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Health IT Continues To Drive Healthcare Leaders’ Agenda

Posted on October 23, 2017 I Written By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Patient Communications Fall Short?

Posted on October 12, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Sarah Bennight, Marketing Strategist for Stericycle Communication Solutions, as part of the Communication Solutions Series of blog posts. Follow and engage with them on Twitter: @StericycleComms

We are constantly switching devices to engage in our daily lives. In fact, in the last ten minutes I have searched a website on my desktop computer, answered a phone call, and checked several text messages and emails on my cellphone. Our ability to seamlessly jump from one device to the next affects our consumer behavior when interacting with places of business.

Today, we can order coffee and groceries online, web chat with our internet service company, and research store offerings before ever physically walking into a building. Traditionally, healthcare consumers had mainly phone support until the 2014 Meaningful Use 2 rule dictated messaging with a physician and patient portal availability. Recently, online scheduling and urgent care check in has been an attractive offering for consumers of health wanting to take control of their calendars and wait times.

Healthcare is certainly expanding functionality and communication channels to meet consumer demand. But where are we falling short? The answer may be relatively simple: data integration. Much like the clinical side of the healthcare business, integration is a gap we must solve. The key to turning technological convenience into optimal experience is evolving multichannel patient interactions into omnichannel support.

Omnichannel means providing a seamless experience regardless of channel or device. In the healthcare contact center, this means ensuring live agents, scheduling apps, chat bots, messaging apps, and all other interaction points share data across channels. It removes the individual information silos surrounding the patient journey, and connects them into one view from patient awareness to care selection, and again when additional care is needed.

In 2016, Cisco Connect cited four key reasons a business should invest in omnichannel consumer experiences, but I believe this resonates in the healthcare world as well:

  1. A differentiated patient and caregiver experience which is personal and interactive. Each care journey is unique, and their initial experiences should resonate and instill confidence in your brand. We now communicate with several generations who have different levels of comfort with technology and online resources. Offering multiple channels of interaction is crucial to success in the competitive healthcare space. But don’t stop there! Integrated channels connecting the data points along the journey into and beyond the walls of the care facility will create lasting loyalty.
  2. Increased profit and revenue. The journey to finding a doctor or care facility begins long before a patient walks in your door. Most of these journeys begin online, by interviewing friends, and checking online reviews. Once an initial decision is made to visit your organization, you can extend your marketing budget by targeting patients who might actually be interested in your services. When you know what your patients’ needs are, there is a greater focus and a higher chance of conversion.
  3. Maintain and contain operating costs. Integrating with EMRs is not always the easiest task. However, your scheduling and reminder platforms must be able talk to each other not only for the optimal experience, but also for efficient internal process management. For example, if a patient receives a text reminder about an appointment and realizes the timing won’t work, they can request to reschedule via text. Real time communication with the EMR enables agents currently on the phone with other patients to see the original appointment open up and grab the slot. Imagine the streamlining with the patient as well in an integrated platform. Go beyond the ‘request to reschedule’ return text and send a message says “We see that you want to reschedule your appointment. Here are some alternative times available”. Take it one step further with a one-step click to schedule process. With this capability, the patient could immediately book without a follow-up phone call reminder or staff having to hunt them down to book.
  4. Faster time to serve the patient. When systems and people communicate pertinent data, faster issue resolution is possible. Healthcare can be scary, and when you address patient and caregiver needs in a timely manner, trust in your organization will grow. In omnichannel experiences, a patient can search for care in the middle of the night online, and when they don’t find an appointment opening a call could be made. Imagine the value of already knowing that a patient was searching for a sick visit for tomorrow morning with Dr. X. With this data in mind, you are able to immediately offer alternatives and keep that patient in your system before they turn to a more convenient option.

You can see how omnichannel experiences are going to pave the way for the future of the contact center. Right now, the interactions with patients before and after treatment provide an enormous opportunity to build trust and further engagement with your organization. By integrating the data and allowing cross-channel experiences that build on each other, the contact center will extend into the main hub of engagement in the future. The time to build that integrated infrastructure is now, because in the near future new channels of engagement will be added and expected. Are you ready to deliver an omnichannel experience?

The Communication Solutions Series of blog posts is sponsored by Stericycle Communication Solutions, a leading provider of high quality call center & telephone answering servicespatient access services and automated communication technology. Stericycle Communication Solutions combines a human touch with innovative technology to deliver best-in-class communication services.  Connect with Stericycle Communication Solutions on social media: @StericycleComms

FDA Announces Precertification Program For Digital Health Tools

Posted on October 5, 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.

