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Could the Drive to Value-Based Healthcare Undermine Security?

Posted on November 27, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As we all know, the healthcare industry’s move toward value-based healthcare is forcing providers to make some big changes. In fact, a recent report by peer60 found that 64% of hospitals responding cited oncoming value-based reimbursement as their top challenge. Meanwhile, only 30% could say the same of improving information security according to peer60, which recently surveyed 320 hospital leaders.

Now, the difference in concern over the two issues can be chalked up, at least in part, to the design of the survey. Obviously, there’s a good chance that a survey of CIOs would generate different results. But as the report’s authors noted, the survey might also have exposed a troublesome gap in priorities between health IT and the rest of the hospital C-suite.

It’s hardly surprising hospital leaders are focused on the life-and-death effects of a major change in payment policy. Ultimately, if a hospital can’t stay in business, protecting data won’t be an issue anymore. But if a hospital keeps its doors open, protecting patient data must be given a great deal of attention.

If there is a substantial gap between CIOs and their colleagues on security, my guess is that the reasons include the following:

  • Assuming CIOs can handle things:  Lamentable though it may be, less-savvy healthcare leaders may think of security as a tech-heavy problem that doesn’t concern them on a day-to-day level.
  • Managing by emergency:  Though they might not admit it publicly, reactive health executives may see security problems as only worth addressing when something needs fixing.
  • Fear of knowing what needs to be done:  Any intelligent, educated health exec knows that they can’t afford to let security be compromised, but they don’t want to face up to the time, money and energy it takes to do infosec right.
  • Overconfidence in existing security measures:  After approving the investment of tens or even hundreds of millions on health IT, non-tech health leaders may find it hard to believe that perfect security isn’t “built in” and complete.

I guess the upshot of all of this is that even sophisticated healthcare executives may have dysfunctional beliefs about health data security. And it’s not surprising that health leaders with limited technical backgrounds may prefer to attack problems they do understand.

Ultimately, this suggests to me that CIOs and other HIT leaders still have a lot of ‘splaining to do. To do their best with security challenges, health IT execs need the support from the entire leadership team, and that will mean educating their peers on some painful realities of the trade.

After all, if security is to be an organization-wide process — not just a few patches and HIPAA training sessions — it has to be ingrained in everything employees do. And that may mean some vigorous exchanges of views on how security fosters value.

Is HIPAA Misuse Blocking Patient Use Of Their Data?

Posted on August 18, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Recently, a story in the New York Times told some troubling stories about how HIPAA misunderstandings have crept into both professional and personal settings. These included:

  • A woman getting scolded at a hospital in Boston for “very improper” speech after discussing her husband’s medical situation with a dear friend.
  • Refusal by a Pennsylvania hospital to take a daughter’s information on her mother’s medical history, citing HIPAA, despite the fact that the daughter wasn’t *requesting* any data. The woman’s mother was infirm and couldn’t share medical history — such as her drug allergy — on her own.
  • The announcement, by a minister in California, that he could no longer read the names of sick congregants due to HIPAA.

All of this is bad enough, particularly the case of the Pennsylvania refusing to take information that could have protected a helpless elderly patient, but the effects of this ignorance create even greater ripples, I’d argue.

Let’s face it: our efforts to convince patients to engage with their own medical data haven’t been terribly successful as of yet. According to a study released late last year by Xerox, 64% of patients were not using patient portals, and 31% said that their doctor had never discussed portals with them.

Some of the reasons patients aren’t taking advantage of the medical data available to them include ignorance and fear, I’d argue. Technophobia and a history of just “trusting the doctor” play a role as well. What’s more, pouring through lab results and imaging studies might seem overwhelming to patients who have never done it before.

But that’s not all that’s holding people back. In my opinion, the climate of medical data fear HIPAA misunderstandings have created is playing a major part too.

While I understand why patients have to sign acknowledgements of privacy practices and be taught what HIPAA is intended to do, this doesn’t exactly foster a climate in which patients feel like they own their data. While doctor’s offices and hospitals may not have done this deliberately, the way they administer HIPAA compliance can make medical data seem portentous, scary and dangerous, more like a bomb set to go off than a tool patients can use to manage their care.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that if providers want to see patients engaged and managing their care, they should make sure patients feel comfortable asking for access to and using that data. While some may never feel at ease digging into their test results or correcting their medical history, I believe that there’s a sizable group of patients who would respond well to a reminder that there’s power in doing so.

