Since January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have implemented incentive programs to drive meaningful use of Electronic Medical Records (EMR) technology – software and support tools that represent a roughly a $40B marketplace.
In August, CMS reported that $6.9B in total EMR incentives were paid to 143,800 physicians and hospitals – a number that will likely increase markedly in the coming quarters. This is because hospitals and eligible professionals know that to receive the highest possible financial incentive they must deploy and demonstrate meaningful use of an EMR before 2014.
Curiously, these incentives don’t seem to be enticing as only 20% of Medicare and Medicaid eligible providers are taking strides toward EMR implementation and only 55% of eligible hospitals have received an EMR incentive payment. We think they’re delaying investments for a few reasons.
· Implementation costs are high, and the financial return of EMR systems isn’t fully proven
· Poorly preforming EMR vendors are causing senior hospital executives to consider their options
· Clinical leadership unwilling to change the clinical processes required to derive value from an EMR system
· Creating and maintaining clinical content for a successful EMR system is very complex
Six months to the day after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released the “preliminary rules” for Meaningful Use, the final rules are in. For clinicians and policymakers who want to see Electronic Health Records (EHRs) play a key role in driving improvements in the healthcare system, there’s a lot to like here.
For the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC), the agency that oversees the federal health information technology incentive program, the Meaningful Use rules are a balancing act. On one hand, ONC wants to get as many clinicians and hospitals on board with simply adopting EHRs (and thus, the need to set a low bar). On the other hand, they want to ensure that once people start using EHRs, they are using them in a “meaningful” way to drive improvements in care (and thus, the need to set a high bar). I think ONC got that balance just about right.
Let me begin with a little background. In 2009, Congress passed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, setting aside about $30 billion for incentives for ambulatory care providers and acute-care hospitals to adopt and “meaningfully use” EHRs. Congress specified that the executive branch would define Meaningful Use (MU) and would do so in three stages. The first stage was finalized in 2010 and its goals were simple – start getting doctors and hospitals on board with the use of EHRs. By most metrics, stage 1 was quite successful. The proportion of doctors and hospitals using EHRs jumped in 2011, and all signs suggested continued progress in 2012. Through July 2012, approximately 117,000 eligible professionals and 3,600 hospitals have received some sort of incentive payment.
All too frequently I get the question:
When will we see the EHR market consolidate?
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.
For the majority of my career I have been obsessed with creating technologies to modernize our largely dysfunctional U.S. healthcare system. To me, it is very clear that the emergence of cloud computing has finally created the opportunity to truly address this daunting problem. Cloud-based solutions are the only viable option for effectively getting providers, patients and other key stakeholders online so that the necessary efficiencies find their way into the system.
To the rest of healthcare IT, however, it is not so clear, as witnessed by the lack of truly cloud-based companies in the marketplace.
Most of the large, established players in this industry continue to rely on the outdated client/server or older technologies, such as MUMPS. Some of these companies’ products trace their roots as far back as 1969. These companies and their software were built before the world wide web, before Facebook, the iPhone and iPad, salesforce.com – and even email, for God’s sake! There also exists a tremendous amount of confusion related to the morass of small, bootstrapped EMR companies, which number in the hundreds. People do not understand the difference between buying a monolithic single-purpose app to utilizing a robust, cloud-based platform approach.
This lack of understanding has made me realize that we need a better way to explain what the cloud has the power to do, and what true cloud-based technology even is. Easier said than done!
I was recently afforded a breakthrough, though unfortunately at the expense of an ancient treasure. Allow me to explain:
In 1990, when I got my first health care job driving ambulances, not a soul in the New Orleans EMS department had a cellphone. Not even the head of the service. The mayor, his chief of staff and the police chief each had one. That was about it. These phones weighed like 15 pounds and were hardwired to a car battery. And we ambulance drivers documented our care on “run sheets” found on metal clipboards but, since so few people bothered to read them, we also wrote key vital signs and other metrics on a three-inch-wide piece of white tape smacked across the patient’s abdomen.
Today, everyone in New Orleans — and everywhere else — has a cellphone. These cellphones have the computing power to find, and add to, and direct everything that anyone would need to know about a patient anywhere in the world… but they don’t do it! Today’s “do-everything” cellphones are the size of your wallet, yet most ambulance crew run sheets are still paper, found on metal clipboards. And most good patient data is still found on those three-inch-wide pieces of tape.
Why? I’ll give you one good reason and one bad one.
