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EHR Adoption: Step One to Successful Population Health Management – Breakaway Thinking

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The following is a guest blog post by Todd Stansfield from The Breakaway Group (A Xerox Company). Check out all of the blog posts in the Breakaway Thinking series.
Todd Stansfield

The Managed Care movement dramatically transformed healthcare in the 1990s. For the first time, our industry discovered increased margins by conserving the services we provided. Now, Population Health Management (PHM) is on the brink of transforming healthcare yet again—and perhaps in a more dramatic fashion. The transformation is already underway, with industry-wide consolidations between hospital networks, physician practices, and even insurance companies; government reforms targeting cost and quality controls; and new breeds of health organizations, professionals, and technologies.

Today’s PHM movement presents the same cost benefit as healthcare’s traditional models with a greater focus on health outcomes. The philosophy behind PHM is that healthcare providers and organizations will save money and improve care by identifying and stratifying patients with high, medium, and low risk for developing chronic conditions. Once patients are assigned a level of risk, care plans are then developed and deployed to treat them appropriately. For high-risk patients, strategic interventions are provided that reduce hospital admissions, readmissions, and complications. For low-risk patients, preventative care is offered to maintain health and avoid costly conditions. The PHM model requires broad-scale data collection, analysis, and transmission between healthcare entities—the latter not yet possible with the lack of integration between electronic health record (EHR) systems. PHM also calls for redesigning processes, discovering gaps in care, and extending patient-provider interactions beyond clinical events to encourage healthy life behaviors.

In order to reach the level of data collection needed for successful PHM, healthcare organizations must first adopt their EHR. Doing so makes it possible to intercept data, analyze it, and transform it into useful clinical information delivered to the point of care. Without EHR adoption, the most foundational elements of PHM cannot be supported: We cannot efficiently discover gaps in our current care, identify and stratify at-risk patients treated by an organization, or improve our processes to lessen the new financial risks of value-based care. EHRs are so central to PHM that overlapping incentives for both initiatives were proposed in November 2011 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The technology is also a necessary tool for Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), which are a form of PHM. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) published an interview with Dr. Stephen Shortell, a Distinguished Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, who outlined aspects of EHR adoption as being essential to the success of ACOs.[“The State of Accountable Care Organizations.”The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. http://www.innovations.ahrq.gov/]

Our research at The Breakaway Group (TBG) points to four crucial components needed to adopt an EHR for PHM. Strong leadership must inspire continual engagement from users to embrace the EHR as a tool for positive change. Targeted and effective education—creating system proficiency in role-based tasks—must also be established before and after the EHR go-live event. Performance must be gauged, measured, and analyzed to enhance EHR use and establish governance measures. And with the evolutionary nature of the EHR, all optimization efforts must be sustained and refreshed to meet new challenges, such as application upgrades and process changes.

Although the PHM movement is relatively new, there are numerous examples of the model’s success. ACOs enrolled in CMS’s Shared Savings and Pioneer ACO programs have generated $380 million in savings.[“Medicare’s delivery system reform initiatives achieve significant savings and quality improvements - off to a strong start.” US Department of Health and Human Services. www.hhs.gov.] One Pioneer ACO, Partners HealthCare, has established patient-centered medical homes that employ Care Managers specializing in customizing patient care plans.[“Patient-centered Medical Home: Role of the Care Manager.” Partners HealthCare. www.partners.org.] While Partners HealthCare is not employing true PHM in the sense of sharing information with other healthcare entities, it is large enough in size to perform broad-scale data collection that can help better manage health populations. This example demonstrates the potential effect of PHM on our industry when data becomes transferrable.

EHR adoption is an essential feat we are capable of achieving now. Doing so is the first step toward learning more about the populations we serve, how we’re not serving them, and how we can adjust our processes to succeed in a value-based model. Yet to manage populations effectively, more is required from us, including being willing to work together in our pursuit of a better, brighter healthcare system. If we can overcome these hurdles now, then we will arrive ready for when our industry is capable of embracing true care coordination.

Xerox is a sponsor of the Breakaway Thinking series of blog posts.

June 18, 2014 I Written By

Population Health Management and Business Process Management

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This is my fifth and final of five guest blog posts covering Health IT and EHR Workflow.

Way back in 2009 I penned a research paper with a long and complicated title that could also have been, simply, Population Health Management and Business Process Management. In 2010 I presented it at MedInfo10 in Cape Town, Africa. Check out my travelogue!

Since then, some of what I wrote has become reality, and much of the rest is on the way. Before I dive into the weeds, let me set the stage. The Affordable Care Act added tens of millions of new patients to an already creaky and dysfunctional healthcare and health IT system. Accountable Care Organizations were conceived as virtual enterprises to be paid to manage the clinical outcome and costs of care of specific populations of individuals. Population Health Management has become the dominant conceptual framework for proceeding.

I looked at a bunch of definitions of population health management and created the following as a synthesis: “Proactive management of clinical and financial risks of a defined patient group to improve clinical outcomes and reduce cost via targeted, coordinated engagement of providers and patients across all care settings.”

