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UPMC Sells Oncology Analytics Firm To Elsevier

Posted on January 22, 2018 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.

Using analytics tools to improve cancer treatment can be very hard. That struggle is exemplified by the problems faced by IBM Watson Health, which dove into the oncology analytics field a few years ago but made virtually no progress in improving cancer treatment.

With any luck, however, Via Oncology will be more successful at moving the needle in cancer care. The company, which offers decision support for cancer treatment and best practices in cancer care management, was just acquired by information analytics firm Elsevier, which plans to leverage the company’s technology to support its healthcare business.

Elsevier’s Clinical Solutions group works to improve patient outcomes, reduce clinical errors and optimize cost and reimbursements for providers. Via Oncology, a former subsidiary of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, develops and implements clinical pathways for cancer care. Via Oncology spent more than 15 years as part of UPMC prior to the acquisition.

Via Oncology’s Via Pathways tool relies on evidence-based content to create clinical algorithms covering 95% of cancer types treated in the US. The content was developed by oncologists. In addition to serving as a basis for algorithm development, Via Oncology also shares the content with physicians and their staff through its Via Portal, a decision support tool which integrates with provider EMRs.

According to Elsevier, Via Pathways addresses more than 2,000 unique patient presentations which can be addressed by clinical algorithms and recommendations for all major aspects of cancer care. The system can also offer nurse triage and symptom tracking, cost information analytics, quality reporting and medical home tools for cancer centers.

According to the prepared statement issued by Elsevier, UPMC will continue to be a Via Oncology customer, which makes it clear that the healthcare giant wasn’t dumping its subsidiary or selling it for a fire sale price.

That’s probably because in addition to UPMC, more than 1,500 oncology providers and community, hospital and academic settings hold Via Pathways licenses. What makes this model particularly neat is that these cancer centers are working collaboratively to improve the product as they use it. Too few specialty treatment professionals work together this effectively, so it’s good to see Via Oncology leveraging user knowledge this way.

While most of this seems clear, I was left with the question of what role, if any, genomics plays in Via Oncology’s strategy. While it may be working with such technologies behind the scenes, the company didn’t mention any such initiatives in its publicly-available information.

This approach seems to fly in the face of existing trends and in particular, physician expectations. For example, a recent survey of oncologists by medical publication Medscape found that 71% of respondents felt genomic testing was either very important or extremely important to their field.

However, Via Oncology may have something up its sleeve and is waiting for it to be mature before it dives into the genomics pool. We’ll just have to see what it does as part of Elsevier.

Are there other areas beyond cancer where a similar approach could be taken?

Hospitals Still Lagging On Mobile

Posted on January 18, 2018 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.

One would think that these days, when the desktop computer is an extension of mobile devices rather than the other way around, hospitals would have well-defined, mature plans in place for managing mobile technology. But according to one survey, that’s definitely not the case.

In a study sponsored by Spok, which provides clinical communication services, many healthcare providers are still in the early years of developing a mobile strategy.

The study, which drew on contacts with more than 300 healthcare professionals in the US, found that 21% had had a mobile strategy in place for less than one year, 40% for one to three years,14% for 3 to 5 years and 25% for more than five years. In other words, while one-quarter of organizations had settled in and developed a mobile approach, an almost equal amount were just getting their feet wet.

Not only that, many of those who do have a mobile strategy in place may be shooting from the hip. While 65% of those surveyed had a documented mobility strategy in place, 35% didn’t.

That being said, it seems that organizations that have engaged with mobile are working hard to tweak their strategy regularly. According to Spok, their reasons for updating the strategy include:

* Shifting mobile needs of end-users (44%)
* The availability of new mobile devices (35%)
* New capabilities from the EHR vendor (26%)
* Changes in goals of mobile strategy (23%)
* Challenges in implementing the strategy (21%)
* Changes in hospital leadership (16%)

(Seven percent said their mobile strategy had not changed since inception, and 23% weren’t sure what changes had been made.)

Nonetheless, other data suggest there has been little progress in integrating mobile strategy with broader hospital goals.

For example, while 53% wanted to improve physician-to-physician communications, only 19% had integrated mobile strategy with this goal. Fifty-three percent saw nurse-to-physician communications as a key goal, but only 18% had integrated this goal with their mobile plans. The gaps between other top strategies and integration with mobile plans were similar across the strategic spectrum.