The FDA has recruited some the world’s top technology and medical companies to help it pilot test a program under which digital health software could be marketed without going through the through the agency’s entire certification process.

The participants, which include Apple, Fitbit, Johnson & Johnson, Samsung and Roche, will give the agency access to the measures they’re using to develop, test and maintain their software, and also how they collect post-market data.

Once armed with this information, the FDA will leverage it to determine the key metrics and performance indicators it uses to see if digital health software meets its quality standards.

Companies that meet these new standards could become pre-certified, a status which grants them a far easier path to certification than in the past. This represents a broad shift in the FDA’s regulatory philosophy, “looking first at the software developer digital health technology developer, not the product,” according to a report previously released by the agency.

If the pilot works as planned, the FDA is considering making some significant changes to the certification process. If their processes pass muster, pre-certified companies may be allowed to submit less information to the FDA than they currently must before marketing a new digital health tool.  The agency is also considering the more radical step of allowing pre-certified companies to avoid submitting a product for premarket review in some cases. (It’s worth noting that these rules would apply to lower-risk settings.)

The prospect of pre-certifying companies does raise some concerns. In truth, the argument could be made that digital health software should be regulated more tightly, not less. In particular, the mobile healthcare world is still something of a lawless frontier, with very few apps facing privacy, security or accuracy oversight.

The fact is, it’s little wonder that physicians aren’t comfortable using mobile health app data given how loosely it can be constructed at times, not to mention the reality that it might not even measure basic vital signs reliably.

It’s not that the healthcare industry isn’t aware of these issues. about a year ago, a group of healthcare organizations including HIMSS, the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association came together to develop a framework of principles dressing app quality. Still, that’s far short of establishing a certification body.

On the other hand, the FDA does have a point when it notes that a pre-certification program could make it easier for useful digital health tools to reach the marketplace. Assuming the program is constructed well, it seems to me that this is a good idea.

True, it’s pretty unusual to see the FDA loosen up its certification process – a fairly progressive move for a stodgy agency – while the industry fails to self-regulate, but it’s a welcome change of style. I guess digital health really is changing things up.

 

E-Patient Update: Enough Apps Already

Posted on September 1, 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.

New data suggests that while app use is becoming a core activity for mobile, the number of apps people use is dropping. In fact, over the longer term, analysts say, most businesses will need to slim down the number of apps they deploy and do more to retain app users.

Speaking as someone who relies on apps to manage her health, I certainly hope that this happens among healthcare providers.

Maybe you think of my contact with your organization as a series of distinct interactions, and the data something that can be reintegrated later. All I can say is ”Please, no.” I want every digital contact I have with your organization to be part of a large, easy-to-navigate whole.

In fact,  I’ll go further and say that if your organizations offer a single, robust app that can offer me broad access to your administration, clinical departments and patient data I’ll choose you over your competitors any day.

Health app overload

As you may know, the number of health-related apps available on the Google Play and iTunes stores has grown at a dizzying pace over the last few years, hitting approximately 165,000 across both platforms as of two years ago. Most of these are were created by independent developers, and only a small percentage of those apps are downloaded and used regularly, but it’s still a stat worth considering.

Meanwhile, new data suggests that the field is going to narrow further among apps of all types. According to research from Business Insider, somewhere between 10% and 12% of app users remain engaged with those apps within seven days of installing them. However, that percentage drops to around 4% within just 30 days.

These trends may force a change in how healthcare organizations think about, develop and deploy apps for their end users. As users think of apps as utilities, they will have little patience for using, say, one for your cardiology department and another for sleep management, not to be confused with a third portal app for downloading medical information and paying bills.

If you’re part of an institution with multiple apps deployed, this may sound discouraging. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all.  Consumers may have less patience for a fragmented app experience, but if you produce a “power tool” app, they’re likely to use it. And if you play your cards right, that may mean higher levels of patient engagement.

My ideal health app

Having slammed the status quo, here’s what I’d like to see happen with the apps developed by healthcare organizations. I believe they should work as follows:

  • Providers should offer just one app for access to the entire organization, including all clinical departments
  • It should have the ability to collect and upload patient-generated data to the EMR
  • It should provide all features currently available through existing portals, including access to health data, secure email connections to providers, appointment-setting and bill payment
  • It makes all standard paperwork available, including informed consent documentation, pre-surgical instructions, financial agreements and applications for financial aid and Medicaid
  • It generates questions to ask a provider during a consult, before an imaging procedure, before, during and after hospitalization

I could go further, but I’m sure you get the idea: I’d like my providers’ apps to improve my health and foster my relationship with them.  To make that happen, I need a single, unified entity, not a bunch of separate modules that take up space on my phone and distract me from my overall goals.

