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Inspector General Says CMS Made $729 Million In Questionable EHR Incentive Payments

Posted on June 16, 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 report from the HHS Office of Inspector General has concluded that over a three-year period, CMS made roughly $729.4 million in EHR incentive payments to providers who didn’t comply with program requirements.

To determine whether the incentive program was functioning appropriately, the OIG audited payments made between May 2011 to June 2014.

After sampling payment records for 100 eligible professionals, the agency found 14 EPs, who received payments totaling $291,022, who didn’t meet incentive criteria.  The auditors found that the 14 had either failed to meet bonus criteria or didn’t provide proof that they had.

Then, the OIG used the data to extrapolate how much CMS had spent on invalid payments, which is how it arrived at the $729 million estimate. In other words, given the margin of error across the sampled incentive payments, the OIG assumed that 12% of all incentive payments were in error. (The analysis also concluded that CMS mistakenly paid $2.3 million to EPs switching between Medicare and Medicaid programs.)

Not surprisingly, the OIG has recommended that CMS recover the $291,000 in payments made to the sampled providers. It also suggested that the agency review EP payments issued during the audit period to see what other errors were made. Of course, the ultimate goal is to get back the approximately $729.4 million the agency may have paid out in error.

In addition, the OIG  called on CMS to review a random sample of self-attested documentation from after the audit period, to determine whether additional inappropriate payments were made to EPs.

And to make sure the EPs don’t get payments under both Medicare and Medicaid incentive programs for the same program year, the report urged CMS to conduct edits of the National Level Depository system.

As part of this report, the OIG noted that allowing providers to self-report compliance data leaves the incentive payment program open to fraud, and recommended keeping a closer eye on these reports. CMS seems to have had at least some sympathy for this argument, as it apparently agreed partly or fully with all of the OIG’s suggested actions.

One side effect of the OIG report it brings back attention to the Meaningful Use program, which has been eclipsed by MACRA but still clings to life. Eligible providers can still report either Modified Stage 2 or Stage 3 in 2017, the main difference being you need a full year of data for Stage 2 but only 90 days for Stage 3.

But MACRA does change things, as its performance standards will test providers in new ways. This year, providers have a chance to get situated with either the MIPS or APM track, and those who jump in now are likely to benefit.

Meanwhile, the future of Meaningful Use remains fuzzy. To my knowledge, the agency has no immediate plans to restructure the current incentive program to audit provider reports in depth. In fact, given that providers are more concerned about MACRA these days, I doubt CMS will bother.

That being said, it’s fair to assume that incentive payouts will get a bit more attention going forward. So be prepared to defend your attestation if need be.

eCW (eClinicalWorks) Settles Whistleblower Lawsuit for $155 Million

Posted on May 31, 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.

In many of my press panels and other discussions at the Healthcare IT Marketing and PR Conference, I’ve argued that there’s very little “Breaking News” when it comes to healthcare IT. Today is an example where this is not true. The news just broke that EHR vendor, eCW (eClinicalWorks), has settled a whistleblower lawsuit against them for $155 million.

The suit was filed by Brendan Delaney, a software technician formerly employed by the New York City Division of Health Care Access and Improvement, by his law firm Phillips & Cohen LLP against eClinicalWorks. eClinicalWworks and three of its founders (Chief Executive Officer Girish Navani, Chief Medical Officer Rajesh Dharampuriya, M.D., and Chief Operating Officer Mahesh Navani) are jointly liable for the payment of $154.92 million. Separately, Developer Jagan Vaithilingam will pay $50,000, and Project Managers Bryan Sequeira, and Robert Lynes will each pay $15,000. As a whistleblower, Delaney stands to receive $30 million of the settlement.

