At the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, Mr. Andrew Slavitt, acting administrator at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS),announced on January 11th that “The meaningful use program as it has existed will now effectively be over, and replaced with something better”, and later clarified onTwitter that “In 2016, MU as it has existed– with MACRA– will now be effectively over and replaced with something better”. Meaningful Use is dead. Just like that. No apologies. No nothing. As someone who’s been lamenting the havoc wreaked by the program on both doctors and patients, I should be elated nevertheless. Well, I am not.
Let’s start with appearances. The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is the “largest and most informative healthcare investment symposium in the industry which brings together global industry leaders, emerging fast-growth companies, innovative technology creators, globally minded service providers, and members of the investment community”. In other words the event is all about money for the millionaire and billionaire class. J.P. Morgan Chase itself is the largest financial institution in the country. It is the embodiment of Wall Street and its death grip on our collective neck. Was this conference really the best place to make such momentous announcement?
Besides, why would these extractors of wealth be interested in the fate of something as obscure as Meaningful Use? Shouldn’t they discuss more lucrative schemes, such as running all possible blood tests on one tiny blood droplet, or how the makers of Microsoft Office and the largest online retailer of everything are going to jointly solve for cancer? Shouldn’t they be analyzing trillion dollar addressable markets of genomic rainbows, and how mergers, acquisitions and inversions can help squeeze whatever is left in the turnips that are you and me?
Of course they should, and they did all that and much more. But changes to the Meaningful Use program are of strategic importance to all other rainbows, grails and unicorns. Why? Because Meaningful Use, other than funneling a respectable amount of billions of dollars into the health tech sector, is the enabler of data collection which fuels all other investment opportunities.
Every time someone publishes an article or a paper or a blog post that has anything remotely to do with Electronic Health Records (EHR), there is usually a flurry of reactions in the comments section, now available in most publications, and these always include at least half a dozen anonymous statements, usually from clinicians, decrying the current state of EHR software, best summed up by a commenter on THCB: “It is the user interface stupid!… It has to be designed from the ground up to be an integral part of the patient care experience”. Can’t argue with that now, can you? Particularly when coming from a practicing physician.
And why argue at all? The user interface in any software product is the easiest thing to get right. All you need to do is apply some basic principles and tweak them based on talking to users, listening and observing them in their “natural habitat”. Having done exactly that, for an inordinate amount of time, and being aware that most EHR vendors were engaging in similar efforts, I found the growing discontent with EHR user interfaces somewhat inexplicable. The common wisdom in EHR vendor circles is that doctors are unique in how they work and whenever you have two doctors in a room, there are at least three different preferences in how the EHR should present itself. As a result, you will find that most mature EHRs have dozens of different ways of accomplishing the same thing. These are called “user preferences” and are as confusing as anything you’ve ever seen. Hence the notion that if you spend enough time configuring and customizing your EHR upfront, you will increase your chances of having a less traumatic EHR experience down the road. We were an industry like no other, doomed to build software for users with no common denominator, or so I came to believe, until one afternoon in the summer of 2006…..
When the hypothetical naked, unconscious and alone patient presents at your ER with no immediately evident reasons for his distress and presumably holding his driver license between his clenched teeth, would you find it helpful if you could see a nicely typed, or hand written, list of diagnoses and current medications for this hapless person?
When a family moves across the country and brings in their eight year old for her first visit with the new pediatrician, would it be helpful to see a slightly fuzzy image of her immunizations list from back home?
When an elderly patient you’ve been seeing for umpteen years is shipped to the hospital in the middle of the night, would it be helpful to find the admission record in your to-do list for today?
Perhaps these things would be nice to have, but EHRs can’t talk to each other, so before any of these miracles can occur we must make EHRs communicate.
How do we make EHRs talk to each other? That’s simple: we look at how people talk to each other, and apply the same principles to EHRs. Thus, EHRs have to share the same language, use the same syntax, know when to speak and when to listen, and when not in physical proximity, use a variety of paraphernalia to carry voice over large stretches of land and sea. And since EHRs are really computers and this is after all the 21st century, we have the blueprint for a solution in our hands, because any computer in Papua New Guinea can talk to any computer in Boonville, Missouri. How? By using the magic of the Internet.Continue reading…
According to the latest count, there are 255 Health Information Exchange (HIE) organizations across the country, which amounts to an average of 5 in each State. If you are a practicing physician and have an EHR, chances are someone already knocked on your door offering to connect your practice to the local HIE for a small fee. If you don’t have an EHR, you may have had offers to access an HIE web portal, or maybe an HIE supplied EHR Lite, allowing you to at the very least view clinical data from other sources. Perhaps for free. If you are the proud owner of one of the full-featured EHRs, you may wonder what an HIE can do for you that your EHR is not already doing, and whether that service is worth your hard earned money.
In theory, a top-shelf EHR should be able to connect your practice to multiple facilities and allow you to exchange information to the best of all participants’ abilities. Granted most EHRs are still working on some of the connections, particularly to local facilities, but all in all, an EHR should be able to eventually provide for all your connectivity needs as shown in Figure 1. Note that for some types of connections, your EHR vendor can use a clearinghouse or portal approach to simplify and reduce costs of connectivity. For example, you don’t need a separate interface for each pharmacy – you use Surescripts as the clearinghouse and let them worry about it. You also don’t need an individual connection to each patient’s home – you communicate with all of them through one portal. With the exception of Surescripts pharmacy connectivity and a small number of reference labs, each connection, or interface, is costing you a pretty penny, and the more local the connection, the longer it takes to build.
