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The Burden of Structured Data: What Health Care Can Learn From the Web Experience (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on September 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 first part of this article summarized what Web developers have done to structure data, and started to look at the barriers presented by health care. This part presents more recommendations for making structured data work.

The Grand Scheme of Things
Once you start classifying things, it’s easy to become ensnared by grandiose pipe dreams and enter a free fall trying to design the perfect classification system. A good system is distinguished by knowing its limitations. That’s why microdata on the Web succeeded. In other areas, the field of ontology is littered with the carcasses of projects that reached too far. And health care ontologies always teeter on the edge of that danger.

Let’s take an everyday classification system as an example of the limitations of ontology. We all use genealogies. Imagine being able to sift information about a family quickly, navigating from father to son and along the trail of siblings. But even historical families, such as royal ones, introduce difficulties right away. For instance, children born out of wedlock should be shown differently from legitimate heirs. Modern families present even bigger headaches. How do you represent blended families where many parents take responsibilities of different types for the children, or people who provided sperm or eggs for artificial insemination?

The human condition is a complicated one not subject to easy classification, and that naturally extends to health, which is one of the most complex human conditions. I’m sure, for instance, that the science of mosquito borne diseases moves much faster than the ICD standard for disease. ICD itself should be replaced with something that embodies semantic meaning. But constant flexibility must be the hallmark of any ontology.

Transgender people present another enormous challenge to ontologies and EHRs. They’re a test case for every kind of variation in humanity. Their needs and status vary from person to person, with no classification suiting everybody. These needs can change over time as people make transitions. And they may simultaneously need services defined for male and female, with the mix differing from one patient to the next.

Getting to the Point
As the very term “microdata” indicates, those who wish to expose semantic data on the Web can choose just a few items of information for that favored treatment. A movie theater may have text on its site extolling its concession stand, its seating, or its accommodations for the disabled, but these are not part of the microdata given to search engines.

A big problem in electronic health records is their insistence that certain things be filled out for every patient. Any item that is of interest for any class of patient must appear in the interface, a problem known in the data industry as a Cartesian explosion. Many observers counsel a “less is more” philosophy in response. It’s interesting that a recent article that complained of “bloated records” and suggested a “less is more” approach goes on to recommend the inclusion of scads of new data in the record, to cover behavioral and environmental information. Without mentioning the contradiction explicitly, the authors address it through the hope that better interfaces for entering and displaying information will ease the burden on the clinician.

The various problems with ontologies that I have explained throw doubt on whether EHRs can attain such simplicity. Patients are not restaurants. To really understand what’s important about a patient–whether to guide the clinician in efficient data entry or to display salient facts to her–we’ll need systems embodying artificial intelligence. Such systems always feature false positives and negatives. They also depend on continuous learning, which means they’re never perfect. I would not like to be the patient whose data gets lost or misclassified during the process of tuning the algorithms.

I do believe that some improvements in EHRs can promote the use of structured data. Doctors should be allowed to enter the data in the order and the manner they find intuitive, because that order and that manner reflect their holistic understanding of the patient. But suggestions can prompt them to save some of the data in structured format, without forcing them to break their trains of thought. Relevant data will be collected and irrelevant fields will not be shown or preserved at all.

The resulting data will be less messy than what we have in unstructured text currently, but still messy. So what? That is the nature of data. Analysts will make the best use of it they can. But structure should never get in the way of the information.

The Burden of Structured Data: What Health Care Can Learn From the Web Experience (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on September 22, 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.

Most innovations in electronic health records, notably those tied to the Precision Medicine initiative that has recently raised so many expectations, operate by moving clinical information into structure of one type or another. This might be a classification system such as ICD, or a specific record such as “medications” or “lab results” with fixed units and lists of names to choose from. There’s no arguing against the benefits of structured data. But its costs are high as well. So we should avoid repeating old mistakes. Experiences drawn from the Web may have something to teach the health care field in respect to structured data.

What Works on the Web
The Web grew out of a structured data initiative. The dream of organizing information goes back decades, and was embodied in Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) years before Tim Berners-Lee stole its general syntax to create HTML and present information on the Web. SGML could let a firm mark in its documents that FR927 was a part number whereas SG1 was a building. Any tags that met the author’s fancy could be defined. This put semantics into documents. In other words, the meaning of text could be abstracted from the the text and presented explicitly. Semantics got stripped out of HTML. Although the semantic goals of SGML were re-introduced into the HTML successor XML, it found only niche uses. Another semantic Web tool, JSON, was reserved for data storage and exchange, not text markup.

Since the Web got popular, people have been trying to reintroduce semantics into it. There was Dublin Core, then RDF, then microdata in places like schema.org–just to list a few. Two terms denoting structured data on the Web, the Semantic Web and Linked Data, have been enthusiastically taken up by the World Wide Web Consortium and Tim Berners-Lee himself.