The truth is that while most providers now give patients the option of logging on to a portal, they typically don’t make it easy. And heaven knows even the best-trained physician office staff rarely take the time to urge patients to log on and learn.

But if providers make the effort to balance stern HIPAA paperwork with encouraging words, patients are more likely to get inspired. Sometimes, all it takes is a little nudge to get people on board with new behavior. And there’s no excuse for letting foolish misinterpretations of HIPAA prevent that from happening.

HIM Departments Need More Support

Posted on July 16, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As both a contributor to this blog, and an assertive, activist patient managing chronic conditions, I get to see both sides of professional health information management.  And I have to say that while health data management pros obviously do great things against great odds, support for their work doesn’t seem to have trickled down to the front lines.  I’m speaking most specifically about Medical Records (oops, I mean Health Information Management) departments in hospitals.

As I noted in a related blog post, I recently had a small run-in with the HIM department of a local hospital which seems emblematic of this problem. The snag occurred when I reached out to DC-based Sibley Memorial Hospital and tried to get a new log-in code for their implementation of Epic PHR MyChart. The clerk answering the phone for that department told me, quite inaccurately, that if I didn’t use the activation code provided on my discharge summary papers within two days, my chance to log in to the Johns Hopkins MyChart site was forever lost. (Sibley is part of the Johns Hopkins system.)

Being the pushy type that I am, I complained to management, who put me in touch with the MyChart tech support office. The very smart and help tech support staffer who reached out to me expressed surprise at what I’d been told as a) the code wasn’t yet expired and b) given that I supplied the right security information she’d have been able to supply me with a new one.  The thing is, I never would have gotten to her if I hadn’t known not to take the HIM clerk’s word at face value.

Note: After writing the linked article, I was able to speak to the HIM department leader at Sibley, and she told me that she planned to address the issue of supporting MyChart questions with her entire staff. She seemed to agree completely that they had a vital role in the success of the PHR and patient empowerment generally, and I commend her for that.

Now, I realize that HIM departments are facing what may be the biggest changes in their history, and that Madame Clerk may have been an anomaly or even a temp. But assuming she was a regular hire, how much training would it have taken for the department managers to require her to simply give out the MyChart tech support number? Ten minutes?  Five? A priority e-mail demanding that PHR/digital medical record calls be routed this way would probably have done the trick.

My take on all of this is that HIM departments seem to have a lot of growing up to do. Responsible largely for pushing paper — very important paper but paper nonetheless — they’re now in the thick of the health data revolution without having a central role in it. They aren’t attached to the IT department, really, nor are they directly supporting physicians — they’re sort of a legacy department that hasn’t got as clearly defined a role as it did.

I’m not suggesting that HIM departments be wiped off the map, but it seems to me that some aggressive measures are in order to loop them in to today’s world.

Obviously, training on patient health data access is an issue. If HIM staffers know more about patient portals generally — and ideally, have hands-on experience with them, they’ll be in a better position to support such initiatives without needing to parrot facts blindly. In other words, they’ll do better if they have context.

HIM departments should also be well informed as to EMR and other health data system developments. Sure, the senior people in the department may already be looped in, but they should share that knowledge at brown bag lunches and staff update sessions freely and often. As I see it, this provides the team with much-needed sense of participation in the broader HIT enterprise.

Also, HIM staff members should encourage patients who call to log in and leverage patient portals. Patients who call the hospital with only a vague sense that they can access their health data online will get routed to that department by the switchboard. HIM needs to be well prepared to support them.

These concerns should only become more important as Meaningful Use Stage 3 comes on deck. MU Stage 3 should provide the acid test as to whether whether hospital HIM departments are really ready to embrace change.

Does Federal Health Data Warehouse Pose Privacy Risk?

Posted on June 23, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Not too long ago, few consumers were aware of the threat data thieves posed to their privacy, and far fewer had even an inkling of how vulnerable many large commercial databases would turn out to be.

