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The State of the Healthcare CIO

Posted on November 2, 2017 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

As I’ve talked to hundreds of healthcare CIOs this week at the CHIME Fall Forum, a number of themes keep coming up. No doubt there’s always a lot of excitement in the air at a conference like this. In many ways, it’s great that there’s a good, optimistic energy at a conference. A conference wouldn’t be very good without that energy, but under the covers, there’s often more to the story. Here are some broad insights into the state of the healthcare CIO that goes beyond the natural excitement and energy of a conference.

No More Systems – Most of the CIOs who I’ve talked to feel like they have all the IT systems they need. In fact, most are trying to find ways to get rid of IT systems. They’re not looking to add any more IT systems to their mix. There’s a strong desire to simplify their current setup and to maximize the benefits their current IT systems. They don’t want to add new ones.

Do Want Solutions – While healthcare CIOs don’t want to add new systems, they do want to find solutions that will be complementary to their existing systems. There is a massive desire to optimize what they’re doing and show value from their current IT systems. Solutions that are proven and work on top of their existing infrastructure are welcomed by these CIOs.

Security Is Still a Concern – I have a feeling that this topic may never die. Security is still a huge concern for CIOs and something that will continue to be important for a long time to come. Most now have some kind of security strategy in place, but I haven’t met anyone that’s totally comfortable with their security strategy. It seems that this is what keeps CIOs up at night more than any other issue.

Analytics Is a Challenge – Most of the healthcare CIOs know that analytics is going to be an important part of their future. They can see the potential value that analytics can provide, but most don’t know where to find these analytics. Most organizations don’t have a clear analytics strategy or direction. We’re still just seeing anecdotal results for very specific solutions. There’s no clear direction that every healthcare CIO is following for analytics.

CIOs are Stressed – It was very appropriate that yesterday’s keynote presentation was on turning stress into a positive. Most of the healthcare CIOs I met are quite stressed. They have a lot on their plates and most don’t know how they’re going to manage it all. Plus, they’re still overwhelmed by all the changing regulations and reimbursement changes. The fact that there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight adds to that stress.

Turnover is Still High – It seems that there’s still a lot of turnover that’s happening with CIOs. This is a challenge when it comes to continuity at organizations. However, those CIOs that have been able to stay at an organization for a longer period of time are starting to see new opportunities to be more strategic. They’ve fought all the initial fires and cleaned up the processes and now they can start working on more strategic initiatives.

Holding On vs Embracing Change – I see two different views evolving by CIOs. Many are holding on tightly to the old Chief Infrastructure Officer versus embracing the new Chief Innovation Officer mindset. CHIME is certainly espousing the view of the CIO becoming a Chief Innovation Officer and it’s the view that I think is best as well. However, there are plenty of CIOs that just want to provide the technology to their organization. It will be interesting to see what happens to both of these approaches to the CIO position.

Those are some high-level thoughts from talking with CIOs at the CHIME Fall Forum. What are you seeing? Are you seeing or hearing anything different from what I described above? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Health Data Tracking Is Creeping Into Professional Sports

Posted on October 27, 2017 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.

Pro athletes are used to having their performance tracked minutely, not only by team owners but also by legions of fans for whom data on their favorite players is a favored currency. However, athletic data tracking has taken on a shape with the emergence of wearable devices.

For example, in spring of last year, Major League Baseball approved two devices for use during games, the Motus Baseball Sleeve, which tracks stress on elbows, and the Zephyr Bioharness, which monitors heart and breathing rates, skin temperature and sleep cycle.

In what must be a disappointment to fans, data from the devices isn’t available in real time and only can be downloaded after games. Also, clubs use the data for internal purposes only, which includes sharing it with the player but no one else. Broadcasters and other commercial entities can’t access it.

More recently, in April of this year, the National Football League Players Association struck a deal with wearables vendor WHOOP under which its band will track athletes’ performance data. The WHOOP Strap 2.0 measures data 100 times per second then transmits the data automatically to its mobile and web apps for analysis and performance recommendations.

Unlike with the MLB agreement, NFL players own and control the individual data collected by the device, and retain the rights to sell their WHOOP data through the Players Association group licensing program.

Not all athletes are comfortable with the idea of having their performance data collected. For example, as an article in The Atlantic notes, players in the National Basketball Association included the right to opt out of using biometric trackers in their latest collective-bargaining agreement, which specifies that teams requesting a player wear one explain in writing what’s being tracked and how the team will use the information.  The agreement also includes a clause stating that the data can’t be used or referenced as part of player contract negotiations.

Now, it’s worth taking a moment to note that concerns over the management of professional athlete performance data file into a different bucket than the resale of de-identified patient data. The athletic data is generated only during the game, while consumer wearables collect data the entire time a patient is awake and sometimes when they sleep. The devices targeting athletes are designed to capture massive amounts of data, while consumer wearables collect data sporadically and perhaps not so accurately at times.

