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Patient Portal Use Rising Rapidly

Posted on October 25, 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 has concluded that patient portal use has shot up over the past few years, with a substantial majority of patients reporting that they use provider portals if possible.

The purpose of the study, results of which was published in Perspectives in Health Information Management, was to examine how healthcare consumers saw their interactions with provider portals, their use of personal health records and their take on the process of releasing health data.

According to a 2015 study cited by the article’s authors, 53% of HIM professionals reported charging consumers for both electronic and paper copies of their health information. Thirty-eight percent said they had a patient portal, but less than 5% of patients were using it.

Over the last two years, however, the picture has changed a great deal. Researchers conducting the current study found that only 10% of consumers were charged for their health information. In addition, 49% reported that they maintained a personal health record. Eighty-three percent of respondents said that their providers had portals, and 82% said that they were taking advantage of their provider’s portal where available.

Patient uses for portals included viewing lab results (35%), requesting medication refills (19%), requesting appointments (22%), secure messaging (19%) and other (5%). Among portal users, 53% were very satisfied and 38% were satisfied with their experiences.

Meanwhile, 49% of respondents said they maintained PHRs, with top record format being combined paper and electronic (46%), followed by paper only (35%), electronic only (18%) and other (1%).

It’s important to note that the study population was especially healthcare-savvy. Participants chosen were campus-based and online students enrolled in a College of Health Professions course, alumni of BA programs in HIM at the researchers’ university, local AHIMA members and the researchers’ family and friends.

The article argues that because the participants were all current healthcare consumers, they were qualified participants. That may be so, but the high concentration of HIM-friendly respondents probably stacked the deck somewhat. (To be fair, the authors admit this.)

That being said, even these relatively sophisticated respondents weren’t completely comfortable with the health data access they had. Complaints cited by consumers included a lack of interoperability between physicians’ offices and electronic PHI, as well as the difficulty of getting data into the portal or updated when already present. Others reported having concerns about health data security.

All told, it looks like the hoped-for growth in patient health data use is taking place over time. I suspect that a direct comparison between less-informed consumers from 2015 and today would show less pronounced changes, though.

 

Scenarios for Health Care Reform (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on May 18, 2017 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.

The first part of this article suggested two scenarios that could promote health care reform. We’ll finish off the scenarios in this part of the article.

Capitalism Disrupts Health Care

In the third scenario, reform is stimulated by an intrepid data science firm that takes on health care with greater success than most of its predecessors. After assembling an impressive analytics toolkit from open source software components–thus simplifying licensing–it approaches health care providers and offers them a deal they can’t refuse: analytics demonstrated to save them money and support their growth, all delivered for free. The data science firm asks in return only that they let it use deidentified data from their patients and practices to build an enhanced service that it will offer paying customers.

Some health care providers balk at the requirement to share data, but their legal and marketing teams explain that they have been doing it for years already with companies whose motives are less commendable. Increasingly, the providers are won over. The analytics service appeals particularly to small, rural, and safety-net providers. Hammered by payment cuts and growing needs among their populations, they are on the edge of going out of business and grasp the service as their last chance to stay in the black.

Participating in the program requires the extraction of data from electronic health records, and some EHR vendors try to stand in the way in order to protect their own monopoly on the data. Some even point to clauses in their licenses that prohibit the sharing. But they get a rude message in return: so valuable are the analytics that the providers are ready to jettison the vendors in a minute. The vendors ultimately go along and even compete on the basis of their ability to connect to the analytics.

Once stability and survival are established, the providers can use the analytics for more and more sophisticated benefits. Unlike the inadequate quality measures currently in use, the analytics provide a robust framework for assessing risk, stratifying populations, and determining how much a provider should be rewarded for treating each patient. Fee-for-outcome becomes standard.