You can see obvious places in this definition to apply trendy SMAC tech — social, mobile, analytics, and cloud — social, patient settings; mobile, provider and patient settings; analytics, cost and outcomes; cloud, across settings. But here I want to focus on the “targeted, coordinated.” Increasingly, it is self-developed and vendor-supplied care coordination platforms that target and coordinate, filling a gap between EHRs and day-to-day provider and patient workflows.

The best technology on which, from which, to create care coordination platforms is workflow technology, AKA business process management and adaptive/dynamic case management software. In fact, when I drill down on most sophisticated, scalable population health management and care coordination solutions, I usually find a combination of a couple things. Either the health IT organization or vendor is, in essence, reinventing the workflow tech wheel, or they embed or build on third-party BPM technology.

Let me direct you to my section Patient Class Event Hierarchy Intermediates Patient Event Stream and Automated Workflow in that MedInfo10 paper. First of all you have to target the right patients for intervention. Increasingly, ideas from Complex Event Processing are used to quickly and appropriately react to patient events. A Patient Class Event Hierarchy is a decision tree mediating between low-level events (patient state changes) and higher-level concepts clinical concepts such as “on-protocol,” “compliant”, “measured”, and “controlled.”

Examples include patients who aren’t on protocol but should be, aren’t being measured but should be, or whose clinical values are not controlled. Execution of appropriate automatic policy-based workflows (in effect, intervention plans) moves patients from off-protocol to on-protocol, non-compliance to compliance, unmeasured to measured, and from uncontrolled to controlled state categories.

Population health management and care coordination products and services may use different categories, terminology, etc. But they all tend to focus on sensing and reacting to untoward changes in patient state. But simply detecting these changes is insufficient. These systems need to cause actions. And these actions need to be monitored, managed, and improved, all of which are classic sterling qualities of business process management software systems and suites.

I’m reminded of several tweets about Accountable Care Organization IT systems I display during presentations. One summarizes an article about ACOs. The other paraphrases an ACO expert speaking at a conference. The former says ACOs must tie together many disparate IT systems. The later says ACOs boil down to lists: actionable lists of items delivered to the right person at the right time. If you put these requirements together with system-wide care pathways delivered safely and conveniently to the point of care, you get my three previous blog posts on interoperability, usability, and safety.

I’ll close here with my seven advantages of BPM-based care coordination technology. It…

  • More granularly distinguishes workflow steps
  • Captures more meaningful time-stamped task data
  • More actively influences point-of-care workflow
  • Helps model and understand workflow
  • Better coordinates patient care task handoffs
  • Monitors patient care task execution in real-time
  • Systematically improves workflow effectiveness & efficiency

Distinguishing among workflow steps is important to collecting data about which steps provide value to providers and patients, as well as time-stamps necessary to estimate true costs. Further, since these steps are executed, or at least monitored, at the point-of-care, there’s more opportunity to facilitate and influence at the point-of-care. Modeling workflow contributes to understanding workflow, in my view an intrinsically valuable state of affairs. These workflow models can represent and compensate for interruptions to necessary care task handoffs. During workflow execution, “enactment” in BPM parlance, workflow state is made transparently visible. Finally, workflow data “exhaust” (particularly times-stamped evidence-based process maps) can be used to systematically find bottlenecks and plug care gaps.

In light of the fit between complex event processing detecting changes in patient state, and BPM’s automated, managed workflow at the point-of-care, I see no alternative to what I predicted in 2010. Regardless of whether it’s rebranded as care or healthcare process management, business process management is the most mature, practical, and scalable way to create the care coordination and population health management IT systems required by Accountable Care Organizations and the Affordable Care Act. A bit dramatically, I’d even say business process management’s royal road to healthcare runs through care coordination.

This was my fifth and final blog post in this series on healthcare and workflow technology solicited by John Lynn for this week that he’s on vacation. Here was the outline:

If you missed one of my previous posts, I hope you’ll still check it out. Finally, thank you John, for allowing to me temporarily share your bully pulpit.


June 13, 2014 I Written By

Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS has degrees in Accountancy, Industrial Engineering, Intelligent Systems, and Medicine (from the University of Chicago). He designed the first undergraduate program in medical informatics, was a software architect in a hospital MIS department, and also VP and CMIO for an EHR vendor for over a decade. Dr. Webster helped three healthcare organizations win the HIMSS Davies Award and is a judge for the annual Workflow Management Coalition Awards for Excellence in BPM and Workflow and Awards for Case Management. Chuck is a ceaseless evangelist for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. Dr. Webster tweets from @wareFLO and maintains numerous websites, including EHR Workflow Management Systems (http://chuckwebster.com), Healthcare Business Process Management (http://HCBPM.com) and the People and Organizations improving Healthcare with Health Information Technology (http://EHRworkflow.com). Please join with Chuck to spread the message: Viva la workflow!

Patient Safety And Process-Aware Information Systems: Interruptions, Interruptions, Interruptions!

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This is my fourth of five guest blog posts covering Health IT and EHR Workflow.

When you took a drivers education class, do you remember the importance of mental “awareness” to traffic safety? Continually monitor your environment, your car, and yourself. As in traffic flow, healthcare is full of work flow, and awareness of workflow is the key to patient safety.

