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The Strategic Challenge Of Electronic Health Records


December 16th, 2014

Despite a 2005 prediction that electronic health records (EHRs) would save $81 billion, RAND Corporation just validated clinicians’ complaints in a report describing EHRs as “a unique and vexing challenge to physician professional satisfaction.” The American Medical Association also published EHR “usability priorities” – strong evidence that current EHRs don’t support doctors in practicing medicine.

In a world of Apple-typified simplicity, why is it so hard to get the right EHR? Because, unlike Apple, EHR designers haven’t started with the question of how value can be created for users of the technology. Technology isn’t the problem. The challenge is in articulating clinicians’ information needs and meeting them by making the right tradeoffs between corporate and business unit strategies.

EHRs can, and should, provide relevant information when and where clinicians need it, recognizing that care is not a commodity and that different care processes have different information needs. User interfaces must anticipate clinicians’ needs rather than require individual user design. EHRs need to eliminate low-information pop-ups and alarms and instead provide alerts and reminders that are both timely and relevant. They must be designed with assiduous attention to data entry requirements, replacing blind mandates with thoughtful assignment of the task and the timing.

In this post I look at how rethinking the design of EHRs can better balance the different strategic needs within care delivery organizations.

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From The National Coordinator For Health IT: The Federal Strategy For Collecting, Sharing, And Using Electronic Health Information


December 8th, 2014

Making our nation’s health and wellness infrastructure interoperable is a top priority for the Administration, and government plays a vital role in advancing this effort. Federal agencies are purchasers, regulators, and users of health information technology (health IT), as they set policy and insure, pay for care, or provide direct patient care for millions of Americans. They also contribute toward protecting and promoting community health, fund health and human services, invest in infrastructure, as well as develop and implement policies and regulations to advance science and support research.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has a responsibility to coordinate across the federal partners to achieve a shared set of priorities and approach to health IT.  To that end, today we released the draft Federal Health IT Strategic Plan 2015-2020, and we are seeking feedback on the federal health IT strategy.  This Strategic Plan represents the collective priorities of federal agencies for modernizing our health ecosystem; however, we need your input. We will accept public comment through February 6, 2015. Please offer your insights on how we can improve our strategy and ensure that it reflects our nation’s most important needs.

A collection of 35-plus federal departments and agencies collaborated to develop the draft Federal Health IT Strategic Plan: 2015-2020, identifying key federal health IT priorities for the next six years (Exhibit 1). The landscape has dramatically changed since the last federal health IT strategyWhen we released that Plan, the HITECH Act implementation was in its infancy. Since then, there has been remarkable growth in health IT adoption. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act implementation has begun to shift care delivery and reimbursement from fee-for-service to value-based care.

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Transforming Rural Health Care: High-Quality, Sustainable Access To Specialty Care


December 5th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is also authored by Kate Samuels, a project manager at Brookings. It is informed by a case study, the fourth  in a series made possible through the Merkin Initiative on Physician Payment Reform and Clinical Leadership, a special project to develop clinician leadership in health care delivery and financing reform. The case study will be presented on Monday, December 8 using a “MEDTalk” format featuring live story-telling and knowledge-sharing from patients, providers, and policymakers.

Health care for patients in rural communities across the United States remains a unique challenge.  Despite many programs aimed at improving access to physicians and hospitals, access to health care providers remains limited.  While 19.3 percent of Americans live in a rural area, only about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural areas.  Similarly, 65 percent of all Health Professional Shortage Areas are in rural areas.  Rural residents often face long travel distances to see a specialist after what can be months waiting for an appointment.

Even in areas where rural primary care providers (PCPs) remain committed and engaged in the community, often having been raised and educated there, these providers often lack close connections to specialists who tend to be based in larger, urban academic medical centers (AMC).  The result is a worsening gap in specialty care access, in turn leading to a deteriorative effect on rural provider morale and retention.

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Using Mobile Technology To Overcome Jurisdictional Challenges To A Coordinated Immunization Policy


November 14th, 2014

On March 20, 2014, the Government of Canada and the federal Minister of Health announced the release of ImmunizeCanada (ImmunizeCA), a smart phone application (app) designed to both provide accurate information on immunization for Canadians and allow them to track their and their family members’ immunizations. Based on a prototype developed for parents in Ontario and in partnership with the Canadian Public Health Association, our development team received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to build a national immunization app. Our task was to build an Apple- and Android-compatible app, containing all 13 provincial/territorial schedules and vaccine information from each jurisdiction in both Canadian official languages (French and English).