But as consumer health data has gone digital — and average people have become more aware of the extent to which data breaches can affect their lives — they’ve grown more worried, and for good reason. As a series of spectacular data breaches within health plans has illustrated, both their medical and personal data might be at risk, with potentially devastating consequences if that data gets into the wrong hands.

Considering that these concerns are not only common, but pretty valid, federal authorities who have collected information on millions of insurance customers need to be sure that they’re above reproach. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

According to an Associated Press story, the administration is storing all of the data in a perpetual central repository known as MIDAS. MIDAS data includes a lot of sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and financial accounts.  If stolen, this data could provide a springboard for countless case of identity or even medical identity theft, both of which have emerged as perhaps the iconic crimes of 21st century life.

Both the immensity of the database and a failure to plan for destruction of old records are raising the hackles of privacy advocates. They definitely aren’t comfortable with the ten-year storage period recommended by the National Archives.

An Obama Administration rep told the AP that MIDAS meets or exceeds federal security and privacy standards, by which I assume he largely meant HIPAA regs. But it’s reasonable to wonder how long the federal government can protect its massive data store, particularly if commercial entities like Anthem — who arguably have more to lose — can’t protect their beneficiaries’ data from break-ins. True, MIDAS is also operated by a private concern, government technology contractor CACI, but the workflow has to impacted by the fact that CMS owns the data.

Meanwhile, growing privacy breach questions are driven by reasonable concerns, especially those outlined by the GAO, which noted last year that MIDAS went live without an in-depth assessment of privacy risks posed by the system.

Another key point made by the AP report (which did a very good job on this topic, by the way, somewhat to my surprise) is that MIDAS’ mission has evolved from a facility for running analytics on the data to a central clearinghouse for data sharing between CMS and health insurance companies and state Medicaid organizations. And we all know that with mission creep can come feature creep; with feature creep comes greater and greater potential for security holes that are passed over and left to be found by intruders.

Now, private healthcare organizations will still be managing the bulk of consumer medical data for the near future. And they have many vulnerabilities that are left unpatched, as recent events have emphasized. But in the near term, it seems like a good idea to hold the federal government’s feet to the fire. The last thing we need is a giant loss of consumer confidence generated by a giant government data exposure.

Phase 2 HIPAA Audits Kick Off With Random Surveys

Posted on June 9, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Ideally, the only reason you would know about the following is due to scribes such as myself — but for the record, the HHS Office for Civil Rights has sent out a bunch of pre-audit screening surveys to covered entities. Once it gets responses, it will do a Phase 2 audit not only of covered entities but also business associates, so things should get heated.

While these take the form of Meaningful Use audits, covering incentives paid from January 1, 2011 through June 30, 2014, it’s really more about checking how well you protect ePHI.

This effort is a drive to be sure that providers and BAs are complying with the HIPAA privacy, security and breach notification requirements. Apparently OCR found, during Phase 1 pilot audits in 2011 and 2012, that there was “pervasive non-compliance” with regs designed to safeguard protected health information, the National Law Review reports.

However, these audits aren’t targeting the “bad guys.” Selection for the audits is random, according to HHS Office of the Inspector General.

So if you get one of the dreaded pre-screening letters, how should you respond? According a thoughtful blog post by Maryanne Lambert for CureMD, auditors will be focused on the following areas:

  • Risk Assessment audits and reports
  • EHR security plan
  • Organizational chart
  • Network diagram
  • EHR web sites and patient portals
  • Policies and procedures
  • System inventory
  • Tools to perform vulnerability scans
  • Central log and event reports
  • EHR system users list
  • Contractors supporting the EHR and network perimeter devices.

According to Lambert, the feds will want to talk to the person primarily responsible for each of these areas, a process which could quickly devolve into a disaster if those people aren’t prepared. She recommends that if you’re selected for an audit, you run through a mock audit ahead of time to make sure these staff members can answer questions about how well policies and processed are followed.

Not that anyone would take the presence of HHS on their premises lightly, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a stumble in one corner of your operation could have widespread consequences. Lambert notes that in addition to defending your security precautions, you have to make sure that all parts of your organization are in line:

Be mindful while planning for this audit as deficiencies identified for one physician in a physician group or one hospital within a multi-hospital system, may apply to the other physicians and hospitals using the same EHR system and/or implementing meaningful use in the same way.  Thus, the incentive payments at risk in this audit may be greater than the payments to the particular provider being audited.