First of all, the very act of creating a model of work to be done forces designers and users to very carefully think about and work through workflow “happy paths” and what to do when they’re fallen off. A happy path is a sequence of events that’s intended to happen, and, if all goes well, actually does happen most of the time. Departures from the Happy Path are called “exceptions” in computer programming parlance. Exceptions are “thrown”, “caught”, and “handled.” At the level of computer programming, an exception may occur when data is requested from a network resource, but the network is down. At the level of workflow, an exception might be a patient no-show, an abnormal lab value, or suddenly being called away by an emergency or higher priority circumstance.

Developing a model of work, variously called workflow/process definition or work plan forces workflow designers and workflow users to communicate at a level of abstraction that is much more natural and productive than either computer code or screen mockups.

Once a workflow model is created, it can be automatically analyzed for completeness and consistency. Similar to how a compiler can detect problems in code before it’s released, problems in workflow can be prevented. This sort of formal analysis is in its infancy, and is perhaps most advanced in healthcare in the design of medical devices.

When workflow engines execute models of work, work is performed. If this work would have otherwise necessarily been accomplished by humans, user workload is reduced. Recent research estimates a 7 percent increase in patient mortality for every additional patient increase in nurse workload. Decreasing workload should reduce patient mortality by a similar amount.

Another area of workflow technology that can increase patient safety is process mining. Process mining is similar, by analogy, to data mining, but the patterns it extracts from time stamped data are workflow models. These “process maps” are evidence-based representations of what really happens during use of an EHR or health IT system. Process maps can be quite different, and more eye opening, than process maps generated by asking participants questions about their workflows. Process maps can show what happens that shouldn’t, what doesn’t happen than should, and time-delays due to workflow bottlenecks. They are ideal tools to understand what happened during analysis of what may have caused a possibly system-precipitated medical error.

Yet another area of particular relevance of workflow tech to patient safety is the fascinating relationship between clinical pathways, guidelines, etc. and workflow and process definitions executed by workflow tech’s workflow engines. Clinical decision support, bringing the best, evidence-based medical knowledge to the point-of-care, must be seamless with clinical workflow. Otherwise, alert fatigue greatly reduces realization of the potential.

There’s considerable research into how to leverage and combine representations of clinical knowledge with clinical workflow. However, you really need a workflow system to take advantage of this intricate relationship. Hardcoded, workflow-oblivious systems? There’s no way to tweak alerts to workflow context: the who, what, why, when, where, and how of what the clinical is doing. Clinical decision support will not achieve wide spread success and acceptance until it can be intelligently customized and managed, during real-time clinical workflow execution. This, again, requires workflow tech at the point-of-care.

I’ve saved workflow tech’s most important contribution to patient safety until last: Interruptions.

An interruption–is there anything more dreaded than, just when you are beginning to experience optimal mental flow, a higher priority task interrupts your concentration. This is ironic, since so much of work-a-day ambulatory medicine is essentially interrupt-driven (to borrow from computer terminology). Unexpected higher priority tasks and emergencies *should* interrupt lower priority scheduled tasks. Though at the end of the day, ideally, you’ve accomplished all your tasks.

In one research study, over 50% of all healthcare errors were due to slips and lapses, such as not executing an intended action. In other words, good clinical intentions derailed by interruptions.

Workflow management systems provide environmental cues to remind clinical staff to resume interrupted tasks. They represent “stacks” of tasks so the entire care team works together to make sure that interrupted tasks are eventually and appropriately resumed. Workflow management technology can bring to clinical care many of the innovations we admire in the aviation domain, including well-defined steps, checklists, and workflow tools.

Stay tuned for my fifth, and final, guest blog post, in which I tackle Population Health Management with Business Process Management.


June 12, 2014 I Written By

Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS has degrees in Accountancy, Industrial Engineering, Intelligent Systems, and Medicine (from the University of Chicago). He designed the first undergraduate program in medical informatics, was a software architect in a hospital MIS department, and also VP and CMIO for an EHR vendor for over a decade. Dr. Webster helped three healthcare organizations win the HIMSS Davies Award and is a judge for the annual Workflow Management Coalition Awards for Excellence in BPM and Workflow and Awards for Case Management. Chuck is a ceaseless evangelist for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. Dr. Webster tweets from @wareFLO and maintains numerous websites, including EHR Workflow Management Systems (http://chuckwebster.com), Healthcare Business Process Management (http://HCBPM.com) and the People and Organizations improving Healthcare with Health Information Technology (http://EHRworkflow.com). Please join with Chuck to spread the message: Viva la workflow!

Usable EHR Workflow Is Natural, Consistent, Relevant, Supportive and Flexible

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This is my third of five guest blog posts covering Health IT and EHR Workflow.

Workflow technology has a reputation, fortunately out of date, for trying to get rid of humans all together. Early on it was used for Straight-Through-Processing in which human stockbrokers were bypassed so stock trades happened in seconds instead of days. Business Process Management (BPM) can still do this. It can automate the logic and workflow that’d normally require a human to download something, check on a value and based on that value do something else useful, such as putting an item in a To-Do list. By automating low-level routine workflows, humans are freed to do more useful things that even workflow automation can’t automate.