The application uses demographic information entered by the user and the most recent recommended provincial vaccination schedule to create a custom profile for multiple family members. It allows parents to track and carry their children’s immunizations records on their mobile device. The application also permits the creation of adult-specific schedules and includes information on travel vaccines. It is also possible to sync the app with your smartphone calendar, generate appointment reminders, print or share an immunization record by email, and access answers to common questions.

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ONC’s 10-Year Roadmap Towards Interoperability Requires Changes To The Meaningful Use Program


November 3rd, 2014

When I first started using an electronic health record (EHR) almost 20 years ago, many policy makers misunderstood how EHRs worked. They assumed that care was somehow made better just by having an EHR, and thus began to build the case for policy aimed at supporting EHR adoption. Fortunately as the HITECH Act of 2009 makes clear, a maturation of thinking has occurred; it is not the mere presence of technology, but good technology used in meaningful ways that can improve care.

Magical thinking about EHRs has disappeared, but a similar irrational belief has taken its place– this time around the concept of interoperability, the ability of systems to communicate with each other. Today there are two widely held concerns about the current state of interoperability. The first concern is that the Meaningful Use program, the federal EHR incentive program created by the HITECH Act, was doomed from the outset because it did not begin with the requirement that EHRs be capable of communicating with each other.

The other is that while it was acceptable not to have required full interoperability at the outset; now it is the single most important task at hand. By this account, interoperability must be put on a fast track, because the American people will be unlikely to reap any benefits from health information technology without it. I strongly disagree with both of these positions.

First, if the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) had conditioned the start of Stage 1 of Meaningful Use on full interoperability of EHRs, I believe that the already slow rate of EHR adoption would grind to a halt. Vendor development and purchase decisions would go on indefinite hold awaiting final interoperability specifications. But by moving forward with the status quo of partial interoperability, most providers, nurses, clinical, and nonclinical staff now have at least basic if not reasonably good health IT functionality and literacy. For example, the majority of prescriptions for non-controlled substances are now sent electronically — not a complete remedy for medication errors, but an important move away from those errors due to illegible handwriting. And more importantly, many tens of millions of patients have received (many for the first time) summaries of their health care visits and hospitalizations that provide a list of their active problems, medications, and medical allergies, not to mention written instructions.

Secondly, many providers and provider systems have gone ahead, even where interoperability is limited to laboratory data, with quality improvement programs that leverage their EHRs for analytics, point-of-care decision support, and patient education and engagement tools. As an example, in 2012 the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, together with the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association launched Million Hearts® – a program of education, screening, and treatment – with an end point of preventing one million new heart attacks and strokes over 5 years.

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Learning From Missed Opportunities To Diagnose US Ebola Patient Zero


October 30th, 2014

Over a century ago American physician Richard Cabot wrote about misdiagnoses, recognizing: “A goodly number of ‘classic’ time-honored mistakes in diagnosis are familiar to all experienced physicians because we make them again and again. Some of these we can avoid; others are almost inevitable, but all should be borne in mind and marked on medical maps by a danger-signal of some kind: ‘In this vicinity look out for hidden rocks,’ or ‘Dangerous turn here, run slow.’”

Ironically, despite the dramatic changes in the nature of medical practice over the last 100 years, Cabot’s words ring more true than ever today. This has become especially clear in the last few weeks since Ebola first touched US shores, uncovering one of the biggest ongoing vulnerabilities of outpatient medicine – misdiagnosis.

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Ebola And EHRs: An Unfortunate And Critical Reminder


October 28th, 2014

The Dallas hospital communication lapse that led to the discharge of a Liberian man with Ebola symptoms is an example of the failure of American health care system to effectively share health information, even within single institutions. It is not possible to know whether a faster response would have saved Thomas Eric Duncan’s life or reduced risk to the community and health workers.

What is clear is that rapid sharing of information is one of the elements critical to halting the spread of Ebola. Had all members of the initial care team known of the patient’s recent arrival from an Ebola-stricken country and acted appropriately to quarantine Mr. Duncan, this would have limited the chance of exposing the public and enabled faster preventive protocols for treating personnel.