Providers make deals to sign up patients for long-term relationships. Unlike the weak Medicare ACO model, which punishes a provider for things their patients do outside their relationship, the emerging system requires a commitment from the patient to stick with a provider. However, if the patient can demonstrate that she was neglected or failed to receive standard of care, she can switch to another provider and even require the misbehaving provider to cover costs. To hold up their end of this deal, providers find it necessary to reveal their practices and prices. Physician organizations develop quality-measurement platforms such as the recent PRIME registry in family medicine. A race to the top ensues.

What If Nothing Changes?

I’ll finish this upbeat article with a fourth scenario in which we muddle along as we have for years.

The ONC and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services continue to swat at waste in the health care system by pushing accountable care. But their ratings penalize safety-net providers, and payments fail to correlate with costs as hoped.

Fee-for-outcome flounders, so health care costs continue to rise to intolerable levels. Already, in Massachusetts, the US state that leads in universal health coverage, 40% of the state budget goes to Medicaid, where likely federal cuts will make it impossible to keep up coverage. Many other states and countries are witnessing the same pattern of rising costs.

The same pressures ride like a tidal wave through the rest of the health care system. Private insurers continue to withdraw from markets or lose money by staying. So either explicitly or through complex and inscrutable regulatory changes, the government allows insurers to cut sick people from their rolls and raise the cost burdens on patients and their employers. As patient rolls shrink, more hospitals close. Political rancor grows as the public watches employer money go into their health insurance instead of wages, and more of their own stagnant incomes go to health care costs, and government budgets tied up in health care instead of education and other social benefits.

Chronic diseases creep through the population, mocking crippled efforts at public health. Rampant obesity among children leads to more and earlier diabetes. Dementia also rises as the population ages, and climate change scatters its effects across all demographics.

Furthermore, when patients realize the costs they must take on to ask for health care, they delay doctor visits until their symptoms are unbearable. More people become disabled or perish, with negative impacts that spread through the economy. Output decline and more families become trapped in poverty. Self-medication for pain and mental illness becomes more popular, with predictable impacts on the opiate addiction crisis. Even our security is affected: the military finds it hard to recruit find healthy soldiers, and our foreign policy depends increasingly on drone strikes that kill civilians and inflame negative attitudes toward the US.

I think that, after considering this scenario, most of us would prefer one of the previous three I laid out in this article. If health care continues to be a major political issue for the next election, experts should try to direct discussion away from the current unproductive rhetoric toward advocacy for solutions. Some who read this article will hopefully feel impelled to apply themselves to one of the positive scenarios and bring it to fruition.

Scenarios for Health Care Reform (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on May 16, 2017 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.

All reformers in health care know what the field needs to do; I laid out four years ago the consensus about patient-supplied data, widespread analytics, mHealth, and transparency. Our frustration comes in when trying to crack the current hide-bound system open and create change. Recent interventions by US Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, whatever their effects on costs and insurance coverage, offer no promise to affect workflows or treatment. So this article suggests three potential scenarios where reform could succeed, along with a vision of what will happen if none of them take hold.

Patients Forge Their Own Way Forward

In the first scenario, a tiny group of selfer-trackers, athletes, and empowered patients start a movement that ultimately wins over hundreds of millions of individuals.

These scattered enthusiasts, driven to overcome debilitating health problems or achieve extraordinary athletic feats, start to pursue self-tracking with fanaticism. Consumer or medical-grade devices provide them with ongoing data about their progress, and an open source platform such as HIE of One gives them a personal health record (PHR).

They also take charge of their interactions with the health care system. They find that most primary care providers aren’t interested in the data and concerns they bring, or don’t have time to process those data and concerns in the depth they need, or don’t know how to. Therefore, while preserving standard relationships with primary care providers and specialists where appropriate, the self-trackers seek out doctors and other providers to provide consultation about their personal health programs. A small number of providers recognize an opportunity here and set up practices around these consultations. The interactions look quite different from standard doctor visits. The customers, instead of just submitting themselves to examination and gathering advice, steer the conversation and set the goals.