Here’s the summary of the complaints against eCW from the Justice Department’s press release about the settlement:

In its complaint-in-intervention, the government contends that ECW falsely obtained that certification for its EHR software when it concealed from its certifying entity that its software did not comply with the requirements for certification. For example, in order to pass certification testing without meeting the certification criteria for standardized drug codes, the company modified its software by “hardcoding” only the drug codes required for testing. In other words, rather than programming the capability to retrieve any drug code from a complete database, ECW simply typed the 16 codes necessary for certification testing directly into its software. ECW’s software also did not accurately record user actions in an audit log and in certain situations did not reliably record diagnostic imaging orders or perform drug interaction checks. In addition, ECW’s software failed to satisfy data portability requirements intended to permit healthcare providers to transfer patient data from ECW’s software to the software of other vendors. As a result of these and other deficiencies in its software, ECW caused the submission of false claims for federal incentive payments based on the use of ECW’s software.

Most people are writing about how eCW didn’t fully integrate the RxNorm codes, but instead hard coded the 16 codes that the certification process used. That’s embarrassing so it’s not a surprise that so many people are sharing that part of the story. However, I think the bigger part of the violation is probably around the data portability requirements. I bet a lot of EHR vendors are sweating right now as they look at the way they implemented those requirements. Not to mention the EHR audit logs which are poor in many EHR. Plus, the scariest claim is eClinicalWork’s inability to reliably record diagnostic imagine orders or perform drug interaction checks. Those are patient safety issues and exist in many EHR software.

If you want to dig into the weeds like I did, then you can see the government complaint against eClinicalWorks that was filed May 12, 2017 and the final settlement agreement with eClinicalWorks. Even more insightful was looking at the original complaint from Delaney against eClinicalWorks. Comparing the original whistleblower complaint to the government complaint against eClinicalWorks is very interesting. You’ll see that the government didn’t grab on to everything that was originally filed by Delaney. I imagine that’s a standard legal practice to file as many areas as possible and see what the government decides to use. It seems like Phillips & Cohen have represented a number of whistleblowers so I’m sure they were expert at this.

Girish Navani, CEO and Co-Founder or eClinicalWorks, offered this statement about the settlement:

“Today’s settlement recognizes that we have addressed the issues raised, and have taken significant measures to promote compliance and transparency. We are pleased to put this matter behind us and concentrate all of our efforts on our customers and continued innovations to enhance patient care delivery.”

Looking at the bigger picture, I’m certain that every EHR vendor is going through their EHR certification process and looking at all the statements they’ve made to make sure they’re not going to be in a similar situation. Not to mention the anti-kick back laws that were mentioned in the settlement. I’m sure there are other EHR vendors that are in violation of both of these items just as much as eCW.

Former ONC National Coordinator, Farrzad Mostashari seems to agree with me. Farzad tweeted, “Wow!! I hope this changes the attitude of the EHR vendor space more broadly.” Then, he later tweeted, “Let me be plain-spoken. eClinicalWorks is not the only EHR vendor who flouted certification /misled customers
Other vendors better clean up.”

Farzad then nailed it when he tweeted “There are a LOT of doctor’s office staff looking at their EHR today and wondering if there’s $30M worth of false promises hidden there”

I do wonder if Farzad Mostashari feels a little guilty of the role he played in this process since he oversaw such a porous EHR certification process. I’ve been against EHR certification for a long time because I thought it provided so little value to providers. The fact that it can be gamed by 16 codes being hard coded is a perfect example of why EHR Certification is a waste. Although, one could argue that without EHR certification, this suit would have never happened and maybe eClinicalWorks could still be selling the same product today.

I do find this quote from the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont press release a little over the top (which I think is common on these things):

“Electronic health records have the potential to improve the care provided to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, but only if the information is accurate and accessible,” said Special Agent in Charge Phillip Coyne of HHS-OIG. “Those who engage in fraud that undermines the goals of EHR or puts patients at risk can expect a thorough investigation and strong remedial measures such as those in the novel and innovative Corporate Integrity Agreement in this case.”