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Implementing Health Reform: The Qualified Health Plan Federal Exchange Participation Agreement And More


October 21st, 2014

CMS continues to put the pieces into place that are needed for the launch of the 2015 coverage year.  On October 16, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released at its REGTAP.info website the certification agreement and privacy and security agreement that qualified health plan (QHP) insurers must sign with CMS to access the federally facilitated exchange (FFE), the federally facilitated SHOP (FF-SHOP), and CMS Data Services Hub.  The agreement focuses primarily on obligations that the QHP insurer undertakes to protect personally identifiable information and to ensure secure communications with CMS, although it also addresses the effective date and termination of the agreement and a few other issues.  Most of the terms of the agreement are unremarkable, and this post will only comment on a few.

QHP insurers undertake under the agreement to protect personally identifiable information and to ensure secure communications with CMS in conformity with applicable laws, regulations, and standards.  They must also ensure that their contractors and downstream entities comply with these requirements.  QHP insurers agree to report any personally identifiable information incidents or breaches to CMS within 72 to 96 hours.  This is a far cry from the one-hour breach reporting requirement proposed by CMS last year but never finalized, but perhaps recognizes the difficult of identifying and assessing a security breach.

The agreement expressly recognizes that QHP insurers have developed their products based on the assumption that advance premium tax credits and cost-sharing reduction payments will be available through the marketplace and that QHP insurers could have cause to terminate the agreement if this assumption ceases to be valid.  This could be interpreted as a reference to the Halbig/King litigation which currently threatens the availability of tax credits and cost-sharing reduction payments through the FFE, but could also have been included in recognition of the likely Republican takeover of the Senate and the possibility that the Republicans may accomplish through budget reconciliation or otherwise their longstanding goal of repealing the ACA.  As the agreement is renewable from year to year, this clause may contemplate contingencies in the indefinite as well as the near future

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An Interview With George Halvorson: The Kaiser Permanente Renaissance, And Health Reform’s Unfinished Business


September 30th, 2014

For decades, health policymakers considered Kaiser Permanente the lode star of delivery system reform.  Yet by the end of 1999, the nation’s oldest and largest group model HMO had experienced almost three years of significant operating losses, the first in the plan’s history. It was struggling to implement a functional electronic health record, and had a reputation for inconsistent customer service.  But most seriously, it faced deep divisions between management and the leadership of its powerful Permanente Federation, which represents Kaiser’s more than 17,000 physicians, over both strategic direction and operations of the plan.

Against this backdrop, Kaiser surprised the health plan community by announcing in March 2002 the selection of a non-physician, George Halvorson, as its new CEO.  Halvorson had spent most of his career in the Twin Cities, most recently as CEO of HealthPartners, a successful mixed model health plan.  Halvorson’s reputation was as a product innovator; he not only developed a prototype of the consumer-directed health plan in the mid-1990’s, but also population health improvement objectives for its membership, both firsts in the industry.

During his twelve year tenure as CEO, Halvorson not only guided the plan to solid profitability, but added a million members in California, its largest market, despite a devastating recession and a national retreat of commercial HMO membership.  He invested over $6 billion in computerized patient care systems and population health management infrastructure, healed the breach with Kaiser’s physicians, and markedly increased its consumer satisfaction scores, earning 5 STAR ratings under Medicare Advantage.  He left the organization at the end of 2013 with more than $53 billion in revenues and more than $19 billion in reserves and investments.

This interview covers Halvorson’s time at Kaiser, his views of health reform, including the unfinished reform agenda, and his public health activism.  It was conducted by Jeff Goldsmith, a veteran health industry analyst, and Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia.  Jeff is a member of the editorial board of Health Affairs.

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It’s Hard To Be Neutral About Network Neutrality For Health


August 18th, 2014

Network Neutrality (NN) has been in the news because the FCC is considering two options related to a neutral Internet: Either regulation forcing NN, or an approach that creates a “fast lane” on the Internet for those content providers that are willing to pay extra for it.

Network Neutrality reflects a vision of a network in which users are able to exchange and consume data, as they choose, without the interference of the organization providing the network basic data transport services. The second option, preferential service, entertains the possibility that the Internet could become what the National Journal describes as “a dystopia run by the world’s biggest, richest companies.”

However, the problem of network neutrality is more complex. Full network neutrality could also lead to a tragedy of the commons in which application developers compete for the use of “free” bandwidth for services to win customers while clogging networks and lowering performance for all. Key stakeholders providing basic transport Internet service such as Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T, and large Internet savvy content providers like Google have a clear understanding of the debate and what they stand to gain or lose from network neutrality.

