Tag: Glenn Laffel

The Effectiveness of Online Health Intervention Programs

In recent posts on Web-based and mobile behavioral intervention programs, we reviewed evidence suggesting that social support, in one form or another, can improve participants’ adherence and engagement with the program. That didn’t always mean however, that participants achieved better outcomes as a result. In one study for example, an online community increased engagement with and utilization of a Web-based activity program, but it did not increase participants’ actual activity levels.

Another study, slightly older than the ones reviewed above, did show that a Web-based program improved outcomes. In this case, the intervention was an online videogame known as Re-Mission. Since I haven’t touched previously on outcome studies for automated lifestyle intervention tools or videogames as an example of such programs, I’ll do that here.

Re-Mission is intended improve medication compliance in teens and young adults with a history of cancer. In the game, players control a nanobot within a 3-dimensional body of a young person that has cancer. Play involves destroying cancer cells and managing chemotherapy-related adverse effects like vomiting and bacterial infections by using antiemetics and antibiotics. The game purports to help users understand their disease and its treatment and improve their sense of self-efficacy: they can take control of their disease.

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The Prevention Paradox

In the last month, the Obama administration announced programs to reduce racial disparities and increase prevention in health care. Neither program was funded with actual money, so they are about political showmanship as much as any real desire to tackle the worthy causes. After all, who would oppose such programs? I half-expect the administration to follow-up these announcements with one focusing on moms and apple pie.

But have a closer look at what Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin said at the press conference introducing the latter initiative. “For every dollar we invest in prevention, we save $6. We need to provide an approach that makes it easier to be healthy and harder to be unhealthy.”

I haven’t found the report on which Harkin bases his assertion about the returns on health prevention efforts, but my sense is its more complicated than Harkin would have us believe. Some screening and prevention programs are not effective at all. Others are effective, but prohibitively expensive. Any national program to improve prevention needs to evaluate each potential component to assure it reflects Harkin’s focus on cost-effectiveness.


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Online Communities & Attrition from Health Intervention Programs

Provider-centric, face-to-face health intervention programs that help people quit smoking, lose weight and increase activity levels have been shown to work, but they are expensive, don’t scale, and inconvenient. By contrast, Internet-based programs with similar goals can be disseminated widely and inexpensively, and can be accessed by consumers at a convenient time and place.

Although many of the latter programs have been shown in clinical trial settings to be efficacious, attempts to commercialize them have been plagued by attrition. People stop using the programs because they lose motivation, can’t find the time, or become frustrated by clunky interfaces and data entry requirements.

In one study for example, only 26% of participants in a randomized trial of a free physical activity website dropped out of the study before it was completed, whereas 67% of registered open access users dropped out during the same course of time. The open access users also spent less time on the site.

The lower attrition rate in the trial was likely driven by the emotional, cognitive and logistic support provided by trial personnel. It follows that the commercial success of online health intervention programs hinges on their ability to support users in the same way as trained personnel do in clinical trial settings.

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The Dual Online Identities of Physicians

Like everybody else, physicians are expanding their online personal identities. At the same time, they are trying to comply with codes of conduct that help consumers trust them and their profession.

There’s no problem so long as the personal online activities of physicians don’t jeopardize their obligations as professionals, which means that there is a problem, unfortunately.

In a recent study for example, 17% of all blogs authored by health professionals were found to include personally identifiable information about patients. Scores of physicians have been reprimanded for posting similar information on Twitter and Facebook, posting lewd pictures of themselves online, tweeting about late night escapades which ended hours before they performed surgery, and other unsavory behaviors.

As I mentioned Monday, medical students and younger physicians who grew up with the Internet have to be particularly careful, since they had established personal online identities before accepting the professional responsibilities that came with their medical degree.

Medical schools, residency programs and teaching hospitals can help young professionals manage their dual lives online. Some have implemented curricula and policies that foster appropriate use of social media, but surprisingly these programs are not widespread. In a recent study of medical schools that had experienced at least one incident in which a student used social media inappropriately, only 38% had adopted formal policies to handle future incidents. An additional 11% reported they were developing such policies. We can do better than this.

Non-teaching hospitals, CME providers and professional organizations like the American Medical Association can also help providers navigate the online world. The AMA’s recent guide to Professionalism in the Use of Social Media provides helpful guidance in this regard.

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Health Care in the Cloud: A ‘Case Study of What Not To Do’

Amazon Web Services (AWS), “the cloud” for many, experienced a serious interruption in service beginning on April 21st. The problem lingered for at least 6 days. Many websites that relied on Amazon services went down or saw their performance degraded during the event.

The AWS failure disproportionately affected startups like Foursquare, Quora and Reddit, companies that are “focused on moving fast in pursuit of growth, and less apt to pay for extensive backup and recovery services.”

One of the affected companies was a health care startup. What follows is a transcription (including typos) of an AWS Discussion Forum that this company initiated 24 hours after the outage began. The company’s contributions are in italics.