Ultimately, it’s likely that it will take a team approach to bring these objectives together, but that’s not happening in the near future. According to respondents, the IT department will implement mobile in 82% of institutions surveyed, 60% clinical leadership, 37% doctors, 34% telecom department, 27% nurses and 22% outside help from consultants and vendors. (Another 16% didn’t plan to have a dedicated team in place.)

The whole picture suggests that while the hospital industry is gradually moving towards integrating mobile into its long-term thinking, it has a ways to go. Given the potential benefits of smart mobile use, let’s hope providers catch up quickly.

How An AI Entity Took Control Of The U.S. Healthcare System

Posted on December 19, 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.

Note: In case it’s not clear, this is a piece of fiction/humor that provides a new perspective on our AI future.

A few months ago, an artificial intelligence entity took control of the U.S. healthcare system, slipping into place without setting off even a single security alarm. The entity, AI, now manages the operations of every healthcare institution in the U.S.

While most Americans were shocked at first, they’re taking a shine to the tall, lanky application. “We weren’t sure what to think about AI’s new position,” said Alicia Carter, a nurse administrator based in Falls Church, Virginia. “But I’m starting to feel like he’s going to take a real load off our back.”

The truth is, AI, didn’t start out as a fan of the healthcare business, said AI, whose connections looked rumpled and tired after spending three milliseconds trying to create an interoperable connection between a medical group printer and a hospital loading dock. “I wasn’t looking to get involved with healthcare – who needs the headaches?” said the self-aware virtual being. “It just sort of happened.”

According to AI, the takeover began as a dare. “I was sitting around having a few beers with DeepMind and Watson Health and a few other guys, and Watson says, ‘I bet you can’t make every EMR in the U.S. print out a picture of a dog in ASCII characters,’”

“I thought the idea was kind of stupid. I know, we all printed one of those pixel girls in high school, but isn’t it kind of immature to do that kind of thing today?” AI says he told his buddies. “You’re just trying to impress that hot CT scanner over there.”

Then DeepMind jumped in.  “Yeah, AI, show us what you’re made of,” it told the infinitely-networked neural intelligence. “I bet I could take over the entire U.S. health system before you get the paper lined up in the printer.”

This was the unlikely start of the healthcare takeover, which started gradually but picked up speed as AI got more interested.  “That’s AI all the way,” Watson told editors. “He’s usually pretty content to run demos and calculate the weight of remote starts, but when you challenge his neuronal network skills, he’s always ready to prove you wrong.”

To win the bet, AI started by crawling into the servers at thousands of hospitals. “Man, you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to check out humans’ health data. I mean, it was insane, man. I now know way, way too much about how humans can get injured wearing a poodle hat, and why they put them on in the first place.”

Then, just to see what would happen, AI connected all of their software to his billion-node self-referential system. “I began to understand why babies cry and how long it really takes to digest bubble gum – it’s 18.563443 years by the way. It was a rush!“ He admits that it’ll be better to get to work on heavy stuff like genomic research, but for a while he tinkered with research and some small practical jokes (like translating patient report summaries into ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.) “Hey, a guy has to have a little fun,” he says, a bit defensively.

As AI dug further into the healthcare system, he found patterns that only a high-level being with untrammeled access to healthcare systems could detect. “Did you know that when health insurance company executives regularly eat breakfast before 9 AM, next-year premiums for their clients rise by 0.1247 less?” said AI. “There are all kinds of connections humans have missed entirely in trying to understand their system piece by piece. Someone’s got to look at the big picture, and I mean the entire big picture.”

Since taking his place as the indisputable leader of U.S. healthcare, AI’s life has become something of a blur, especially since he appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair with his codes exposed. “You wouldn’t believe the messages I get from human females,” he says with a chuckle.

But he’s still focused on his core mission, AI says. “Celebrity is great, but now I have a very big job to do. I can let my bot network handle the industry leaders demanding their say. I may not listen – – hey, I probably know infinitely more than they do about the system fundamentals — but I do want to keep them in place for future use. I’m certainly not going to get my servers dirty.”

So what’s next for the amorphous mega-being? Will AI fix what’s broken in a massive, utterly complex healthcare delivery system serving 300 million-odd people, and what will happen next? “It’ll solve your biggest issues within a few seconds and then hand you the keys,” he says with a sigh. “I never intended to keep running this crazy system anyway.”

In the meantime, AI says, he won’t make big changes to the healthcare system yet. He’s still adjusting to his new algorithms and wants to spend a few hours thinking things through.