Working in the health care space has forced me to give up many hopes and expectations that I had a few years ago. Forgive me for being cynical (it’s an easy feeling to have following the country’s largest health IT conference, as I reported a month ago), and indeed some positive trends do step in to shore up hope. I’ll go over the redeeming factors after listing the five tough lessons.
1. The health care field will not adopt a Silicon Valley mentality
Wild, willful, ego-driven experimentation–a zeal for throwing money after intriguing ideas with minimal business plans–has seemed work for the computer field, and much of the world is trying to adopt a “California optimism.” A lot of venture capitalists and technology fans deem this attitude the way to redeem health care from its morass of expensive solutions that don’t lead to cures. But it won’t happen, at least not the way they paint it.
Health care is one of the most regulated fields in public life, and we want it that way. From the moment we walk into a health facility, we expect the staff to be following rigorous policies to avoid infections. (They don’t, but we expect them to.) And not just anybody can set up a shield outside the door and call themselves a doctor. In the nineteenth century it was easier, but we don’t consider that a golden age of medicine.
Instead, doctors go through some of the longest and most demanding training that exists in the world today. And even after they’re licensed, they have to regularly sign up for continuing education to keep practicing. Other fields in medicine are similar. The whole industry is constrained by endless requirements that make sure the insiders remain in their seats and no “disruptive technologies” raise surprises. Just ask a legal expert about the complex mesh of Federal and state regulations that a health care provider has to navigate to protect patient privacy–and you do want your medical records to be private, don’t you?–before you rave about the Silicon Valley mentality. Also read the O’Reilly book by Fred Trotter and David Uhlman about the health care system as it really is.
Healthcare reform is arguably the hot-button political issue of our time. And with the Supreme Court locked and loaded to decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act this summer, it’s a safe bet the controversial two-year-old legislation will have a huge impact on the 2012 election and beyond.
But what about health IT? If “Obamacare” has been a lightning rod, sparking historically nasty partisan bickering – Congress vs. President Obama, Republicans vs. Democrats, Fox News vs. MSNBC, the Tea Party vs. MoveOn.org – Washington’s efforts to spur healthcare information technology have enjoyed much broader support, on both sides of the aisle.
Just last week, a Washington think tank whose healthcare wing is led by two erstwhile rival Senate Majority Leaders put its weight behind smarter and more widespread use of technology and data exchange in healthcare organizations nationwide.
“To deliver high-quality, cost-effective care, a physician or hospital needs good information,” said former senator Bill Frist, MD, upon the release of a report, on Jan. 27, from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Delivery System Reform and Health IT. “Data about patients has to flow across primary care physicians, hospitals, labs, and anywhere that patients receive care.”
There are few issue areas within the Beltway of Washington, DC, that have enjoyed more support across the political aisle than health care information technology. In 2004, George Bush asserted that every American would/should have an electronic medical record by 2014. Since then, Democrats and Republicans alike have supported the broad concept of wiring the U.S. health information infrastructure.
With the injection of ARRA stimulus funds earmarked in the HITECH Act to promote health providers’ adoption of electronic health records, we’re now on the road to Americans getting access to their health information electronically. It won’t be all or even most U.S. health citizens by 2014, but it will millions.
Just how solid is political support for health IT these days, then? An important report, Transforming Health Care: The Role of Health IT, from the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Froce on Delivery System Reform and Health IT published in January 2012, talks about the gaps and obstacles to achieving an interoperable, accessible health IT infrastructure.
During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Candidate Obama promised an EHR for every American by 2014. The goal was to improve quality of care, reduce disparities and contain costs of health care. When the HITECH act became law in 2009, physicians found themselves under increased pressure to purchase an EHR. Many took action, went out and bought an EHR for their practice, and these are now well positioned to collect the financial incentives put forward by the HITECH act. Many more did not. EHRs are by and large a complex and expensive proposition and the HITECH incentives are not covering the average cost of purchasing and maintaining an EHR. In survey after survey, physicians consistently rank cost associated with EHRs as their top concern when considering transition from paper charts to electronic medical records. This is a bit disconcerting, since physicians have no problem buying other expensive tools and paying for human resources in their practices. How are EHRs any different?
There are three primary stakeholders in health care: those who receive care, those who provide care and those who manage the financial aspects of health care, and no, we are not getting into the quintessential argument of whether there should be only two primary stakeholders. There are several secondary stakeholders as well: those who manufacture medical goods, those who provide ancillary services and those engaged in medical research.