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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!

HIT for HIEs

Posted on October 17, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog by Mike O’Neill, CEO at MedicaSoft. This is the third 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.

Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) have been in the news lately, and for good reason. With major hurricanes devastating Texas, Florida, the British Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, accessibility of patient health information rapidly became a major concern. Electronic Health Record adoption has led to most patient data being in electronic form, but it hasn’t necessarily made that data available when and where care is delivered. HIEs can help make that data available; during the recent storms two HIEs were able to spring to action to help clinicians provide care for patients. The ability of the Houston and San Antonio-area HIEs (Greater Houston Healthconnect (GHHC) and Healthcare Access San Antonio (HASA) to exchange information allowed patient records to be accessed remotely – which was absolutely critical during this natural disaster.

If you were on the fence about “the cloud,” this is the perfect case study in its effectiveness. More than ever, HIEs are called upon to assist by making health records available during critical care encounters. HIEs need modern technology to best serve their communities in these instances, going beyond basic connectivity and interoperability to deliver tangible value using the wealth of data they collect –

  1. Organize the data into meaningful health records. HIEs often have access to years of raw data. They may need help organizing it into a clinical data repository, matching patients, and providing a health record that is clinically useful. This is one way we assist HIEs in using the data they’ve collected.
  2. Provide valuable alerts & notifications. These are useful, especially in a crisis, to locate patients, but they can also give patients notice on events they need to follow-up on. This is another layer we build onto HIEs’ data foundation.

Health records that are useful go a long way – beyond individual hospitals, and regions and state lines. To be useful, health records must go where the patients go, wherever that may be.

An emerging approach to meet this need is the Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative (SHIEC’s) Patient-Centered Data Home (PCDH) concept among HIEs. PCDH helps providers access real-time health information across regional and state lines, wherever the patient is seeking care. Regardless of where the clinical data originates, it becomes part of the patient’s longitudinal patient record – the PCDH – giving patients control of their data.

About Mike O’Neill
Mike is the CEO at MedicaSoft. He came to MedicaSoft from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) where he was a Senior Advisor and member of the founding team of the VA Center for Innovation. Mike serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Open Source Electronic Health Record Alliance (OSEHRA). Prior to VA, Mike was involved in the commercialization of new products and technology in startups and large companies. He is a die-hard Virginia Tech Hokie.  

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.

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

Moving from “Reporting on” to “Leading” Healthcare – A Conversation with Dr. Halee Fischer-Wright, President & CEO of MGMA

Posted on October 11, 2017 I Written By

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

In Chapter 3 of Dr. Halee Fischer-Wright’s new book Back to Balance, she writes: “People are increasingly being treated as if they are the same. Science and data are being used to decrease variability in an attempt to get doctors to treat patients in predictable ways.” This statement is Fischer-Wright’s way of saying that the current focus on standardization of healthcare processes in the quest to reduce costs and increase quality may not be the brass ring we should be striving for. She believes that a balance is needed between healthcare standardization and the fact that each patient is a unique individual.

As president of the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), a role Fischer-Wright has held since 2015, she is uniquely positioned to see first-hand the impact standardization (from both legislative and technological forces) has had on the medical profession. With over 40,000 members, MGMA represents many of America’s physician practices – a group particularly hard hit over the past few years by the technology compliance requirements of Meaningful Use and changes to reimbursements.

For many physician practices Meaningful Use has turned out to be more of a compliance program rather than an incentive program. To meet the program’s requirements, physicians have had to alter their workflows and documentation approaches. Complying with the program and satisfying the reporting requirements became the focus, which Fischer-Wright believes is a terrible unintended consequence.

“We have been so focused on standardizing the way doctors work that we have taken our eyes off the real goal,” said Fischer-Wright in and interview with HealthcareScene. “As physicians our focus needs to be on patient outcomes not whether we documented the encounter in a certain way. In our drive to mass standardization, we are in danger of ingraining the false belief that populations of patients behave in the same way and can be treated through a single standardized treatment regimen. That’s simply not the case. Patients are unique.”

Achieving a balance in healthcare will not be easy – a sentiment that permeates Back to Balance, but Fischer-Wright is certain that healthcare technology will play a key role: “We need HealthIT companies to stop focusing just on what can be done and start working on enabling what needs to be done. Physicians want to leverage technology to deliver better care to patient at a lower cost, but not at the expense of the patient/physician relationship. Let’s stop building tools that force doctors to stare at the computer screen instead of making eye contact with their patients.”

