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Vocera Aims For More Intelligent Hospital Interventions

Posted on November 14, 2016 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.

Everyday scenes that Vocera Communications would like to eliminate from hospitals:

  • A nurse responds to an urgent change in the patient’s condition. While the nurse is caring for the patient, monitors continue to go off with alerts about the situation, distracting her and increasing the stress for both herself and the patient.

  • A monitor beeps in response to a dangerous change in a patient’s condition. A nurse pages the physician in charge. The physician calls back to the nurse’s station, but the nurse is off on another task. They play telephone tag while patient needs go unmet around the floor.

  • A nurse is engaged in a delicate operation when her mobile device goes off, distracting her at a crucial moment. Neither the patient she is currently working with nor the one whose condition triggered the alert gets the attention he needs.

  • A nurse describes a change in a patient’s condition to a physician, who promises to order a new medication. The nurse then checks the medical record every few minutes in the hope of seeing when the order went through. (This is similar to a common computing problem called “polling”, where a software or hardware component wakes up regularly just to see whether data has come in for it to handle.)

Wasteful, nerve-racking situations such as these have caught the attention of Vocera over the past several years as it has rolled out communications devices and services for hospital staff, and have just been driven forward by its purchase of the software firm Extension Healthcare.

Vocera Communications’ and Extension Healthcare’s solutions blend to take pressures off clinicians in hospitals and improve their responses to patient needs. According to Brent Lang, President and CEO of Vocera Communications, the two companies partnered together on 40 customers before the acquisition. They take data from multiple sources–such as patient monitors and electronic health records–to make intelligent decisions about “when to send alarms, whom to send them to, and what information to include” so the responding nurse or doctor has the information needed to make a quick and effective intervention.

Hospitals are gradually adopting technological solutions that other parts of society got used to long ago. People are gradually moving away from setting their lights and thermostats by hand to Internet-of-Things systems that can adjust the lights and thermostats according to who is in the house. The combination of Vocera and Extension Healthcare should be able to do the same for patient care.

One simple example concerns the first scenario with which I started this article. Vocera can integrate with the hospital’s location monitoring (through devices worn by health personnel) that the system can consult to see whether the nurse is in the same room as the patient for whom the alert is generated. The system can then stop forwarding alarms about that patient to the nurse.

The nurse can also inform the system when she is busy, and alerts from other patients can be sent to a back-up nurse.

Extension Healthcare can deliver messages to a range of devices, but the Vocera badge and smartphone app work particularly well with it because they can deliver contextual information instead of just an alert. Hospitals can define protocols stating that when certain types of devices deliver certain types of alerts, they should be accompanied by particular types of data (such as relevant vital signs). Extension Healthcare can gather and deliver the data, which the Vocera badge or smartphone app can then display.

Lang hopes the integrated systems can help the professionals prioritize their interventions. Nurses are interrupt-driven, and it’s hard for them to keep the most important tasks in mind–a situation that leads to burn-out. The solutions Vocera is putting together may significantly change workflows and improve care.

A New Meaning for Connected Health at 2016 Symposium (Part 4 of 4)

Posted on November 8, 2016 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 previous section of this article continued our exploration of the integration of health care into daily life. This section wraps up the article with related insights, including some thoughts about the future.

Memorable moments
I had the chance to meet with Casper de Clercq, who has set up a venture capital plan devoted to health as a General Partner at Norwest Venture Partners. He recommends that manufacturers and clinicians give patients a device that collects data while doing something else they find useful, so that they are motivated to keep wearing it. As an example, he cited the Beddit sleep tracker, which works through sensors embedded (no pun intended) in the user’s bed.

He has found that successful companies pursue gradual, incremental steps toward automated programs. It is important to start with a manual process that works (such as phoning or texting patients from the provider), then move to semi-automation and finally, if feasible, full automation. The product must also be field-tested; one cannot depend on a pilot. This advice matches what Glen Tullman, CEO of Livongo Health, said in his keynote: instead of doing a pilot, try something out in the field and change quickly if it doesn’t work.

Despite his call for gradual change, de Clercq advises that companies show an ROI within one year–otherwise, the field of health care may have evolved and the solution may be irrelevant.

He also recommends a human component in any health program. The chief barrier to success is getting the individual to go along with both the initial activation and continuing motivation. Gamification, behavioral economics, and social connections can all enhance this participation.

A dazzling keynote on videogames for health was delivered by Adam Gazzaley, who runs Neuroscience labs at the University of California at San Francisco. He pointed out that conventional treatments get feedback on patient reactions far too slowly–sometimes months after the reaction has occurred. In the field of mental health, His goal is to supplement (not replace) medications with videogames, and to provide instant feedback to game players and their treatment staff alike. Videogames not only provide a closed-loop system (meaning that feedback is instantaneous), but also engage patients by being fun and offering real-time rewards. Attention spans, anxiety, and memory are among the issues he expects games to improve. Education and wellness are also on his game plan. This is certainly one talk where I did not multitask (which is correlated with reduced performance)!