But as she points out, there is one possible benefit to being audited. If you prepare well, it might save you not only trouble with HHS but possibly lawsuits for breaches of information. Hey, everything has some kind of silver lining, right?

Breaking Bad And HIT: Some Thoughts for Healthcare

Posted on June 2, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Recently, I’ve been re-watching the blockbuster TV series hit “Breaking Bad” courtesy of Netflix. For those who haven’t seen it, the show traces the descent of a seemingly honest plain-Joe suburbanite from high school chemistry teacher to murderous king of a multi-state crystal meth business, all kicked off by his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

As the show clearly intends, it has me musing once again on how an educated guy with a family and a previously crime-free life can compromise everything that once mattered to him and ultimately, destroy nearly everything he loves.

And that, given that I write for this audience, had me thinking just as deeply what turns ordinary healthcare workers into cybercriminals who ruthlessly exploit people’s privacy and put their financial survival at risk by selling the data under their control.

Sure, some of data stealing is done by black-hat hackers who crack healthcare networks and mine them for data at the behest of organized crime groups. But then there’s the surprises. Like the show’s central character, Walter White, some healthcare cybercriminals seem to come out of the blue, relative “nobodies” with no history as gangsters or thieves who suddenly find a way to rationalize stealing data.

I’d bet that if you dug into the histories of those healthcare employees who “break bad” you’d find that they have a few of the following characteristics in common:

*  Feeling underappreciated:  Like Walter White, whose lowly chemistry-teacher job was far below his abilities, data-stealing employees may feel that their talents aren’t appreciated and that they’ll never “make it” via a legitimate path.

* Having a palatable excuse:  Breaking Bad’s dying anti-hero was able to rationalize his behavior by telling himself that he was doing what he did to protect his family’s future well-being. Rogue employees who sell data to the highest bidder may believe that they’re committing a victimless crime, or that they deserve the extra income to make up for a below-market salary.

Willful ignorance:  Not once, during the entire run of BB, does White stop and wonder (out loud at least) what harm his flood of crystal meth is doing to its users. While it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how people could be harmed by having their medical privacy violated — or especially, having their financial data abused — some healthcare workers will just choose not to think about it

Greed:  No need to explain this one — though people may restrain naturally greedy impulses if the other factors listed above aren’t present. You can’t really screen for it, sadly, despite the damage it can do.

So do you have employees in your facilities on the verge of breaking bad and betraying the trust their stewardship of healthcare data conveys? Taking a look around for bitter, dissatisfied types might be worth a try.

Knotty Problems Surround Substance Abuse Data Sharing via EMRs

Posted on May 27, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As I see it, rules giving mental health and substance abuse data extra protection are critical. Maybe someday, there will be little enough stigma around these illnesses that special privacy precautions aren’t necessary, but that day is far in the future.

That’s why a new bill filed by Reps. Tim Murphy (R-PA.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), aimed at simplifying sharing of substance misuse data between EMRs, deserves a close look by those of us who track EMR data privacy. Tonko and Murphy propose to loosen federal rules on such data sharing  such that a single filled-out consent form from a patient would allow data sharing throughout a hospital or health system.

As things currently stand, federal law requires that in the majority of cases, federally-assisted substance abuse programs are barred from sharing personally-identifiable patient information with other entities if the programs don’t have a disclosure consent. What’s more, each other entity must itself obtain another consent from a patient before the data gets shared again.

At a recent hearing on the 21st Century Cures Act, Rep. Tonko argued that the federal requirements, which became law before EMRs were in wide use, were making it more difficult for individuals fighting a substance abuse problem to get the coordinated care that they needed.  While they might have been effective privacy protections at one point, today the need for patients to repeatedly approve data sharing merely interferes with the providers’ ability to offer value-based care, he suggested. (It’s hard to argue that it can’t be too great for ACOs to hit such walls.)

Clearly, Tonko’s goals can be met in some form.  In fact, other areas of the clinical world are making great progress in sharing mental health data while avoiding data privacy entanglements. For example, a couple of months ago the National Institute of Mental Health announced that its NIMH Limited Datasets project, including data from 23 large NIMH-supported clinical trials, just sent out its 300th dataset.