To that end, Fischer-Wright issued a friendly challenge to the vendors in the MGMA17 exhibit hall: “Create products and services that physicians actually enjoy using. Help reduce barriers between physician, patients and between healthcare organizations. Empower care don’t detract from it.”

She went on to say that MGMA itself will be stepping up to help champion the cause of better HealthIT for patients AND physicians. In fact, Fischer-Wright was excited to talk about the new direction for MGMA as an organization. For most of its history, MGMA has reported on the healthcare industry from a physician practice perspective. Over the past year with the help of a supportive Board of Directors and active members, the MGMA leadership team has begun to shift the organization to a more prominent leadership role.

“We are going to take a much more active role in healthcare. We are going to focus on fixing healthcare from the ground up –  from providers & patients upwards. In the next few years MGMA will be much bigger, much strong and even more relevant to physician practices. We are forging partnerships with other key players in healthcare, federal/state/local governments and other associations/societies.“

Members should expect more conferences, more educational opportunities and more publications on a more frequent basis from MGMA going forward. Fischer-Wright also hinted at several new technology-related offerings but opted not to provide details. Looking at the latest news from MGMA on their revamped data-gathering/analytics, however, it would not be surprising if their new offerings were data related. MGMA is one of the few organizations that regularly collects information on and provides context on the state of physician practices in the US.

It will be exciting to watch MGMA evolve in the years ahead.

Role of Provider Engagement for Improving Data Accuracy – #HITsm Chat Topic

Posted on October 10, 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.

We’re excited to share the topic and questions for this week’s #HITsm chat happening Friday, 10/13 at Noon ET (9 AM PT). This week’s chat will be hosted by @CAQH on the topic of “Role of Provider Engagement for Improving Data Accuracy.”

Healthcare provider data forms the foundation of many important processes in the nation’s healthcare system, whether referring a patient to a specialist, paying insurance claims, credentialing providers or maintaining accurate provider directories. Yet access to accurate, timely provider data has remained elusive.

A lack of authoritative and reliable sources has resulted in a costly, piecemeal approach to acquiring and maintaining provider information. The commercial healthcare industry spends at least $2.1 billion annually on inefficient processes to maintain the data, according to a recent CAQH white paper.

While healthcare providers are important contributors of their professional and practice information, the task of submitting frequent updates to different organizations, through different channels, has created a significant administrative challenge.

Join @CAQH in a discussion about the role of provider engagement in improving data accuracy. Topics will cover strategies for collaboration and enhanced communication to ease the burdens on providers and users of provider data.

Reference Materials:

Topics for This Week’s #HITsm Chat:

T1: Stakeholders define provider data differently. How do you use provider data & in what role, i.e. payer, provider, consumer? #hitsm

T2: How does the shifting definition of “provider” (e.g. emerging provider types) impact data management? #hitsm

T3: How can the industry empower providers to participate more actively in data accuracy? #hitsm

T4: What can industry stakeholders do to reduce the administrative burden on providers? #hitsm

T5: What strategies would help providers and payers hold each other accountable for high-quality provider data? #hitsm

BONUS: What is the biggest opportunity you see for improving the quality of provider data right now? #hitsm

Upcoming #HITsm Chat Schedule
10/20 – Community Sharing Chat
Hosted by the #HITsm Community

10/27 – Aggregating the Patient Perspective and Incorporating It Into Software to Change Healthcare
Hosted by Lisa Davis Budzinski (@lisadbudzinski)

We look forward to learning from the #HITsm community! As always, let us know if you’d like to host a future #HITsm chat or if you know someone you think we should invite to host.

If you’re searching for the latest #HITsm chat, you can always find the latest #HITsm chat and schedule of chats here.

MGMA17 Day 1 – Drawing Inspiration from Consumer Experience

Posted on October 9, 2017 I Written By

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

Last night, attendees celebrated the opening of the Medical Group Management Association’s annual conference (MGMA17) in Anaheim CA with a block party that featured local food trucks instead of traditional food-stations. This welcome twist allowed attendees to sample small portions from several vendors.

The block party was a reflection of the exhibitor reception that happened earlier in the evening. With just 90 minutes, attendees could only sample a small portion of the 300 vendors that filled two halls in the Anaheim Convention Center. Despite that short amount of time, a key theme emerged – consumer experiences are serving as inspiration for HealthIT companies.