A future, hopefully bigger symposium
The Connected Health symposium has always been a production of the Boston Partners Health Care conglomerate, a part of their Connected Health division. The leader of the division, Dr. Joseph Kvedar, introduced the symposium by expressing satisfaction that so many companies and organizations are taking various steps to make connected health a reality, then labeled three areas where leadership is still required:

  • Reassuring patients that the technologies and practices work for them. Most people will be willing to adopt these practices when urged by their doctors. But their privacy must be protected. This requires low-cost solutions to the well-known security problems in EHRs and devices–the latter being part of the Internet of Things, whose vulnerability was exposed by the recent attack on Dyn and other major Internet sites.

  • Relieving the pressures on clinicians. Kvedar reported that 45 percent of providers would like to adopt connected health practices, but only 12 percent do so. One of the major concerns holding them back is the possibility of data overload, along with liability for some indicator of ill health that they miss in the flood of updates. Partners Connected Health will soon launch a provider adoption initiative that deals with their concerns.

  • Scaling. Pilot projects in connected health invest a lot of researcher time and offers a lot of incentives to develop engagement among their subjects. Because engagement is the whole goal of connected health, the pilot may succeed but prove hard to turn into a widespread practice. Another barrier to scaling is consumers’ lack of tolerance for the smallest glitches or barriers to adoption. Providers, also, insist that new practices fit their established workflows.

Dr. Kvedar announced at this symposium that they would be doing future symposia in conjunction with the Personal Connected Health Alliance (Formerly the mHealth Summit owned by HIMSS), a collaboration that makes sense. Large as Partners Health Care is, the symposium reaches much farther into the health care industry. The collaboration should bring more resources and more attendees, establishing the ideals of connected health as a national and even international movement.

A New Meaning for Connected Health at 2016 Symposium (Part 3 of 4)

Posted on November 7, 2016 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 previous section of this article paused during a discussion of the accuracy and uses of devices. At a panel on patient generated data, a speaker said that one factor holding back the use of patient data was the lack of sophistication in EHRs. They must be enhanced to preserve the provenance of data: whether it came from a device or from a manual record by the patient, and whether the device was consumer-grade or a well-tested medical device. Doctors invest different levels of trust in different methods of collecting data: devices can provide more objective information than other ways of asking patients for data. A participant in the panel also pointed out that devices are more reliable in the lab than under real-world conditions. Consumers must be educated about the proper use of devices, such as whether to sit down and how to hold their arms when taking their blood pressure.

Costantini decried the continuing silos in both data sharing and health care delivery. She said only half of doctors share patient data with other doctors or caretakers. She also praised the recent collaboration between Philips and Qualcomm to make it easier for device data to get into medical records. Other organizations that have been addressing that issue for some time include Open mHealth, which I reviewed in an earlier article, and Validic.

Oozing into workflow
The biggest complaint I hear from clinicians about EHRs–aside from the time wasted in their use, which may be a symptom of the bigger problem-is that the EHRs disrupt workflow. Just as connected health must integrate with patient lives as seamlessly as possible, it should recognize how teams work and provide them with reasonable workflows. This includes not only entering existing workflows as naturally as capillary action, but helping providers adopt better ones.

The Veterans Administration is forging into this area with a new interface called the Enterprise Health Management Platform (eHMP). I mentioned it in a recent article on the future of the VA’s EHR. A data integration and display tool, eHMP is agnostic as to data source. It can be used to extend the VistA EHR (or potentially replace it) with other offerings. Although eHMP currently displays a modern dashboard format, as described in a video demo by Shane Mcnamee, the tool aims to be much more than that. It incorporates Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) and the WS-Human Task Specification to provide workflow support. The Activity Management Service in eHMP puts Clinical Best Practices directly into the workflow of health care providers.

Clinicians can use eHMP to determine where a consultation request goes; currently, the system is based on Red Hat’s BPMN engine. If one physician asks another to examine the patient, that task turns up on the receiving physician’s dashboard. Teams as well as individuals can be alerted to a patient need, and alerts can be marked as routine or urgent. The alerts can also be associated with time-outs, so that their importance is elevated if no one acts on them in the chosen amount of time.

eHMP is just in the beginning stages of workflow support. Developers are figuring out how to increase the sophistication of alerts, so that they offer a higher signal-to-noise ratio than most hospital CDS systems, and add intelligence to choose the best person to whom an alert should be directed. These improvements will hopefully free up time in the doctor’s session to discuss care in depth–what both patients and providers have long said they most want from the health care field.