Another topic I haven’t seen anyone else cover is the impact that this settlement will have on eCW’s customers that used eCW to attest to meaningful use. Technically it shows that eCW wasn’t appropriately certified, so that means that they weren’t using a certified EHR and therefore shouldn’t have been eligible for meaningful use incentives. I asked one friend about this and he suggested that CMS had previously said that it would not hold eligible providers and eligible hospitals responsible for EHRs that calculated the meaningful use measures the wrong way. So, we’ll probably see this same approach with eCW users that got EHR incentive money on what we now know was not appropriately certified.

I was also intrigued by the Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) that eClinicalWorks entered into with HHS-OIG. There are a lot of details and oversight that eCW will get from OIG, but it also required eClinicalWorks to “allow customers to obtain updated versions of their software free of charge and to give customers the option to have ECW transfer their data to another EHR software provider without penalties or service charges. [emphasis added]”

Free updates is pretty clear and ironic since not wanting to update all their clients is one possible hypothesis for why they didn’t really push the proper upgrades. Hopefully all eCW users will do it now or they might be facing their own violations for using outdated software that has known clinical issues. However, the kicker in the CIA detail above is that eClinicalWorks has to give customers the option to have eClinicalWorks transfer their data to another EHR without penalty or service charges. I wonder how many will take them up on this requirement and what the details will be. I still wish this was required of all EHR vendors, but that’s a story for another day.

How many EHR vendor marketing groups are putting together their eClinicalWorks Rescue Plan to take in the downtrodden eCW users? I’m not sure these will be as successful as other EHR switching marketing efforts like those we see when an EHR is being shut down.

I’m sorry to say that I think this is likely only the beginning of such lawsuits. In fact, it’s probably already woken up a lot of potential whistle blowers. Hopefully it’s woken up a lot of EHR vendors as well.

DNA Tests and Meaningful Use Humor – Fun Friday

Posted on April 14, 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.

It’s Friday, so time for a little humor to start your weekend. First up is one that regular readers of this site will appreciate when it comes to the now tainted phrase: meaningful use:

This Dilbert comic seemed particularly relevant given that 23andMe just got FDA authorization for their consumer genetic health risk reports.

Have a great weekend!

The Impact of the 2016 Election on Healthcare IT

Posted on November 9, 2016 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.

Today it’s pretty obvious that the Presidential is on everyone’s mind. While I don’t plan to discuss the details of the election and the specific results, it’s worth thinking about what Donald Trump in the white house will mean for healthcare IT.

Let’s start off with the easy one: Meaningful Use/MACRA. One doctor tweeted me that now that Trump is President, MACRA will be gone. I don’t think that’s further from the truth. In fact, I really can’t imagine any scenario where the EHR Incentive program (Meaningful Use, which still applies to hospitals and Medicaid) and the MACRA program would be gone. I think they’re here to stay and won’t be altered at all by this election.

The biggest reason for this belief is that Trump is going to have so many other things on the agenda. Not the least of which is ACA (Obamacare), which we’ll get to later in this post, but also a whole suite of other things that he’ll make a priority. Why would Trump want to take on a relatively bipartisan thing like healthcare IT, EHR and MACRA? I don’t think he’ll waste a second on the subject.

Plus, even if Trump wanted to go after the MACRA and EHR incentive legislation, I can’t imagine the Senate and House passing something to replace those programs either. Remember that Trump can propose all he wants, but the Senate and House have to pass it too and both of those groups seem to be firmly behind both efforts. Add this to the previous point and why would Trump go after health IT when it’s unlikely to pass and isn’t a strategic goal of his? Short Answer: He won’t.

My opinion: we’re unlikely to see any change to MACRA and other healthcare IT initiatives.

The trickier part to assess is the impact a Trump presidency will have on the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare). I live in Vegas and I wouldn’t even want to offer odds on what’s going to happen there. The rhetoric out there is to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” What’s not clear to me is if this concept is even practical and possible. There are so many issues with the idea of repealing Obamacare, that I can’t imagine it ever happening. I could see parts of it being repealed, but not the whole thing.