But much of healthcare workflow requires human intervention. It is here that modern workflow technology really shines, by becoming an intelligent assistant proactively cooperating with human users to make their jobs easier. A decade ago, at MedInfo04 in San Francisco, I listed the five workflow usability principles that beg for workflow tech at the point-of-care.

Consider these major dimensions of workflow usability: naturalness, consistency, relevance, supportiveness, and flexibility. Workflow management concepts provide a useful bridge from usability concepts applied to single users to usability applied to users in teams. Each concept, realized correctly, contributes to shorter cycle time (encounter length) and increased throughput (patient volume).

Naturalness is the degree to which an application’s behavior matches task structure. In the case of workflow management, multiple task structures stretch across multiple EHR users in multiple roles. A patient visit to a medical practice office involves multiple interactions among patients, nurses, technicians, and physicians. Task analysis must therefore span all of these users and roles. Creation of a patient encounter process definition is an example of this kind of task analysis, and results in a machine executable (by the BPM workflow engine) representation of task structure.

Consistency is the degree to which an application reinforces and relies on user expectations. Process definitions enforce (and therefore reinforce) consistency of EHR user interactions with each other with respect to task goals and context. Over time, team members rely on this consistency to achieve highly automated and interleaved behavior. Consistent repetition leads to increased speed and accuracy.

Relevance is the degree to which extraneous input and output, which may confuse a user, is eliminated. Too much information can be as bad as not enough. Here, process definitions rely on EHR user roles (related sets of activities, responsibilities, and skills) to select appropriate screens, screen contents, and interaction behavior.

Supportiveness is the degree to which enough information is provided to a user to accomplish tasks. An application can support users by contributing to the shared mental model of system state that allows users to coordinate their activities with respect to each other. For example, since a EMR  workflow system represents and updates task status and responsibility in real time, this data can drive a display that gives all EHR users the big picture of who is waiting for what, for how long, and who is responsible.

Flexibility is the degree to which an application can accommodate user requirements, competencies, and preferences. This obviously relates back to each of the previous usability principles. Unnatural, inconsistent, irrelevant, and unsupportive behaviors (from the perspective of a specific user, task, and context) need to be flexibly changed to become natural, consistent, relevant, and supportive. Plus, different EHR users may require different BPM process definitions, or shared process definitions that can be parameterized to behave differently in different user task-contexts.

The ideal EHR/EMR should make the simple easy and fast, and the complex possible and practical. Then ,the majority/minority rule applies. A majority of the time processing is simple, easy, and fast (generating the greatest output for the least input, thereby greatly increasing productivity). In the remaining minority of the time, the productivity increase may be less, but at least there are no showstoppers.

So, to summarize my five principles of workflow usability…

Workflow tech can more naturally match the task structure of a physician’s office through execution of workflow definitions. It can more consistently reinforce user expectations. Over time this leads to highly automated and interleaved team behavior. On a screen-by-screen basis, users encounter more relevant data and order entry options. Workflow tech can track pending tasks–which patients are waiting where, how long, for what, and who is responsible–and this data can be used to support a continually updated shared mental model among users. Finally, to the degree to which an EHR or health IT system is not natural, consistent, relevant, and supportive, the underlying flexibility of the workflow engine and process definitions can be used to mold workflow system behavior until it becomes natural, consistent, relevant, and supportive.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss workflow technology and patient safety.


June 11, 2014 I Written By

Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS has degrees in Accountancy, Industrial Engineering, Intelligent Systems, and Medicine (from the University of Chicago). He designed the first undergraduate program in medical informatics, was a software architect in a hospital MIS department, and also VP and CMIO for an EHR vendor for over a decade. Dr. Webster helped three healthcare organizations win the HIMSS Davies Award and is a judge for the annual Workflow Management Coalition Awards for Excellence in BPM and Workflow and Awards for Case Management. Chuck is a ceaseless evangelist for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. Dr. Webster tweets from @wareFLO and maintains numerous websites, including EHR Workflow Management Systems (http://chuckwebster.com), Healthcare Business Process Management (http://HCBPM.com) and the People and Organizations improving Healthcare with Health Information Technology (http://EHRworkflow.com). Please join with Chuck to spread the message: Viva la workflow!

Interoperable Health IT and Business Process Management: The Spider In The Web

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This is my second of five guest blog posts covering Health IT and EHR Workflow.

If you pay any attention at all to interoperability discussion in healthcare and health IT, I’m sure you’ve heard of syntactic vs. semantic interoperability. Syntax and semantics are ideas from linguistics. Syntax is the structure of a message. Semantics is its meaning. Think HL7’s pipes and hats (the characters “|” and “^” used as separators) vs. codes referring to drugs and lab results (the stuff between pipes and hats). What you hardly every hear about is pragmatic interoperability, sometimes called workflow interoperability. We need not just syntactic and semantic interop, but pragmatic workflow interop too. In fact, interoperability based on workflow technology can strategically compensate for deficiencies in syntactic and semantic interoperability. By workflow technology, I mean Business Process Management (BPM).