Life of our patients is at stake—I am desperately asking you to contact

Sorry I could not get through in any other way. We are a monitoring company and are monitoring hundreds of cardiac patients at home. We are unable to see their ECG signals since 21st of April. Can you please contact us? Or please let me know how can I contact you more ditectly. Thank you.Continue reading…

Harvard Study Gets it Wrong on EHRs and Quality

America’s hospitals are a triumph of modernity, stocked as they are with PET scanners, ECMO machines, and ICUs bedecked in eye-popping gadgetry.

They are also the most complex organizations ever created by man. The seemingly simple process of delivering a drug from the pharmacy to the bedside for example, typically involves a 30-step process executed by a half-dozen people on 3 floors. There are hundreds of ways it can fail.

It often does, and that’s just half the story. Each hospitalized patient requires a unique combination of services including lab tests, physical therapy, a discharge plan and so forth. Since a complex process must be executed to produce each service, the hospital becomes a job shop.

By contrast, the processes used to produce cars and silicon chips are relatively unfettered. That is why piston rods can be produced in batches with every item meeting specs to the micron, while hospital processes often feature error rates of 10-20%.

This explains why hospitals have struggled for decades to improve quality. It also explains why a study by Ashish Jha and colleagues at Harvard has shown that hospitals using electronic health records (EHRs) don’t have better quality.

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The Federated Health System of America

6a00d8341c909d53ef0120a520865d970b-800wi After a spy plane confirmed the Soviet Union was building launch platforms for first-strike ballistic missiles in Cuba in October, 1962, President John F. Kennedy convened his Joint Chiefs of Staff and cabinet members to help him decide how to respond.

Kennedy managed the diverse input he received, including surreal, saber-rattling rants from Air Force General Curtis Lemay, and eventually resolved the crisis. It was the closest we ever came to nuclear war.

But the consensus-based, inclusive leadership style JFK used to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t seem to be working as well for President Obama as his Health Reform Express barrels towards an unknown final destination.

Take the latest cockamamie plans for the public option, for example. As the House and Senate struggle to cobble together some semblance of a bill, we hear that the end result is likely to contain a public option along with a rider that allows states to opt out of it if they so choose.This ridiculous compromise is the byproduct President Obama’s decision to let Congressional group-think generate a legislative package that (a)could pass Congress and (b)he could sign. In making this decision, Obama sacrificed his principles before the altar of political success.

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CCHIT’s Latest Gambit


Many of us have enjoyed a few good minutes of fun having our fortunes told by soothsayers who claim they can predict our future based on patterns of tea leaves in a cup or the playing cards we’ve pulled from a deck.

We pay a few dollars for the entertainment and if the fortune teller is skilled, we are temporarily impressed by his “insight.” But once we leave the carnival, we come back to our senses. Fortune-tellers can’t predict the future.

With its latest announcement, the Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology (CCHIT) appears to have entered the fortune telling business.

And if information provided on blogs published by its founders is to be believed, some EHR vendors plan to have their fortunes told by the former EHR certification monopolist.

In June, ONC’s HIT Policy Committee released a Meaningful Use Matrix and proposed that it should serve as the basis for EHR certification as mandated by ARRA, the economic stimulus program signed into law last winter.

The Matrix consisted of five “Health Outcomes Policy Priorities” and associated Care Goals, Objectives and Measures. The Committee anticipated that the latter would be transformed into EHR certification criteria.

After a 2-month public comment period, the Committee tweaked the Matrix, essentially pushing back time-frames for implementing computerized order entry, and accelerating time-frames for implementing personal health records.

By mid-August, the Committee had approved a final version of the Matrix.

This document includes the very latest information on ARRA-mandated EHR certification criteria. It is in the public domain, there for all to see. ONC is expected to finalize these criteria next spring.

The criteria are not consistent with those used by CCHIT to certify EHRs. They are outcomes-oriented (CCHIT’s are feature, structure and process-oriented), and they do not require that any particular technology (such as the client-server applications used by the legacy vendors who sit on the board of CCHIT) be used to achieve the results.

Subsequently, HHS announced that it planned to assume responsibility for deciding which EHR systems qualified for bonus payouts under Medicare, and shortly thereafter, ONC’s HIT Policy Committee said that it planned to recommend that several entities should certify EHR systems.

In its announcement, the Committee envisioned the establishment of 10 to 12 such agencies.

The upshot of these moves by the Federal government are that (1)CCHIT no longer decides what criteria will be used to certify EHRs, and (2)its days as the exclusive provider of EHR certification services are numbered.

What has CCHIT decided to do in response to these setbacks?

It’s decided to become a fortune-teller!

New Role for CCHIT

Last week, CCHIT announced it will begin offering “streamlined,” or “modular” certification options, in which EHR vendors can apply to the agency for approval of distinct EHR modules like e-prescribing or electronic patient registries.