Rather than offer broader access to data and protect individual identifiers stringently, the datasets contain private human study participant information but are shared only with qualified researchers. Those researchers must win approval for a Data Use Certification agreement which specifies how the data may be used, including what data confidentiality and security measures must be taken.

Of course, practicing clinicians don’t have time to get special approval to see the data for every patient they treat, so this NIMH model doesn’t resolve the issues hospitals and providers face in providing coordinated substance abuse care on the fly.

But until a more flexible system is put in place, perhaps some middle ground exists in which clinicians outside of the originating institution can grant temporary, role-based “passes” offering limited use to patient-identifiable substance abuse data. That is something EMRs should be well equipped to support. And if they’re not, this would be a great time to ask why!

Emerging Health Apps Pose Major Security Risk

Posted on May 18, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As new technologies like fitness bands, telemedicine and smartphone apps have become more important to healthcare, the issue of how to protect the privacy of the data they generate has become more important, too.

After all, all of these devices use the public Internet to broadcast data, at least at some point in the transmission. Typically, telemedicine involves a direct connection via an unsecured Internet connection with a remote server (Although, they are offering doing some sort of encryption of the data that’s being sent on the unsecured connection).  If they’re being used clinically, monitoring technologies such as fitness bands use hop from the band across wireless spectrum to a smartphone, which also uses the public Internet to communicate data to clinicians. Plus, using the public internet is just the pathway that leads to a myriad of ways that hackers could get access to this health data.

My hunch is that this exposure of data to potential thieves hasn’t generated a lot of discussion because the technology isn’t mature. And what’s more, few doctors actually work with wearables data or offer telemedicine services as a routine part of their practice.

But it won’t be long before these emerging channels for tracking and caring for patients become a standard part of medical practice.  For example, the use of wearable fitness bands is exploding, and middleware like Apple’s HealthKit is increasingly making it possible to collect and mine the data that they produce. (And the fact that Apple is working with Epic on HealthKit has lured a hefty percentage of the nation’s leading hospitals to give it a try.)

Telemedicine is growing at a monster pace as well.  One study from last year by Deloitte concluded that the market for virtual consults in 2014 would hit 70 million, and that the market for overall telemedical visits could climb to 300 million over time.

Given that the data generated by these technologies is medical, private and presumably protected by HIPAA, where’s the hue and cry over protecting this form of patient data?

After all, though a patient’s HIV or mental health status won’t be revealed by a health band’s activity status, telemedicine consults certainly can betray those concerns. And while a telemedicine consult won’t provide data on a patient’s current cardiovascular health, wearables can, and that data that might be of interest to payers or even life insurers.

I admit that when the data being broadcast isn’t clear text summaries of a patient’s condition, possibly with their personal identity, credit card and health plan information, it doesn’t seem as likely that patients’ well-being can be compromised by medical data theft.

But all you have to do is look at human nature to see the flaw in this logic. I’d argue that if medical information can be intercepted and stolen, someone can find a way to make money at it. It’d be a good idea to prepare for this eventuality before a patient’s privacy is betrayed.

An Important Look at HIPAA Policies For BYOD

Posted on May 11, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Today I stumbled across an article which I thought readers of this blog would find noteworthy. In the article, Art Gross, president and CEO at HIPAA Secure Now!, made an important point about BYOD policies. He notes that while much of today’s corporate computing is done on mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets — most of which access their enterprise’s e-mail, network and data — HIPAA offers no advice as to how to bring those devices into compliance.

Given that most of the spectacular HIPAA breaches in recent years have arisen from the theft of laptops, and are likely proceed to theft of tablet and smartphone data, it seems strange that HHS has done nothing to update the rule to address increasing use of mobiles since it was drafted in 2003.  As Gross rightly asks, “If the HIPAA Security Rule doesn’t mention mobile devices, laptops, smartphones, email or texting how do organizations know what is required to protect these devices?”

