviously an important and welcome appeal. Physicians who provide care for impoverished minority communities usually lack the means to purchase EHRs and perhaps some EHR vendors will heed Dr. Blumenthal’s request and make special arrangements for these doctors and their clinics. The stimulus incentives may also help. But how about those who serve equally impoverished populations and are practically barred from incentives?
In my home State of Missouri there are about 350 Rural Health Clinics (RHC) serving a state which with very few exceptions is one big Medically Underserved Area/Population (MUA/MUP) which is a geographical area or a population designated by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) as having: too few primary care providers, high infant mortality, high poverty and/or high elderly population. For the uninitiated, RHCs are designated by CMS and have to meet certain requirements. The practice has to be located in a rural area and it has to provide team care, which is all the rage now, meaning that a Nurse Practitioner or a Physician Assistant and a Certified Nurse Midwife have to be on premise and team up with the physician in providing patient care. RHCs can be independent practices or they can be owned by rural hospitals. Either way RHCs are paid by Medicare differently than a practice without RHC designation. RHCs are required to submit reports of their operational costs and their total number of visits. Based on these two parameters the reimbursable cost per visit is calculated by Medicare. The entire process is complex and subject to rules, regulations and caps. The main point here is that RHC providers are not reimbursed according to the regular Medicare physician fee schedule and therefore will be unable to receive EHR incentives under Medicare. A few RHCs may qualify for Medicaid incentives, but in most cases they don’t have the prerequisite 30% Medicaid patients.
Following the shift to a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the pre- and post-election focus of GOP leaders on repealing all or parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) have led to much discussion and media attention on whether the few true health IT aspects of the Act are in jeopardy, and has even extended speculation – and in some cases confusion – as to whether physician and hospital incentive funds within the government’s previous Meaningful Use initiative are also a target.
There are several foundational elements – and one major point of Meaningful Use funding – that should allay concerns for current and future funding for the adoption of certified electronic health records (EHRs).
Fundamentally it’s important to note that the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, from which the Meaningful Use program and its funding originates within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, is an entirely different statute than PPACA.
Bipartisan support for the tenets and the spirit of HITECH dates back at least seven years, and it is also noteworthy that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), which administers Meaningful Use, was created by the Bush administration and a Republican Congress.
Politics aside though, the reason that Meaningful Use funds are secure is because they are drawn from the Medicare Trust Funds held by the U.S. Treasury, and are therefore not subject to annual Congressional budget appropriations or oversight.
In other words, the funding is grounded in law, and has inherent flexibility to encompass the number of ambulatory practices and hospitals seeking Meaningful Use incentives capture. The incentive payments are procured through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
Health 2.0 is best known for (and started with) consumers using online tools, search, communities and other services. But over the last year or two we’ve seen more and more SaaS-based and modular tools developed aimed at physicians and their offices. At the same time of course the Feds have promised (but not quite started yet) to lay out up to $36 billion to put EMRs into doctors’ offices.
The problem is that most physicians practice as independent small businesses, and almost all the progress in mainstream EMR adoption has been in larger enterprises–particularly the VA using Vista and many larger provider systems (e.g. Kaiser) using Epic and a few other larger client-server based systems. But smaller businesses outside of health care are using a whole range of SaaS-based services to run their operations. For example, at Health 2.0 we use Highrise for customer tracking, Google Docs for records, Gmail for sharing information, Skype for communication, Surveymonkey for attendee surveys, Mailchimp for marketing emails, and several others.
Can physician offices use a parallel set of modular applications to run their various business and clinical processes? I believe that they can and will. But the problem is how to get the message out? So I was pretty interested to find that Sanofi Aventis is trying to reach physicians about these issues via a site called iPractice. They asked (and commissioned) me to write something about the topic. So I’ve described seven modular Health 2.0 tools for physicians. You can read my article here