I’m well aware that a good fraction of the people in this country – let’s call them Rush fans – spend their lives furious at the New York Times. I am not one of them. I love the Grey Lady; it would be high on my list of things to bring to a desert island. But every now and then, the paper screws up, and it did so in a big way in its recent piece on the federal program to promote healthcare information technology (HIT).
Let’s stipulate that the Federal government’s $20 billion incentive program (called “HITECH”), designed to drive the adoption of electronic health records, is not perfect. Medicare’s “Meaningful Use” rules – the standards that hospitals’ and clinics’ EHRs must meet to qualify for bonus payments – have been criticized as both too soft and too restrictive. (You know the rules are probably about right when the critiques come from both directions.) Interoperability remains a Holy Grail. And everybody appreciates that today’s healthcare information technology (HIT) systems remain clunky and relatively user-unfriendly. Even Epic, the Golden Child among electronic medical record systems, has been characterized as the “Cream of the Crap.”
Anyone who understands the importance of continuity of care knows that health information exchange is essential. How are we supposed to cut waste and duplication from the healthcare system and truly focus on patient welfare if doctor B has no idea what tests doctor A conducted, or what the results were?
The predominant proprietary HIT vendors know this, yet have engaged in prolonged foot-dragging on interoperability and even basic data interfacing. Yes healthcare IT is their business, but interoperability is not in their nature.
The proprietary business model makes the vendor the single source of HIT for hospital clients. Complexity and dependence are baked into both solutions and client relationships, creating a “vendor lock” scenario in which changing systems seems almost inconceivable.
In the proprietary world, interfacing with third-party products is a revenue generation strategy and technical challenge; the latter, though unnecessary, justifies the former. When we go looking for the reasons that healthcare is a laggard compared with other industries, this single-source model—the obstacle to much-needed competition and innovation—is a primary culprit.
To be fair, provider organizations, with little if any incentive to exchange patient data before the advent of Meaningful Use, haven’t shown much collaborative spirit either. In the fee-for-service model, why would a healthcare organization let patients slip from their grasp? Health reform is finally mandating needed change, but when will proprietary vendors actually enable the interoperability hospitals and practices soon have to demonstrate?
Recent rumblings from Washington, DC, suggest the feds are losing patience.
We should have seen it coming, really. It was entirely predictable, and the most recent RAND report proves it.
We incentivized comprehensive IT adoption, making it easier to bill for every procedure, examination, aspirin, tongue depressor, kind word and gentle (or not) touch without first flipping the American healthcare paradigm on its head, if such a thing is even possible.
According to analysis by the New York Times, hospitals received $1 billion more in Medicare reimbursements in 2010 than they did five years earlier. Overall, the Times says, “hospitals that received government incentives to adopt electronic records showed a 47 percent rise in Medicare payments at higher levels from 2006 to 2010 … compared with a 32 percent rise in hospitals that have not received any government incentives …”
To paraphrase the mantra of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign: It’s the system, stupid. More specifically, it’s the business model, stupid, the fee-for-service system in which electronic health records are enabling tools.
It’s also the law of unintended consequences. You know … you take action, planning on this but instead you get that.
Like the introduction of cane toads in Australia to kill beetles (they couldn’t jump high enough). Like letting mongooses loose in Hawaii to manage the rat population (they preferred native bird eggs). Like Kudzu, the insatiable vine that’s devouring the South.
According to the authors of the RAND report, the problem is with the incentive structure that encourages more tests and procedures. Well, of course it is. Doctors and administrators have a clinic or hospital to run. They have expensive invoices from Epic and Cerner to pay. They can now track and bill for all this stuff they used to not get paid for. Are we surprised?
And meanwhile, fee-for-service leads us down a contradictory rat hole of massive healthcare costs and lousy public health.Continue reading…
Does anyone in their right mind believe that these are the best of times in healthcare or health IT?
Does anyone besides Judy Faulkner and Neal Patterson believe these are the best of times? (I mean, everyone knows that Dramatic Transition + Industry-wide Upheaval + Piles of Cash = Satisfaction / Contentment, proving the point mathematically.)
The question: At what cost to overall healthcare improvement do Epic and Cerner (and others, to be fair … except you, Allscripts) reap massive profits?
The short answer: We don’t really know.
While it is generally acknowledged by most (certainly not all, which you know if you’ve spent any time on HIStalk) that the ready availability and automated cross-checking of electronic health records improves care, there is no definitive study showing dramatic clinical improvement, demonstrable return on investment, etc.
Indeed, we now have a number of studies suggesting exactly the opposite:
Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.
Now, the health care connection. As a result of the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to health information systems as part of the stimulus program, those companies who had a head start in implementing electronic medical records quickly found themselves in demand. Of all those companies, Epic is the most successful. Forbesnotes, “By next year 40% of the U.S. population–127 million patients–will have their medical information stored in an Epic digital record.” Here in Massachusetts, the biggest convert was Partners Healthcare System: “System development and implementation will occur over a 10-year period and represent a capital investment of approximately $600 – 700 million.” Elsewhere, notes Forbes: “The biggest win: a $4 billion project to digitize medical records for health care giant Kaiser Permanente.”