Well, Gross’ peers have given the issue some thought, and here’s some suggestions from law firm DLA Piper on how to dissect the issues involved. BYOD challenges under HIPAA, notes author Peter McLaughlin, include:

*  Control:  To maintain protection of PHI, providers need to control many layers of computing technology, including network configuration, operating systems, device security and transmissions outside the firewall. McLaughlin notes that Android OS-based devices pose a particular challenge, as the system is often modified to meet hardware needs. And in both iOS and Android environments, IT administrators must also manage users’ tendency to connected to their preferred cloud and download their own apps. Otherwise, a large volume of protected health data can end up outside the firewall.

Compliance:  Healthcare organizations and their business associates must take care to meet HIPAA mandates regardless of the technology they  use.  But securing even basic information, much less regulated data, can be far more difficult than when the company creates restrictive rules for its own devices.

Privacy:  When enterprises let employees use their own device to do company business, it’s highly likely that the employee will feel entitled to use the device as they see fit. However, in reality, McLaughlin suggests, employees don’t really have full, private control of their devices, in part because the company policy usually requires a remote wipe of all data when the device gets lost. Also, employees might find that their device’s data becomes discoverable if the data involved is relevant to litigation.

So, readers, tell us how you’re walking the tightrope between giving employees who BYOD some autonomy, and protecting private, HIPAA-protected information.  Are you comfortable with the policies you have in place?

Full Disclosure: HIPAA Secure Now! is an advertiser on this website.

Telemedicine Startup Offers Providers A Shot At Equity

Posted on April 22, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Over the last couple of years, the number of telemedicine vendors out there fighting for business has exploded.  These include DoctoronDemand, GoTelecare, HealthTap, MDLIVE, American Well and many, many more.

Health plans are jumping on the bandwagon too. For example, United Healthcare  has been running a popular national television campaign advertising its “virtual clinic” services. UHC is my plan, so I can attest that this service — shown as embedded in its member site — hasn’t been rolled out yet, but that only makes its desire to get out in front of the trend more noteworthy.

Telemedicine models in play include companies that recruit providers and sell them to consumers, vendors who enable telemedicine via proprietary platforms and firms that lead with community building. At present the direct-to-consumer players seem to be somewhat ahead, simply because they’ve already begun developing a national brand, but the story doesn’t end there.

Though consumer-facing telemedicine companies probably have a viable business model, they’ll have to build a memorable consumer brand to make it, something that takes a great deal of  time and money.  On the other hand, vendors that offer white-label telemedicine technology to hospitals and health plans have at least as much to gain, without having to win the loyalty of fickle consumers.

One telemedicine player doing just that is Nashville-based PointNurse, which has developed a distributed collaboration and communications platform providers can use to deliver telemedicine services. I just spoke to CEO Cyrus Maaghul, who gave me a company overview, and was interested to hear that his venture is taking things in some new directions.

PointNurse is different than most companies in the telemedicine space for a few reasons.

For one thing, the platform includes block chain capabilities, which allow providers to accumulate credits for both community participation and actual care delivery. (In case you aren’t familiar with block chain technology, which powers crypto currency Bitcoin, you may want to click here.)

These credits aren’t just for fun. Eventually, when providers accumulate enough credits, they get a pro-rata share of a dedicated pool of equity.

Consumers, for their part, are given a multi-signature wallet which stores both their personal and clinical information, resulting more or less in a PHR with added capabilities. PointNurse hasn’t yet devised a way to share the data with provider EMRs, but that’s a short-term goal.

A wide range of providers can participate in PointNurse, including not only MDs but also nurse practitioners, pharmacists, RNs, LPNs and elder advocates.

A sister venture, HealthCombix, will license the technology underlying PointNurse to hospitals and payers. HealthCombix will provide APIs and tools to build their own distributed applications.

As Maaghul sees it, it’s critical for providers to realize more than a short-term benefit from participating in telemedicine. “I wanted to make providers feel highly motivated — that they can gain from this [arrangement],” Maaghul said. “This creates value for the patient.”

Of course, there’s no proof yet that this or any particular telemedicine business model is going to capture its market niche.  In fact, it’s not even clear what niches will emerge in this space; after all, though it’s moving fast it’s far from mature.

That being said, this approach has some intriguing aspects. I’ll be interested to see whether its business model and and unusual underlying technology work out.