At the Connected Health symposium, I found companies working on workflow as well. Dataiku (whose name is derived from “haiku”) has been offering data integration and analytics in several industries for the past three years. Workflows, including conditional branches and loops, can be defined through a graphical interface. Thus, a record may trigger a conditional inquiry: does a lab value exceed normal limits? if not, it is merely recorded, but if so, someone can be alerted to follow up.

Dataiku illustrates an all-in-one, comprehensive approach to analytics that remains open to extensions and integration with other systems. On the one hand, it covers the steps of receiving and processing data pretty well.

To clean incoming data (the biggest task on most data projects), their DSS system can use filters and even cluster data to find patterns. For instance, if 100 items list “Ohio” for their location, and one lists “Oiho”, the system can determine that the outlier is a probably misspelling. The system can also assign data to belonging to broad categories (string or integer) as well as more narrowly defined categories (such as social security number or ZIP code).

For analysis, Dataiku offers generic algorithms that are in wide use, such as linear regressions, and a variety of advanced machine learning (artificial intelligence) algorithms in the visual backend of the program–so the users don’t need to write a single line of code. Advanced users can also add their own algorithms coded in a variety of popular languages such as Python, R, and SQL. The software platform offers options for less technically knowledgeable users, pre-packaged solutions for various industries such as health care, security features such as audits, and artificial intelligence to propose an algorithm that works on the particular input data.

Orbita Health handles workflows between patients and providers to help with such issues as pain management and medication adherence. The company addresses ease of use by supporting voice-activated devices such as Amazon Echo, as well as some 250 other devices. Thus, a patient can send a message to a provider through a single statement to a voice-activated device or over another Internet-connected device. For workflow management, the provider can load a care plan into the system, and use Orbita’s orchestration engine (similar to the Business Process Modeling Notation mentioned earlier) to set up activities, such as sending a response to a patient’s device or comparing a measurement to the patient’s other measurements over time. Orbita’s system supports conditional actions, nests, and trees.

CitiusTech, founded in 2005, integrates data from patient devices and apps into provider’s data, allowing enterprise tools and data to be used in designing communications and behavioral management in the patient’s everyday life. The company’s Integrated Analytix platform offer more than 100,000 apps and devices from third-party developers. Industry studies have shown effective use of devices, with one study showing a 40% reduction in emergency room admissions among congestive heart failure patients through the use of scales, engaging the patients in following health protocols at home.

In a panel on behavior change and the psychology of motivation, participants pointed out that long-range change requires multiple, complex incentives. At the start, the patient may be motivated by a zeal to regain lost functioning, or even by extrinsic rewards such as lower insurance premiums. But eventually the patient needs to enfold the exercise program or other practice into his life as a natural activity. Rewards can include things like having a beer at the end of a run, or sharing daily activities with friends on social media.

In his keynote on behavioral medicine, the Co-founder & CEO of Omada Health, Sean Duffy, put up a stunningly complex chart showing the incentives, social connections, and other factors that go into the public’s adoption of health practices. At a panel called “Preserving the Human Touch in the Expanding World of Digital Therapies”, a speaker also gave the plausible advice that we tell patients what we can give back to them when collecting data.

The next section of this article offers some memorable statements at the conference, and a look toward the symposium’s future.

A New Meaning for Connected Health at 2016 Symposium (Part 2 of 4)

Posted on November 4, 2016 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 previous section of this article talked about making health a routine part of everyday life, particularly where consumer devices are concerned. We’ll continue in this section with other considerations aired at the symposium.

Tullman’s principles of simplicity, cited in the previous section, can be applied to a wide range of health IT. For instance, AdhereTech pill bottles can notify the patient with a phone call or text message if she misses a dose. Another example of a technology that is easily integrated into everyday life is a thermometer built into a vaginal ring that a woman can insert and use without special activation. This device was mentioned by Costantini during her keynote. The device can alert a woman–and, if she wants, her partner–to when she is most fertile.

Super-compact devices and fancy interfaces are not always necessary for a useful intervention. In a keynote, John Dwyer, Jr., President of the Global Alzheimer’s Platform Foundation, discussed a simple survey that his organization got large numbers of people to take. They uncovered a lot of undiagnosed cases of mental decline. I imagine that the people who chose to take the survey were experiencing possible symptoms and therefore were concerned about their mental abilities. Yet they apparently had not expressed concerns to their doctors; instead they responded to the online suggestion to take a survey.