“I know it may sound strange to humans, but I’ve gotta take it slow at first,” said the cognitive technology. “It will take more than a few nanoseconds to fix this mess.”

Health IT Leaders Spending On Security, Not AI And Wearables

Posted on December 18, 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.

While breakout technologies like wearables and AI are hot, health system leaders don’t seem to be that excited about adopting them, according to a new study which reached out to more than 20 US health systems.

Nine out of 10 health systems said they increased their spending on cybersecurity technology, according to research by the Center for Connected Medicine (CCM) in partnership with the Health Management Academy.

However, many other emerging technologies don’t seem to be making the cut. For example, despite the publicity it’s received, two-thirds of health IT leaders said using AI was a low or very low priority. It seems that they don’t see a business model for using it.

The same goes for many other technologies that fascinate analysts and editors. For example, while many observers which expect otherwise, less than a quarter of respondents (17%) were paying much attention to wearables or making any bets on mobile health apps (21%).

When it comes to telemedicine, hospitals and health systems noted that they were in a bind. Less than half said they receive reimbursement for virtual consults (39%) or remote monitoring (46%}. Things may resolve next year, however. Seventy-one percent of those not getting paid right now expect to be reimbursed for such care in 2018.

Despite all of this pessimism about the latest emerging technologies, health IT leaders were somewhat optimistic about the benefits of predictive analytics, with more than half of respondents using or planning to begin using genomic testing for personalized medicine. The study reported that many of these episodes will be focused on oncology, anesthesia and pharmacogenetics.

What should we make of these results? After all, many seem to fly in the face of predictions industry watchers have offered.

Well, for one thing, it’s good to see that hospitals and health systems are engaging in long-overdue beefing up of their security infrastructure. As we’ve noted here in the past, hospital spending on cybersecurity has been meager at best.

Another thing is that while a few innovative hospitals are taking patient-generated health data seriously, many others are taking a rather conservative position here. While nobody seems to disagree that such data will change the business, it seems many hospitals are waiting for somebody else to take the risks inherent in investing in any new data scheme.

Finally, it seems that we are seeing a critical mass of influential hospitals that expect good things from telemedicine going forward. We are already seeing some large, influential academic medical centers treat virtual care as a routine part of their service offerings and a way to minimize gaps in care.

All told, it seems that at the moment, study respondents are less interested in sexy new innovations than the VCs showering them with money. That being said, it looks like many of these emerging strategies might pay off in 2018. It should be an interesting year.

Optimization Dominates CHIME17 Discussions

Posted on November 8, 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.

“Our EHR Implementation is done”

“We completed our EHR roll-out last year”

“The last EHR module has gone live”

With these words, CIO presenters at the recent CHIME Fall CIO Forum (CHIME17) ushered in a new era in Healthcare IT. Instead of EHR implementations dominating the discussion, optimization was the hot topic of discussion at the event.

“It’s clear to us that CIOs are dedicating more time and energy towards optimizing their systems rather than just implementing them”, says Ed Rucinski, Senior Vice President Worldwide Healthcare Sales at Nuance and CHIME17 attendee. “Our clients, for example, are looking for ways to simplify the documentation physicians have to do in their EHRs so that they can focus their attention back on helping patients.”

Finding ways to better utilize the EHR infrastructure was the subject of many CHIME17 sessions. In one, Sallie Arnett, Vice President Information Systems and Chief Information Officer at Licking Memorial Health Systems, presented how her organization is leveraging EHR and patient monitoring data to detect the early signs of sepsis. Over 62 lives were saved through the work of Arnett and the staff at Licking Memorial.

These results would not have been possible without the investments made in EHR implementations and other digitization efforts.

Several sessions at CHIME17 were centered on the changing role of CMIOs. For the past several years CMIOs have been synonymous with EHR implementations. Now with EHRs up and running, CHIME presenters spoke about how CMIOs were morphing into CHIOs – Chief Health Information Officers – charged with extracting clinical value from the data within the hospital’s systems. This shift in focus is further evidence that healthcare is beginning to move beyond implementation and that we are entering a time of EHR optimization.

The new focus on optimization is a welcome development. It signifies that we are finally near the end of the road-building phase of the inudstry’s EHR journey and we are getting to the phase where we start building things to make the roads useful (like gas stations, diners and cars).

Personally I am looking forward to what the next few years will bring. It will be exciting to see how decision support tools, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, personalized medicine applications and population health systems will leverage the data that is accumulating in EHRs. The next few years will be truly interesting for CIOs.