Of course, one could reasonably observe that this turns a bunch of small lightweight programs into a single thick client. I’m sure that has implications for app coding and development, such as having to ensure that the larger apps still run reasonably quickly on mobile devices. Still, smartphones are ridiculously powerful these days, so I think it can still happen.

Like it or not, consumers are moving past the “there’s an app for everything ” stage and towards having a few powerful apps support them. If you’re still developing apps for every aspect of your business, stop.

Best Practices for Patient Engagement

Posted on July 13, 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.

The following is a guest blog post by Brittany Quemby, Marketing Strategist for Stericycle Communication Solutions, as part of the Communication Solutions Series of blog posts. Follow and engage with them on Twitter: @StericycleComms
Brittany Quemby - Stericycle
Knowledge is power… so the saying goes.  When it comes to patient engagement, it couldn’t be more true. Being “in tune” is the key to unlocking the ultimate patient experience. Knowing what your patients need and want allows you to close the gap and deliver on those desires, while developing a deeper connection through effective patient engagement.

Here at Stericycle Communication Solutions, we are a group of individuals with all different types of needs and wants as patients. Below are some of the best practices that we preach to our doctors and healthcare providers when it comes to patient engagement and the patient experience:

Connect with meaning – Reach us where we spend most of our time. Roughly two-thirds of us own a smartphone, meaning we have access at our fingertips.  We expect an interactive and omni experience with our healthcare providers. We are looking for simple ways to connect with our doctors, schedule appointments, and prepare for important appointments.  By engaging on these terms, healthcare practices can be sure to connect to patients on a deeper level and encourage repeat visits to their health system.

Engage through multiple and preferred channels – We expect our healthcare experience to fit seamlessly into the rest of our lives. This means integrating with the technologies that we prefer including online, in person, and on our devices.

Did you know that:

  • 91% of us email daily
  • 77% of us set up appointments with their primary care provider via phone call
  • Text messages have a 98% open rate

These simple touch points, enables you to effectively engage using more than one mode of communication, ensuring you connect with us the right way each time!

Get personal! – Patients are no different than the everyday consumer.  We love personalization. In fact, 47% of us said we wanted “personalized experiences” when it comes to our health. Communicating based on our specific needs and wants gets noticed and evokes action! This allows providers to not only connect on a more personal level with us, but also empowers us to take an active role in own healthcare.

Involve Us! – Keep us in the loop! We are more involved in our own health than ever before.  Use of health apps and wearables have doubled in the last two years. We want to play an active role when it comes to important healthcare related moments.  Both US consumers (77%) and doctors (85%) agree that the use of health apps and wearables helps patients engage in their health. We want to be involved; take advantage!

To learn more about effective patient engagement, download this patient engagement whitepaper.

The Communication Solutions Series of blog posts is sponsored by Stericycle Communication Solutions, a leading provider of high quality call center & telephone answering servicespatient access services and automated communication technology. Stericycle Communication Solutions combines a human touch with innovative technology to deliver best-in-class communication services.  Connect with Stericycle Communication Solutions on social media: @StericycleComms

Value-sizing The Patient Experience

Posted on June 8, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Sarah Bennight, Marketing Strategist for Stericycle Communication Solutions, as part of the Communication Solutions Series of blog posts. Follow and engage with them on Twitter: @StericycleComms

In health IT, we talk about the patient experience all the time. Many of us have dedicated our entire careers to improving the patient experience. It has become so central to improving healthcare that patient-reported experience results determine a significant portion of reimbursement.

But today’s patient experiences do beg the question: are they a pie in the sky dream or something tangible that can be addressed in our organizations?

To tackle the patient experience, we have to audit all contact points to determine areas of weakness. A great way to start is by creating a healthcare consumer journey map. Identifying each point a patient could potentially interact with your organization is key to ensuring their experience will be great. Once you have identified each potential encounter, mystery shop that experience as if you were the patient to test your brand’s current performance. When determining whether or not your organization provides a great brand experience, you may find yourself comparing your performance to the top brands you work with on a daily basis.

For example, I recall a time when I studied abroad in the United Kingdom. Upon arriving in a foreign country after 22 hours of travel with little sleep, I needed to eat. I vaguely recalled passing a familiar restaurant sign on the way to my flat: McDonalds. And though I didn’t really love the golden arches at the time, I chose to eat there. Why? Because I knew what to expect. I knew how to order, what menu items would be available, and what it would taste like.