Nonetheless, the two forms of data collection are part of a larger pattern in which detailed health data tracking is becoming the norm. Athletic clubs may put it to a different purpose, but both consumer and professional data use are part of an emerging trend in which health monitoring is a 24/7 thing. Right now, consumers themselves generally can’t earn money by selling their individual data, but maybe there should be an app for that.

Health IT Continues To Drive Healthcare Leaders’ Agenda

Posted on October 23, 2017 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.

A new study laying out opportunities, challenges and issues in healthcare likely to emerge in 2018 demonstrates that health IT is very much top of mind for healthcare leaders.

The 2018 HCEG Top 10 list, which is published by the Healthcare Executive Group, was created based on feedback from executives at its 2017 Annual Forum in Nashville, TN. Participants included health plans, health systems and provider organizations.

The top item on the list was “Clinical and Data Analytics,” which the list describes as leveraging big data with clinical evidence to segment populations, manage health and drive decisions. The second-place slot was occupied by “Population Health Services Organizations,” which, it says, operationalize population health strategy and chronic care management, drive clinical innovation and integrate social determinants of health.

The list also included “Harnessing Mobile Health Technology,” which included improving disease management and member engagement in data collection/distribution; “The Engaged Digital Consumer,” which by its definition includes HSAs, member/patient portals and health and wellness education materials; and cybersecurity.

Other hot issues named by the group include value-based payments, cost transparency, total consumer health, healthcare reform and addressing pharmacy costs.

So, readers, do you agree with HCEG’s priorities? Has the list left off any important topics?

In my case, I’d probably add a few items to list. For example, I may be getting ahead of the industry, but I’d argue that healthcare AI-related technologies might belong there. While there’s a whole separate article to be written here, in short, I believe that both AI-driven data analytics and consumer-facing technologies like medical chatbots have tremendous potential.

Also, I was surprised to see that care coordination improvements didn’t top respondents’ list of concerns. Admittedly, some of the list items might involve taking coordination to the next level, but the executives apparently didn’t identify it as a top priority.

Finally, as unsexy as the topic is for most, I would have thought that some form of health IT infrastructure spending or broader IT investment concerns might rise to the top of this list. Even if these executives didn’t discuss it, my sense from looking at multiple information sources is that providers are, and will continue to be, hard-pressed to allocate enough funds for IT.

Of course, if the executives involved can address even a few of their existing top 10 items next year, they’ll be doing pretty well. For example, we all know that providers‘ ability to manage value-based contracting is minimal in many cases, so making progress would be worthwhile. Participants like hospitals and clinics still need time to get their act together on value-based care, and many are unlikely to be on top of things by 2018.

There are also problems, like population health management, which involve processes rather than a destination. Providers will be struggling to address it well beyond 2018. That being said, it’d be great if healthcare execs could improve their results next year.

Nit-picking aside, HCEG’s Top 10 list is largely dead-on. The question is whether will be able to step up and address all of these things. Fingers crossed!

Alexa Can Truly Give Patients a Voice in Their Health Care (Part 3 of 3)

Posted on October 20, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Earlier parts of this article set the stage for understanding what the Alexa Diabetes Challenge is trying to achieve and how some finalists interpreted the mandate. We examine three more finalists in this final section.

DiaBetty from the University of Illinois-Chicago

DiaBetty focuses on a single, important aspect of diabetes: the effect of depression on the course of the disease. This project, developed by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois-Chicago, does many of the things that other finalists in this article do–accepting data from EHRs, dialoguing with the individual, presenting educational materials on nutrition and medication, etc.–but with the emphasis on inquiring about mood and handling the impact that depression-like symptoms can have on behavior that affects Type 2 diabetes.

Olu Ajilore, Associate Professor and co-director of the CoNECt lab, told me that his department benefited greatly from close collaboration with bioengineering and computer science colleagues who, before DiaBetty, worked on another project that linked computing with clinical needs. Although they used some built-in capabilities of the Alexa, they may move to Lex or another AI platform and build a stand-alone device. Their next step is to develop reliable clinical trials, checking the effect of DiaBetty on health outcomes such as medication compliance, visits, and blood sugar levels, as well as cost reductions.

T2D2 from Columbia University

Just as DiaBetty explores the impact of mood on diabetes, T2D2 (which stands for “Taming Type 2 Diabetes, Together”) focuses on nutrition. Far more than sugar intake is involved in the health of people with diabetes. Elliot Mitchell, a PhD student who led the T2D2 team under Assistant Professor Lena Mamykina in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, told me that the balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) is important.

T2D2 is currently a prototype, developed as a combination of Alexa Skill and a chatbot based on Lex. The Alexa Skills Kit handle voice interactions. Both the Skill and the chatbot communicate with a back end that handles accounts and logic. Although related Columbia University technology in diabetes self-management is used, both the NLP and the voice interface were developed specifically for the Alexa Diabetes Challenge. The T2D2 team included people from the disciplines of computer interaction, data science, nursing, and behavioral nutrition.

