Almost 20 years ago close to 4,000 people from 200 companies gathered in San Diego for a conference to discuss the future of health-care information technology. This was before the Web. This was back when computers in physicians’ offices, to the extent they were present at all, were used only for scheduling and billing patients. Paper charts bulged out of huge filing cabinets.
It was one of the first big conferences held by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). I was among a grab bag of physicians, technologists, visionaries, engineers and entrepreneurs who shared one idealistic goal: to use information systems and technology to fundamentally change health care.
We didn’t just want to upgrade those old systems. We imagined a future that looked a lot like what we were being promised throughout the economy as it sped into the Internet era. Computers would enable improvements in the practice of medicine—and make it safer, higher quality, more affordable and more efficient—all at the same time. We wanted people to be healthier.
Last week, five health IT vendors came together to announce the CommonWell Health Alliance, a nonprofit focused on developing a national secure network and standards that will:
- Unambiguously identify patients
- Provide a national, secure record locator service. For treatment purposes, providers can know where a patient’s records are located.
- Enable peer-to-peer sharing of patient records requested via a targeted (or directed) query
- Enable patients and consumers to withhold consent / authorization for participation in the network
Unambiguous patient identity matters
In banking, without certainty about identity, ATM machines would not give out cash. And in healthcare without certainty about identity, physicians are working with one hand tied behind their backs.
This problem will never be solved by the Feds. In fact, Congress has restricted any spending on it by the government at all. Industry working together may be the only practical alternative.
The big news at HIMSS13 was the unveiling of CommonWell (Cerner, McKesson, Allscripts, athenahealth, Greenway and RelayHealth) to “get the ball rolling” on data exchange across disparate technologies. The shame is that another program with opaque governance by the largest incumbents in health IT is being passed off as progress. The missed opportunity is to answer the call for patient engagement and the frustrations of physicians with EHRs and reverse the institutional control over the physician-patient relationship. Physicians take an oath to put their patient’s interest above all others while in reality we are manipulated to participate in massive amounts of unwarranted care.
There’s a link between healthcare costs and health IT. The past months have seen frustration with this manipulation by industry hit the public media like never before. Early this year, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Farzad Mostashari, MD, called for “moral and right” action on the part of some EHR vendors, particularly when it comes to data lock-in and pricing transparency. On February 19, a front page article in the New York Times exposed the tactics of some of the founding members of CommonWell in grabbing much of the $19 Billion of health IT incentives while consolidating the industry and locking out startups and innovators. That same week, Time magazine’s cover story is a special report on health care costs and analyzes how the US wastes $750 Billion a year and what that means to patients. To round things out, the March issue of Health Affairs, published a survey showing that “the average physician would lose $43,743 over five years” as a result of EHR adoption while the financial benefits go to the vendors and the larger institutions.
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.
As we’ve seen before, the problem is with the business model.
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.
What a week last week! First the disgraced cyclist confession and later the baffling college-football-player-and-his nonexistent-(dead)-girlfriend story, with the RAND report sandwiched somewhere in between. It’s positively a scandal-palooza.
What’s that? You don’t feel like the recent RAND report, which basically says that a 2005 RAND study financed by GE and Cerner was wildly optimistic in predicting about $81 billion in potential health care cost savings through widespread adoption of electronic health records, qualifies as a genuine hoax, controversy, scandal?
But it does neatly frame what is arguably a unique characteristic of the healthcare industry—a trait that extends to peripheral industries as well. Basically, healthcare is an interconnected environment. Call it the systems theory of healthcare, co-dependency … or just regular dependency. Call it what you want, but there is an interconnectedness in healthcare that we ignore at the expense of national wellness.
Witness key data points provided by the RAND report:
- Modern health IT systems are not interconnected and interoperable, functioning “less as ‘ATM cards,’ allowing a patient or provider to access needed health information anywhere at any time, than as ‘frequent flier cards’ intended to enforce brand loyalty…”
- Neither are they widely adopted, with an estimated 27 percent of hospitals utilizing a basic electronic record. Without broad adoption, interoperability is far less relevant.
- Improvements in quality of care / patient safety and reductions in healthcare costs (which have grown by $800 billion since 2005) are not manifesting with EHR adoption, in part because hospitals and clinics are rushing to adopt mediocre solutions and garner federal funds.
- The provision of care is the same as it ever was, even though EHRs are frequently promoted as the optimal tool for a different kind of care.
The reasons for these disappointing stats are readily apparent and unalterably interconnected.
Somewhere between the 20th century Bank ATM and the 25th century Tricorder, lays the EMR that we should have today.
Somewhere between the government-designed Meaningful Use EMR and the Holographic doctor in Star Trek, there should be a long stretch of disposable trial-and-error cycles of technology, changing and morphing from good to better to magical. For this to happen, we must release the EMR from its balls and chains. We must release the EMR from its life sentence in the salt mines of reimbursement, and understand that EMRs cannot, and will not, and should not, be held responsible for fixing the financial and physical health of the entire nation. In other words, lighten up folks …
A patient’s medical record contains all sorts of things, most of which diminish in importance as time goes by. Roughly speaking, a medical record contains quantifiable data (numbers), Boolean data (positive/negative), images (sometimes), and lots of plain, and not so plain, English (in the US).