I also think it would be seen as very unfavorable for Trump to roll back things like the pre-existing condition exemption that allows those with pre-existing conditions to get insurance. There are probably a dozen other things like this that would likely be hard to take back without some major backlash and so I think they’ll have to preserve many of these things in whatever they do with Obamacare. Maybe that means a full repeal, but then rolling back in some of the popular pieces of the legislation so they can say they repealed it.

All of this said, I think that Trump will evaluate all options to undermine many of the things that were implemented by Obamacare including the insurance mandate and the insurance exchanges. Most people don’t realize that there’s so much more to Obamacare than just the mandate and exchanges. How he’ll undermine Obamacare and the impact it will have is anybody’s guess. I’m not sure anyone really knows and it’s certainly beyond my political punditry.

Long story short on Obamacare, I have no idea. I know that something’s going to happen because of the strict “Rip and Replace” rhetoric. I just think it’s really hard to predict which parts they’ll be able to rip out at this point and what they’ll replace it with going forward.

No doubt this will keep many in healthcare on edge. Unknowns are always a challenge. While I think the Trump Presidency will likely have a big impact on healthcare, I don’t see it having a big impact for good or bad on healthcare IT. I think the path to healthcare IT is happening and he won’t do anything to really stop it.

Side Note: Check out this interesting lessons learned post by Mr. H at Histalk which talks about the challenge of relying on data. As healthcare enters the world of data in a big way, it’s important to make sure we have a good understanding of what the data really tells us and what it doesn’t.

A Look At Nursing Home Readiness For HIE Participation

Posted on October 12, 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.

A newly released study suggests that nursing homes have several steps to go through before they are ready to participate in health information exchanges. The study, which appeared in the AHIMA-backed Perspectives in Health Information Management, was designed to help researchers understand the challenges nursing homes faced in health information sharing, as well as what successes they had achieved to date.

As the study write up notes, the U.S. nursing home population is large — nearly 1.7 million residents spread across 15,600 nursing homes as of 2014. But unlike other settings that care for a high volume of patients, nursing homes haven’t been eligible for EMR incentive programs that might have helped them participate in HIEs.

Not surprisingly, this has left the homes at something of a disadvantage, with very few participating in networked health data sharing. And this is a problem in caring for residents adequately, as their care is complex, involving nurses, physicians, physicians’ offices, pharmacists and diagnostic testing services. So understanding what potential these homes have to connect is a worthwhile topic of study. That’s particularly the case given that little is known about HIE implementation and the value of shared patient records across multiple community-based settings, the study notes.

To conduct the study, researchers conducted interviews with 15 nursing home leaders representing 14 homes in the midwestern United States that participated in the Missouri Quality Improvement Initiative (MOQI) national demonstration project.  Studying MOQI participants helped researchers to achieve their goals, as one of the key technology goals of the CMS-backed project is to develop knowledge of HIE implementations across nursing homes and hospital boundaries and determine the value of such systems to users.

The researchers concluded that incorporating HIE technology into existing work processes would boost use and overall adoption. They also found that participation inside and outside of the facility, and providing employees with appropriate training and retraining, as well as getting others to use the HIE, would have a positive effect on health data sharing projects. Meanwhile, getting the HIE operational and putting policies for technology use were challenges on the table for these institutions.

Ultimately, the study concluded that nursing homes considering HIE adoption should look at three areas of concern before getting started.

  • One area was the home’s readiness to adopt technology. Without the right level of readiness to get started, any HIE project is likely to fail, and nursing home-based data exchanges are no exception. This would be particularly important to a project in a niche like this one, which never enjoyed the outside boost to the emergence of the technology culture which hospitals and doctors enjoyed under Meaningful Use.
  • Another area identified by researchers was the availability of technology resources. While the researchers didn’t specify whether they meant access to technology itself or the internal staff or consultants to execute the project, but both seem like important considerations in light of this study.
  • The final area researchers identified as critical for making a success of HIE adoption in nursing homes was the ability to match new clinical workflows to the work already getting done in the homes. This, of course, is important in any setting where leaders are considering major new technology initiatives.