The user invokes Alexa to tell it blood sugar values and the contents of meals. T2D2, in response, offers recipe recommendations and other advice. Like many of the finalists in this article, it looks back at meals over time, sees how combinations of nutrients matched changes in blood sugar, and personalizes its food recommendations.

For each patient, before it gets to know that patient’s diet, T2D2 can make food recommendations based on what is popular in their ZIP code. It can change these as it watches the patient’s choices and records comments to recommendations (for instance, “I don’t like that food”).

Data is also anonymized and aggregated for both recommendations and future research.

The care team and family caregivers are also involved, although less intensely than some other finalists do. The patient can offer caregivers a one-page report listing a plot of blood sugar by time and day for the previous two weeks, along with goals and progress made, and questions. The patient can also connect her account and share key medical information with family and friends, a feature called the Supportive Network.

The team’s next phase is run studies to evaluable some of assumptions they made when developing T2D2, and improve it for eventual release into the field.

Sugarpod from Wellpepper

I’ll finish this article with the winner of the challenge, already covered by an earlier article. Since the publication of the article, according to the founder and CEO of Wellpepper, Anne Weiler, the company has integrated some of Sugarpod functions into a bathroom scale. When a person stands on the scale, it takes an image of their feet and uploads it to sites that both the individual and their doctor can view. A machine learning image classifier can check the photo for problems such as diabetic foot ulcers. The scale interface can also ask the patient for quick information such as whether they took their medication and what their blood sugar is. Extended conversations are avoided, under the assumption that people don’t want to have them in the bathroom. The company designed its experiences to be integrated throughout the person’s day: stepping on the scale and answering a few questions in the morning, interacting with the care plan on a mobile device at work, and checking notifications and messages with an Echo device in the evening.

Any machine that takes pictures can arouse worry when installed in a bathroom. While taking the challenge and talking to people with diabetes, Wellpepper learned to add a light that goes on when the camera is taking a picture.

This kind of responsiveness to patient representatives in the field will determine the success of each of the finalists in this challenge. They all strive for behavioral change through connected health, and this strategy is completely reliant on engagement, trust, and collaboration by the person with a chronic illness.

The potential of engagement through voice is just beginning to be tapped. There is evidence, for instance, that serious illnesses can be diagnosed by analyzing voice patterns. As we come up on the annual Connected Health Conference this month, I will be interested to see how many participating developers share the common themes that turned up during the Alexa Diabetes Challenge.

Alexa Can Truly Give Patients a Voice in Their Health Care (Part 2 of 3)

Posted on October 19, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The first part of this article introduced the problems of computer interfaces in health care and mentioned some current uses for natural language processing (NLP) for apps aimed at clinicians. I also summarized the common goals, problems, and solutions I found among the five finalists in the Alexa Diabetes Challenge. This part of the article shows the particular twist given by each finalist.

My GluCoach from HCL America in Partnership With Ayogo

There are two levels from which to view My GluCoach. On one level, it’s an interactive tool exemplifying one of the goals I listed earlier–intense engagement with patients over daily behavior–as well as the theme of comprehensivenesss. The interactions that My GluCoach offers were divided into three types by Abhishek Shankar, a Vice President at HCL Technologies America:

  • Teacher: the service can answer questions about diabetes and pull up stored educational materials

  • Coach: the service can track behavior by interacting with devices and prompt the patient to eat differently or go out for exercise. In addition to asking questions, a patient can set up Alexa to deliver alarms at particular times, a feature My GluCoach uses to deliver advice.

  • Assistant: provide conveniences to the patient, such as ordering a cab to take her to an appointment.

On a higher level, My GluCoach fits into broader services offered to health care institutions by HCL Technologies as part of a population health program. In creating the service HCL partnered with Ayogo, which develops a mobile platform for patient engagement and tracking. HCL has also designed the service as a general health care platform that can be expanded over the next six to twelve months to cover medical conditions besides diabetes.

Another theme I discussed earlier, interactions with outside data and the use of machine learning, are key to my GluCoach. For its demo at the challenge, My GluCoach took data about exercise from a Fitbit. It can potentially work with any device that shares information, and HCL plans to integrate the service with common EHRs. As My GluCoach gets to know the individual who uses it over months and years, it can tailor its responses more and more intelligently to the learning style and personality of the patient.

Patterns of eating, medical compliance, and other data are not the only input to machine learning. Shankar pointed out that different patients require different types of interventions. Some simply want to be given concrete advice and told what to do. Others want to be presented with information and then make their own decisions. My GluCoach will hopefully adapt to whatever style works best for the particular individual. This affective response–together with a general tone of humor and friendliness–will win the trust of the individual.

PIA from Ejenta

PIA, which stands for “personal intelligent agent,” manages care plans, delivering information to the affected patients as well as their care teams and concerned relatives. It collects medical data and draws conclusions that allow it to generate alerts if something seems wrong. Patients can also ask PIA how they are doing, and the agent will respond with personalized feedback and advice based on what the agent has learned about them and their care plan.