The post you are about to read may not be suitable for wonks. Its claims are not fact checked. Its author is not a researcher. And its opinions are not fully thought through. Reader discretion is advised.*
EHR adoption rates are picking up significantly, exceeding the most optimistic expectations. Instead of an EHR for every American by 2014, as the President commanded, we will have dozens of EHRs for each American long before that. And in health care, more is always better, not to mention the freedom of choice that comes with having a different EHR in each care setting. Not surprisingly, we are seeing a decrease in health care expenditures taking place in parallel with the uptick in EHR adoption. Following best practices in health care economics research, when two phenomena develop in parallel, the learned assumption is that there is a causality connection between the two. Deciding which phenomenon is the cause and which is the effect is discretionary and commonly based on undisclosed agendas.
It is therefore postulated here that health care expenditures are inversely proportional to EHR usage rates. The following is a rigorous analysis of the mechanisms by which EHRs are reducing health care costs, intended to inform policy makers as customary in most health care related studies, which cannot be completed, or published, without a salient recommendation of interest to policy makers.
There are currently 386 software packages certified by an ONC approved certification body as ambulatory Complete EHRs, which means that the software should allow the user to fulfill all Meaningful Use requirements and possibly qualify the proud owner for all sorts of CMS incentives. There are 204 more software packages which are certified as ambulatory EHR Modules, and a proper combination of these packages could result in a Complete product, which if used appropriately could lead to the same fortuitous results.
There are 423 distinct manufacturers of ambulatory EHRs and EHR modules on the federal list. Most are software vendors, or wannabe software vendors, but a fair amount are facilities that developed an EHR for in-house use and had it certified. These are not really available for purchase. A very large number of listed vendors offer niche products for distinct specialties, such as optometry, oncology, behavioral health, etc. All that said, there is still an inordinate number of EHR “choices”, or so the story goes. By comparison, since we all love car analogies, there are 1,310 individual trims currently sold in the U.S., and around50 car manufacturers overall. If you ask an average citizen on the street to name their top 10 cars, chances are that you will get a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, a Caddie, maybe a Ford truck, a Beemer, a Porsche and perhaps even a Beetle. You are not likely to hear anything about a Tesla or a Coda and rarely will anybody mention a Scion. Automotive modules are not widely sold for home assembly, so there is no parallel lesson there. One way or another, we manage to find our way when it comes to automobiles.
Remember the fear mongering rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction and all sorts of other bogey men that sometimes led to war death and true destruction and other times to just animosity, hatred and counterproductive waste of time and resources?
This is exactly what we are witnessing today in Health Information Technology (HIT). Granted this is only a sideshow, while the main stage is occupied by the unprecedented Federal push to computerize medicine, but it has a very shrill voice and it seems to be confusing many good people. There are many legitimate questions that need to be asked, many strategies that should be debated, many errors that must be corrected, but the unsubstantiated, dogmatic and repetitive accusations directed towards HIT in general, EHR in particular, and chiefly at technology vendors and their employees, are borderline pathological in nature.
To be clear here, there are many practicing physicians and nurses who are either forced by an employer to use an EHR they dislike, have tried to use an EHR and didn’t enjoy the experience, or are opposed to the EHR concept on principle because the software has no return on investment in their situation, is not “ready for prime time” or is too closely aligned with the goals of the Federal government. These are all valid points of view and should be listened to and considered by policy makers as well as technology builders, and I have to confess that I do agree with much of what these practicing folks write and say, and as I said many times in the past, practicing physicians, i.e. those who see patients every day, are dangerously underrepresented in all HIT policy and technology decisions being made now at a federal level. Unfortunately, the practicing doctors’ message is being obscured and tainted by the “naysayers who predictably and monotonically chant the “HIT is evil” mantra at every opportunity” (quoting the famed HIT blogger, Mr. Histalk). These “self-proclaimed experts” and their incendiary and largely self-serving monologues are making it very easy to dismiss legitimate problems present in HIT policy and technology.Continue reading…
Meaningful Use has hit a speed bump. It’s of the low, wide and gentle type, not the old raggedy, narrow and mean bump you find in older parking lots. Now that a tentative proposal for Meaningful Use Stage 2 has been published by ONC, and duly commented upon by the public, it just dawned on folks that there isn’t enough lead time between Stage 1 and Stage 2 to allow for an orderly transition, and here is the problem in a nutshell.
Meaningful Use is divided into three, increasingly more demanding, stages, starting in 2011 with Stage 1 and advancing every two years to a higher Stage. So 2013 marks the beginning of Stage2 and 2015 is the start of Stage 3. It seems that ONC and CMS need about a year and a half to define each Stage from start to finish, so if they start working on Stage 2 right after Stage 1 commences, there are only 6 months left for NIST to define certification criteria, EHR vendors to update their wares and certify them, and physician and hospitals to roll the new and improved products out. Oops……
The hand wringing in “industry experts’” circles began immediately after this realization, culminating with an Advisory Board publication advising hospitals in particular to not apply for Meaningful Use incentives in 2011, but instead wait for 2012, which they can do without penalty, and the same advice is applied to ambulatory practices owned by hospitals. They did not recommend anything for physicians in private practice. Continue reading…