Most of us spend a large chunk of our day at work, so wellness programs there are theoretically promising. A panel on workplace-connected health solutions talked about some of the barriers:

  • Inadequate communications. Employees need to be informed regularly that a program is available, and its benefits

  • Privacy guarantees. Employees must feel assured of a firewall between their employer and the organization handling their sensitive data.

  • Clear goals. A wellness program is not just a check-off box. Employers must know what they want to achieve and design programs around these goals.

I would add that employers should examine their own environment honestly before setting up a wellness program. It’s pretty hypocritical to offer a wellness program on the one hand while subjecting employees to stress, overwork, and bad ergonomics on the other.

Telehealth is also likely to grow, and in fact, 200 bills to improve regulation of telehealth are pending in Congress. A speaker at a panel on preserving the human touch said that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are held back by uncertainty about how to measure telehealth’s value. Another speaker pointed out that we have a severe shortage of mental health professionals, and that many areas lack access to them. Telehealth may improve access.

It all comes down to the environment
Health care has to fully acknowledge the role of environmental factors in creating sickness. These include the marketing of fatty and sugary foods, the trapping of poor and minority people in areas with air and water pollution, the barriers to getting health care (sick leave, geography, insurance gaps, ignorance of gender issues, and so forth), the government subsidization of gambling, and much more. Similar issues came up during a keynote by David Torchiana, President & CEO and Partners HealthCare.

In her keynote, Jo Ann Jenkins, the CEO of AARP, quoted Atul Gawande as saying that we have medicalized aging and are failing to support the elderly. We have to see them as functioning individuals and help to support their health instead of focusing on when things go wrong. This includes focusing on prevention and ensuring that they have access to professional health care while they are still well. It also means restructuring our living spaces and lifestyles so the elderly can remain safely in their homes, get regular exercise, and eat well.

These problems call for a massive legislative and regulatory effort. But as a participant said on the panel of disruptive women in health care, plenty of money goes into promoting the interests of large hospitals, insurers, and device manufacturers, but nobody knows how to actually lobby for health care. Look at the barriers reached by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which fell short of ambitious goals in improving American’s nutrition.

Grounding devices on a firm foundation
A repeated theme at this symposium was making data collection by patients easier–so easy in fact that they can just launch data collection and not think about it. To be sure, some people are comfortable with health technology: according to Costantini, 60 percent of US smartphone users manage their health in some way through those devices. Nevertheless, if people have to consciously choose when to send data–even a click of a button–many will drop out of the program.

At a break-out session during the 2015 Health Datapalooza, I heard prospective device makers express anxiety over the gargantuan task of getting their products accepted by the industry. The gold standard for health care adoption, of course, is FDA approval based on rigorous clinical trials. One participant in the Datapalooza workshop assured the others that he had gotten his device through the FDA process, and that they could to.

Attitudes seem to have shifted over the past year, and many more manufacturers are treating FDA approval as a natural step in their development process, keeping their eyes on the prize of clinical adoption. Keith Carlton, CEO of HUINNO, in a panel on wearables, said that accuracy is critical to stand out in the marketplace and to counter the confusion caused by manufacturers that substitute hype for good performance.

Clinical trials for devices don’t have to be the billion-dollar, drawn-out ordeals suffered by pharma companies. Devices are rarely responsible for side effects (except for implantables) and therefore can be approved after a few months of testing.

A representative of BewellConnect told me that their road to approval took 9-12 months, and involved comparing the results of their devices to those of robust medical devices that had been previously approved. Typical BewellConnect devices include blood pressure cuffs and an infrared thermometer that quickly shows the patient’s temperature after being held near his temple. This thermometer has been used around the world in situations where it’s important to avoid contact with patients, such as in Ebola-plagued regions.

What’s new over the past three years is Bluetooth-enabled devices that can transmit their results over the network. BewellConnect includes this networking capability in 17 current devices. The company tries to provide a supremely easy path for the patient to transmit the device over a phone app to the cloud. The patient can register multiple family members on the app, and is prompted twice to indicate who was using the device so as to prevent errors. BewellConnect is working on an alert system for providers, a simple use case for data collection.

Many products from BewellConnect are in widespread use in France, where the company is based, and they have launched a major entry into the US market. I asked BewellConnect’s CEO, Olivier Hua, whether the US market presents greater problems than France. He said that the two markets are more similar than we think.

Health care in the US has historically been fragmented, whereas in France it was unified under government control. But the Affordable Care Act in the US has brought more regulation to the market here, whereas private health care providers (combining insurance and treatment) have been growing in France. As of January 1 of this year, France has required all employers to include a private option in their health care offerings. For the first time, French individuals are being hit with the copays and deductibles familiar to Americans, and are weighing how often to go to the doctor. Although the US market is still more diverse, and burdened by continuing fee-for-service plans, it is comparable to the French market for a vendor such as BewellConnect.

