John Lynn is taking a well-deserved week off to attend a family function. He asked if I was interested in five EHR workflow guest blog posts, a blog post a day this week, on EMR and HIPAA. Of course I said: YES!
Here’s the outline for the week:
I blog and tweet a lot about healthcare workflow and workflow technology, but in this first post I’ll try to synthesize and simplify. In later posts I drive into the weeds. Here, I’ll define workflow, describe workflow technology, it’s relevance to healthcare and health IT, and try not to steal my own thunder from the rest of the week.
I’ve looked at literally hundreds of definitions of workflow, all the way from a “series of tasks” to definitions that’d sprawl across several presentation slides. The one I’ve settled on is this:
“Workflow is a series of tasks, consuming resources, achieving goals.”
Short enough to tweet, which is why I like it, but long enough to address two important concepts: resources (costs) and goals (benefits).
So what is workflow technology? Workflow technology uses models of work to automate processes and support human workflows. These models can be understood, edited, improved, and even created, by humans who are not, themselves, programmers. These models can be executed, monitored, and even systematically improved by computer programs, variously called workflow management systems, business process management suites, and, for ad hoc workflows, case management systems.
Workflow tech, like health IT itself, is a vast and varied continent. As an industry, worldwide, it’s probably less than a tenth size of health IT, but it’s also growing at two or three times the rate. And, as both industries grow, they increasingly overlap. Health IT increasingly represents workflows and executes them with workflow engines. Workflow tech vendors increasingly aim at healthcare to sell a wide variety of workflow solutions, from embeddable workflow engines to sprawling business process management suites. Workflow vendors strenuously compete and debate on finer points of philosophy about how best automate and support work. Many of these finer points are directly relevant to workflow problems plaguing healthcare and health IT.
Why is workflow tech important to health IT? Because it can do what is missing, but sorely needed, in traditional health IT, including electronic health records (EHRs). Most EHRs and health IT systems essentially hard-code workflow. By “hard code” I mean that any series of tasks is implicitly represented by Java and C# and MUMPS if-then and case statements. Changes to workflow require changes to underlying code. This requires programmers who understand Java and C# and MUMPS. Changes cause errors. I’m reminded of the old joke, how many programmers does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but in the morning the stove and the toilet are broken. Traditional health IT relies on frozen representations of workflow that are opaque, fragile, and difficult to manage across information system and organizational boundaries.
Well, OK, I’ll steal my own thunder just a little bit. Process-aware tech, in comparison to hardcoded workflows, is an architectural paradigm shift for health IT. It has far reaching implications for interoperability, usability, safety, and population health.
BPM systems are ideal candidates to tie together disparate systems and technologies. Users experience more usable workflows because workflows are represented so humans can understand and change then. Process-aware information systems are safer for many reasons, but particularly because they can represent and compensate for the interruptions that cause so many medical errors. Finally, BPM platforms are the right platforms to tie together accountable care organization IT systems and to drive specific, appropriate, timely action to provider and patient point-of-care.
The rest of my blog posts in this weeklong series will elaborate on these themes. I’ll address why so many EHRs and health IT systems are so unusable, un-interoperable, and sometimes even dangerous. I’ll argue that modern workflow technology can help rescue healthcare and health IT from these problems.