By focusing on consistent interactions and expectations for their customers, McDonalds has created a strong brand. In fact, when asked about introducing new products during a 2010 CNBC interview, former CEO James Skinner said “[McDonald’s doesn’t] put something on the menu until it can be produced at the speed of McDonalds.”

Can your healthcare consumers count on a consistent experience when contacting your organization? Your brand experience should encompass the entire health system to build confidence and loyalty in your brand. Creating consistency across each encounter begins with simple questions. Was their initial call met with a timely, sincere, and welcoming voice? Was parking convenient? Are average waiting times reasonable? Do Center A and Center B provide the same quality support? Is their bill easy to understand? If your answers are all yes, it’s more likely that patients will continue to choose your organization.

When patients feel confidence about provided services and perceive value in the care you provide, brand loyalty is achieved. What’s more, many studies show that patients who have great healthcare experiences and are confident in the level of care they receive will have better clinical outcomes. Value-based care demands consistent, evidence-based clinical interactions. But we can’t leave out the important patient experience outside the walls of the exam room.

After my exhaustive travels, I certainly had a better outcome by relying on my trust in McDonalds’ brand. I chose to value-size my meals frequently throughout my England journey – not because it was the best tasting food, but because I could always rely on consistently convenient and quality experiences. The healthcare industry can certainly learn a lot more from cutting edge commercial companies when it comes to creating loyalty. To learn more about the patient journey and loyalty, download our e-book.

The Communication Solutions Series of blog posts is sponsored by Stericycle Communication Solutions, a leading provider of high quality call center & telephone answering servicespatient access services and automated communication technology. Stericycle Communication Solutions combines a human touch with innovative technology to deliver best-in-class communication services.  Connect with Stericycle Communication Solutions on social media: @StericycleComms

Seven Factors That Will Make 2018 A Challenging Year For EMR Vendors

Posted on May 24, 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.

Unless they’re monumentally important, I generally don’t regurgitate the theories researchers develop about health IT. But this time I’m changing strategies. While their analysis may not fit in the “earth shattering” category, I thought their list of factors that will shape 2018’s EMR market was dead on, so here it is.

According to a report created by analyst firm Kalorama Research, a number of trends are brewing which could make next year a particularly, well, interesting one for EMR vendors. (By the by, the allegedly Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times” probably wasn’t Chinese in origin — it seems to have been minted in the 19th century by a British politician named Joseph Chamberlain. But I digress.)

According to Kalorama publisher Bruce Carlton, many forces are converging, including:

  • Frustrated physicians: Physician rage over clunky EMRs may boil over next year. No one vendor seems positioned to scoop up their business, but of course many will try.
  • Hospital EMR switches: While hospitals have been switching out EMRs for quite some time, defections may climb to new levels. Their main objective: Improve workflows.
  • Emerging technologies: Trendy approaches like dashboarding, blockchain and advanced big data analytics will begin to be integrated with existing EMR technologies. Or as the report notes, “the Old EMR doesn’t cut it anymore.”
  • IT staff shortages: It takes a pretty seasoned IT pro to run an EMR, but they’re hard to find, especially if you want them to have a lot of relevant experience. But without their expertise, provider organizations may not get the most out of their systems. This may spell opportunity for vendors offering better service, the report says.
  • Breach of the day: With each cybersecurity breach, EMRs get negative coverage, and the effects of this bad PR are accreting. Tales of ransomware, a particularly lurid form of cybercrime, are only making things worse.
  • Many EMR vendors remain: Despite a barrage of M&A activity in the sector, there are still over 1,000 vendors in the EMR space, Kalorama notes. In other words, competition for EMR customers will still be brisk, particularly given that no one vendor – even giants like Cerner and Epic – owns more than one-fifth of the market (This assertion comes from firm’s own market estimates.)
  • New Administration, new goals: To date the White House hasn’t proposed specific changes to health IT policy, but one clue comes from the appointment of an HHS Secretary who dislikes the meaningful use program. Anything could happen here.

In addition to the factors cited by Kalorama, I’d suggest one other trend to consider. As I’ve noted above, Kalorama argues that customers will demand EMRs that incorporate sexy new technologies, perhaps more so than in the past. I’d go further with this projection. From what I’m hearing, a consensus is emerging that EMR architectures must be completely deconstructed and rethought for today’s data.

