By BRIAN AHIER, RICH ELMORE and DAVID C. KIBBE, MD
The Direct Project announced today the completion of its open-source connectivity-enabling software and the start of a series of pilots that will be demonstrating directed secure messaging for healthcare stakeholders over the internet. The Direct Project specifies a simple, secure, scalable, standards-based way for participants to send authenticated, encrypted health information directly to known, trusted recipients over the Internet.
A new name – the Direct Project was previously known as NHIN Direct
A new hashtag #directproject for following the Direct Project on twitter.
The Direct Project is the collaborative and voluntary work of a group of healthcare stakeholders representing more than 50 provider, state, HIE and HIT vendor organizations. Over 200 participants have contributed to the project. It’s rapid progress, transparency, and community consensus approach have established it as a model of how to drive innovation at a national level.
What is The Direct Project?
Today, communication of health information among providers and patients is most often achieved by sending paper through the mail or via fax. The Direct Project seeks to benefit patients and providers by improving the transport of health information, making it faster, more secure, and less expensive. The Direct Project will facilitate “direct” communication patterns with an eye toward approaching more advanced levels of interoperability than simple paper can provide.
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).
Computational innovation may improve health care by creating stores of data vastly superior to those used by traditional medical research. But before patients and providers “buy in,” they need to know that medical privacy will be respected. We’re a long way from assuring that, but new ideas about the proper distribution and control of data might help build confidence in the system.
William Pewen’s post “Breach Notice: The Struggle for Medical Records Security Continues” is an excellent rundown of recent controversies in the field of electronic medical records (EMR) and health information technology (HIT). As he notes,
Many in Washington have the view that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) functions as a protective regulatory mechanism in medicine, yet its implementation actually opened the door to compromising the principle of research consent, and in fact codified the use of personal medical data in a wide range of business practices under the guise of permitted “health care operations.” Many patients are not presented with a HIPAA notice but instead are asked to sign a combined notice and waiver that adds consents for a variety of business activities designed to benefit the provider, not the patient. In this climate, patients have been outraged to receive solicitations for purchases ranging from drugs to burial plots, while at the same time receiving care which is too often uncoordinated and unsafe. It is no wonder that many Americans take a circumspect view of health IT.
Privacy law’s consent paradigm means that, generally speaking, data dissemination is not deemed an invasion of privacy if it is consented to. The consent paradigm requires individuals to decide whether or not, at any given time, they wish to protect their privacy. Some of the brightest minds in cyberlaw have focused on innovation designed to enable such self-protection. For instance, interdisciplinary research groups have proposed “personal data vaults” to manage the emanations of sensor networks. Jonathan Zittrain’s article on “privication” proposed that the same technologies used by copyright holders to monitor or stop dissemination of works could be adopted by patients concerned about the unauthorized spread of health information.Continue reading…
HIE stands for Health Information Exchange. Sometimes the term HIE is used to describe the act of exchanging health information, sometimes HIE is used to describe the infrastructure which enables the exchange to occur and sometimes HIE is used to describe an organization that owns the infrastructure which enables the act of health information exchange. HIE (the act) is supposedly the holy grail of Health Information Technology (HIT) and the enabler of “an EHR for every American by 2014”, which in turn, will bring about better health care at lower costs and, by leveling the playing field, will reduce disparities in care.
The Government, through ONC, has awarded over $547 million to various States to create regional HIE (organizations). The fledgling new State HIEs (the organizations) are busy screening and purchasing HIEs (the platforms) and defining the rules of their local HIE (the act). There are several HIE (platform) vendors, notably Medicity and Axolotl (recently acquired by Ingenix), but even Microsoft and IBM are trying to make inroads into this fairly new market. In a parallel process, ONC is busy defining national standards and regulations for HIE (the act).
There are two basic models for any information exchange and HIE (the act) is no different.
The Centralized Model – All information creators/editors/contributors push their content to a centralized repository, preferably in real time, and all users/readers pull the information on demand from said centralized repository. This is the infamous “database in the sky” which houses every American’s medical records. Conceptually, this is the simplest model to understand. The Government will buy enough hardware to set up clusters upon clusters of databases, define the exact data elements and documents to be stored, assign a national identifier to all of us (physicians too) and finally publish specifications for pushing and pulling data securely. Every EHR vendor and medical information supplier (such as labs and pharmacies) will build the necessary web services and integrate them in their technology and we will all live happily ever after. However, other than the obvious monumental technology challenges involved in maintaining such infrastructure, Americans tend to experience significant discomfort with the concept of Uncle Sam having unfettered access to so much personal information and the obvious privacy issues it raises.
“Track who is on a care team — and share info with the patient.”
That’s just one of the summary recommendations coming from expert testimony given in a recent public hearing on how to improve care coordination through the use of health information technology. The Meaningful Use workgroup and Quality Measures workgroups are now wrestling with how to translate this recommendation into meaningful use criteria for HITECH Stages 2 and 3.
Seems like a good idea — simple, straightforward — perhaps even obvious. The EHR (electronic health record) could be a great tool for keeping care team members in the loop and on the same page about a patient’s care.