The proliferation of prose and medical abbreviations in the medical record has been attacked a very long time ago by the World Health Organization (WHO), which gave us the International Classification of Disease (fondly known as ICD), attaching a code to each disease. With roots in the 19th century and with explicit rationale of facilitating international statistical research and public health, the codification of disease introduced the concept that caring for an individual patient should also be viewed as a global learning experience for humanity at large. Medicine was always a personal service, but medicine was also a science, and as long as those growing the science were not far removed from those delivering the service, both could symbiotically coexist.
Today, an intensive care unit patient room contains anywhere from 50 to 100 pieces of medical equipment made by dozens of manufacturers, and these products rarely, if ever, talk to one another. This means that clinicians must painstakingly review and piece together information from individual devices—for instance, to make a diagnosis of sepsis or to recognize that a patient’s condition is plummeting. Such a system leaves too much room for error and requires clinicians to be heroes, rising above the flawed environment that they work in. We need a heath care system that partners with patients, their families and others to eliminate all harms, optimize patient outcomes and experience and reduce waste. Technology must enable clinicians to help achieve those goals. Technology could do so much more if it focused on achieving these goals and worked backwards from there.
This week marks a step that holds tremendous promise for patients and clinicians. On Monday the Masimo Foundation hosted the Patient Safety Science & Technology Summit in Laguna Niguel, California, an inaugural event to convene hospital administrators, medical technology companies, patient advocates and clinicians to identify solutions to some of today’s most pressing patient safety issues. In response to a call made by keynote speaker former President Bill Clinton, the leaders of nine leading medical device companies pledged to open their systems and share their data.
Lack of interoperability between medical devices plays no small role in the 200,000 American deaths caused by preventable patient harm each year, such as in the case of 11-year-old Leah Coufal. After undergoing elective surgery, Leah received narcotics intended to ease her pain.
When Leah received too much medication, it suppressed her breathing, eventually causing it to stop altogether. Had she been monitored, a device could have alerted clinicians when Leah’s breathing slowed to a dangerous level.
But as we know, clinicians are busy and unfortunately don’t always respond to alarms from bedside machines. If a machine measuring her breathing had been linked with the device delivering her medication, it could have automatically stopped the drugs from infusing into her blue, oxygen-deprived veins.
All of this is possible today; technology is not a barrier. Until now, the only thing that’s stood in the way is a lack of leadership and a lack of willingness for device manufacturers to cooperate.
Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Let’s just start from the beginning. Tom, can you please give us an introduction about yourself and your background?
Thomas Tsang: I’m a general internist by training. I practiced internal medicine in New York City, first at a small community hospital where I predominantly worked with residents and medical students and mostly taught principles of outpatient medicine, ambulatory care and interviewing techniques.
Then I was recruited by the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. That’s when I got to use some of the public health knowledge that I had acquired: I worked on various public health initiatives for the community in New York City. The health center itself served a predominantly Asian population. It had four sites and one of the things that I did in the beginning was implement an electronic health record. That work led to my involvement with the Board of Health of New York City, which, in turn led to my work in Congress.
I was then selected for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/IOM Health Policy Fellowship on the Committee on Ways and Means-Subcommittee on Health and worked on some of the policies that led to the creation of ACO’s, i.e., Value-Based Purchasing, Pay for Performance and so on. I was fortunate enough to actually help implement some of the policies that I worked on! It’s a long answer to your question, but that’s the route I took.
Mohammad: It’s perfect. It’s really interesting to learn. Among the many things under your belt, it sounds like you have a successful electronic health record deployment, which is good–so well done! Tell me and our readers a bit about Accountable Care Organizations. What is an ACO and what is the point of it?
Thomas: The ACO is not a very new concept. It was a term that was coined by Elliott Fisher from Dartmouth Medical School, who is the director of Center for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. I hate to use the word HMO, but in a way, it’s almost like an HMO. It’s not really an HMO because it is actually a provider-led organization, not an insurance-led one.
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:
Today I’m speaking at the ONC annual meeting as part of panel discussing interoperability.
For years, patients, providers and payers have complained that EHRs “do not talk to each other.”
By 2014, I expect this issue to disappear.
Do I expect that every state and territory will have a robust, sustainable healthcare information exchange by 2014? No
Do I expect that every provider will be connected to a Nationwide Health Information Network by 2014? No
Do I expect that a single vendor will create a centrally hosted method to share data by 2014 just as Sabre did for the airline industry in the 1960’s? No
What I expect is that Meaningful Use Stage 2 will provide the technology, policy, and incentives to make interoperability real.
Stage 2 requires that providers demonstrate, in production, the exchange of clinical care summaries for 10% of their patient encounters during the reporting period. The application and infrastructure investment necessary to support 10% is not much different than 100%. The 10% requirement will bring most professionals and hospitals to the tipping point where information exchange will be implemented at scale, rapidly accelerating data liquidity.