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Better Tech is Here for Healthcare

Posted on September 13, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog by Brandt Welker, CTO at MedicaSoft. This is the second blog in a three-part sponsored blog post series focused on new HIT for integration. Each month, a different MedicaSoft expert will share insights on new and innovative technology and its applications in healthcare.

What are some of the common complaints doctors and nurses have about their EHRs?

“I have to click too much.” “Information is buried.” “It doesn’t follow my workflow.” “It’s slow.”

“I feel like a data entry clerk.” “*insert your favorite gripe here*” There is no shortage of commentary on the issues irking clinicians when it comes to technology. What there is a shortage of are ideas to fix it.

Better technology is out there serving other industries … and it can be applied in healthcare. Technology should ease administrative loads and put clinicians back in front of patients! I’ve talked about some of this previously and how we keep clinicians involved in our design process. When it came to building an entirely new EHR, the driving force behind our team researching and adopting new technologies was to imagine a clean slate.

Most of our team came from backgrounds with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA’s) world of VistA. We learned a lot about legacy systems over the years – both beloved and maligned – and asked ourselves what a system would look like if it was unencumbered by the past. How would that system look? What could that system be? What technology choices should we make to simplify things? How could it play nicely with other systems and encourage true interoperability? How could it support users’ clinical workflow?

From the beginning, we decided that the most important thing was to get the platform right. Build the platform and build it right and things will work together. Build it to play nicely with other technology and interoperate. Make it fast. Make it easy. Make it open. Make it affordable. All of these needs were a part of our system “wish list.”

So, how’d we do it? We researched technology working in other fields and also elected to use HL7® FHIR® to its fullest extent. By now, you’ve probably heard a lot about the HL7® FHIR® standard. Many companies are using HL7® FHIR® to build APIs that are doing amazing things across the industry. We decided to use the HL7® FHIR® document data model as the basis of our platform – it simplifies implementation without sacrificing information integrity. We coupled it with a very powerful database and search engine – Couchbase & Elasticsearch. These are two high-performance tools used across industries. When you need a whole lot of data to move fast, you use Couchbase and Elasticsearch.

Couchbase is our NoSQL database. Couchbase is open-source and optimized for interactive applications. It provides low-latency data management (read: lots of data very quickly) for large-scale applications (like an EHR!). It lets us store records as documents and it’s really good at data replication. You might recognize Couchbase  — many other industry giants such as ebay, LinkedIn, and Verizon use it. It is an open-source database optimized for interactive applications. We selected Elasticsearch as our search engine. Some of your favorite sites and services use Elasticsearch – Netflix, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Wal-Mart, to name a few.

On top of Couchbase and Elasticsearch are FHIR APIs. These interactions are managed by type. We also use a Parser/Assembler Service that lets us combine, rearrange, and augment documents. Data is placed in the proper JSON format to be sent through the FHIR API into Couchbase. Our Community Health Record sits on top of this and everything described here is a part of our open platform – the one we built from scratch and architected to be interoperable and easy. Pretty neat, huh?

Once you have the platform, you can build all kinds of things to sit on top of it. The sky is the limit! In our case, we have a Personal Health Record and an Electronic Health Record, but we built it this way so you can use a wide range of technologies with the platform – things like Alerts or Analytics or Population Health or Third Party Applications, even custom built items that folks may have developed in-house will work with the platform. Essentially, using the platform means we can integrate with whatever you already have in place. Maybe you have an EHR with some issues, but you don’t have the time or budget allotted for another huge EHR implementation. No problem – we can help you view your data with a modern interface – without having to buy a whole other EHR. Revolutionary!

There are several other technology choices we made along the way, too – Node.js, NGINX, Angular.js are a few more. Angular.js allows us to be speedy in our development process. We can develop and build features quickly and get changes in front of clinicians for their feedback, which results in less time between product builds and releases. It means folks don’t have to wait months and months for changes they want. Angular is also web-based, which means user interfaces are modern and just like the interfaces everybody uses in their day-to-day lives. Angular.js was created by Google and there are many large companies you’ll recognize who use it to develop – PayPal, Netflix, LEGO, YouTube, to name a few.

I believe healthcare is lagging in adopting new technologies and there are a lot of excuses around why user interfaces in healthcare are generally horrible – they range from the software being written before Web 2.0 to users accepting that it is how it is and finding a way to work around their technology. The latter is probably the saddest thing I see happening in hospitals and clinics. Tech is there to make work easier, not more complicated.