Too often, discussions of health data sharing leave out major sectors of the healthcare economy like this one. It’s good to take a look at what full participation in health data sharing with nursing homes could mean for healthcare.

MACRA Challenges and Predictions

Posted on October 11, 2016 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.

On Thursday, October 13, 2016 at 3:00 PM ET (Noon PT) I’ll be hosting a live video interview with three MACRA experts. We’ll be discussing the challenges associated with MACRA and predictions on what will be included in the MACRA final rule. If you’re interested in learning more about MACRA, you’ll really enjoy this discussion.

The great part is that you can join my conversation with this panel of experts live and even add your own comments to the discussion or ask them questions. All you need to do to watch live is visit this blog post on Thursday, October 13, 2016 at 3:00 PM ET (Noon PT) and watch the video embed at the bottom of this post or you can watch on YouTube directly. The conversation will be recorded as well and available on this post after the interview.

Here are a few details about our panelists:

2016-october-macra-challenges-and-predictions

We hope you’ll join us live or enjoy the recorded version of our conversation. The MACRA legislation is an extremely important one for healthcare. Making sure you understand it is going to position you well for all the changes that are coming to healthcare.


(To Ask Questions, visit the YouTube page)

If you’d like to see the archives of Healthcare Scene’s past interviews, you can find and subscribe to all of Healthcare Scene’s interviews on YouTube.

Finally, be sure to check out our MACRA Monday series of blog posts where we dive into the details of the MACRA rules.

As Patient Engagement Advances, It Raises Questions About Usefulness

Posted on September 26, 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.

Reading ONC’s recent summary of patient engagement capabilities at US hospitals left me feeling both hopeful and wistful. The ONC, as usual, is trying to show off how much progress the field of health IT has made since Meaningful Use started, and the statistics in this dashboard meet those goals. On the other hand, I look at the statistics and wonder when real patient empowerment will emerge from these isolated gains.

The ONC dashboard includes information both on raw data exchange–what Meaningful Use called view, download, and transmit (VDT)–and the uses of that data, which ultimately mean much more than exchange.

I considered at first how important I would find it to download hospital information. I certainly would like my doctors to get the results of tests performed there, and other information related to my status upon discharge, but these supposedly are sent to the primary care physician in a Continuity of Care Document (CCD). If I or a close relative of mine had a difficult or chronic condition, I would certainly benefit from VDT because I would have to be an active advocate and would need the documentation. My point here is that our real goal in health reform is coordinated care, rather than data transfer, and while VDT is an important first step, we must always ask who is using that information.

The ONC did not ask the hospitals how much of their data patients can download. God is in the details, and I am not confident that an affirmative answer to the question of downloading data means patients can get everything that is in their records. For instance, my primary care physician has a patient portal running on eClinicalWorks (not his choice, but the choice of the hospital to which he is affiliated). From this portal I can get only a few pieces of information, such as medications (which I happen to know already, since I am taking them) and lab results. Furthermore, I downloaded the CCD and ran it through a checker provided online by the ONC for a lark, and found that it earned D grades for accurate format. This dismal rating suggests that I couldn’t successfully upload the CCD to another doctor’s EHR.

Still, I don’t want to dismiss the successes in the report. VDT is officially enabled in 7 out of 10 hospitals, a 7-fold growth between 2013 and 2015. Although the dashboard laments that “Critical Access, medium, and small hospitals lag,” the lag is not all that bad. And the dashboard also shows advances in the crucial uses of that data, such as submitting amendments to the data

A critical question in evaluating patient engagement is how the Congress and ONC define it. A summary of the new MACRA law lists several aspects of patient engagement measured under the new system:

  • Viewing, downloading, and transmitting, as defined before. As with the later Meaningful Use requirements, MACRO requires EHRs to offer an API, so that downloading can be done automatically.