Ken Comée, CEO of CareCloud, summed it up this way: “Patients have high expectations from their healthcare providers now. They want the same level of service and convenience that they get from Amazon, Uber, OpenTable and banks.”

Prominently featured in the CareCloud booth was Breeze – a recently announced platform developed in partnership with First Data (see this blog post for more details). Comée had this to say about their new platform “If I had to compare Breeze to a consumer experience, I would have to say that it is most similar to checking in for a flight. Very few people check in for their flight in-person at the airport anymore. Almost everyone checks in at home on their computer or via their phone well ahead of their flight. You fill in all the relevant information online and you just show up to the airport and go where you need to go. There’s no paperwork you have to fill out, no need to arrive early…it’s just a smooth seamless experience. Armed with Breeze, our clients can now offer that same airline check-in experience with new as well as returning patients.”

A few booths over, David Rodriguez founder of NextPatient, talked about how OpenTable was one of the inspirations for their online appointment-booking platform. “In today’s world, when a person arrives at the website of a restaurant, they want to be able to see the times when they can make a reservation and they want to be able to click the time they want, fill in no more than 2 or 3 key pieces of information and lock it in. That’s what we offer physician practices – an elegant way to allow patients to click and book an appointment right from the practice’s own website without complex coding.”

Calibrater Health, a company that texts surveys to patients after a visit and creates “tickets” for any responses with a low NPS, was inspired by ZenDesk. Though not technically a consumer-facing application, ZenDesk does help companies forge and manage relationships with end-users by streamlining customer-service workflows, something Calibrater brings to its clients.

Patient engagement vendor, Relatient, drew inspiration from salon experiences. For many years it has been common practice in the salon and spa industries to send customers friendly reminders of their upcoming appointments via voice, text and email. Not only did these reminders reduce no-shows, but they also helped to improve customer loyalty. The Relatient solution brings those same benefits to healthcare organizations.

The night’s most thoughtful story of consumer inspiration came from Aaron Glauser, Senior Director of Product Marketing at AdvancedMD. “If I had to pick a consumer experience that inspires me and that we are closest to, it’d have to be Amazon. When you search Amazon for a product, a lot of matching entries come up – just like searching online for a doctor. You then narrow the search by looking at the star ratings and the reviews. Once you decide on a product, you click in and you decide how, when and where you want it delivered. That’s how patients want to book appointments. With AdvancedMD they can choose an open appointment time and they can even opt for a telemedicine appointment. That’s analogous to whether I want the physical book or the Kindle version on Amazon. Then as a user I get to choose how I want to pay for my Amazon purchase – which we can offer through AdvancedMD.”

Whether its Amazon, Zendesk, OpenTable, a salon or an airline that has served as inspiration. What was made clear on Day 1 of MGMA17’s exhibit hall is that consumer-experiences have become an important factor in the design of HealthIT solutions…and healthcare will be better for it.

New Service Brings RCM Process To Blockchain

Posted on October 6, 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.

Much of the discussion around blockchain (that I’ve seen, at least) focuses on blockchain’s potential as a platform for secure sharing of clinical data. For example, some HIT experts see blockchain as a near-ideal scalable platform for protecting the privacy of EHR-based patient data.

That being said, blockchain offers an even more logical platform for financial transactions, given its origins as the foundation for bitcoin transactions and its track record of supporting those transactions efficiently.

Apparently, that hasn’t been lost on the team at Change Healthcare. The Nashville-based health IT company is planning to launch what it says is the first blockchain solution for enterprise-scale use in healthcare. According to a release announcing the launch, the new technology platform should be online by the end of this year.

Change Healthcare already processes 12 billion transactions a year, worth more than $2 trillion in claims annually.  Not surprisingly, the new platform will extend its new blockchain platform to its existing payer and provider partners. Here’s an infographic explaining how Change expects processes will shift when it deploys blockchain:

Change_Healthcare_Intelligent_Healthcare_Network_Workflow_Infographic

To build out blockchain for use in RCM, Change is working with customers, as well as organizations like The Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger project.

Hyperledger encompasses a range of tools set to offer new, more-standardized approaches to deploying blockchain, including Hyperledger Cello, which will offer access to on-demand “as-a-service” blockchain technology and Hyperledger Composer, a tool for building blockchain business networks and boosting the development and deployment of smart contracts.