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New Health Policy Brief: Interoperability


August 13th, 2014

A new Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) looks at the issue of health information exchange. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was signed into law at the very beginning of the Obama administration, bringing with it significant investments in health information technology (IT)—$26 billion to date.

While the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) has increased considerably since 2009, there is very little electronic information sharing among clinicians, hospitals, and other providers. New models of care delivery, designed to improve quality and reduce costs, require both interoperable EHRs and electronic information sharing to be effective. This Health Policy Brief looks at the efforts the federal government has made to improve interoperability and increase the level of electronic information sharing, as well as the barriers to achieving these goals.

Topics covered in this brief include:

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Health Affairs Web Firsts: Two Studies Find Mixed Results On EHR Adoption


August 11th, 2014

Since the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was enacted in 2009, Health Affairs has published many articles about the promise of health information technology and the challenges of promoting broad adoption and “meaningful use.”

Last week, on August 7, the journal released two new Web First studies, “More Than Half Of US Hospitals Have At Least A Basic EHR, But Stage 2 Criteria Remain Challenging For Most” and “Despite Substantial Progress In EHR Adoption, Health Information Exchange And Patient Engagement Remain Low In Office Settings.” These studies focus on the latest trends in health information technology adoption among U.S. physicians and hospitals. Both studies, which will also appear in the September issue of Health Affairs, show that while basic electronic health record (EHR) adoption plans have moved forward, more significant implementation remains a daunting challenge for many providers and institutions

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Accountable Care Organizations


August 5th, 2014

“The accountable care organization is like a unicorn, a fantastic creature that is vested with mythical powers. But no one has actually seen one,” said former California HealthCare Foundation CEO, Mark Smith, MD, in 2010. Over the last four years, we’ve certainly seen a proliferation of unicorns and we’re now reaching the point where fantasy—at least in a handful of cases—is becoming a reality.

A growing number of large employers are piloting accountable care organizations (ACOs), working through their health plan; in some cases they are doing so directly with provider systems, such as the new Boeing arrangement with Providence Health and Services, Swedish Health Services, and University of Washington Medicine and Intel’s contracting efforts in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. The large employers and other health care purchasers with whom we work — eager, if not desperate, for solutions to contain the costs of health care and improve its quality — are watching these first movers carefully to see if ACOs prove to be a viable strategy for improving population health and bending the cost trend.

These leading purchasers intend to set the bar high. They cannot make the investment to pursue these ACO relationships if they are not assured that their populations will see meaningful, measurable gains in their health care and its affordability, as well as their health. That often means contractual commitments to lowering total costs of care and showing improved patient outcomes for targeted populations — like high risk, medically complex patients. Our purchaser colleagues who have been among the early adopters of ACO arrangements have begun to identify the features critical to successful ACOs; these are the elements other purchasers will look for when deciding if it’s worth proceeding.

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Exhibit Of The Month: A Big Data Understanding Of Health Care Trends


July 30th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing “Exhibit of the Month” series. Readers who’d like to highlight other noteworthy exhibits from the same issue are encouraged to make their pitch in the comments section below.

This month we look at two exhibits from “Four Health Data Networks Illustrate The Potential For A Shared National Multipurpose Big-Data Network,” published in the July issue of Health Affairs.

These exhibits demonstrate how the effects of expanding health data availability and processing have the potential to dramatically alter our understanding of trends in the health care environment.

Emerging programs, such as the Food and Drug Administration’s Mini-Sentinel presented here, collect data from disparate and otherwise uncoordinated sources, which can also be made available for research purposes. Programs such as Mini-Sentinel are able to layer data, in this case from health care provider data from a single period, but collected over time:

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Shifting Motivations: Rethinking Primary Care Physician Incentives In Health IT Implementation


July 21st, 2014

Clinician adoption and implementation of health information technology (IT) has increased significantly since the passage of the HITECH Act in 2009. Dedicated efforts and large financial incentives have spurred innovation and motivated progress in many aspects of information technology, including information exchange and community-level health IT implementation. Yet poor usability of systems and overwhelming reporting burden still present barriers to optimal use of health IT.

Health IT capabilities — such as automated performance feedback; shared documentation with patients; population health tools; and clinical decision support, facilitating evidence-based health care — can potentially drastically improve quality of care, particularly in primary care practices. However, the current incentive and payment structures are not aligned with productive use and spread of health IT innovation. When many primary care physicians use electronic health records (EHRs), the problems they are now tasked to solve relate to billing and coding compliance and to achieving “meaningful use” through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) EHR Incentive Programs; many clinicians and systems are not encountering or using EHRs as productive clinical tools.