  • Secure messaging. Many advances in treating chronic conditions depend on regular communications with patients, and messaging is currently the simplest means toward that goal. Some examples of these advances can be found in my article about a health app challenge. Conventional text messaging is all in plain text, and health care messaging must be secure to meet HIPAA requirements.

  • Educational materials. I discount the impact of static educational materials offered to patients with chronic conditions, whether in the form print brochures or online. But educational materials are part of a coordinated care plan.

  • Incorporating patient-generated data. The MACRA requirements “ask providers to incorporate data contributed by the patient from at least one unique patient.” Lucky little bugger. How will he or she leverage this unprecedented advantage?

That last question is really the nub of the patient engagement issue. In Meaningful Use and MACRA, regulators often require a single instance of some important capability, because they know that once the health care provider has gone through the trouble of setting up that capability, extending it to all patients is less difficult. And it’s heartening to see that 37 percent of hospitals allowed patients to submit patient-generated data in 2015.

Before you accept data from a patient, you need extra infrastructure to make the data useful. For instance:

  • You can check for warning signals that call for intervention, such as an elevated glucose level. This capability suggests a background program running through all the data that comes in and flagging such warning signals.

  • You can evaluate device data to see progress or backsliding in the patient’s treatment program. This requires analytics that understand the meaning of the data (and that can handle noise) so as to produce useful reports.

  • You can create a population health program that incorporates the patient-generated data into activities such as monitoring epidemics. This is also a big analytical capability.

Yes, I’m happy we’ve made progress in using data for patient engagement. A lot of other infrastructure also needs to be created so we can benefit from the big investment these advances required.

Doctor Survey Can’t Muster Enthusiasm for Electronic Health Records

Posted on September 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.

Medscape’s annual report on electronic health records (EHRs) is out for 2016. With more than 15,000 physicians over 25 specialties responding, there’s little to celebrate in it. The survey confirms what we know about the Meaningful Use program–it succeeded in getting doctors to use EHRs (slide 2) and to convert their paper charts to EHRs (slide 30). What the Meaningful Use program failed at, apparently, is meaningful use of EHRs.

When doctors were asked about the effects of the EHR on their practice, most reported “no change” (page 18). Yes, they say it has helped them with “documentation”–but how is that an achievement? Maybe you can get your thoughts into the record, but that’s of no value if it doesn’t improve patient service or clinical operations. In fact, the EHR has negative value. The survey confirms what we’ve heard anecdotally for years: the EHR is widely reported to slow down workflow (slide 25) and to dramatically degrade almost every aspect of the doctor-patient interaction: face-to-face time, management of treatment plans, etc. (slide 19). The text in slide 19 pallidly argues that, well, the results aren’t as bad as they were in 2014. Certainly, users will learn over time to compensate for bad systems, but that doesn’t turn them into good systems. If they were good systems, doctor satisfaction would have gone up since 2012–instead, it’s plummeting (slide 22). I have to admit that I don’t quite understand what the term “satisfaction” means in this context (as opposed, say, to the Rolling Stones song). I take the specific observations of slides 18 and 19 more seriously.

We can probably count as a success that 30 percent of patients review their data (slide 20). As a proxy for patient engagement, this doesn’t go far (and it happens during the visit, not online), but I bet hardly anyone used to review their data.

E-prescribing remains the most “helpful” aspect of an EHR (slide 17). This probably reflects the dominance of a single service, SureScripts, in that area. With little to worry about in terms of interconnection, the industry can exchange data relatively easily. Other areas of health care continue to struggle and falter when it comes to basic data exchange–for instance, only 35 percent of doctors found EHRs helpful to provide clinical summaries of visits to patients. When we can’t even get to square one on patient engagement, we have a lot left to demand of EHRs.

There’s a huge gap between hospitals and independent practices in their choice of EHRs. This suggests that the major EHR vendors are aimed at lucrative markets–the kind of enormous practices that run in buildings that tower above their urban landscapes. Epic, of course, is far and away the most popular hospital system (page 6). The market for independent practices looks like the Republican presidential polls early in the primaries–totally fragmented (slide 7). eClinicalWorks takes top spot with 12 percent of the market, and all the other services, many of them well-known, trail with single-digit shares of the market.