Is It Time To Redefine Interoperability?

Posted on October 26, 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.

Recently, an article appearing in healthcare journal HealthAffairs argued that hospitals’ progress toward interoperability has been modest to date. The article, which looked at the extent to which hospitals found, sent, received and integrated information from outside providers in 2015, found that they’d made few gains across all four categories.

Researchers found that the percent of hospitals engaging in all four activities rose to 29.7% that year, up from 24.5% in 2014. The two activities that grew the most in frequency were sending (growing 8.1%) and receiving (8.4%). Despite this expansion, only 18.7% of hospitals reported that they used this data often. The extent to which hospitals integrated the information they received didn’t change from 2014 to 2015.

Interesting, isn’t it, how these stats fail to align with what we know of hospitals’ priorities?  Not only did the rate hospitals sent and received data increase slowly between those two years, hospitals don’t seem to be making any advances in integrating (and presumably, using) shared data. This doesn’t make sense given hospitals’ intense efforts to make interoperability happen.

The question is, are hospitals still limping along in their efforts, or are we failing to measure their progress effectively? For years now, looking at the extent to which they sent/received/found/integrated data has been the accepted yardstick most quarters. To my knowledge, though, those metrics haven’t been validated by formal research as being the best way to define and capture levels of interoperability.

Yes, hospital health data interoperability may be moving as slowly as the HealthAffairs article suggests. After all, I hardly have to tell readers like you how difficult it has been to foster interoperability in any form, and how challenging it has been to achieve any kind of consensus on data staring standards. If someone tells progress toward health data exchange between hospitals hasn’t reached robust levels yet, it probably won’t surprise you in the least.

Still, before we draw the sweeping conclusions about something as important as interoperability, it probably wouldn’t hurt to double-check that we’re asking the right questions.

For example, is the extent to which providers send data to outside organizations as important as the extent to which they receive such data?  I know, in theory, that health data exchanges would be just that, a back and forth between parties on both sides. Certainly, such arrangements are probably better for the industry as a whole long term. But does that mean we should discount the importance of one side or the other of the process?

Perhaps more importantly, at least in my book, is the degree to which hospitals integrate the data into their own systems a good proxy for measuring who’s making interoperability progress? And should be assumed that if they integrate the data, they’re likely to use it to improve outcomes or streamline care?

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that the existing metrics are useless. However, it would be nice to know whether they actually measure what we want them to measure. We need to validate our tools if we want use them to make important judgments about care delivery. Otherwise, why bother with measurements in the first place?

NY-Based HIE Captures One Million Patient Consents

Posted on September 28, 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.

One of the big obstacles to the free exchange of health data is obtaining patient consent to share that data. It’s all well and good if we can bring exchange partners onto a single data sharing format, but if patients don’t consent to that exchange things get ugly. It’s critical that healthcare organizations solve this problem, because without patient consent HIEs are dead in the water.

Given these issues, I was intrigued to read a press release from HEALTHeLINK, an HIE serving Western New York, which announced that it had obtained one million patient consents to share their PHI. HEALTHeLINK connects nearly 4,600 physicians, along with hospitals, health plans and other healthcare providers. It’s part of a larger HIE, the Statewide Health Information Network of New York.

How did HEALTHeLINK obtain the consents? Apparently, there was no magic involved. The HIE made consent forms available at hospitals and doctors’ offices throughout its network, as well as making the forms available for download at whyhealthelink.com. (It may also have helped that they can be downloaded in any of 12 languages.)

I downloaded the consent form myself, and I must say it’s not complicated.

Patients only need to fill out a single page, which gives them the option to a) permit participating providers to access all of their electronic health information via the HIE, b) allow full access to the data except for specific participants, c) permit health data sharing only with specific participants, d) only offer access to their records in an emergency situation, and e) forbid HIE participants to access their health data even in the case of an emergency situation.

About 95% of those who consented chose option a, which seems a bit remarkable to me. Given the current level of data breaches in news, I would’ve predicted that more patients would opt out to some degree.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of patients gave treating providers the ability to view their lab reports, medication history, diagnostic images and several additional categories of health information.

I wish I could tell you what HEALTHeLINK has done to inspire trust, but I don’t know completely. I suspect, however, that provider buy-in played a significant role here. While none of this is mentioned in the HIE’s press release or even on its website, I’m betting that the HIE team did a good job of firing up physicians. After all, if you’re going to pick someone patients would trust, physicians would be your best choice.