I talked to Rachna Dhamija, who worked on a team that developed PIA as the founder and CEO of Ejenta. (The name Ejenta is a version of the word “agent” that entered the Bengali language as slang.) She said that the AI technology had been licensed from NASA, which had developed it to monitor astronauts’ health and other aspects of flights. Ejenta helped turn it into a care coordination tool with interfaces for the web and mobile devices at a major HMO to treat patients with chronic heart failure and high-risk pregnancies. Ejenta expanded their platform to include an Alexa interface for the diabetes challenge.

As a care management tool, PIA records targets such as glucose levels, goals, medication plans, nutrition plans, and action parameters such as how often to take measurements using the devices. Each caregiver, along the patient, has his or her own agent, and caregivers can monitor multiple patients. The patient has very granular control over sharing, telling PIA which kind of data can be sent to each caretaker. Access rights must be set on the web or a mobile device, because allowing Alexa to be used for that purpose might let someone trick the system into thinking he was the patient.

Besides Alexa, PIA takes data from devices (scales, blood glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors, etc.) and from EHRs in a HIPAA-compliant method. Because the service cannot wake up Alexa, it currently delivers notifications, alerts, and reminders by sending a secure message to the provider’s agent. The provider can then contact the patient by email or mobile phone. The team plans to integrate PIA with an Alexa notifications feature in the future, so that PIA can proactively communicate with the patient via Alexa.

PIA goes beyond the standard rules for alerts, allowing alerts and reminders to be customized based on what it learns about the patient. PIA uses machine learning to discover what is normal activity (such as weight fluctuations) for each patient and to make predictions based on the data, which can be shared with the care team.

The final section of this article covers DiaBetty, T2D2, and Sugarpod, the remaining finalists.

Alexa Can Truly Give Patients a Voice in Their Health Care (Part 1 of 3)

Posted on October 16, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The leading pharmaceutical and medical company Merck, together with Amazon Web Services, has recently been exploring the potential health impacts of voice interfaces and natural language processing (NLP) through an Alexa Diabetes Challenge. I recently talked to the five finalists in this challenge. This article explores the potential of new interfaces to transform the handling of chronic disease, and what the challenge reveals about currently available technology.

Alexa, of course, is the ground-breaking system that brings everyday voice interaction with computers into the home. Most of its uses are trivial (you can ask about today’s weather or change channels on your TV), but one must not underestimate the immense power of combining artificial intelligence with speech, one of the most basic and essential human activities. The potential of this interface for disabled or disoriented people is particularly intriguing.

The diabetes challenge is a nice focal point for exploring the more serious contribution made by voice interfaces and NLP. Because of the alarming global spread of this illness, the challenge also presents immediate opportunities that I hope the participants succeed in productizing and releasing into the field. Using the challenge’s published criteria, the judges today announced Sugarpod from Wellpepper as the winner.

This article will list some common themes among the five finalists, look at the background about current EHR interfaces and NLP, and say a bit about the unique achievement of each finalist.

Common themes

Overlapping visions of goals, problems, and solutions appeared among the finalists I interviewed for the diabetes challenge:

  • A voice interface allows more frequent and easier interactions with at-risk individuals who have chronic conditions, potentially achieving the behavioral health goal of helping a person make the right health decisions on a daily or even hourly basis.

  • Contestants seek to integrate many levels of patient intervention into their tools: responding to questions, collecting vital signs and behavioral data, issuing alerts, providing recommendations, delivering educational background material, and so on.

  • Services in this challenge go far beyond interactions between Alexa and the individual. The systems commonly anonymize and aggregate data in order to perform analytics that they hope will improve the service and provide valuable public health information to health care providers. They also facilitate communication of crucial health data between the individual and her care team.

  • Given the use of data and AI, customization is a big part of the tools. They are expected to determine the unique characteristics of each patient’s disease and behavior, and adapt their advice to the individual.

  • In addition to Alexa’s built-in language recognition capabilities, Amazon provides the Lex service for sophisticated text processing. Some contestants used Lex, while others drew on other research they had done building their own natural language processing engines.

  • Alexa never initiates a dialog, merely responding when the user wakes it up. The device can present a visual or audio notification when new material is present, but it still depends on the user to request the content. Thus, contestants are using other channels to deliver reminders and alerts such as messaging on the individual’s cell phone or alerting a provider.

  • Alexa is not HIPAA-compliant, but may achieve compliance in the future. This would help health services turn their voice interfaces into viable products and enter the mainstream.

Some background on interfaces and NLP

The poor state of current computing interfaces in the medical field is no secret–in fact, it is one of the loudest and most insistent complaints by doctors, such as on sites like KevinMD. You can visit Healthcare IT News or JAMA regularly and read the damning indictments.

Several factors can be blamed for this situation, including unsophisticated electronic health records (EHRs) and arbitrary reporting requirements by Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Natural language processing may provide one of the technical solutions to these problems. The NLP services by Nuance are already famous. An encouraging study finds substantial time savings through using NLP to enter doctor’s insights. And on the other end–where doctors are searching the notes they previously entered for information–a service called Butter.ai uses NLP for intelligent searches. Unsurprisingly, the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) looks forward to the contributions of NLP.