But none of these structured data initiatives are widely known among the Web-browsing public, probably because they all take a lot of work to implement. Furthermore, they run into the bootstrapping problem faced by nearly all standards: if your web site uses semantics that aren’t recognized by the browser, they’re just dropped on the ground (or even worse, the browser mangles your web pages).

Even so, recent years have seen an important form of structured data take off. When you look up a movie or restaurant on a major search engine such a Google, Yahoo!, or Bing, you’ll see a summary of the information most people want to see: local showtimes for the movie, phone number and ratings for a restaurant, etc. This is highly useful (particularly on mobile devices) and can save you the trouble of visiting the web site from which the data comes. Google calls these summaries Rich Cards and Rich Snippets.

If my memory serves me right, the basis for these snippets didn’t come from standards committees involving years of negotiation between stake-holders. Google just decided what would be valuable to its users and laid out the standard. It got adopted because it was a win-win. The movie theaters and restaurants got their information right into the viewer’s face, and the search engine became instantly more valuable and more likely to be used again. The visitors doing the search obviously benefitted too. Everyone found it worth their time to implement the standards.

Interestingly, as structure moves into metadata, HTML itself is getting less semantic. The most recent standard, HTML5, did add a few modest tags such as header and footer. But many sites are replacing meaningful HTML markup, such as p for paragraph, with two ultra-generic tags: div for a division that is set off from other parts of the page, and span for a piece of text embedded within another. Formatting is expressed through CSS, a separate language.

Having reviewed a bit of Web history, let’s see what we can learn from it and apply to health care.

Make the Customer Happy
Win-win is the key to getting a standard adopted. If your clinician doesn’t see any benefit from the use of structured data, she will carp and bristle at any attempt to get her to enter it. One of the big reasons electronic health records are so notoriously hard to use is, “All those fields to fill out.” And while lists of medications or other structured data can help the doctor choose the right one, they can also help her enter serious errors–perhaps because she chose the one next to the one she meant to choose, or because the one she really wanted isn’t offered on the list.

Doctors’ resentment gets directed against every institution implicated in the structured data explosion: the ONC and CMS who demand quality data and other fields of information for their own inscrutable purposes, the vendor who designs up the clunky system, and the hospital or clinic that forces doctors to use it. But the Web experience suggests that doctors would fill out fields that would help them in their jobs. The use of structured data should be negotiated, not dictated, just like other innovations such as hand-washing protocols or checklists. Is it such a radical notion to put technology at the service of the people using it?

I know it’s frustrating to offer that perspective, because many great things come from collecting data that is used in analytics and can turn up unexpected insights. If we fill out all those fields, maybe we’ll find a new cure! But the promised benefit is too far off and too speculative to justify the hourly drag upon the doctor’s time.

We can fall back on the other hope for EHR improvement: an interface that makes data entry so easy that doctors don’t mind using structured fields. I have some caveats to offer about that dream, which will appear in the second part of this article.

All I Want for Christmas…

Posted on December 24, 2012 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.

My family and I are in final preparations for Christmas. It’s an exciting time for me. I love everything about the season. I don’t stress over gift giving. I wallow in the joy of getting to spend money on someone I love. I don’t mind the crowds at the mall. I love the hustle, bustle, excitement and energy with everyone running around. Add in some Christmas music that reminds me of many wonderful Christmas’ past. It’s a wonderful time to me.

As I consider Christmas, my two favorite parts of Christmas is giving someone something they’ve always wanted and dreaming of the things that I would love to get for Christmas. So, in that vain, let’s dream about what I’d want for Christmas from an EMR and Healthcare IT perspective.

1. Open EHR Systems – I wish that every healthcare IT system would embrace truly open APIs and that the healthcare data would start flowing. I can only imagine the amazing benefits to healthcare if vendors would just embrace open exchange of healthcare data. It’s the right thing to do and can also be a tremendous business opportunity.

2. Remove Healthcare’s Perverse Incentives – It always pains me to see so many perverse incentives in healthcare. I applaud the many many doctors who do the right thing regardless of the incentive. However, we’d be in a lot better position if we had more than the good nature of doctors driving things. One simple example, can we finally reimburse a doctor for their time spent on an email or video visit on a website? In a large percentage of cases that’s more than sufficient. Yet, the current healthcare incentives “force” a doctor to have you come to the office in order to get paid. That’s perverse and sad.

3. Beautiful EHR User Interfaces – I must acknowledge that we’ve made some real progress on the EHR UI. You should have seen the UI’s we were dealing with when I started blogging 7 years ago. We’re measurably ahead of where we were then. However, with 300+ EHR companies we still have a lot of room to improve the EHR user interface. EHR is the heart of a practice and the better the UI the better the heart. We all know how important a heart is to your health.