With important data flows emerging from wearables, apps, remote monitoring devices and the like, it may not makes sense to put a big database at the center of the EMR platform anymore. After all, what’s the point of setting up an enterprise EMR as the ultimate source of truth if so much important data is being generated by mobile devices at the network edge?

Anyway, that’s my two cents, along with Kalorama’s predictions. What do you think 2018 will look like for EMR vendors, and why?

Scenarios for Health Care Reform (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on May 18, 2017 I Written By

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

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

The first part of this article suggested two scenarios that could promote health care reform. We’ll finish off the scenarios in this part of the article.

Capitalism Disrupts Health Care

In the third scenario, reform is stimulated by an intrepid data science firm that takes on health care with greater success than most of its predecessors. After assembling an impressive analytics toolkit from open source software components–thus simplifying licensing–it approaches health care providers and offers them a deal they can’t refuse: analytics demonstrated to save them money and support their growth, all delivered for free. The data science firm asks in return only that they let it use deidentified data from their patients and practices to build an enhanced service that it will offer paying customers.

Some health care providers balk at the requirement to share data, but their legal and marketing teams explain that they have been doing it for years already with companies whose motives are less commendable. Increasingly, the providers are won over. The analytics service appeals particularly to small, rural, and safety-net providers. Hammered by payment cuts and growing needs among their populations, they are on the edge of going out of business and grasp the service as their last chance to stay in the black.

Participating in the program requires the extraction of data from electronic health records, and some EHR vendors try to stand in the way in order to protect their own monopoly on the data. Some even point to clauses in their licenses that prohibit the sharing. But they get a rude message in return: so valuable are the analytics that the providers are ready to jettison the vendors in a minute. The vendors ultimately go along and even compete on the basis of their ability to connect to the analytics.

Once stability and survival are established, the providers can use the analytics for more and more sophisticated benefits. Unlike the inadequate quality measures currently in use, the analytics provide a robust framework for assessing risk, stratifying populations, and determining how much a provider should be rewarded for treating each patient. Fee-for-outcome becomes standard.

Providers make deals to sign up patients for long-term relationships. Unlike the weak Medicare ACO model, which punishes a provider for things their patients do outside their relationship, the emerging system requires a commitment from the patient to stick with a provider. However, if the patient can demonstrate that she was neglected or failed to receive standard of care, she can switch to another provider and even require the misbehaving provider to cover costs. To hold up their end of this deal, providers find it necessary to reveal their practices and prices. Physician organizations develop quality-measurement platforms such as the recent PRIME registry in family medicine. A race to the top ensues.

What If Nothing Changes?

I’ll finish this upbeat article with a fourth scenario in which we muddle along as we have for years.

The ONC and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services continue to swat at waste in the health care system by pushing accountable care. But their ratings penalize safety-net providers, and payments fail to correlate with costs as hoped.

Fee-for-outcome flounders, so health care costs continue to rise to intolerable levels. Already, in Massachusetts, the US state that leads in universal health coverage, 40% of the state budget goes to Medicaid, where likely federal cuts will make it impossible to keep up coverage. Many other states and countries are witnessing the same pattern of rising costs.

The same pressures ride like a tidal wave through the rest of the health care system. Private insurers continue to withdraw from markets or lose money by staying. So either explicitly or through complex and inscrutable regulatory changes, the government allows insurers to cut sick people from their rolls and raise the cost burdens on patients and their employers. As patient rolls shrink, more hospitals close. Political rancor grows as the public watches employer money go into their health insurance instead of wages, and more of their own stagnant incomes go to health care costs, and government budgets tied up in health care instead of education and other social benefits.

Chronic diseases creep through the population, mocking crippled efforts at public health. Rampant obesity among children leads to more and earlier diabetes. Dementia also rises as the population ages, and climate change scatters its effects across all demographics.

Furthermore, when patients realize the costs they must take on to ask for health care, they delay doctor visits until their symptoms are unbearable. More people become disabled or perish, with negative impacts that spread through the economy. Output decline and more families become trapped in poverty. Self-medication for pain and mental illness becomes more popular, with predictable impacts on the opiate addiction crisis. Even our security is affected: the military finds it hard to recruit find healthy soldiers, and our foreign policy depends increasingly on drone strikes that kill civilians and inflame negative attitudes toward the US.

I think that, after considering this scenario, most of us would prefer one of the previous three I laid out in this article. If health care continues to be a major political issue for the next election, experts should try to direct discussion away from the current unproductive rhetoric toward advocacy for solutions. Some who read this article will hopefully feel impelled to apply themselves to one of the positive scenarios and bring it to fruition.