Strangely, when independent practices were asked to rate their EHRs (slide 11), the order was quite different. It may be that small samples and close margins make the differences between slide 7 and 11 insignificant.

The nice aspect of this finding (satisfying, one might say) is that independent practices really are independent. Doctors apparently do their research and choose what’s best for them. Large systems, by contrast, force their associated outpatient clinics to use the same system the hospital uses, regardless of its suitability or usability.

Ratings show what users truly think of EHRs. On a scale from 1 to 5, you might think that at least one or two might wander into the 4-to-5 range, but none receives that honor. The Veterans Administrations’ VistA interface (see our recent article on it) comes out on top of the pack (slides 8, 9 10, and 12), which is no surprise because it has been rated highest by doctors for decades. This popularity doesn’t help VistA in the fight for institutional dollars. A widely popular, open source, totally customizable, low-cost solution is no match against aggressive salespeople from vendors that cost a cool billion to install.

But to be fair, several major vendors come very close to VistA in popularity, and I don’t know what the margin of error is (for the survey as a whole, it’s +/-0.8 percent). Epic may well make just as many people happy as VistA. Furthermore, VistA’s rating fell a tiny bit over the past two years (slide 9) and it doesn’t show up at all among independent practices (slides 7 and 11). Vendors are also shuffled around a bit when doctors rate them for particular features, such as ease of use, vendor support, or connectivity. (Connectivity is an odd thing to rate, because it takes two to tango. If doctors rate a vendor well just for exchanging records with other providers using the same vendor, the whole point is lost).

There’s little age difference in doctors’ comfort using EHRs (slide 23). The reported revolt by older physicians doesn’t seem to be real. However, it may be that a truly transformative use of EHRs, with data and clinical decision support intensely integrated into the practice, would appeal more to newer members of the field. Perhaps slide 23 reveals that EHRs aren’t having much effect.

With all the dissatisfaction, 81 percent plan to keep their current EHRs. Perhaps that’s a resigned acceptance of how bad the field is; no alternatives exist. By the way, only 32 percent of the doctors have attested for Stage 2 of Meaningful Use (slide 29). How they’ll meet the requirements of the new MACRA law is beyond me. And unless real EHR competition picks up (in an industry that already has too many vendors), I don’t expect a radical improvement in vendor ratings in the 2017 survey.

Study: Health IT Costs $32K Per Doctor Each Year

Posted on September 9, 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.

A new study by the Medical Group Management Association has concluded that that physician-owned multispecialty practices spent roughly $32,500 on health IT last year for each full-time doctor. This number has climbed dramatically over the past seven years, the group’s research finds.

To conduct the study, the MGMA surveyed more than 3,100 physician practices across the U.S. The expense number they generated includes equipment, staff, maintenance and other related costs, according to a press release issued by the group.

The cost of supporting physicians with IT services has climbed, in part, due to rising IT staffing expenses, which shot up 47% between 2009 and 2015. The current cost per physician for health IT support went up 40% during the same interval. The biggest jump in HIT costs for supporting physicians took place between 2010 and 2011, the period during which the HITECH Act was implemented.

Practices are also seeing lower levels of financial incentives to adopt EHRs as Meaningful Use is phased out. While changes under MACRA/MIPS could benefit practices, they aren’t likely to reward physicians directly for investments in health IT.

As MGMA sees it, this is bad news, particularly given that practices still have to keep investing in such infrastructure: “We remain concerned that far too much of a practice’s IT investment is tied directly to complying with the ever-increasing number of federal requirements, rather than to providing patient care,” the group said in a prepared statement. “Unless we see significant changes in the final rule, practice IT costs will continue to rise without a corresponding improvement in the care delivery process.”