Why do I highlight BPM’s relevance to health information interoperability? Take a look at this quote from Business Process Management: A Comprehensive Survey:

“WFM/BPM systems are often the “spider in the web” connecting different technologies. For example, the BPM system invokes applications to execute particular tasks, stores process-related information in a database, and integrates different legacy and web-based systems…. Business processes need to be executed in a partly uncontrollable environment where people and organizations may deviate and software components and communication infrastructures may malfunction. Therefore, the BPM system needs to be able to deal with failures and missing data.”

“Partly uncontrollable environment where people and organizations may deviate and software components and communication infrastructures may malfunction”? Sound familiar? That’s right. It should sound a lot like health IT.

What’s the solution? A “spider in the web” connecting different technologies… invoking applications to execute particular tasks, storing process-related information in a database, and integrates different legacy and web-based systems. Dealing with failures and missing data. Yes, healthcare needs a spider in the complicated web of complicate information systems that is today’s health information management infrastructure. Business process management is that spider in a technological web.

Let me show you now how BPM makes pragmatic interoperability possible.

I’ll start with another quote:

“Pragmatic interoperability (PI) is the compatibility between the intended versus the actual effect of message exchange.”

That’s a surprisingly simple definition for what you may have feared would be a tediously arcane topic. Pragmatic interoperability is simply whether the message you send achieves the goal you intended. That’s why it’s “pragmatic” interoperability. Linguistics pragmatics is the study of how we use language to achieve goals.

“Pragmatic interoperability is concerned with ensuring that the exchanged messages cause their intended effect. Often, the intended effect is achieved by sending and receiving multiple messages in specific order, defined in an interaction protocol.”

So, how does workflow technology tie into pragmatic interoperability? The key phrases linking workflow and pragmatics are “intended effect” and “specific order”.

A sequence of actions and messages — send a request to a specialist, track request status, ask about request status, receive result and do the right thing with it — that’s the “specific order” of conversation required to ensure the “intended effect” (the result). Interactions among EHR workflow systems, explicitly defined internal and cross-EHR workflows, hierarchies of automated and human handlers, and rules and schedules for escalation and expiration are necessary to achieve seamless coordination among EHR workflow systems. In other words, we need workflow management system technology to enable self-repairing conversations among EHR and other health IT systems. This is pragmatic interoperability. By the way, some early workflow systems were explicitly based on speech act theory, an area of pragmatics.

That’s my call to use workflow technology, especially Business Process Management, to help solve our healthcare information interoperability problems. Syntactic and semantic interoperability aren’t enough. Cool looking “marketectures” dissecting healthcare interoperability issues aren’t enough. Even APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) aren’t enough. Something has to combine all this stuff, in a scalable and flexible ways (by which I mean, not “hardcoded”) into usable workflows.

Which brings me to usability, tomorrow’s guest blog post topic.

Tune in!


June 10, 2014 I Written By

Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS has degrees in Accountancy, Industrial Engineering, Intelligent Systems, and Medicine (from the University of Chicago). He designed the first undergraduate program in medical informatics, was a software architect in a hospital MIS department, and also VP and CMIO for an EHR vendor for over a decade. Dr. Webster helped three healthcare organizations win the HIMSS Davies Award and is a judge for the annual Workflow Management Coalition Awards for Excellence in BPM and Workflow and Awards for Case Management. Chuck is a ceaseless evangelist for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. Dr. Webster tweets from @wareFLO and maintains numerous websites, including EHR Workflow Management Systems (http://chuckwebster.com), Healthcare Business Process Management (http://HCBPM.com) and the People and Organizations improving Healthcare with Health Information Technology (http://EHRworkflow.com). Please join with Chuck to spread the message: Viva la workflow!

Five Guest Blog Posts On EHR and HIT Workflow, Usability, Safety, Interoperability and Population Health

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John Lynn is taking a well-deserved week off to attend a family function. He asked if I was interested in five EHR workflow guest blog posts, a blog post a day this week, on EMR and HIPAA. Of course I said: YES!

Here’s the outline for the week:

I blog and tweet a lot about healthcare workflow and workflow technology, but in this first post I’ll try to synthesize and simplify. In later posts I drive into the weeds. Here, I’ll define workflow, describe workflow technology, it’s relevance to healthcare and health IT, and try not to steal my own thunder from the rest of the week.

I’ve looked at literally hundreds of definitions of workflow, all the way from a “series of tasks” to definitions that’d sprawl across several presentation slides. The one I’ve settled on is this:

“Workflow is a series of tasks, consuming resources, achieving goals.”

Short enough to tweet, which is why I like it, but long enough to address two important concepts: resources (costs) and goals (benefits).

So what is workflow technology? Workflow technology uses models of work to automate processes and support human workflows. These models can be understood, edited, improved, and even created, by humans who are not, themselves, programmers. These models can be executed, monitored, and even systematically improved by computer programs, variously called workflow management systems, business process management suites, and, for ad hoc workflows, case management systems.