4. More Empowered and Trusted Patients – Imagine where the patient was a full participant in their healthcare. That includes being trusted and listened to by their doctor and a patient who thoughtfully considers and listens to their doctor. This is not a one sided issue. This is something that both patients and doctors can improve. There are as many belligerent patients as their are arrogant doctors. We need a good dose of humility, care and trust re infused into healthcare. I think they only way we’ll get there is for the lines of communication to open up on an unprecedented level.

Those are a few of my Christmas wishes. Whether you celebrate Christmas or some other Holiday tradition, I’d love to hear what you’d love to see happen in healthcare. And to those of you who do enjoy Christmas, Merry Christmas!

Quest EHR Lab Interfaces

Posted on March 7, 2012 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.

While at HIMSS I had the pleasure of spending some time talking with Rohit Nayak, VP of Physician Tech Solutions at Quest Diagnostics. Not only is Rohit a very nice gentleman, but he also provides a number of really interesting perspectives on the healthcare industry. Quest is obviously known in the lab world, but as I mentioned last year, Quest is shifting from being a lab company to a technology company. This is clearly seen by their Care360 EHR product.

At one point, Rohit and I started talking about Quest’s approach to interfacing with EHR software. When you consider that Quest has the lab results that many EHR companies want and now Quest is offering their own EHR it makes for an interesting situation. Rohit told me that Quest has 120 EHR interfaces. He told me Quest’s approach was to be open when it comes to sharing data.

Before I talk more about these interfaces, I think it’s worth commenting on the 120 EHR interface number. The number of EHR vendors is often debated and discussed. I personally like to use the 300 EHR companies number. I’ve seen some go as high as 600 EHR companies, but I think those people are counting any software regardless of if it offers a comprehensive EHR product. For example, they might include an ePrescribing app which is part of an EHR, but I wouldn’t count it in my number.

With that as background, I find the 120 EHR interfaces with Quest quite interesting. Outside of some very localized EHR companies, you’d think that most legitimate EHR companies would have been almost forced to build an interface with Quest. Although, someone did recently tell me that Quest and LabCorp only have 7% of the lab market so maybe I’m overstating EHR vendors need to interface with Quest. I’d be interested to hear from EHR vendors who don’t interface with Quest and why they haven’t yet done so.

Heading back to interfacing with Quest, I was interested in how Care360 EHR users that don’t use Quest for their labs would be handled. Say I was a doctor who used LabCorp for my labs, but wanted to use Quest’s Care360 EHR. Would Quest support a lab interface from Care360 to LabCorp? Rohit told me that Quest would have no problem integrating Care360 with Labcorp, but that LabCorp wouldn’t let them do it. Don’t you love competition?

Of course, I only had the chance to talk with Quest about this topic. I don’t remember ever even seeing LabCorp at HIMSS. Considering LabCorp hasn’t taken the EHR route directly that could be why. I’m not sure many LabCorp users would want to use the Care360 EHR, but it is interesting to consider.

Rohit and I also started an interesting discussion about how well EHR software is consuming the Lab data that’s being sent across these lab interfaces. I’ve asked him to do a guest post on the subject, so I hope to bring you that in the future. You can also check out this 5 EHR Questions with Rohit Nayak video I did while at HIMSS as well.

“Our EMR is So Slow”

Posted on September 1, 2011 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.

Many of you might remember my recent post about EMR Performance Issues (ie. EMR Slowness). Turns out, the post had a pretty big impact on some readers of the site. In fact, it sounds like it was partially therapeutic for some to realize that they’re not alone.

I asked permission to share one of the responses with you so you could get some more first hand perspective on the issue of EMR slowness. I share it in the hopes that others can be aware and avoid it. Plus, I hope the EHR vendors that read this will take it to heart and be fanatically focused on EMR speed and customer support.

I’ve removed the name of the writer and the names of the vendors. Plus, realize that it was written originally in an email communication and not necessarily to be published.

OMG…you hit the nail on the head with this post. Our EMR is so slow. It often takes minutes between pages. My clinical and front office staffs so frustrated. We have had nothing but finger pointing going on ever since.

Part of the issue is the interface between our practice management system VENDOR A and our EMR VENDOR B It takes a minimum of 3-4 minutes for data entered into VENDOR A to roll into VENDOR B. My front office staff has taken to entering the data twice, once in each program in order to get our patients registered timely. When you see 80-100 patients in a day, a few minutes makes all the difference.

Additionally, certain criteria does not roll over, namely email addresses. This makes it impossible for us to send out patient visit summaries thus we are unable to meet meaningful use for that criteria. Referring physician is another part that does not roll over.