Scenarios for Health Care Reform (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on May 16, 2017 I Written By

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

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

All reformers in health care know what the field needs to do; I laid out four years ago the consensus about patient-supplied data, widespread analytics, mHealth, and transparency. Our frustration comes in when trying to crack the current hide-bound system open and create change. Recent interventions by US Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, whatever their effects on costs and insurance coverage, offer no promise to affect workflows or treatment. So this article suggests three potential scenarios where reform could succeed, along with a vision of what will happen if none of them take hold.

Patients Forge Their Own Way Forward

In the first scenario, a tiny group of selfer-trackers, athletes, and empowered patients start a movement that ultimately wins over hundreds of millions of individuals.

These scattered enthusiasts, driven to overcome debilitating health problems or achieve extraordinary athletic feats, start to pursue self-tracking with fanaticism. Consumer or medical-grade devices provide them with ongoing data about their progress, and an open source platform such as HIE of One gives them a personal health record (PHR).

They also take charge of their interactions with the health care system. They find that most primary care providers aren’t interested in the data and concerns they bring, or don’t have time to process those data and concerns in the depth they need, or don’t know how to. Therefore, while preserving standard relationships with primary care providers and specialists where appropriate, the self-trackers seek out doctors and other providers to provide consultation about their personal health programs. A small number of providers recognize an opportunity here and set up practices around these consultations. The interactions look quite different from standard doctor visits. The customers, instead of just submitting themselves to examination and gathering advice, steer the conversation and set the goals.

Power relationships between doctors and customers also start to change. Although traditional patients can (and often do) walk away and effectively boycott a practice with which they’re not comfortable, the new customers use this power to set the agenda and to sort out the health care providers they find beneficial.

The turning point probably comes when someone–probabaly a research facility, because it puts customer needs above business models–invents a cheap, comfortable, and easy-to-use device that meets the basic needs for monitoring and transmitting vital signs. It may rest on the waist or some other place where it can be hidden, so that there is no stigma to wearing it constantly and no reason to reject its use on fashion grounds. A beneficent foundation invests several million dollars to make the device available to schoolchildren or some other needy population, and suddenly the community of empowered patients leaps from a miniscule pool to a mainstream phenomenon.

Researchers join the community in search of subjects for their experiments, and patients offer data to the researchers in the hope of speeding up cures. At all times, the data is under control of the subjects, who help to direct research based on their needs. Analytics start to turn up findings that inform clinical decision support.

I haven’t mentioned the collection of genetic information so far, because it requires more expensive processes, presents numerous privacy risks, and isn’t usually useful–normally it tells you that you have something like a 2% risk of getting a disease instead of the general population’s 1% risk. But where genetic testing is useful, it can definitely fit into this system.

Ultimately, the market for consultants that started out tiny becomes the dominant model for delivering health care. Specialists and hospitals are brought in only when their specific contributions are needed. The savings that result bring down insurance costs for everyone. And chronic disease goes way down as people get quick feedback on their lifestyle choices.

Government Puts Its Foot Down

After a decade of cajoling health care providers to share data and adopt a fee-for-outcome model, only to witness progress at a snail’s pace, the federal government decides to try a totally different tack in this second scenario. As part of the Precision Medicine initiative (which originally planned to sign up one million volunteers), and leveraging the ever-growing database of Medicare data, the Office of the National Coordinator sets up a consortium and runs analytics on top of its data to be shared with all legitimate researchers. The government also promises to share the benefits of the analytics with anyone in the world who adds their data to the database.

The goals of the analytics are multi-faceted, combining fraud checks, a search for cures, and everyday recommendations about improving interventions to save money and treat patients earlier in the disease cycle. The notorious 17-year gap between research findings and widespread implementation shrinks radically. Now, best practices are available to any patient who chooses to participate.

As with the personal health records in the previous scenario, the government database in this scenario creates a research platform of unprecedented size, both in the number of records and the variety of participating researchers.

To further expand the power of the analytics, the government demands exponentially greater transparency not just in medical settings but in all things that make us sick: the food we eat (reversing the rulings that protect manufacturers and restaurants from revealing what they’re putting in our bodies), the air and water that surrounds us, the effects of climate change (a major public health issue, spreading scourges such as mosquito-borne diseases and heat exhaustion), disparities in food and exercise options among neighborhoods, and more. Public awareness leads to improvements in health that lagged for decades.

In the next section of this article, I’ll present a third scenario that achieves reform from a different angle.