But as mentioned above, ONC won’t sign-off on its “meaningful use” criteria until the spring of 2010. In effect, CCHIT is asking EHR vendors to gamble that CCHIT can, like a fortune teller at a carnival, predict what those final recommendations will be.

“Choose the risk you want to take,” CCHIT Chairman Mark Leavitt recently challenged vendors. “Go ahead now (with a CCHIT review) and have an extra year to implement, with a small risk that there will be some gap in which EHR systems would have to be updated to receive final certification…” or risk the consequences of sitting on your hands, he presumably would add.

Never mind that the latest information is in the public domain, and that any vendor can compare it against their current capabilities and development plans! Disregard the fact that CCHIT has no track-record in promulgating outcomes-oriented certification criteria or in certifying against them!
What is CCHIT charging for its fortune-telling expertise? According to Government HealthIT, a HIMSS sponsored publication, prices for modular certification begin at $6,000 for up to 2 modules. They rise to $24,000 for up to 20 modules and to $33,000 for more than 20.

As always, fees for CCHIT’s comprehensive certification are $37,000 for ambulatory systems and $49,000 for hospital systems. Annual renewal costs are $9,000 for each.

That’s chump-change for the legacy vendors whose top executives sit on the board of CCHIT, but it guarantees nothing.

Conclusions and Recommendations

EHR vendors should perform their own analyses against the published HIT Policy Committee criteria and follow the HHS Web site for announcements regarding meaningful use criteria and the process by which EHRs will be certified.

If a vendor insists on having its fortunes told, it should consult with a reader of tea leaves next time the carnival is in town.

Glenn Laffel is a physician with a PhD in Health Policy from MIT and serves as Practice Fusion’s Senior VP, Clinical Affairs.  He is a frequent writer for EHR Bloggers, where this post first appeared.

Tweaking Medical Education to Leverage EHRs

Tweaking Medical Education to Leverage EHRs



Author’s Note:The purpose of this 5-part series is to make the case for implementing a widespread, systematic approach to HIT education in medical schools and continuing medical education programs for physicians. Previous posts reviewed challenges posed by the HIT Deluge and the Impact of EHRs on Medical Education.

EHRs have begun an inevitable march into the lives of all physicians. The US government has established an ambitious plan for their deployment, and providers seem both eager to comply and anxious to avoid financial penalties associated with not doing so.

But as described in Part II of this series, EHRs can have deleterious effects on the education of medical students and residents. These include disrupting interactive sessions involving educators and trainees and complicating patient-physician communication.

Jay Morrow and Alison Dobbie of Texas Southwestern Medical Center argue that much of this negative impact derives from a mistaken perception that EHRs are a health care delivery method rather than a medium through which physicians deliver care. It follows from this argument that the quality-improving, cost-reducing benefits of EHRs can only be realized if multiple systems and user-based factors are aligned to optimize utilization of the new medium.

Medical educators can begin the alignment process by developing answers these 3 questions:

When Should EHR Education Begin?
Arguably, the process should begin as early as possible. Since the 1970s, medical curricula have included non-science oriented courses such as “Introduction to the Patient,” “Communication Skills” and the like. These courses present ideal opportunities to introduce the new medium.

Students in such courses should be taught to navigate through and use basic EHR functions such as order entry, lab look-up, messaging and charting. Ideally, this exposure should occur outside the clinical setting so trainees can focus on mastering the EHR interface itself. At this time, it should be possible to identify those in need of extra help with keyboard skills, and to provide assistance as necessary.

Keyboarding skills should not be assumed, even for the current generation of physician-trainees. In a 2007 focus group of first-year students at Texas Southwestern for example, 62% of the participants expressed concerns about such skills, and many claimed to have better texting than typing abilities.

If students master keyboarding and EHR navigation skills before starting their clinical rotations, they can focus the latter time on traditional learning exercises, such as clinical reasoning, diagnosis, acquiring medical procedure skills and interacting with ancillary caregivers and patients.

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Impact of EHRs on Medical Education



Author’s Note: This the second of a 5-part series whose purpose it is to make the case for implementing a widespread, systematic approach to HIT education in medical schools and continuing medical education programs for physicians. A previous post reviewed challenges posed by the HIT Deluge.

Countries around the world are racing to digitize patient medical records. In the US for example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $21 billion to an incentive program designed to encourage the “meaningful use” of such systems.

The Federal government’s largesse is based on the premise that EHRs will improve the quality of care and reduce its costs, but the move will impact the health care system in many other ways as well. One area sure to be impacted is the education and training process for new physicians.

What kind of impact can we expect? In some ways, EHRs appear to enhance medical education, but there are as many or more instances in which the impact appears to be negative. Thankfully, careful planning can mitigate most of the collateral damage, a topic to be covered in this series’ next installment. For now, we’ll settle for a review of the good, the bad and the ugly.

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