The most frustrating part is that no one will take any responsibility for the issue much less work on fixing it. These two vendors spend all day playing the blame game. Fortunately for our practice, we have a wonderful IT company that we work with. Our IT specialist has spend countless hours trying to mediate between these two vendors. Most times he just fixes what he can but we are paying for his services in addition to the tech support agreement with VENDOR A and VENDOR B.

A perfect example happened this week when the EMR went down in one of our exam rooms.. First we spend at least 10-20 minutes on hold waiting for a VENDOR B tech to pick up the call. In this particular case, they worked remotely for at least 4 hours on this one computer only to tell us they could not fix it.

I called my IT guy and he fixed it within 10 minutes. My staff spends countless hours on the phone most days trying to keep the system up and running. We are in the process of replacing all our PCs and I recently upgraded our Internet to a 10×10 fiber service however we still are not seeing any difference in speed.

It is at least comforting to know we are not alone. I plan to hang up your post for all my staff to see. It may not make our system work faster but hopefully it will give them some comfort knowing they are not alone.

Thanks for all the great information.

CPA Comment on EMR Pricing

Posted on October 10, 2010 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 response to my previous post about possibly creating an EMR pricing comparison website, I got a really interesting set of comments from a CPA who’s been assisting their clients in their EMR selection process. You might laugh at the idea of a CPA participating in the EMR selection process. Interestingly, the CPA that I use has also been asked by their clients about the EMR stimulus money and so they were grateful they could ask me some questions.

This aside, I found this person’s comments interesting. I think they also illustrate some of the challenges in EMR pricing and some of the thirst for EMR pricing also. I removed some identifying information and some other comments about EMR and HIPAA. Otherwise, the comments are in tact.

I have been pondering trying to do some sort of price comparison myself, and you’re right, they all differ so it’s tough to just do one basic comparison chart. I’ve seen already how some have things all bundled (ie.Athena, and others do it in separate modules can add on – ie. Greenway)

I have featured remote demo’s for clients to listen/view through our firm so they can avoid the vendor pressure… I thought I would try to get info on others for comparison purposes, but in keeping with the theme… it is just not that easy.

There are a few challenging items for comparison purposes, one of them being support and related costs.
The support/training is many times where the wheels fall off the well-intentioned EMR wagons.
You just don’t seem to get an answer or know the true support/training costs until you have already tied the knot with your new EMR system. If you could get more comparative info on that aspect, that would be very helpful – or better yet, come up with an EMR Pre-Nup.

Another toughy is the interfacing costs
From what I hear a [EMR Vendor] system may charge $30k to interface with another EMR vendor.
The vendors call that “not playing nicely”.
So tack on another layer of subjective complexity to your pricing project.

And yet another cost factor I’ve noticed is what EMR system an affiliated hospital is getting preferred pricing on. There is a hospital by us in an arrangement with [EMR Vendor], and of course advising the outside practice physicians to use the same. I am not to thrilled with this idea, I think there are better products that are not spread so thin in so many markets.

I mention the patient portal separately below as some of my clients don’t seem quite ready for that yet.
They view it as another task and feel could attack it once get the EMR running smoothly.
I know they need it for MU [Stage 1 doesn’t require this, but future stages probably will], but they seem to want that a little later than sooner.

In any case, I think some possible approaches for a comparative pricing schematic would be to have different scenarios:
a) 1-5 Docs & Midlevel providers /Web Hosted/ EMR only/ PM Interface/ No Patient Portal
b) 1-5 Docs & Midlevel providers /Web Hosted/ EMR only/ PM Interface/ With Patient Portal
c) 1-5 Docs & Midlevel providers /Web Hosted/ EMR & PM Bundled/ No Patient Portal
d) 1-5 Docs & Midlevel providers /Web Hosted/ EMR & PM Bundled/ With Patient Portal
e) 1-5 Docs & Midlevel providers /Web Hosted/ EMR & PM Bundled/ With Revenue Cycle Mgt/ With Patient Portal

Real Participation in RHIO and HIE

Posted on November 28, 2009 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.

Everyone seems to love talking about RHIO, HIE and all of the other various initiatives happening around sharing patient health information amongst doctors. This weekend, I want to open it up to you the readers to get an idea of what type of participation you’ve had in an RHIO, HIE or other clinical data exchange.

Are you participating in one now? Do you like it? Do you hate it? In fact, what do you like and what do you hate? Do you use an EMR to interface with the exchange? What’s the interface like? How much work is it to manage the interface?

I’d also be interested in hearing about people who are working through the process now. Where are you at in the process? What’s holding you up from making this happen?

Let’s help educate each other on what’s happening with something that I think we can all universally agree is important and INCREDIBLY challenging.