Perhaps the focus of providers and health systems on meeting the technical and administrative requirements of “meaningful use” has obscured the creative opportunity for clinicians to explore how to use EHRs to improve care, and to see their own actions as part of the solution to effective implementation. Strategies that focus on creating space for discovering ways that IT can support effective health care — e.g., more flexible payment models with emphasis on population health outcomes — may be more successful than those that focus on health IT adoption.

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Positive Results For 2012 Physician Quality Reporting System And eRx Program


July 17th, 2014

In April, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released the 2012 Physician Quality Reporting System and Electronic Prescribing (eRx) Experience Report, showing a significant increase in participation in two programs that allow eligible professionals to earn incentive payments through voluntary participation.

Record Participation in 2012

With over 430,000 professionals participating in the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS) and more than 340,000 e-prescribing, the 2012 report marks encouraging progress in efforts to improve quality measurement and reporting through the PQRS and eRx programs. Thanks to increased participation, more clinicians are actively measuring and reporting on quality and focusing on improvement.

CMS is beginning to add this information to Physician Compare, a website that can be viewed by patients. Measuring, transparently sharing, and improving quality performance provide the keys to a better health system.

At CMS, we are pleased by the success of these programs and other CMS quality measurement programs. We are also encouraged by the potential of these initiatives to empower patients and providers with information that can support care coordination and improved delivery of care.

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Lessons Learned: Bringing Big Data Analytics To Health Care


July 14th, 2014

Big data offers breakthrough possibilities for new research and discoveries, better patient care, and greater efficiency in health and health care, as detailed in the July issue of Health Affairs. As with any new tool or technique, there is a learning curve.

Over the last few years, we, along with our colleagues at Booz Allen, have worked on over 30 big data projects with federal health agencies and other departments, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Federal Drug Administration (FDA), and the Veterans Administration (VA), along with private sector health organizations such as hospitals and delivery systems and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

While many of the lessons learned from these projects may be obvious, such as the need for disciplined project management, we also have seen organizations struggle with pitfalls and roadblocks that were unexpected in taking full advantage of big data’s potential.

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The Era Of Big Data And Its Implications For Big Pharma


July 10th, 2014

Editor’s note: For more on the topic of big data, check out the July issue of Health Affairs In addition to Marc Berger, Kirsten Axelsen and Prasun Subedi also coauthored this post. 

Health care research is on the cusp of an era of “Big Data” — one that promises to transform the way in which we understand and practice medicine.

The Big Data paradigm has developed from two different points of origin. First, significant efforts to digitize and synthesize existing data sources (e.g., electronic health records) have been driven by policy and practice economics. Second, a wide range of novel ways to capture both clinical and biological data points (e.g., wearable health devices, genomics) have emerged.

The era of Big Data holds great possibility to improve our ability to predict which health care interventions are most effective, for which patients, and at what cost.

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ACAView: New Findings On The Effect Of Coverage Expansion Since January 2014


July 9th, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Josh Gray, Iyue Sung also coauthored this post. 

Together, athenahealth and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) have undertaken a new joint venture called ACAView, as part of the foundation’s Reform by the Numbers project, a source for timely and unique data on the impact of health reform.

The goal of ACAView is to provide current, non-partisan measurement and analysis on how coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is affecting the day-to-day practice of medicine. athenahealth provides a single-instance, cloud-based software platform to a national provider base.

Any information that our clients enter using our software is immediately aggregated into centrally hosted databases, providing us with timely visibility into patient characteristics, clinical activities, and practice economics at medical groups around the country.

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New Health Affairs July Issue: The Impact Of Big Data On Health Care


July 8th, 2014

Health Affairs explores the promise of big data in improving health care effectiveness and efficiency in its July issue. Many articles examine the potential of approaches such as predictive analytics and address the unavoidable privacy implications of collecting, storing, and interpreting massive amounts of health information.

Big data can yield big savings, if they are used in the right ways.

David W. Bates of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and coauthors analyze six use cases with strong opportunities for cost savings: high-cost patients; readmissions; triage; decompensation (when a patient’s condition worsens); adverse events; and treatment optimization when a disease affects multiple organ systems.

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