The next section of this article will continue with a discussion of barriers in the use of patient data, and other insights from the Connected Health symposium.

A New Meaning for Connected Health at 2016 Symposium (Part 1 of 4)

Posted on November 3, 2016 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.

Those of us engaged in health care think constantly about health. But at the Connected Health symposium, one is reminded that the vast majority of people don’t think much about health at all. They’re thinking about child care, about jobs, about bills, about leisure time. Health comes into the picture only through its impacts on those things.

Certainly, some people who have suffered catastrophic traumas–severe accidents, cancer, or the plethora of unfortunate genetic conditions–become obsessed about health to the same extent as health professionals. These people become e-patients and do all the things they need to do regain the precious state of being they enjoyed before their illness, often clashing with the traditional medical establishment in pursuit of health.

But for most people with chronic conditions, the opposite holds true. A whimsical posting points out that we willingly pay more to go to a masseur or hairdresser than to a doctor. I appreciate this observation more than the remedies offered by the author, which fall into the usual “patient engagment” activities that I have denigrated in an earlier article.

Understanding health as a facet and determinant of everyday life becomes even more important as we try to reverse the rise of costs, which in many nations are threatening economic progress and even the social contract. (Witness the popular anger in the current US election over rising insurance premiums and restrictions on choice.) We have to provide health solutions to people who are currently asymptomatic. The conventional focus on diagnosed conditions won’t serve us.

It’s thus commendable that the Connected Health symposium for 2016 has evolved to the point where participants can think not only of reaching out to patients, but to embedding their interventions so deeply into patient life that the patient no longer has to think about her health to benefit. This gives a new meaning to the word “connected”. Whereas, up to now, it referred to connecting a patient more closely with their clinicians and care-takers (through data collection, messaging, and online consultations), “connected” can also mean connecting our healthful interventions to the patient’s quotidian concerns about work, family, and leisure.

We can do this by such means as choosing data collection that the patient can enable and then stop thinking about, and integrating care with the social media they use regularly. In her keynote, Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, pointed out that social connections are critical to health and are increasingly taking place online, instead of someone dropping by her neighbor for coffee. The AHA’s Go Red For Women program successfully exploited social connections to improve heart health.

If you want an overview of what people mean by the term “connected health,” you would do well to get The Internet of Healthy Things, by Dr. Joseph Kvedar, leader of Partners Connected Health and chief organizer of this symposium. For a shorter overview, you can read my review of the book, and my report from an earlier symposium. Now in its 13th year, the annual symposium signed up 1200 registered attendees–the biggest number yet. This article looks over the people and companies I heard from there.

Exhausting the possibilities of passive data collection
Glen Tullman, CEO of Livongo Health, offered basic principles for consumer health in a keynote: it must be personal, simple, context-aware, and actionable. As an example, he cited Livongo’s own program for sending text messages to diabetes patients: they are tailored to the individual and offer actionable advice such as, “Drink a glass of water”.

A panel on consumer technology extolled the value of what analysts like to call data exhaust: the use of data that can be collected from people’s everyday behavior. After all, this exhaust is what marketers used all the time to figure out what we want to buy, and what governments use to decide whether we’re dangerous actors. It can have value in health too.

As pointed out by Jim Harper, Co-Founder and COO of Sonde Health, providers and researchers can learn a lot from everyday interactions with devices–diagnosing activity levels from accelerometers, for instance, or depression from a drop in calls or text messages. Similarly, a symposium attendee suggested to me that colleges could examine social connections among students to determine which ones are at risk of abusing alcohol.

Lauren Costantini, President and CEO of Prima-Temp, said in a keynote that we can predict all kinds of things from your circadian rhythm–as measured by a sensor–such as an oncoming infection, or the best way to deliver chemotherapy.

Spire offers a device that claims to help people suffering from anxiety, with a low barrier to adoption and instant feedback. It’s a device worn on the body that can alert the user in various ways (buzzes, text messages) when the user’s anxiety level is rising.

Does the Spire device work? They got a partial answer to this in a study by Partners Health Care, where people had an option of using the device on its own or in conjunction with a headband from Muse that helps train people to meditate. (There was no control group.) Unlike the Spire device, which one can put on and forget about, the Muse purchaser is expected to make a conscious decision to meditate using the device regularly.

The Partners study showed modest benefits to these devices, but had mixed results. For instance, fewer than half the subjects continued use of the devices after the study finished. Those who did continue showed a strong positive effect on stress, and those who discontinued use showed a very small positive effect. Strangely there was a small overall increase in tension for all participants, even though they also demonstrated increases in “calm” periods. There is no correlation between the length of time that individuals used their devices and their outcomes.