Power relationships between doctors and customers also start to change. Although traditional patients can (and often do) walk away and effectively boycott a practice with which they’re not comfortable, the new customers use this power to set the agenda and to sort out the health care providers they find beneficial.

The turning point probably comes when someone–probabaly a research facility, because it puts customer needs above business models–invents a cheap, comfortable, and easy-to-use device that meets the basic needs for monitoring and transmitting vital signs. It may rest on the waist or some other place where it can be hidden, so that there is no stigma to wearing it constantly and no reason to reject its use on fashion grounds. A beneficent foundation invests several million dollars to make the device available to schoolchildren or some other needy population, and suddenly the community of empowered patients leaps from a miniscule pool to a mainstream phenomenon.

Researchers join the community in search of subjects for their experiments, and patients offer data to the researchers in the hope of speeding up cures. At all times, the data is under control of the subjects, who help to direct research based on their needs. Analytics start to turn up findings that inform clinical decision support.

I haven’t mentioned the collection of genetic information so far, because it requires more expensive processes, presents numerous privacy risks, and isn’t usually useful–normally it tells you that you have something like a 2% risk of getting a disease instead of the general population’s 1% risk. But where genetic testing is useful, it can definitely fit into this system.

Ultimately, the market for consultants that started out tiny becomes the dominant model for delivering health care. Specialists and hospitals are brought in only when their specific contributions are needed. The savings that result bring down insurance costs for everyone. And chronic disease goes way down as people get quick feedback on their lifestyle choices.

Government Puts Its Foot Down

After a decade of cajoling health care providers to share data and adopt a fee-for-outcome model, only to witness progress at a snail’s pace, the federal government decides to try a totally different tack in this second scenario. As part of the Precision Medicine initiative (which originally planned to sign up one million volunteers), and leveraging the ever-growing database of Medicare data, the Office of the National Coordinator sets up a consortium and runs analytics on top of its data to be shared with all legitimate researchers. The government also promises to share the benefits of the analytics with anyone in the world who adds their data to the database.

The goals of the analytics are multi-faceted, combining fraud checks, a search for cures, and everyday recommendations about improving interventions to save money and treat patients earlier in the disease cycle. The notorious 17-year gap between research findings and widespread implementation shrinks radically. Now, best practices are available to any patient who chooses to participate.

As with the personal health records in the previous scenario, the government database in this scenario creates a research platform of unprecedented size, both in the number of records and the variety of participating researchers.

To further expand the power of the analytics, the government demands exponentially greater transparency not just in medical settings but in all things that make us sick: the food we eat (reversing the rulings that protect manufacturers and restaurants from revealing what they’re putting in our bodies), the air and water that surrounds us, the effects of climate change (a major public health issue, spreading scourges such as mosquito-borne diseases and heat exhaustion), disparities in food and exercise options among neighborhoods, and more. Public awareness leads to improvements in health that lagged for decades.

In the next section of this article, I’ll present a third scenario that achieves reform from a different angle.

E-Patient Update:  You Need Our Help

Posted on January 20, 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.

I just read the results of a survey by Black Book Research suggesting that many typical consumers don’t trust, like or understand health IT.

The survey, which reached out to 12,090 adult consumers in September 2016, found that 57% of those interacting with health IT at hospitals or medical practices were skeptical of its benefit. Worse, 87% said they weren’t willing to share all of their information.

Up to 70% of consumers reported that they distrusted patient portals, medical apps and EMRs. Meanwhile, while many respondents said they were interested in using health trackers, 94% said that their physicians weren’t willing or able to synch wearables data with their EMR.

On the surface, these stats are discouraging. At a minimum, they suggest that getting patients and doctors on the same page about health IT continues to be an uphill battle. But there’s a powerful tactic providers can use which – to my knowledge – hasn’t been tried with consumers.