Some app developers are now exploring voice interfaces and NLP on the patient side. I covered two such companies, including the one that ultimately won the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, in another article. In general, developers using these interfaces hope to eliminate the fuss and abstraction in health apps that frustrate many consumers, thereby reaching new populations and interacting with them more frequently, with deeper relationships.

The next two parts of this article turn to each of the five finalists, to show the use they are making of Alexa.

Eliminate These Five Flaws to Improve Asset Utilization in Healthcare

Posted on October 4, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mohan Giridharadas, Founder and CEO, LeanTaaS.

The passage of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act accelerated the deployment of electronic health records (EHRs) across healthcare. The overwhelming focus was to capture every patient encounter and place it into an integrated system of records. Equipped with this massive database of patient data, health systems believed they could make exponential improvements to patient experiences and outcomes.

The pace of this migration resulted in some shortcuts being taken — the consequences of which are now apparent to discerning CFOs and senior leaders. Among these shortcuts was the use of resources and capacity as the basis of scheduling patients; this concept is used by hundreds of schedulers in every health system. While simple to grasp, the definition is mathematically flawed.

Not being able to offer a new patient an appointment for at least 10 days negatively impacts the patient experience. Likewise, exceeding capacity by scheduling too many appointments results in long wait times for patients, which also negatively impacts their experience. The troubling paradox is that the very asset creating long wait times and long lead times for appointments also happens to perform at ~50 percent utilization virtually every day. The impact of a mathematically flawed foundation results in alternating between overutilization (causing long patient wait times and/or long delays in securing an appointment) and under-utilization (a waste of expensive capital and human assets).

Here are five specific flaws in the mathematical foundation of health system scheduling:

1. A medical appointment is a stochastic — not deterministic — event.

Every health system has some version of this grid — assets across the top, times of the day for each day of the week along the side — on paper, in electronic format or on a whiteboard. The assets could be specific (e.g., the GE MRI machine or virtual MRI #1, #2, etc.). As an appointment gets confirmed, the appropriate range of time on the grid gets filled in to indicate that the slot has been reserved.

Your local racquet club uses this approach to reserve tennis courts for its members. It works beautifully because the length of a court reservation is precisely known (i.e., deterministic) to be exactly one hour in duration. Imagine the chaos if club rules were changed to allow players to hold their reservation even if they arrive late (up to 30 minutes late) and play until they were tired (up to a maximum of two hours). This would make the start and end times for a specific tennis appointment random (i.e., stochastic). Having a reservation would no longer mean you would actually get on the court at your scheduled time. This happens to patients every day across many parts of a health system. The only way to address the fact that a deterministic framework was used to schedule a stochastic event is to “reserve capacity” either in the form of a time buffer (i.e., pretend that each appointment is actually longer than necessary) or as an asset buffer (i.e., hold some assets in reserve).

2. The asset cannot be scheduled in isolation; a staff member has to complete the treatment.

Every appointment needs a nurse, provider or technician to complete the treatment. These staff members are scheduled independently and have highly variable workloads throughout the day. Having an asset that is available without estimating the probability of the appropriate staff member also being available at that exact time will invariably result in delays. Imagine if the tennis court required the club pro be present for the first 10 and last 10 minutes of every tennis appointment. The grid system wouldn’t work in that case either (unless the club was willing to have one tennis pro on the staff for every tennis court).

3. It requires an estimation of probabilities.

Medical appointments have a degree of randomness — no-shows, cancellations and last-minute add-ons are a fact of life, and some appointments run longer or shorter than expected. Every other scheduling system faced with such uncertainty incorporates the mathematics of probability theory. For example, airlines routinely overbook their flights; the exact number of overbooked seats sold depends on the route, the day and the flight. They usually get it right, and the cancellations and no-shows create enough room for the standby passengers. Occasionally, they get it wrong and more passengers hold tickets than the number of seats on the airplane. This results in the familiar process of finding volunteers willing to take a later flight in exchange for some sort of compensation. Nothing in the EHR or scheduling systems used by hospitals allows for this strategic use of probability theory to improve asset utilization.

4. Start time and duration are independent variables.

Continuing with the airplane analogy: As a line of planes work their way toward the runway for departure, the controller really doesn’t care about each flight’s duration. Her job is to get each plane safely off the ground with an appropriate gap between successive takeoffs. If one 8-hour flight were to be cancelled, the controller cannot suddenly decide to squeeze in eight 1-hour flights in its place. Yet, EHRs and scheduling systems have conflated start time and appointment duration into a single variable. Managers, department leaders and schedulers have been taught that if they discover a 4-hour opening in the “appointment grid” for any specific asset, they are free to schedule any of the following combinations:

  • One 4-hour appointment
  • Two 2-hour appointments
  • One 2-hour appointment and two 1-hour appointments in any order
  • One 3-hour appointment and one 1-hour appointment in either order
  • Four 1-hour appointments

These are absolutely not equivalent choices. Each has wildly different resource-loading implications for the staff, and each choice has a different probability profile of starting or ending on time. This explains why the perfectly laid out appointment grid at the start of each day almost never materializes as planned.