But the MGMA’s own analysis offers at least a glimmer of hope that these investments weren’t in vain. For example, while it argues that growing investments in technologies haven’t resulted in greater administrative efficiencies (or better care) for practices, it also notes that more than 50% of responders to a recent MGMA Stat poll reported that their patients could request or make appointments via their practice’s patient portal.

While there doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast evidence that portals improve patient care across the board, studies have emerged to suggest that portals support better outcomes, in areas such as medication adherence. (A Kaiser Permanente study from a couple of years ago, comparing statin adherence for those who chose online refills as their only method of getting the med with those who didn’t, found that those getting refills online saw nonadherence drop 6%.)

Just as importantly – in my view at least – I frequently hear accounts of individual practices which saw the volume of incoming calls drop dramatically. While that may not correlate directly to better patient care, it can’t hurt when patients are engaged enough to manage the petty details of their care on their own. Also, if the volume of phone requests for administrative support falls enough, a practice may be able to cut back on clerical staff and put the money towards say, a nurse case manager for coordination.

I’m not suggesting that every health IT investment practices have made will turn to fulfill its promise. EHRs, in particular, are difficult to look at as a whole and classify as a success across the board. I am, however, arguing that the MGMA has more reason for optimism than its leaders would publicly admit.

Three Words That Health Care Should Stop Using: Insurance, Market, and Quality (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on August 23, 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 part of this article ripped apart the use of the words “insurance” and “market” to characterize healthcare. Not let’s turn to another concept even more fundamental to our thinking about care.

Quality

The final element of this three-card Monte is the slippery notion of quality. Health care is often compared to the airlines (when we’re not being compared to the Cheesecake Factory), an exercise guaranteed to make health care look bad. Airlines and restaurants offer relatively homogeneous experiences to all their clients and can easily determine whether their service succeeded or failed. Even at a mechanical level, the airlines have been able to quantify safety.

Endless organizations such as the National Association for Healthcare Quality (NAHQ) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) collect quality measures, and CMS has tried strenuously to include quality measures in Meaningful Use and the new MACRA program. We actually have not a dearth of quality measures, but a surfeit. Doctors feel overwhelmed with these measures. They are difficult to collect, and we don’t know how to combine them to create easy reports that patients can act on. There is a difference between completing a successful surgery, caring for things such as pain and infection prevention after surgery, and creating a follow-up plan that minimizes the chance of readmission. All those things (and many more) are elements of quality.

Worst of all, despite efforts to rank patients by their conditions and risk, hospitals repeatedly warn that quality measures underestimate risky patients and therefore penalize the hospitals that do the most difficult and important work–caring for the sickest. Many hospitals are throwing away donor organs instead of doing transplants, because the organs are slightly inferior and therefore might contribute to lower quality ratings–even if the patients are desperate to give them a try.

The concept of quality in health care thus needs a fresh look, and probably a different term. The first, simple thing we can do is remove patient ratings from assessments of quality. The patient knows whether the nurse smiled at her or whether she was discharged promptly, but can’t tell how good the actual treatment was after the event. One nurse has suggested that staff turnover is a better indication of hospital quality than patient satisfaction surveys. Given our fascination with airline quality, it’s worth noting that the airline industry separates safety ratings from passenger experience. The health care industry can similarly leverage patient ratings to denote clients’ satisfaction, but that’s separate from quality.

As for the safety and effectiveness of treatment, we could try a fairer rating system, such as one that explicitly balances risk and reward. Agencies would have to take the effort to understand all the elements of differences in patients that contribute to risk, and make sure they are tallied. Perhaps we could learn how to assess the success of each treatment in relation to the condition in which the patient entered the office. Even better, we could try to assess longitudinal results instead evaluating each office visit or hospital admission in isolation.

These are complex activities, but we have lots of data and powerful tools to analyze it. Together with a focus on changing behavior and environments, we should be able to make a real difference in quality–and I mean quality of life. Is there anything an ordinary member of the health professions can do till then? Well, try issuing Bronx cheers and catcalls at any meeting or conference presentation where someone uses one of the three misleading terms.