Key Articles in Health IT from 2017 (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on January 2, 2018 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.

This article provides a retrospective of 2017 in Health It–but a retrospective from an unusual perspective. I will highlight interesting articles I’ve read from the year as pointers to trends we should follow up on in the upcoming years.

Indubitably, 2017 is a unique year due to political events that threw the field of health care into wild uncertainty and speculation, exemplified most recently by the attempts to censor the use of precise and accurate language at the Centers for Disease Control (an act of political interference that could not be disguised even by those who tried to explain it away). Threats to replace the Affordable Care Act (another banned phrase) drove many institutions, which had formerly focused on improving communications or implementing risk sharing health care costs, to fall back into a lower level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, obsessing over whether insurance payments would cease and patients would stop coming. News about health IT was also drowned out by more general health topics such as drug pricing, the opiate crisis, and revenue pressures that close hospitals.

Key issues

But let’s start our retrospective on an upbeat note. A brief study summary from January 4 reported lower costs for some surgeries when hospitals participated in a modest bundled payment program sponsored by CMS. This suggests that fee-for-value could be required more widely by payers, even in the absence of sophisticated analytics and care coordination. Because only a small percentage of clinicians choose bold risk-sharing reimbursement models, this news is important.

Next, a note on security. Maybe we should reprioritize clinicians’ defenses against the electronic record breaches we’ve been hearing so much about. An analysis found that the most common reason for an unauthorized release of data was an attack by an insiders (43 percent). This contrasts with 26.8 percent from outside intruders. (The article doesn’t say how many records were compromised by each breach, though–if they had, the importance of outside intruders might have skyrocketed.) In any case, watch your audit logs and don’t trust your employees.

In a bracing and rare moment of candor, President Obama and Vice President Biden (remember them?) sharply criticized current EHRs for lack of interoperability. Other articles during the year showed that the political leaders were on target, as interoperability–an odd health care term for what other industries call “data exchange”–continues to be just as elusive as ever. Only 30% of hospitals were able to exchange data (although the situation has probably improved since the 2015 data used in the study). Advances in interoperability were called “theoretical” and the problem was placed into larger issues of poor communication. The Harvard Business Review weighed in too, chiding doctors for spending so much money on systems that don’t communicate.

The controversy sharpened as fraud charges were brought against a major EHR vendor for gaming the certification for Meaningful Use. A couple months later, strangely, the ONC weakened its certification process and announced it would rely more on the vendors to police themselves.

A long article provided some historical background on the reasons for incompatibility among EHRS.

Patients, as always, are left out of the loop: an ONC report finds improvements but many remaining barriers to attempts by patients to obtain the medical records that are theirs by law. And should the manufacturers of medical devices share the data they collect with patients? One would think it an elementary right of patients, but guidance released this year by the FDA was remarkably timid, pointing out the benefits of sharing but leaving it as merely a recommendation and offering big loopholes.

The continued failure to exchange data–which frustrates all attempts to improve treatments and cut costs–has led to the question: do EHR vendors and clinicians deliberately introduce technical measures for “information blocking”? Many leading health IT experts say no. But a study found that explicit information blocking measures are real.

Failures in interoperability and patient engagement were cited in another paper.

And we can’t leave interoperability without acknowledging the hope provided by FHIR. A paper on the use of FHIR with the older Direct-based interoperability protocols was released.

We’ll make our way through the rest of year and look at some specific technologies in the next part of the article.