5. Setting appointments is more complicated than first-come, first-served.

Schedulers typically make appointments on a first-come, first-served basis. If a patient were scheduling an infusion treatment or MRI far in advance, the patient would likely hear “the calendar is pretty open on that day — what time would you like?” What seems like a patient-friendly gesture is actually mathematically incorrect. The appointment options for each future day should be a carefully orchestrated set of slots of varying durations that will result in the flattest load profile possible. In fact, blindly honoring patient appointment requests just “kicks the can down the road”; the scheduler has merely swapped the inconvenience of appointment time negotiation for excessive patient delays on the day of treatment. Instead, the scheduler should steer the patient to one of the recommended appointment slots based on the duration for that patient’s specific treatment.

In the mid-1980s, Sun Microsystems famously proclaimed that the “network is the computer.” The internet and cloud computing were not yet a thing, so most people could not grasp the concept of computers needing to be interconnected and that the computation would take place in the network and not on the workstation. In healthcare scheduling, “the duration is the resource” — the number of slots of a specific duration must be counted and allocated judiciously at various points throughout the day. Providers should carefully forecast the volume and the duration mix of patients they expect to serve for every asset on every day of the week. With that knowledge the provider will know, for example, that on Mondays, we need 10 1-hour treatments, 15 2-hour treatments and so on. Schedulers could then strategically decide to space appointments throughout the day (or cluster them in the morning or afternoon) by offering up two 1-hour slots at 7:10 a.m., one 1-hour slot at 7:40 a.m., etc. The allocation pattern matches the availability of the staff and the underlying asset to deliver the most level-loaded schedule for each day. In this construct, the duration is the resource being offered up to patients one at a time with the staff and asset availability as mathematical constraints to the equation (along with dozens of other operational constraints).

Health systems need to re-evaluate the mathematical foundation used to guide their day-to-day operations — and upon which the quality of the patient experience relies. All the macro forces in healthcare (more patients, older patients, higher incidence of chronic illnesses, lower reimbursements, push toward value-based care, tighter operating and capital budgets) indicate an urgent need to be able to do more with existing assets without upsetting patient flow. A strong mathematical foundation will enable a level of operational excellence to help health systems increase their effective capacity for treating more patients while simultaneously improving the overall flow and reducing the wait time.

About Mohan Giridharadas
Mohan Giridharadas is an accomplished expert in lean methodologies. During his 18-year career at McKinsey & Company (where he was a senior partner/director for six years), he co-created the lean service operations practice and ran the North American lean manufacturing and service operations practices and the Asia-Pacific operations practice. He has helped numerous Fortune 500 companies drive operational efficiency with lean practices. As founder and CEO of LeanTaaS, a Silicon Valley-based innovator of cloud-based solutions to healthcare’s biggest challenges, Mohan works closely with dozens of leading healthcare institutions including Stanford Health Care, UCHealth, NewYork-Presbyterian, Cleveland Clinic, MD Anderson and more. Mohan holds a B.Tech from IIT Bombay, MS in Computer Science from Georgia Institute of Technology and an MBA from Stanford GSB. He is on the faculty of Continuing Education at Stanford University and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and has been named by Becker’s Hospital Review as one of the top entrepreneurs innovating in healthcare. For more information on LeanTaaS, please visit http://www.leantaas.com and follow the company on Twitter @LeanTaaS, Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeanTaaS and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/leantaas.

Translating Social Determinants of Health Into Clinical Action

Posted on September 25, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Anton Berisha, MD, Senior Director, Clinical Analytics and Innovation, Health Care, LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
The medical community recognizes the importance of social determinants of health (SDOH) – social, economic and environmental conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age that impact their health – as significant and direct risk factors for a large number of health care outcomes.

The negative outcomes include stress, mental health and behavioral disorders, alcoholism and substance abuse, to name a few. Negative SDOH worsen a slew of major chronic conditions, from hypertension and Coronary Artery Disease to obesity; they also lead to lower patient engagement and medication adherence while increasing low-intensity ER visits and hospital admissions and readmissions.

In fact, a study shows that medical care determines only 20% of overall health outcomes while social, economic and environmental factors determine about 50% of overall health. The National Quality Forum, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization have all acknowledged the importance of addressing SDOH in health care.

Not all SDOH are “created equal”

When it comes to SDOH, there is a misconception that all data regarding a person’s lifestyle, environment, situation and behaviors relate to their health. Although there is a myriad of basic demographic data, survey data and other Electronic Health Records (EHR) data available to providers today, much of it has a limited potential for identifying additional health costs and risks.