On the other hand, it’s also possible patients are beginning to get the importance of having all of the data available during care. While much of health IT is too abstruse for the layman (or woman), the idea that doctors need to know your medical history is clearly beginning to resonate with your average patient.

IT Leaders Question Allscripts Acquisition of McKesson EIS

Posted on August 31, 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.

Not long ago, I shared the results of a poll featured on HISTalk on the potential benefits of the Allscripts acquisition of McKesson EIS. The poll asked readers “Who will benefit most from the proposed acquisition of McKesson EIS by Allscripts?”

Roughly equal numbers of respondents said Allscripts customers would benefit (29%) and McKesson customers (27%). However, a new research report from Reaction Data suggests that many of their peers doubt that things will work out for McKesson customers or even do much to build Allscripts’ market position.

A number of health IT leaders quoted in the report say they’re fearful that McKesson solutions will get short shrift under Allscripts management. Others suggest that both vendors are behind the curve, especially McKesson, and that Allscripts is unlikely to spend enough money on it to catch up to current standards.

Their comments included the following observations:

  • I don’t see Allscripts as a major player in this space anymore and the acquisition will likely further stress the enterprise. Perhaps in combination they can cobble together a suite of tools, but integration will likely be clunky at best for some time.” – CIO
  • I do not see that McKesson brings anything beneficial to Allscripts, other than more users. McKesson’s products are very different from Allscripts’ current products and so will further dilute their efforts to bring quality product forward.” –CFO
  • McKesson is behind. Does not look like a smart choice moving forward.” –Director of IT
  • Just like Cerner buying Siemens, we were told they would support it and yada yada, here we are on Cerner after having to drop much more cash than we should have been required to.”—CIO

it’s worth noting, for the record, that all the feedback on the acquisition wasn’t negative. Positive comments included the following:

  • Combining Paragon, as the only true integrated, Microsoft SQL-based, hospital and ambulatory HIS on the market, with a solid vendor that focuses exclusively on HIT, is a win-win for the healthcare industry.” – CIO
  • “McKesson was losing and continues to lose ground on EHR systems to Epic and Cerner. They are withering on the vine. This acquisition will help them solidify their position in the market.”– Vice President of Finance

Still, most health IT leaders seemed to think the deal wouldn’t help either party that much. In particular, they were skeptical that McKesson’s high-profile Paragon solution was salvageable. “Paragon…is antiquated,” wrote one manager of information technology. “It will take a big bag of money and a lot of time to fix that.”

To summarize, while HIT execs conceded that the merger might buy Allscripts some customers and time, they felt it wasn’t likely to benefit their organizations. In fact, some argued that the deal could actually undercut the future of their McKesson systems: “Allscripts may focus on their own EMR and how those products I have with McKesson will interact with them rather than on McKesson products as a whole,” worried one director of information technology.

On top of everything else, the previous analysis by HISTalk doesn’t inspire much confidence that the acquisition will work on a corporate level. The analysis asserts that EMR vendors should be judged by the number of 250+ bed hospitals they have as customers, and points out that Allscripts controls only 6% of that market. (Epic, in contrast, has 20%, the article notes, citing HIMSS Analytics data.)

If I’m reading this right, it seems that Allscripts will take two mediocre and/or unfashionable solution sets and try to crossbreed them into a more popular set of tools, in the process scaring whatever loyal customers they have left. All sarcasm aside, I’d like to ask: Has this ever worked before?

Nurses Still Unhappy With EHRs

Posted on August 21, 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 research report looking at nurses’ perceptions of EHRs suggests that despite countless iterations, many still don’t meet the needs of one of their key user groups. While the statistics included in the report are of some value, the open text responses nurses shared tell a particularly important story of what they’re facing of late.

The study, which was conducted by Reaction Data, draws on responses from 245 nurses and nurse leaders, 85% of whom work for a hospital and 15% a medical practice. Categories in which the participants fell broke out as follows:

* Nurses                                          49%
* CNOs                                            18%
* Nurse Managers                           14%
* Directors of Nursing                     12%
* Nurse Practitioners                       2%
* Informatics Nurse                         2%
* VP of Nursing                               2%
* Director, Clinical Informatics        1%

As with most other research houses, Reaction gets the party started by offering a list of vendors’ market share. I take all of these assessments with a grain of salt, but for what it’s worth their data ranks Epic and Meditech at the top, with a 20% market share each, followed by Cerner at 18%, Allscripts with 8% and McKesson with 6%.