Workflow tech, like health IT itself, is a vast and varied continent. As an industry, worldwide, it’s probably less than a tenth size of health IT, but it’s also growing at two or three times the rate. And, as both industries grow, they increasingly overlap. Health IT increasingly represents workflows and executes them with workflow engines. Workflow tech vendors increasingly aim at healthcare to sell a wide variety of workflow solutions, from embeddable workflow engines to sprawling business process management suites. Workflow vendors strenuously compete and debate on finer points of philosophy about how best automate and support work. Many of these finer points are directly relevant to workflow problems plaguing healthcare and health IT.

Why is workflow tech important to health IT? Because it can do what is missing, but sorely needed, in traditional health IT, including electronic health records (EHRs). Most EHRs and health IT systems essentially hard-code workflow. By “hard code” I mean that any series of tasks is implicitly represented by Java and C# and MUMPS if-then and case statements. Changes to workflow require changes to underlying code. This requires programmers who understand Java and C# and MUMPS. Changes cause errors. I’m reminded of the old joke, how many programmers does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but in the morning the stove and the toilet are broken. Traditional health IT relies on frozen representations of workflow that are opaque, fragile, and difficult to manage across information system and organizational boundaries.

Well, OK, I’ll steal my own thunder just a little bit. Process-aware tech, in comparison to hardcoded workflows, is an architectural paradigm shift for health IT. It has far reaching implications for interoperability, usability, safety, and population health.

BPM systems are ideal candidates to tie together disparate systems and technologies. Users experience more usable workflows because workflows are represented so humans can understand and change then. Process-aware information systems are safer for many reasons, but particularly because they can represent and compensate for the interruptions that cause so many medical errors. Finally, BPM platforms are the right platforms to tie together accountable care organization IT systems and to drive specific, appropriate, timely action to provider and patient point-of-care.

The rest of my blog posts in this weeklong series will elaborate on these themes. I’ll address why so many EHRs and health IT systems are so unusable, un-interoperable, and sometimes even dangerous. I’ll argue that modern workflow technology can help rescue healthcare and health IT from these problems.


June 9, 2014 I Written By

Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS has degrees in Accountancy, Industrial Engineering, Intelligent Systems, and Medicine (from the University of Chicago). He designed the first undergraduate program in medical informatics, was a software architect in a hospital MIS department, and also VP and CMIO for an EHR vendor for over a decade. Dr. Webster helped three healthcare organizations win the HIMSS Davies Award and is a judge for the annual Workflow Management Coalition Awards for Excellence in BPM and Workflow and Awards for Case Management. Chuck is a ceaseless evangelist for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. Dr. Webster tweets from @wareFLO and maintains numerous websites, including EHR Workflow Management Systems (http://chuckwebster.com), Healthcare Business Process Management (http://HCBPM.com) and the People and Organizations improving Healthcare with Health Information Technology (http://EHRworkflow.com). Please join with Chuck to spread the message: Viva la workflow!

You Get What You Ask For

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I recently had a chance to meet Dr. Dave Levin, the first CMIO from Cleveland Clinic, at the Texas HIMSS conference, where I spoke about Google Glass in healthcare. During his keynote, he gave a quick overview of his book – mHealth: Global Opportunities and Challenges – that I’m reading now.

The most important thing I took away from his presentation is that people will do exactly what you tell them to do, not what you’d like them to do. More specifically, people will optimize against what they’re measured against. This is a classic business truism, but one worth repeating.

In order to receive Meaningful Use cash for adopting EMRs, providers are jumping through an excruciatingly difficult series of hoops. Among those hoops is the primary theme of MU Stage 2: patient engagement.

But patient engagement is not an end. Patient engagement is a means to an end. Although there are certainly disagreements on what the end should be (depending on one’s political alignment), the federal government is clearly pushing value-based care delivered through PCMH and ACO models.

So why are we measuring arbitrary metrics such as “5% of patients engaging with their providers” through some sort of patient engagement product? By incentivizing arbitrary usage metrics, we will see little healthcare delivery transformation, despite all the intent in the world. Instead of flipping the clinic by utilizing patient engagement tools as part of a broader healthcare delivery strategy, providers are just going to optimize to barely get by getting 5% of their patients to send them a message through their patient portal.

Consider instead these potential alternative metrics, that better reflect the spirit of the MU regulations:

1) Percentage of patient population cared for under a value-based rather than volume-based model.

2) Percentage of simple visits – script refills, ear infections, etc. – conducted remotely via telemedicine instead of in person.

3) Percentage of visits avoided simply by answering questions via asynchronous secure messaging/pictures.

4) Percentage of complex visits handled by an MD (in which the intention is to hand off simpler visits/procedures to non-physician practitioners to lower costs)

There are certainly problems with some of these proposed metrics. They don’t solve all incentive problems; the system can always be gamed. But compared with existing measures, the above metrics do much more to force providers to rethink care delivery models and flip the clinic.

Some people will interpret these metrics as a way for the federal government to institute socialist control over healthcare delivery. These fears, though, are disproportionate. While a slippery slope argument can be made in this case, the US government has only on a few occasions actually nationalized private functions. In most of those cases, the nationalization was short-lived (such as General Motors 2009).