There was a great quote from Dale Sanders, Executive Vice President of Product Development at Health Catalyst in MedCity News last week:

“Every C-level in healthcare has to be a bit of a technologist right now,” he said. “They need to understand this world. If you’re not aware of technology, it puts you … at a strategic disadvantage.”

I can’t emphasize how true this statement is. If you’re not paying attention to where technology is going, you’re not paying attention to where healthcare is going and you’re going to get left behind.

About Brandt Welker
Brandt is a HIT architecture and software expert. He calls Reading, Pennsylvania home. He has architected software systems and managed large IT and innovations programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He’s also trained astronauts at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. He’s currently the Chief Technology Officer at MedicaSoft. Brandt can be found on LinkedIn.

About MedicaSoft
MedicaSoft designs, develops, delivers, and maintains EHR, PHR, and UHR software solutions and HISP services for healthcare providers and patients around the world. For more information, visit www.medicasoft.us or connect with us on Twitter @MedicaSoftLLC, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

The Fight For Patient Health Data Access Is Just Beginning

Posted on July 11, 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.

When some of us fight to give patients more access to their health records, we pitch everyone on the benefits it can offer — and act as though everyone feels the same way.  But as most of us know, in their heart of hearts, many healthcare industry groups aren’t exactly thrilled about sharing their clinical data.

I’ve seen this first hand, far too many times. As I noted in a previous column, some providers all but refuse to provide me with my health data, and others act like they’re doing me a big favor by deigning to share it. Yet others have put daunting processes in place for collecting your records or make you wait weeks or months for your data. Unfortunately, the truth, however inconvenient it may be, is that they have reasons to act this way.

Sure, in public, hospital execs argue for sharing data with both patients and other institutions. They all know that this can increase patient engagement and boost population health. But in private, they worry that sharing such data will encourage patients to go to other hospitals at will, and possibly arm their competitors in their battle for market share.

Medical groups have their own concerns. Physicians understand that putting data in patient’s hands can lead to better patient self-management, which can tangibly improve outcomes. That’s pretty important in an era when government and commercial payers are demanding measurably improved outcomes.

Still, though they might not admit it, doctors don’t want to deluge patients with a flood of data which could cause them to worry about inconsequential issues, or feel that data-equipped patients will challenge their judgment. And can we please admit that some simply don’t like ceding power over their domain?

Given all of this, I wasn’t surprised to read that several groups are working to improve patients’ access to their health data. Nor was it news to me that such groups are struggling (though it was interesting to hear what they’re doing to help).

MedCity News spoke to the cofounder of one such group, Share for Cures, which works to encourage patients to share their health data for medical research. The group also hopes to foster other forms of patient health data sharing.

Cofounder Jennifer King told MCN that patients face a technology barrier to accessing such records. For example, she notes, existing digital health tools may offer limited interoperability with other data sets, and patients may not be sure how to use portals. Her group is working to remove these obstacles, but “it’s still not easy,” King told a reporter.

Meanwhile, she notes, almost every hospital has implemented a customized medical record, which can often block data sharing even if the hospitals buy EMRs from the same vendor. Meanwhile, if patients have multiple doctors, at least a few will have EMRs that don’t play well with others, so sharing records between them may not be possible, King said.

To address such data sharing issues, King’s nonprofit has created a platform called SHARE, an acronym for System for Health and Research Data Exchange. SHARE lets users collect and aggregate health and wellness data from multiple sources, including physician EMRs, drug stores, mobile health apps and almost half the hospitals in the U.S.

Not only does SHARE make it easy for patients to access their own data, it’s also simple to share that data with medical research teams. This approach offers researchers an important set of benefits, notably the ability to be sure patients have consented to having their data used, King notes. “One of the ways around [HIPAA] is that patient are the true owners,” she said. “With direct patient authorization…it’s not a HIPAA issue because it’s not the doctor sharing it with someone else. It’s the patient sharing it.”

Unfortunately (and this is me talking again) the platform faces the same challenges as any other data sharing initiative.

In this case, the problem is that like other interoperability solutions, SHARE can only amass data that providers are actually able to share, and that leaves a lot of them out of the picture. In other words, it can’t do much to solve the underlying problem. Another major issue is that if patients are reluctant to use even something as simplified as a portal, they’re not to likely to use SHARE either.

I’m all in favor of pushing for greater patient data access, for personal as well as professional reasons. And I’m glad to hear that there are groups springing up to address the problem, which is obviously pretty substantial. I suspect, though, that this is just the beginning of the fight for patient data access.

Until someone comes up with a solution that makes it easy and comfortable for providers to share data, while diffusing their competitive concerns, it’s just going to be more of the same old, same old. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.