But then I thought about this for a few minutes, and the complexities started dawning. This seemingly simple recommendation — “Track who is on a care team and share info with the patient” — is the proverbial can of worms.
Making clinical data liquid permeated a series of events I attended last week during Health Innovation Week in San Francisco. Monday and Tuesday found me at the HIE/REC conference. Wednesday was HealthCamp at Kaiser-Permanente’s Garfield Research Center (KP was extremely gracious in hosting this event and the opportunity to get a tour of the facilities prior to event kick-off was great). The week concluded with the annual and well-orchestrated Health 2.0 conference.
This first post will focus on the HIE/REC event as it was quite distinct from the other events: smaller audience, more staid, dominated by government officials and tied at the hip, for good and bad, to the existing healthcare system infrastructure.
The HIE/REC conference was an odd event with attendance hovering around 200 or so attendees. The event was focused almost entirely on what the States are doing with the federal funds coming their way to establish Regional Extension Centers (RECs) whose main objective is to get priority primary care physicians (PPCPs) to adopt and meaningfully use a certified EHR. Now, having been to this event and heard many of the State REC initiatives that are now underway via this program, sad to say that my original opinion has not changed. Rather than picking preferred EHRs and assisting with deployment, these RECs may be better off just helping to these PPCPs understand exactly what the HITECH Act is, what are their options, what questions to ask of a vendor or service provider and leave it to EHR consultants and vendors to take it from there.
Imagine that an innovative health plan – aware that half or more of health care cost is waste and that physician costs to obtain the identical outcome can vary by as much as eight fold – hopes to sweep market share by producing better quality health care for a dramatically lower cost. So it begins to evaluate its vast data stores. It’s goal is to identify the specialists, outpatient services and hospitals within each market that, for episodes of specific high-frequency or high value conditions, consistently produce the best outcomes at the lowest cost. Imagine that, because higher quality is typically produced at lower costs – there are generally fewer complications and lower incidences of revisiting treatment – the health plan will pay high performers more than low performers. Just as importantly, it will limit the network, steering more patients to high performers and away from low performers.
Suddenly, it will become very important for physicians and other providers to understand, in detail, how they compare to their peers within specialty, and how to provide the best care possible. And if they find the results aren’t so positive, they may want to figure out where their deficiencies lie, and how they can improve.
Now imagine that clinicians could easily view data about their patients and themselves.
Basic demographics: e.g. age, gender, length of time since last visit.
A problem list based on diagnoses within the past year.
A list of medications prescribed, including ordering physician, dates and fulfillment information.
A list of lab tests ordered, by physician and date.
A list of immunizations.
Suppose the clinician could review, revise or copy this information to create a lasting “patient profile,” saving it online and retrieving it for use at each subsequent visit as appropriate.
On April 27, 2004, President George Bush signed Executive Order 13335 establishing the position of the National Health Information Technology Coordinator. Six years, a recession, a change of administration, a couple of major legislations and a multitude of billions of dollars later, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONCHIT) is finally on the road to delivering on the original vision behind that executive order.
The stated mission of ONCHIT, as reiterated in the HITECH Act, was the creation of a nationwide interoperable health information technology infrastructure that makes pertinent information available at the point of care, improves health care quality and coordination, reduces health care costs and disparities and does all that while protecting privacy and security.
While the 2004 executive order did not go into much operational detail, the HITECH Act provided instruction on the structure and strategy for building the HIT infrastructure. It is interesting to note that the HITECH Act is comprised of two Titles; Title XIII in Division A which outlines the activities expected from ONCHIT and Title IV in Division B which creates the Medicare & Medicaid stimulus incentives to eligible providers. The notorious “Meaningful Use” term appears only in Title IV and only as a prerequisite for stimulus incentives from CMS and is loosely defined by certified technology, electronic prescribing, information exchange and reporting on clinical quality measures.
Additional guidance is provided on the selection of clinical quality measures to be in accordance with Section 1890(a) of the Social Security Act, which awards CMS $10 million every year for contracting development of such measures. Meaningful Use seems a rather benign litmus test for CMS to administer prior to dispersing any stimulus incentives. So why is it that “Meaningful Use” became the defining substance of the ONCHIT mission?
Yesterday, HHS’s ONC announced the final two Regional Extension Centers (RECs), one in California and the other for the state of New Hampshire. Much like the Land Grant College Program and the much smaller Sea Grant Program, the HHS RECs have been established to assist in the appropriate adoption and use of technology, in this case EHRs. Since the passage of the HITECH Act, there has been concern that harried physicians in small practices will struggle to take advantage of the HITECH Act and the incentives therein for the adoption and meaningful use of certified EHRs. (Geez that’s a mouthful). State RECs, staffed with IT specialists will be charged with venturing forth into the countryside and cities to help physicians adopt those EHRs and get those HITECH incentive payments.
Chilmark has some very strong reservations about the success of the REC program. Well, we’ll go even farther to say that it is destined to go over the proverbial bridge, plunging into the abyss of failed federal/state programs.