Jonathan Palley, CEO & Co-founder of Spire, said participants often liked their devices, but stopped using them because they have learned from the devices how to identify stress and felt they could self-regulate and no longer needed the devices. I believe this finding may apply to other consumer devices as well. The huge rate at which devices are abandoned after six months, the subject of frequent reports and agonized commentaries, may simply indicate that users have reached their goal and can continue their fitness programs on their own. Graeme Moffat, VP of Scientific & Regulatory Affairs at Muse, reported that many purchasers use their headband for only three months, but come back to it over time to refresh their training.

We’ll look at some more aspects of integrating devices into patient lives in the next section of this article.

E-Patient Update:  Registration Can Add Value To Care 

Posted on August 15, 2016 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.

For those of you who end up seeking care in hospital emergency departments now and again, the following will probably be familiar. You’re spending the precious few minutes you get with the ED doc discussing your situation, having a test done or asking a nurse some rather personal questions, and a hapless man or woman shows up and inserts themselves into the moment. Why? Because they want to collect registration information.

While these clerks are typically pleasant enough, and their errand relatively brief, their interruption has consequences. In my case, their entry into the room has sometimes caused a nurse or doctor to lose their train of thought, or an explanation in progress was never finished. As if that weren’t irritating enough, the registration clerk – at least at my local community hospital – typically asks questions I’ve already answered previously, or asks me to sign forms I could easily have reviewed at an earlier stage in the process.

Not only that, there have been at least a couple of situations in which a nurse or doctor was so distracted by the clerk’s arrival that some reasonably important issues didn’t get handled. Don’t get me wrong, the skilled team at this facility recovered and addressed these issues before they could escalate, but there’s no guarantee that this will always happen, particularly if the patient isn’t used to keeping track of their care process.

Also, given that alarm fatigue is already leading to patient care mistakes and near-misses, it seems odd that this hospital would squeeze yet another distraction into its ED routine. At least the alarms are intended to serve as clinical decision support and avoid needless errors. Collecting my street address a second time doesn’t rise to that level of importance.

Of course, hospitals need the information the clerk collects, for a variety of legal and operational reasons. I have no problem signing a form giving it permission to bill my insurer, affirming that I don’t need disability accommodations or agreeing to a facility’s “no smoking on campus” policy. And I certainly want any provider that treats me to have full and accurate insurance information, as I obviously don’t want to be billed for the care myself!  But is it really necessary to interrupt a vital care process to accomplish this?

As I see it, verifying registration information could be done much more effectively if it took place at a different point in the sequence of care – at the moment when physicians decide whether to discharge or admit that patient.  After all, if the patient is well enough to answer questions and sign forms while lying in an ED bed, they’re likely to remain so through the admissions process, and verify their financial and personal information once they’re settled (or even while they’re waiting to be transported to their bed). Meanwhile, if the patient is being discharged, they could just as easily provide signatures and personal data as they prepare to leave.

But the above would simply make registration less intrusive. What about adding real value to the process, for both the hospital and the patient? Instead of having a clerk gather this information, why not provide the patient with a tablet which presents the needed information, allowing patients to enter or edit their personal details at leisure.

Then, as they digitally sign off on registration, it would be a great time to ask the patient a few details which help the facility understand the patient’s need for support and care coordination. Why not find out, before the patient is discharged, whether they have a primary care doctor or relevant specialist, whether they can afford their medications, whether they can get to post-discharge visits and the like? This improves results for the patient and ties in with a value-based focus on continuity of care.

These days, it’s not enough just to eliminate pointless workflow disruptions. Let’s leverage the amazing consumer IT platforms we have to make things better!

ONC Announces Winners Of FHIR App Challenge

Posted on August 3, 2016 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.

The ONC has announced the first wave of winners of two app challenges, both of which called for competitors to use FHIR standards and open APIs.

As I’ve noted previously, I’m skeptical that market forces can solve our industry’s broad interoperability problems, even if they’re supported and channeled by a neutral intermediary like ONC. But there’s little doubt that FHIR has the potential to provide some of the benefits of interoperability, as we’ll see below.

Winners of Phase 1 of the agency’s Consumer Health Data Aggregator Challenge, each of whom will receive a $15,000 award, included the following:

  • Green Circle Health’s platform is designed to provide a comprehensive family health dashboard covering the Common Clinical Data Set, using FHIR to transfer patient information. This app will also integrate patient-generated health data from connected devices such as wearables and sensors.
  • The Prevvy Family Health Assistant by HealthCentrix offers tools for managing a family’s health and wellness, as well as targeted data exchange. Prevvy uses both FHIR and Direct messaging with EMRs certified for Meaningful Use Stage 2.
  • Medyear’s mobile app uses FHIR to merge patient records from multiple sources, making them accessible through a single interface. It displays real-time EMR updates via a social media-style feed, as well as functions intended to make it simple to message or call clinicians.
  • The Locket app by MetroStar Systems pulls patient data from different EMRs together onto a single mobile device. Other Locket capabilities include paper-free check in and appointment scheduling and reminders.