Introducing the consumer health IT champion

As you probably know, many providers have recruited physician or nurse “champions” to help their peers understand and adjust to EMRs. I’m sure this tactic hasn’t worked perfectly for everyone who’s tried it, but it seems to have an impact. And why not? Most people are far more comfortable learning something new from someone who understands their work and shares their concerns.

The thing is, few if any providers are taking the same approach in rolling out consumer health IT. But they certainly could. I’d bet that there’s at least a few patients in every population who like, use and understand consumer health technologies, as well as having at least a sense of why providers are adopting back-end technology like EMRs. And we know how to get Great-Aunt Mildred to consider wearing a FitBit or entering data into a portal.

So why not make us your health IT champions? After all, if you asked me to, say, hold a patient workshop explaining how I use these tools in my life, and why they matter, I’d jump at the chance. E-patients like myself are by our nature evangelists, and we’re happy to share our excitement if you give us a chance. Maybe you’d need to offer some HIT power users a stipend or a gift card, but I doubt it would take much to get one of us to share our interests.

It’s worth the effort

Of course, most people who read this will probably flinch a bit, as taking this on might seem like a big hassle. But consider the following:

  • Finding such people shouldn’t be too tough. For example, I talk about wearables, mobile health options and connected health often with my PCP, and my enthusiasm for them is a little hard to miss. I doubt I’m alone in this respect.
  • All it would take to get started is to get a few of us on board. Yes, providers may have to market such events to patients, offer them coffee and snacks when they attend, and perhaps spend time evaluating the results on the back end. But we’re not talking major investments here.
  • You can’t afford to have patients fear or reject IT categorically. As value-based care becomes the standard, you’ll need their cooperation to meet your goals, and that will almost certainly include access to patient-generated data from mobile apps and wearables. People like me can address their fears and demonstrate the benefits of these technologies without making them defensive.

I hope hospitals and medical practices take advantage of people like me soon. We’re waiting in the wings, and we truly want to see the public support health IT. Let’s work together!

Will Personal Health Information Exchanges (PHIE) Lead the Consumer Medical Record Revolution and Bridge the Gap Between PHRs and EHRs? (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on August 5, 2015 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Cora Alisuag, RN, MN, MA, CFP, President & CEO, CORAnet Solutions, Inc.
Cora Alisuag, CEO, CORAnet Solutions
Be sure to check out part 1 in this series where we talked about the movement towards an empowered patient who controls their health record.

Lack of Interoperability Continues to Hamper Patient Record Access

However, it has been six years since the HITECH Act passed, yet most Americans seeking medical care are still unable to obtain their full medical records for a variety of reasons. Some hospitals will simply not release them or proprietary EHR system vendors not allowing hospitals, let alone patients, direct access.

This capability also comes at a critical time as enormous obstacles hamper the ability of people to obtain their medical records. This is documented in the ONC’s “2015 Report to Congress on Health Information Blocking” which concludes that it is apparent that some health care providers and health IT developers are knowingly interfering with the exchange of health information in ways that limit its availability and use to improve health and health care.

This situation is only going to worsen as the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) is considering a change to the EHR meaningful use rule that requires five percent of patients must view or download or transmit their health data to only one patient; not one percent, one patient.

Blue Button Not Gaining traction

In the meantime, other PHR technology has been introduced, but has not gained popularity including forays from Microsoft and Google. The ONC and other government organizations’ initiative to adopt and use the Blue Button platform for exchanging healthcare data between clinicians equipped with electronic health-record systems and patients with mobile computing devices is stalled, according to a recent survey by the not-for-profit Workgroup for Electronic Data Interchange (WEDI).

WEDI questioned 274 providers, health plans, HIT vendors and claims clearinghouses in the Second Annual Survey of Industry Awareness of Blue Button, conducted late in 2014. Only eight percent of respondents noted that their organizations actually used Blue Button, down from 15% of survey respondents in 2013.