What is striking about this company is the degree to which the CEO has made it clear that she is not interested in providing the capability for her system to be integrated into other medical record systems. The company also “owns” its clients in that it determines when system upgrades are necessary and when changes in functionality will be introduced. And yet, large hospitals sign up for the system, rationalizing that it is the best. For example, Partners said, “The new health care landscape will challenge us to engage in population health management, improve the coordination of health care, and accept financial risk for the care of our patients. This new system will enable us to meet those challenges.”
On the personal side, my wife had cancer. Together we moved two households, relocated her studio, and closed her gallery. This week my mother broke her hip in Los Angeles and I’m writing from her hospital room as we finalize her discharge and home care plan before I fly back to Boston.
On the business side, the IT community around me has worked hard on Meaningful Use Stage 2, the Massachusetts State Health Information Exchange, improvements in data security, groundbreaking new applications, and complex projects like ICD10 with enormous scope.
We did all this with boundless energy and optimism, knowing that every day we’re creating a foundation that will improve the future for our country, communities, and families.
My personal life has never been better – Kathy’s cancer is in remission, our farm is thriving, and our daughter is maturing into a fine young woman at Tufts University.
My business life has never been better – Meaningful Use Stage 2 provides new rigorous standards for content/vocabulary/transport at a time when EHR use has doubled since 2008, the State HIE goes live in one week, and BIDMC was voted the number #1 IT organization the country.
It’s clear that many have discounted the amazing accomplishments that we’ve all made, overcoming technology and political barriers with questions such as “how can we?” and “why not?” rather than “why is it taking so long?” They would rather pursue their own goals – be they election year politics, academic recognition, or readership traffic on a website.
As many have seen, this letter from the Ways and Means Committee makes comments about standards that clearly have no other purpose than election year politics. These House members are very smart people and I have great respect for their staff. I’m happy to walk them through the Standards and Certification Regulations (MU stage 1 and stage 2) so they understand that the majority of their letter is simply not true – it ignores the work of hundreds of people over thousands of hours to close the standards gaps via open, transparent, and bipartisan harmonization in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Not an unreasonable question considering just how many EHRs there are in the market today (north of 300) and all the buzz regarding growth in health IT adoption. There was even a recent post postulating that major EHR consolidation was “on the verge.” Even I have wondered at times why we have not seen any significant consolidation to date as there truly are far more vendors than this market can reasonably support.
But when we talk about EHR consolidation, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing. In the acute care market, significant consolidation has already occurred. Those companies that did not participate in consolidating this market (Cerner, Epic & Meditech) seem to have faired well. Those that pursued a roll-up, acquisition strategy (Allscripts, GE, McKesson) have had more mixed results.
It is the ambulatory sector where one finds a multitude of vendors all vying for a piece of the market and it is this market that has not seen any significant consolidation to date and likely will not see such for several years to come for two dominant reasons.
Despite this widespread adoption EHRs, reliable market share data by vendor is still very hard to come by. So, when CMS recently updated its attestation data for midyear 2012, we took notice. Attestation, remember, is the process by which practitioners legally verify that they have used an EHR in way that merits one of those incentive payments. The data set includes more than 77,000 different attestations from 2011 through May of 2012 (note that it is not immediately clear why the data set has different totals than the CMS press release).
The sheer number of options for hospitals and providers stood out to us immediately. There are 405 separate EHR vendors that hospitals or providers have used to attest to meaningful use, with 336 of these providing ambulatory EHR products. It’s worth pausing here to note that by our count of the data found on the CMS Certified Health IT Product List, there are more than 550 separate ambulatory vendors with complete EHRs approved by CMS, meaning that despite the huge number of options, there were still well over 200 approved ambulatory vendors that have not had a single user qualify for an incentive payment yet!
Despite this enormous number of options, users attesting were fairly concentrated in the top vendors. Of these 336, the top 15 vendors represented 75% of all providers attesting. On the inpatient side, this concentration was even more pronounced, with the top 6 representing 75% of the total hospital attestations.
When we organize and dig into the data, a few other points stand out.
(Note: the following commentary was co-authored with Tory Wolff, a founding partner of Recon Strategy, a healthcare strategy consulting firm in Boston; Tory and I gratefully acknowledge the insightful feedback provided by Jay Chyung of Recon Strategy.)
Medicine has been notoriously slow to embrace the electronic medical record (EMR), but, spurred by tax incentives and the prospect of cost and outcomes accountability, the use of electronic medical records (EMRs) is finally catching on.
There are a large number of EMR vendors, who offer systems that are either the traditional client server model (where the medical center hosts the system) or a product which can be delivered via Software as a Service (SaaS) architecture, similar to what salesforce.com did for customer relationship management (CRM).
Historically, the lack of extensive standards have allowed hospital idiosyncrasies to be hard-coded into systems. Any one company’s EMR system isn’t particularly compatible with the EMR system from another company, resulting in – or, more fairly, perpetuating – the Tower of Babel that effectively exists as medical practices often lack the ability to share basic information easily with one another.
There’s widespread recognition that information exchange must improve – the challenge is how to get there.
One much-discussed approach are health information exchanges (HIE’s), defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as “Efforts to rapidly build capacity for exchanging health information across the health care system both within and across states.”
With some public funding and local contributions, public HIE’s can point to some successes (the Indiana Health Information Exchange, IHIE, is a leading example, as described here). The Direct Project – a national effort to coordinate health information exchange spearheaded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT – also seems to be making progress. But the public HIEs are a long way from providing robust, rich and sustainable data exchange.