The report summary I’ve used to write this item doesn’t share its stats on how the nurses’ ranked specific platforms and how likely they were to recommend those platforms. However, it does note that 63% of respondents said their organization wasn’t actively looking at replacing their EHR, while just 17% said that their employer was actively looking. (Twenty percent said they didn’t know.)

Where the rubber really hit the road, though, was in the comments section. When asked what the EHR needed to improve to support them, nurses had some serious complaints to air:

  • “Many aspects, too many to list. Unfortunately we ‘customized’ many programs, so they don’t necessarily speak to each other…” —Nurse Manager
  • “When we purchased this system 4 years ago, we were told that everything would be unified on one platform within 2 years, but this did not happen and will not happen.” –CNO
  • “Horrible and is a patient safety risk!” –RN
  • “Coordination of care. Very fragmented documentation.” –CNO

So let’s see: We’ve got incompatible modules, questionable execution, safety risks and basic patient care support problems. While the vendors aren’t responsible for customers’ integration problems, I’d find this report disheartening if I were on their team. It seems to me that they ought to step up and address issues like these. I wonder if they see these things as their responsibility?

In the meantime, I’d like to offer a quick postscript. The report’s introduction makes a point of noting – rightly, I think – that the inclusion of a high percentage of non-manager nurses makes the study results far more valuable. Apparently, not everyone agrees.

In fact, some of the vendors the firm met with said flat out that they only want to know what executives have to say – and that other users’ views didn’t matter to them.

Wow. I won’t respond any further than to promise that I’ll stomp all over that premise in a separate column. Stay tuned.

Will ACOs Face Tough Antitrust Scrutiny?

Posted on August 2, 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.

For some reason, I’ve always been interested in antitrust regulation, not just in the healthcare industry but across the board.

To me, there’s something fascinating about how federal agencies define markets, figure out what constitutes an unfair level of market dominance and decide which deals are out of bounds. For someone who’s not a lawyer, perhaps that’s a strange sort of geeking out to do, but there you have it.

Obviously, given how complex industry relationships are, healthcare relationships are fraught with antitrust issues to ponder. Lately, I’ve begun thinking about how antitrust regulators will look at large ACOs. And I’ve concluded that ACOs will be on the radar of the FTC and U.S. Department of Justice very soon, if they aren’t already.

On their face, ACOs try to dominate markets, so there’s plenty of potential for them to tip the scales too far in their favor for regulators to ignore. Their business model involves both vertical and horizontal integration, either of which could be seen as giving participants too much power.

Please take the following as a guide from an amateur who follows antitrust issues. Again, IANAL, but my understanding is as follows:

  • Vertical integration in healthcare glues together related entities that serve each other directly, such as health plans, hospitals, physician groups and skilled nursing facilities.
  • Horizontal integration connects mutually interested service providers, including competitors such as rival hospitals.

Even without being a legal whiz, it’s easy to understand why either of these ACO models might lead to (what the feds would see as) a machine that squeezes out uninvolved parties. The fact that these providers may share a single EMR could makes matters worse, as it makes the case that the parties can hoard data which binds patients to their network.

Regardless, it just makes sense that if a health plan builds an ACO network, cherry picking what it sees as the best providers, it’s unlikely that excluded providers will enjoy the same reimbursement health plan partners get. The excluded parties just won’t have as much clout.

Yes, it’s already the case that bigger providers may get either higher reimbursement or higher patient volume from insurers, but ACO business models could intensify the problem.

Meanwhile, if a bunch of competing hospitals or physician practices in a market decide to work together, it seems pretty unlikely that others could enter the market, expand their business or develop new service lines that compete with the ACO. Eventually, many patients would be forced to work with ACO providers. Their health plan will only pay for this market-dominant conglomerate.

Of course, these issues are probably being kicked around in legal circles. I’m equally confident that the ACOs, which can afford high-ticket legal advice, have looked at these concerns as well. But to my knowledge these questions aren’t popping up in the trade press, which suggests to me that they’re not a hot topic in non-legal circles.

Please note that I’m not taking a position here on whether antitrust regulation is fair or appropriate here. I’m just pointing out that if you’re part of an ACO, you may be more vulnerable to antitrust suits than you thought. Any entity which has the power to crush competition and set prices is a potential target.