Given the clout of the AMA and other players, the probability of sliding down this slope seems exceedingly low. History has shown that there is too much friction in the status quo in the US healthcare system for the system to change on its own. At any rate, some change is better than none!

So, Uncle Sam, hear this: you get what you measure. So please measure what you actually want.

May 19, 2014 I Written By

Kyle is Founder and CEO of Pristine, a company in Austin, TX that develops telehealth communication tools optimized for Google Glass in healthcare environments. Prior to founding Pristine, Kyle spent years developing, selling, and implementing electronic medical records (EMRs) into hospitals. He also writes for EMR and HIPAA, TechZulu, and Svbtle about the intersections of healthcare, technology, and business. All of his writing is reproduced at kylesamani.com

Population Health Management (PHM) – The New Health IT Buzzword

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For some reason in healthcare IT we like to go through a series of buzzwords. They rotate through the years, but usually have a very similar meaning. The best example is EMR and EHR. You could nuance a difference between the two terms, but in practice they both are used interchangeably and we all know what it means.

With this in mind, I was intrigued by an excerpt from Cora Sharma’s post on Financial Analytics Bleeding into Population Health Management:

It appears that “population health management” (PHM) just has a better ring to it than “accountable care” or “HMO 2.0”. Increasingly, PHM is becoming an umbrella term for all of the operational and analytical HIT tools needed for the transition to value-based reimbursement (VBR), including EHR, HIE, Analytics, Care Management, revenue cycle management (RCM), Supply Chain, Cost Accounting, … .

On the other hand, HIT vendors continue to define PHM according to their core competencies: claims-based analytics vendors see PHM in terms of risk management; care management vendors are assuming that PHM is their next re-branded marketing term; clinical enterprise data warehouse (EDW) and business intelligence (BI) vendors argue that a single source of truth is needed for PHM; HIE and EHR vendors talk about PHM in the same breath as care coordination, leakage alerts and clinical quality measures (CQM); and so on.

Cora is right. Population Health Management does seem to be the latest buzzword and for some reason feels better to people than accountable care. I guess it makes sense. People don’t want to be held accountable for anything. However, they love to help a population be healthy.

Coming out of 30+ meetings with vendors at HIMSS this year I was asking myself a similar question. What’s the difference between an HIE, healthcare analytics, business intelligence, data warehouses (EDW) and even many of the financial RCM products? I see them all coming together into one platform. I guess it will be called population health management.

To Cora’s broader point in the post, there is a real coming together that’s happening between clinical and financial data in healthcare. All I can think is that it’s about time. The division of the data never really made sense to me. The data should be one and available to whatever system needs the data. ACOs are going to drive this to become a reality.

May 6, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 15 blogs containing almost 6000 articles with John having written over 3000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 14 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John launched two new companies: InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com, and is an advisor to docBeat. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and Google Plus. Healthcare Scene can be found on Google+ as well.

ACO’s and the Tech Needed to Be Ready

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The following is a guest post by Barry Haitoff, CEO of Medical Management Corporation of America.
Barry Haitoff
For those not familiar with ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations), I want to provide some insight into ACOs and how a medical practice can better prepare themselves for the coming shift in reimbursement, which is epitomized by the ACO. This is a challenging subject since the ACO is a somewhat nebulous idea that’s rapidly changing, but hopefully I can provide you some strategies that will help you be prepared for the coming changes.

You may remember when we talked in a previous post about the Value Based Payment Modifier and its impact on healthcare reimbursement. As we talked about in that post, healthcare reimbursement is changing and CMS is looking to only pay those providers who are providing quality care. As part of this movement, an ACO is an organization that works on behalf of a community of patients to ensure quality care.

The metrics of how they’ll measure what they reimburse and what they consider quality care are likely to rapidly change over the next few years while CMS figures out how to measure this. However, one key to being ready for this shift is that you’ll need to be part of an organization or group of providers that will take accountability for a patient population.

In some areas of the country, the hospitals are leading these organizations, but in other areas groups of physicians are coming together to form an ACO of just physicians. Either way can work. The key is that the members of these groups are going to each share in the reimbursement the group receives for improving the quality of healthcare patients in the community receive.

Also worth noting is that membership in an ACO isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for value based reimbursement. Whether you choose to be a member of an ACO or not, you’re going to be impacted by value based reimbursement and will need to be ready for the change. Not being ready could lead to lower reimbursement for the services you provide.

While it’s great that organizations of doctors are coming together to meet the need for ACOs, much more is going to be needed to do well in an ACO reimbursement world. The reality is that an ACO can’t exist without technology. Don’t even think about trying to meet the ACO requirements without the use of technology. ACOs will base their reimbursement on trackable data that can be aggregated across a community of providers that are likely on hundreds of different systems. Try doing that on paper. It just won’t happen.