The key to addressing SDOH is to use current, comprehensive and longitudinal data that can be consistently linked to specific patient populations and provided in a standardized format. One example is attributes derived from public records data such as proximity to relatives, education, income, bankruptcy, addresses and criminal convictions.

Moreover, each SDOH attribute has to be clinically validated against actual healthcare outcomes. Clinically validating attributes is critical to successful predictive analytics because some attributes do not correlate strongly to health outcomes.

For example, while knowing how close an individual’s nearest relative or associate lives to the patient does correlate to health outcomes; knowing how many of those relatives or associates have registered automobiles does not. Even when attributes are clinically validated, different attributes correlate to different outcomes with different accuracy strengths.

Translating SDOH into actionable intelligence

After SDOH have been correlated to healthcare outcomes, providers have two implementation options. One is to use relevant individual SDOH attributes per outcome in clinical and analytic models to better assess and predict risk for patients. Another is to use SDOH as part of risk scores estimating specific healthcare risks; for e.g., to estimate an individual’s total health care risk over the next 12 months based on cost; a 30-day readmission risk; or a patient engagement score.

Risk estimation can be done either in combination with other types of legacy healthcare data, such as claims, prescription and EHR data or with SDOH alone, in the absence of medical claims.

Recently, a client of LexisNexis® Health Care did an independent study to evaluate the impact and usefulness of Socioeconomic Health Score (SEHS) in risk assessment for several key chronic conditions, when no other data are available. Findings proved that the top decile of SEHS captures significantly more members with given conditions than the bottom decile. The study concluded that the difference was important and very helpful in estimating risks in a newly acquired population without legacy healthcare data.

Integrating SDOH into clinical workflows and care recommendations

Validated SDOH can be presented in a form of risk drivers or reason codes directing the clinician toward the most important factors influencing a given negative outcome for each patient: income, education, housing or criminal records.

The risk drivers and reason codes can then be integrated into workflows within the clinician’s IT systems, such as the EHR or care and case management, in the form of an easy-to-understand presentation. It could be a data alert that is customizable to patients, treatments and conditions, helping the provider make score-based decisions with greater accuracy and confidence. At this point, the SDOH information becomes actionable because it has the following characteristics:

  • It is based on hard facts on every individual.
  • It is based on correlation and statistical significance testing of large pools of patients with similar behavior.
  • It provides clear and understandable reason codes driving the negative outcomes.
  • It can be tied to intervention strategies (outlined below) that have demonstrated positive results.

Clinicians empowered with actionable SDOH information can modify their interventions and follow-up strategies accordingly. Based on resources at hand, patients living in negative SDOH could be either properly managed by clinicians themselves or other medical staff, social workers and newly created roles such as health coaches. Sub-populations at risk could benefit from access to community resources to get help with housing (permanent supportive housing for homeless), transportation, education, childcare and employment assistance.

Moreover, SDOH are particularly effective in helping providers develop a population health management strategy fueled by prioritized tactics for preventive care. Tactics can range from promotion of healthy food to free screening services. For patients with chronic diseases (who can typically be managed appropriately when they adhere to therapy and healthy lifestyle choices), SDOH-informed interventions can help keep them under control and potentially reduce severity. For patients recently released from the hospital, aftercare counseling could prevent complications and readmissions.

To sum it up

Socioeconomic data is a vital force for healthcare risk prediction as it provides a view into the otherwise hidden risks that cannot be identified through traditional data sources. When SDOH are clinically validated and correlated to healthcare outcomes, they help providers better understand an individual’s risk level and address it through appropriate intervention strategies.

Searching EMR For Risk-Related Words Can Improve Care Coordination

Posted on September 18, 2017 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.

Though healthcare organizations are working on the problem, they’re still not as good at care coordination as they should be. It’s already an issue and will only get worse under value-based care schemes, in which the ability to coordinate care effectively could be a critical issue for providers.

Admittedly, there’s no easy way to solve care coordination problems, but new research suggests that basic health IT tools might be able to help. The researchers found that digging out important words from EMRs can help providers target patients needing extra care management and coordination.

The article, which appears in JMIR Medical Informatics, notes that most care coordination programs have a blind spot when it comes to identifying cases demanding extra coordination. “Care coordination programs have traditionally focused on medically complex patients, identifying patients that qualify by analyzing formatted clinical data and claims data,” the authors wrote. “However, not all clinically relevant data reside in claims and formatted data.”

For example, they say, relying on formatted records may cause providers to miss psychosocial risk factors such as social determinants of health, mental health disorder, and substance abuse disorders. “[This data is] less amenable to rapid and systematic data analyses, as these data are often not collected or stored as formatted data,” the authors note.

To address this issue, the researchers set out to identify psychosocial risk factors buried within a patient’s EHR using word recognition software. They used a tool known as the Queriable Patient Inference Dossier (QPID) to scan EHRs for terms describing high-risk conditions in patients already in care coordination programs.