ONC also announced winners of the Provider User Experience Challenge, each of whom will also get a $15,000 award. This part of the contest was dedicated to promoting the use of FHIR as well, but participants were asked to show how they could enhance providers’ EMR experience, specifically by making clinical workflows more intuitive, specific to clinical specialty and actionable, by making data accessible to apps through APIs. Winners include the following:

  • The Herald platform by Herald Health uses FHIR to highlight patient information most needed by clinicians. By integrating FHIT, Herald will offer alerts based on real-time EMR data.
  • PHRASE (Population Health Risk Assessment Support Engine) Health is creating a clinical decision support platform designed to better manage emerging illnesses, integrating more external data sources into the process of identifying at-risk patients and enabling the two-way exchange of information between providers and public health entities.
  • A partnership between the University of Utah Health Care, Intermountain Healthcare and Duke Health System is providing clinical decision support for timely diagnosis and management of newborn bilirubin according to evidence-based practice. The partners will integrate the app across each member’s EMR.
  • WellSheet has created a web application using machine learning and natural language processing to prioritize important information during a patient visit. Its algorithm simplifies workflows incorporating multiple data sources, including those enabled by FHIR. It then presents information in a single screen.

As I see it, the two contests don’t necessarily need to be run on separate tracks. After all, providers need aggregate data and consumers need prioritized, easy-to-navigate platforms. But either way, this effort seems to have been productive. I’m eager to see the winners of the next phase.

Vendors Bring Heart And Lung Sounds To EHR

Posted on June 3, 2016 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.

In what they say is a first, a group of technology vendors has teamed up to add heart and lung sounds to an EMR. The current effort extends only to the drchrono EHR, but if this rollout works, it seems likely that other vendors will follow, as adding multimedia content to patient medical records is a very logical step.

Urgent care provider Direct Urgent Care, a Berkeley, CA-based urgent care provider with 30,000 patients, is rolling out the Eko Core Digital Stethoscope for use by physicians. The heart and lung sounds will be recorded by the digital stethoscope, then transmitted wirelessly to a phone- or tablet-based mobile app. The app, in turn, uploads the audio files to the drchrono HR.

Ordinarily, I’d see this as an early experiment in managing multimedia health data and leave it at that. But two things make it more interesting.

One is that the Eko Core sells for a relatively modest $299, which is not bad for an FDA-cleared device. (Eko also sells an attachment for $199 which digitizes and records sounds captured by traditional analog stethoscopes, as well as streaming those files to the Eko app.) The other is that the recorded sounds can be shared with remote specialists such as cardiologists and pulmonologists, which seems valuable on its face even if the data doesn’t get stored within an EMR.

Not only that, this rollout underscores a problem just been given too little attention. At present, what I’ve seen, few EMRs incorporated anything beyond text. Even radiology images, which have been digital for ages (and managed by sophisticated PACS platforms) typically aren’t accessible to the EMR interface. In fact, my understanding is that PACS data is another silo that needs to be broken down.

Meanwhile, medical practices and hospitals are increasingly generating data that doesn’t fit into the existing EMR template, from sources such as wearables, health apps and video consults. Neither EMR developers nor standards organizations seem to have kept up with the influx of emerging non-text data, so virtually none of it is being integrated into patient records yet.

In other words, not only is it interesting to note that an EMR vendor is incorporating audio into medical records, at a modest cost, it’s worth taking stock of what it can teach us about enriching digital patient records overall.

Eventually, after all, patients will be able to capture — with some degree of accuracy — multimedia content that includes not only audio, but also ultrasound recordings, EKG charts and more. Of course, these self-administered tests and will never replace a consult by a skilled clinician, but there certainly are situations in which this data will be relevant.

When you also bear in mind that the number of telemedicine consults being conducted is growing dramatically, and that these, too, offer insights that could become part of a patient’s chart, the need to go beyond text-based EMRs becomes even more evident.

So maybe the Eko/drchrono partnership will work out, and maybe it won’t. But what they’re doing matters nonetheless.

Joint Commission Now Allows Texting Of Orders

Posted on May 17, 2016 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.

For a long time, it was common for clinicians to share private patient information with each other via standard text messages, despite the fact that the information was in the clear, and could theoretically be intercepted and read (which this along with other factors makes SMS texts a HIPAA violation in most cases). To my knowledge, there have been no major cases based on theft of clinically-oriented texts, but it certainly could’ve happened.