It’s hard to tell how much impact Change’s blockchain deployment will have. Certainly, there are countless ways in which RCM can be improved, given the extent to which dollars still leak out of the system. Also, given its existing RCM network, Change has as good a chance as anyone of building out blockchain-based RCM.

Still, I’m wondering whether the new service will prove to be a long-term product deployment or an experiment (though Change would doubtless argue for the former). Not only that, given its relatively immature status and the lack of broadly-accepted standards, is it really safe for providers to rely on blockchain for something as mission-critical as cash flow?

Of course, when it comes to new technologies, somebody has to be first, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Change doesn’t know what it’s doing. I’d just like more evidence that blockchain is ready for prime time.

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.

 

Eliminate These Five Flaws to Improve Asset Utilization in Healthcare

Posted on October 4, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Mohan Giridharadas, Founder and CEO, LeanTaaS.

The passage of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act accelerated the deployment of electronic health records (EHRs) across healthcare. The overwhelming focus was to capture every patient encounter and place it into an integrated system of records. Equipped with this massive database of patient data, health systems believed they could make exponential improvements to patient experiences and outcomes.

The pace of this migration resulted in some shortcuts being taken — the consequences of which are now apparent to discerning CFOs and senior leaders. Among these shortcuts was the use of resources and capacity as the basis of scheduling patients; this concept is used by hundreds of schedulers in every health system. While simple to grasp, the definition is mathematically flawed.

Not being able to offer a new patient an appointment for at least 10 days negatively impacts the patient experience. Likewise, exceeding capacity by scheduling too many appointments results in long wait times for patients, which also negatively impacts their experience. The troubling paradox is that the very asset creating long wait times and long lead times for appointments also happens to perform at ~50 percent utilization virtually every day. The impact of a mathematically flawed foundation results in alternating between overutilization (causing long patient wait times and/or long delays in securing an appointment) and under-utilization (a waste of expensive capital and human assets).

Here are five specific flaws in the mathematical foundation of health system scheduling:

1. A medical appointment is a stochastic — not deterministic — event.

Every health system has some version of this grid — assets across the top, times of the day for each day of the week along the side — on paper, in electronic format or on a whiteboard. The assets could be specific (e.g., the GE MRI machine or virtual MRI #1, #2, etc.). As an appointment gets confirmed, the appropriate range of time on the grid gets filled in to indicate that the slot has been reserved.

Your local racquet club uses this approach to reserve tennis courts for its members. It works beautifully because the length of a court reservation is precisely known (i.e., deterministic) to be exactly one hour in duration. Imagine the chaos if club rules were changed to allow players to hold their reservation even if they arrive late (up to 30 minutes late) and play until they were tired (up to a maximum of two hours). This would make the start and end times for a specific tennis appointment random (i.e., stochastic). Having a reservation would no longer mean you would actually get on the court at your scheduled time. This happens to patients every day across many parts of a health system. The only way to address the fact that a deterministic framework was used to schedule a stochastic event is to “reserve capacity” either in the form of a time buffer (i.e., pretend that each appointment is actually longer than necessary) or as an asset buffer (i.e., hold some assets in reserve).

2. The asset cannot be scheduled in isolation; a staff member has to complete the treatment.

Every appointment needs a nurse, provider or technician to complete the treatment. These staff members are scheduled independently and have highly variable workloads throughout the day. Having an asset that is available without estimating the probability of the appropriate staff member also being available at that exact time will invariably result in delays. Imagine if the tennis court required the club pro be present for the first 10 and last 10 minutes of every tennis appointment. The grid system wouldn’t work in that case either (unless the club was willing to have one tennis pro on the staff for every tennis court).

3. It requires an estimation of probabilities.

Medical appointments have a degree of randomness — no-shows, cancellations and last-minute add-ons are a fact of life, and some appointments run longer or shorter than expected. Every other scheduling system faced with such uncertainty incorporates the mathematics of probability theory. For example, airlines routinely overbook their flights; the exact number of overbooked seats sold depends on the route, the day and the flight. They usually get it right, and the cancellations and no-shows create enough room for the standby passengers. Occasionally, they get it wrong and more passengers hold tickets than the number of seats on the airplane. This results in the familiar process of finding volunteers willing to take a later flight in exchange for some sort of compensation. Nothing in the EHR or scheduling systems used by hospitals allows for this strategic use of probability theory to improve asset utilization.