After going through the review process, the researchers found 22 EHR-available search terms related to psychosocial high-risk status. When they were able to find nine or more of these terms in the patient’s EHR, it predicted that a patient would meet criteria for participation in a care coordination program. Presumably, this approach allowed care managers and clinicians to find patients who hadn’t been identified by existing care coordination outreach efforts.

I think this article is valuable, as it outlines a way to improve care coordination programs without leaping over tall buildings. Obviously, we’re going to see a lot more emphasis on harvesting information from structured data, tools like artificial intelligence, and natural language processing. That makes sense. After all, these technologies allow healthcare organizations to enjoy both the clear organization of structured data and analytical options available when examining pure data sets. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Obviously, we’re going to see a lot more emphasis on harvesting information from structured data, tools like artificial intelligence and natural language processing. That makes sense. After all, these technologies allow healthcare organizations to enjoy both the clear organization of structured data and analytical options available when examining pure data sets. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Still, it’s good to know that you can get meaningful information from EHRs using a comparatively simple tool. In this case, parsing patient medical records for a couple dozen keywords helped the authors find patients that might have otherwise been missed. This can only be good news.

Yes, there’s no doubt we’ll keep on pushing the limits of predictive analytics, healthcare AI, machine learning and other techniques for taming wild databases. In the meantime, it’s good to know that we can make incremental progress in improving care using simpler tools.

Analytics Take an Unusual Turn at PeraHealth

Posted on August 17, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Data scientists in all fields have learned to take data from unusual places. You’d think that monitoring people in a hospital for changes in their conditions would be easier than other data-driven tasks, such as tracking planets in far-off solar systems, but in all cases some creativity is needed. That’s what PeraHealth, a surveillance system for hospital patients, found out while developing alerts for clinicians.

It’s remarkably hard to identify at-risk patients in hospitals, even with so many machines and staff busy monitoring them. For instance, a nurse on each shift may note in the patient’s record that certain vital signs are within normal range, and no one might notice that the vital signs are gradually trending worse and worse–until a crisis occurs.

PeraHealth identifies at-risk patients through analytics and dashboards that doctors and nurses can pull up. They can see trends over a period of several shifts, and quickly see which patients in the ward are the most at risk. PeraHealth is a tool for both clinical surveillance and communication.

Michael Rothman, co-founder and Chief Science Officer, personally learned the dangers of insufficient monitoring in 2003 when a low-risk operation on his mother led to complications and her unfortunate death. Rothman and his brother decided to make something positive from the tragedy. They got permission from the hospital to work there for three weeks, applying Michael’s background in math and data analysis (he has worked in the AI department of IBM’s Watson research labs, among other places) and his brother’s background in data visualization. Their goal, arguably naive: to find a single number that summarizes patient risk, and expose that information in a usable way to clinicians.

Starting with 70 patients from the cardiac unit, they built a statistical model that they tested repeatedly with 1,200 patients, 6,000 patients, and finally 25,000 patients. At first they hoped to identify extra data that the nurse could enter into the record, but the chief nurse laid down, in no uncertain terms, that the staff was already too busy and that collecting more data was out of the question. It came time to get creative with data that was already being collected and stored.

The unexpected finding was that vital signs were not a reliable basis for assessing a patient’s trends. Even though they’re “hard” (supposedly objective) data, they bounce around too much.

Instead of relying on just vital signs, PeraHealth also pulls in nursing assessments–an often under-utilized source of information. On each shift, a nurse records information on a dozen different physical systems as well as essential facts such as whether a patient stopping eating or was having trouble walking. It turns out that this sort of information reliably indicates whether there’s a problem. Many of the assessments are simple, yes/no questions.

Rothman analyzed hospital data to find variables that predicted risk. For instance, he compared the heart rates of 25,000 patients before they left the hospital and checked who lived for a year longer. The results formed a U-shaped curve, showing that heart rates above a certain level or below a certain level predicted a bad outcome. It turns out that this meaure works equally well within the hospital, helping to predict admission to the ICU, readmission to the ICU, and readmission after discharge.

The PeraHealth team integrated their tool with the hospital’s EHR and started producing graphs for the clinicians in 2007. Now they can point to more than 25 peer-reviewed articles endorsing their approach, some studies comparing before-and-after outcomes, and others comparing different parts of the hospital with some using PeraHealth and others not using it. The service is now integrated with major EHR vendors.

PeraHealth achieved Rothman’s goal of producing a single meaningful score to rate patient risk. Each new piece of data that goes into the EHR triggers a real-time recalculation of the score and a new dot on a graph presented to the nurses. In order to save the nurses from signing into the EHR, PeraHealth put a dashboard on the nurse’s kiosk with all the patients’ graphs. Color-coding denotes which patients are sickest. PeraHealth also shows which patients to attend to first. In case no one looks at the screen, at some hospitals the system sends out text alerts to doctors about the most concerned patients.

PeraHealth is now expanding. In an experiment, they did phone interviews with people in a senior residential facility, and identified many of those who were deteriorating. So the basic techniques may be widely applicable to data-driven clinical decision support. But without analytics, one never knows which data is most useful.