Over the past few years, however, a number of vendors have sprung up to provide HIPAA-compliant text messaging.  And apparently, these vendors have evolved approaches which satisfy the stringent demands of The Joint Commission. The hospital accreditation group had previously prohibited hospitals from sanctioning the texting of orders for patient care, treatment or services, but has now given it the go-ahead under certain circumstances.

This represents an about-face from 2011, when the group had deemed the texting of orders “not acceptable.” At the time, the Joint Commission said, technology available didn’t provide the safety and security necessary to adequately support the use of texted orders. But now that several HIPAA-compliant text-messaging apps are available, the game has changed, according to the accrediting body.

Prescribers may now text such orders to hospitals and other healthcare settings if they meet the Commissioin’s Medication Management Standard MM.04.01.01. In addition, the app prescribers use to text the orders must provide for a secure sign-on process, encrypted messaging, delivery and read receipts, date and time stamp, customized message retention time frames and a specified contact list for individuals authorized to receive and record orders.

I see this is a welcome development. After all, it’s better to guide and control key aspects of a process rather than letting it continue on underneath the surface. Also, the reality is that healthcare entities need to keep adapting to and building upon the way providers actually communicate. Failing to do so can only add layers to a system already fraught with inefficiencies.

That being said, treating provider-to-provider texts as official communications generates some technical issues that haven’t been addressed yet so far as I know.

Most particularly, if clinicians are going to be texting orders — as well as sharing PHI via text — with the full knowledge and consent of hospitals and other healthcare organizations — it’s time to look at what it takes manage that information more efficiently. When used this way, texts go from informal communication to extensions of the medical record, and organizations should address that reality.

At the very least, healthcare players need to develop policies for saving and managing texts, and more importantly, for mining the data found within these texts. And that brings up many questions. For example, should texts be stored as a searchable file? Should they be appended to the medical records of the patients referenced, and if so, how should that be accomplished technically? How should texted information be integrated into a healthcare organization’s data mining efforts?

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but I’d argue that if texts are now vehicles for day-to-day clinical communication, we need to establish some best practices for text management. It just makes sense.

Time To Leverage EHR Data Analytics

Posted on May 5, 2016 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.

For many healthcare organizations, implementing an EHR has been one of the largest IT projects they’ve ever undertaken. And during that implementation, most have decided to focus on meeting Meaningful Use requirements, while keeping their projects on time and on budget.

But it’s not good to stay in emergency mode forever. So at least for providers that have finished the bulk of their initial implementation, it may be time to pay attention to issues that were left behind in the rush to complete the EHR rollout.

According to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics practice, it’s time for healthcare organizations to focus on a new set of EHR data analytics approaches. PwC argues that there is significant opportunity to boost the value of EHR implementations by using advanced analytics for pre-live testing and post-live monitoring. Steps it suggests include the following:

  • Go beyond sample testing: While typical EHR implementation testing strategies look at the underlying systems build and all records, that may not be enough, as build efforts may remain incomplete. Also, end-user workflow specific testing may be occurring simultaneously. Consider using new data mining, visualization analytics tools to conduct more thorough tests and spot trends.
  • Conduct real-time surveillance: Use data analytics programs to review upstream and downstream EHR workflows to find gaps, inefficiencies and other issues. This allows providers to design analytic programs using existing technology architecture.
  • Find RCM inefficiencies: Rather than relying on static EHR revenue cycle reports, which make it hard to identify root causes of trends and concerns, conduct interactive assessment of RCM issues. By creating dashboards with drill-down capabilities, providers can increase collections by scoring patients invoices, prioritizing patient invoices with the highest scores and calculating the bottom-line impact of missing payments.
  • Build a continuously-monitored compliance program: Use a risk-based approach to data sampling and drill-down testing. Analytics tools can allow providers to review multiple data sources under one dashboard identify high-risk patterns in critical areas such as billing.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that while these goals seem worthy, only a small percentage of providers have the resources to create and manage such programs. Sure, vendors will probably tell you that they can pop a solution in place that will get all the work done, but that’s seldom the case in reality. Not only that, a surprising number of providers are still unhappy with their existing EHR, and are now living in replacing those systems despite the cost. So we’re hardly at the “stop and take a breath” stage in most cases.

That being said, it’s certainly time for providers to get out of whatever defensive crouch they’ve been in and get proactive. For example, it certainly would be great to leverage EHRs as tools for revenue cycle enhancement, rather than the absolute revenue drain they’ve been in the past. PwC’s suggestions certainly offer a useful look on where to go from here. That is, if providers’ efforts don’t get hijacked by MACRA.