In fact, many people probably think that their EHR software will be enough to meet the needs of the ACO as well. I believe this to be a myth. Without a doubt, the EHR will play a major role in the gathering and distribution of the EHR data. However, unless you’re a homogeneous ACO with providers that are all on the same single instance of an EHR, you’re going to need a whole suite of services that connect, aggregate, and interpret the EHR data for the community of patients. Add on top of that the communication needs of an ACO and the care manager style tracking that will need to occur and it’s unlike your EHR is going to be up to the task of an ACO. They’ll be too busy dealing with meaningful use and EHR certification.

Let me highlight three places where an ACO will need technology:

Communication
One of the key needs in an ACO is quality communication. This communication will happen provider to provider, provider to care manager, provider to patient, and care manager to patient and vice versa. You can expect that this communication will be a mix of secure text messaging and secure emails. In some cases it will be facilitated by a patient portal, but most of the secure messaging platforms for healthcare are much slicker and more effective than a patient portal that so far patients have rarely used.

Are you using a next generation secure messaging system to communicate with other providers, your staff, and the patient? You’ll likely need to use one in an ACO.

Provider Data Aggregation
Much like paper charts won’t be enough in an ACO world, faxed documents won’t be enough either. Providers in an ACO will need to have patient data from across the entire community of ACO providers. At a minimum providers in an ACO will need to have their EHRs connected with Direct, but most will need to have some sort of outside HIE that helps transfer, aggregate and track all the data that’s available for a patient in the ACO.

The ACO and doctor will really benefit from all the patient data being available at the click of the button. Without it, I’m not sure that ACOs will be able to meet the required quality measures.

Patient Data Aggregation
While all of the providers will need to be sharing their patient data, I think most ACOs will benefit from aggregating patient data as well. At first the ACO won’t be aggregating all of the patient generated data that’s available. Instead, they’ll find a slice of their patient community where they can have the most impact. Then, they’ll work with those patients to improve the care they receive. This is going to require ACOs to receive and track patient generated data. Without it, the ACO won’t have any idea how it’s doing. With so many patients on mobile devices or with access to the internet, what an amazing opportunity we have to really engage with patients.

Those are just a few of the ways technology is going to be needed for the coming changes in healthcare reimbursement and the shift towards value based care in things we call ACOs. Far too many providers are sitting on the sidelines while they let ACOs settle into place. What a missed opportunity. The fact that the ACOs are rapidly changing means that if you participate and make your voice heard, you can help to shape the direction of them going forward. We definitely need more doctors involved in these conversations.

Medical Management Corporation of America, a leading provider of medical billing services, is a proud sponsor of EMR and HIPAA.

April 22, 2014 I Written By

The Fundamental Challenge of ACOs

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I’ve been openly bullish on ACOs and capitated payment models. The only way to achieve the triple aim – quality, cost and access – is to create a system that is structurally incentivized towards those ends. The fee-for-service model will never be structured in a way that incentivizes the triple aim. On the other hand, ACOs do.

Early ACO data is mixed. Although some organizations succeeded in lowering costs and improving outcomes, about 1/3 dropped out of the ACO program entirely, and another 1/3 reported no significant cost or quality changes. Only 1/3 were “successful.”

Why? Why did some organizations succeed where others failed? What did each organization do differently? It’s been proven that some organizations can succeed under this model. But not everyone.

ACOs are disruptive to fee-for-service payment models. ACOs invert incentives. They invert how every employee should think about their job in the context of the larger care delivery system. In ACOs, healthcare professionals are implicitly asked to think about preventative care, which tends to lead towards both cost and quality improvements. On the other hands, in a fee-for-service model, healthcare professionals are only incentivized to simply treat the patient in front of them with no regard for prevention or cost.

When the board of directors of a given organization recognizes the need to change the course of a business, the board usually replaces the CEO. After a new strategy is devised, the new CEO typically replaces most of the executives and lays off a significant number of the existing staff. This accomplishes a few things:

1) reduces the burn, making the organization leaner and more capable of pivoting
2) replaces lots of senior and middle management, who were trained and wired around the old business model, and who may conspire against the new model if they don’t believe in it
3) sends a signal to the remaining staff that management is serious about change

Although this plan doesn’t guarantee success, it’s fairly common in large organizations because it can create impetus to break from the inertia of the status quo. The only thing worse than going after the wrong business model is maintaining one that’s failing.

This of course begs the question, how are providers adopting ACOs? Management at provider organizations that have adopted the ACOs are early adopters. They are pioneers. They are leaders. They can see a new, better, ACO-based future. The last thing management at these organizations is going to do is fire themselves after deciding to transition to an ACO.

In light of the above, I am particularly impressed by the early success of the ACO program. Only 1/3 dropped out. Given the fundamental change at hand, I would consider the early data a harbinger of better changes to come. I suspect that almost all of the remaining ACOs will see more significant improvements in years 2 and 3 as they mature and refine processes around value.

March 31, 2014 I Written By

Kyle is Founder and CEO of Pristine, a company in Austin, TX that develops telehealth communication tools optimized for Google Glass in healthcare environments. Prior to founding Pristine, Kyle spent years developing, selling, and implementing electronic medical records (EMRs) into hospitals. He also writes for EMR and HIPAA, TechZulu, and Svbtle about the intersections of healthcare, technology, and business. All of his writing is reproduced at kylesamani.com