4. Start time and duration are independent variables.

Continuing with the airplane analogy: As a line of planes work their way toward the runway for departure, the controller really doesn’t care about each flight’s duration. Her job is to get each plane safely off the ground with an appropriate gap between successive takeoffs. If one 8-hour flight were to be cancelled, the controller cannot suddenly decide to squeeze in eight 1-hour flights in its place. Yet, EHRs and scheduling systems have conflated start time and appointment duration into a single variable. Managers, department leaders and schedulers have been taught that if they discover a 4-hour opening in the “appointment grid” for any specific asset, they are free to schedule any of the following combinations:

  • One 4-hour appointment
  • Two 2-hour appointments
  • One 2-hour appointment and two 1-hour appointments in any order
  • One 3-hour appointment and one 1-hour appointment in either order
  • Four 1-hour appointments

These are absolutely not equivalent choices. Each has wildly different resource-loading implications for the staff, and each choice has a different probability profile of starting or ending on time. This explains why the perfectly laid out appointment grid at the start of each day almost never materializes as planned.

5. Setting appointments is more complicated than first-come, first-served.

Schedulers typically make appointments on a first-come, first-served basis. If a patient were scheduling an infusion treatment or MRI far in advance, the patient would likely hear “the calendar is pretty open on that day — what time would you like?” What seems like a patient-friendly gesture is actually mathematically incorrect. The appointment options for each future day should be a carefully orchestrated set of slots of varying durations that will result in the flattest load profile possible. In fact, blindly honoring patient appointment requests just “kicks the can down the road”; the scheduler has merely swapped the inconvenience of appointment time negotiation for excessive patient delays on the day of treatment. Instead, the scheduler should steer the patient to one of the recommended appointment slots based on the duration for that patient’s specific treatment.

In the mid-1980s, Sun Microsystems famously proclaimed that the “network is the computer.” The internet and cloud computing were not yet a thing, so most people could not grasp the concept of computers needing to be interconnected and that the computation would take place in the network and not on the workstation. In healthcare scheduling, “the duration is the resource” — the number of slots of a specific duration must be counted and allocated judiciously at various points throughout the day. Providers should carefully forecast the volume and the duration mix of patients they expect to serve for every asset on every day of the week. With that knowledge the provider will know, for example, that on Mondays, we need 10 1-hour treatments, 15 2-hour treatments and so on. Schedulers could then strategically decide to space appointments throughout the day (or cluster them in the morning or afternoon) by offering up two 1-hour slots at 7:10 a.m., one 1-hour slot at 7:40 a.m., etc. The allocation pattern matches the availability of the staff and the underlying asset to deliver the most level-loaded schedule for each day. In this construct, the duration is the resource being offered up to patients one at a time with the staff and asset availability as mathematical constraints to the equation (along with dozens of other operational constraints).

Health systems need to re-evaluate the mathematical foundation used to guide their day-to-day operations — and upon which the quality of the patient experience relies. All the macro forces in healthcare (more patients, older patients, higher incidence of chronic illnesses, lower reimbursements, push toward value-based care, tighter operating and capital budgets) indicate an urgent need to be able to do more with existing assets without upsetting patient flow. A strong mathematical foundation will enable a level of operational excellence to help health systems increase their effective capacity for treating more patients while simultaneously improving the overall flow and reducing the wait time.

About Mohan Giridharadas
Mohan Giridharadas is an accomplished expert in lean methodologies. During his 18-year career at McKinsey & Company (where he was a senior partner/director for six years), he co-created the lean service operations practice and ran the North American lean manufacturing and service operations practices and the Asia-Pacific operations practice. He has helped numerous Fortune 500 companies drive operational efficiency with lean practices. As founder and CEO of LeanTaaS, a Silicon Valley-based innovator of cloud-based solutions to healthcare’s biggest challenges, Mohan works closely with dozens of leading healthcare institutions including Stanford Health Care, UCHealth, NewYork-Presbyterian, Cleveland Clinic, MD Anderson and more. Mohan holds a B.Tech from IIT Bombay, MS in Computer Science from Georgia Institute of Technology and an MBA from Stanford GSB. He is on the faculty of Continuing Education at Stanford University and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and has been named by Becker’s Hospital Review as one of the top entrepreneurs innovating in healthcare. For more information on LeanTaaS, please visit http://www.leantaas.com and follow the company on Twitter @LeanTaaS, Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeanTaaS and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/leantaas.