PHRs Largely Unpopular

PHRs joined the lexicon of medical terminology several years ago as a convenience way for consumers to have copies of their medical records. It was largely born out of EHR’s lack of interoperability and access. However, as far back as 2009, a Health Affairs article detailed the major factors behind the slow adoption of PHRs. The article reviewed some of the reasons and includes cost, access, interoperability, security concerns, and data ownership.

Because health records which include clinical data, laboratory results and medical images do not flow freely among multiple organizations due to lack on EHR interoperability, PHRs do not automatically receive data. This means that the data must often be entered manually by consumers—a time-consuming and error-prone process. For most consumers, this lack of safe and reliable automation makes it problematic to maintain a PHR, and a PHR that is not up-to-date likely will not be used. Unlike PHIEs, the API-EHR connectivity connection is the missing link in PHRs.

However, the authors of the Health Affairs article offered a challenge. They described a gap between today’s personal health records (PHRs) and what patients say they want and need from this electronic tool for managing their health information. They noted that until that gap is bridged, it is unlikely that PHRs would be widely adopted, but noted that in the future; when these concerns are addressed, and health data is portable and understandable in content and format, PHRs will likely prove to be invaluable.

“While we all agree that lack of interoperability continues to stymie patient health record access and PHRs might not be the ultimate solution, but if a PHIE can bridge the gap by accessing EHR data through an open API while offering the security and convenience of a PHR. I believe PHIEs offer a solution that should satisfy the spontaneity of millennials’ and more frequent use of middle-aged and elderly users,” says Tiffany Casper, RNC, CNM, MSN and President of EMR Consultants which helps medical organizations transition to EMR systems.

About Cora Alisuag
Cora Alisuag is the CEO of CORAnet Solutions, Inc., a health information technology company. She is the inventor of CORAnet technology, the software engine that drives CORAnet’s Personal Health Information Exchange (PHIE), allowing patients’ mobile device access to their complete medical records. She is also an MN, MA, CFP and healthcare industry speaker and serial medical entrepreneur.

Will Personal Health Information Exchanges (PHIE) Lead the Consumer Medical Record Revolution and Bridge the Gap Between PHRs and EHRs? (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on August 4, 2015 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Cora Alisuag, RN, MN, MA, CFP, President & CEO, CORAnet Solutions, Inc.
Cora Alisuag, CEO, CORAnet Solutions
It has only been about two generations since traveling medicine shows were common forums for medical information. Phony research and medical claims were used to back up the sale of all kinds of dubious medicines. Potential patients had no real method to determine what was true or false, let alone know what their real medical issues were.

Healthcare has come a long way since those times, but similar to the lack of knowing the compositions of past medical concoctions and what ailed them, today’s digital age patients still don’t know what is in their medical records. They need transparency, not secret hospital –vendor contracts and data blocking, like the practices being questioned by the New York Times. One patient, Regina Holliday resorts to using art to bring awareness to the lack of patient’s access to their own medical records.

Testifying in July 2015 before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Direct Trust President and CEO David C. Kibbe, MD MBA, has urged the federal government to take action to help overcome the problems impeding the sharing of health information between and among parties authorized to access electronic health data, commonly referred to as “information blocking.”

“While the responsibility for assuring secure interoperable exchange resides primarily with the health care provider organizations, and not with the EHR (electronic health record) vendors nor the government, I strongly believe there is a role for government to encourage and incentivize collaborative and interoperable health information exchange,” testified Dr. Kibbe, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on health information exchange security issues.

There are many reasons patients want access. Second opinions, convenience, instant access in a medical emergency and right of ownership—I paid for them, I own them. Other reasons patients need to view their records is for accuracy and validity. Inaccurate record keeping has even caused the EHRI Institute to cite incorrect or missing data in EHRs and other health IT systems as the second highest safety concern in its annual survey, outlining the Top Ten Safety Concerns for Healthcare Organizations in 2015.

Healthcare system executives, from CIOs to CEOs are very aware of the increasing requirements from patients asking for their records and the various state and federal laws that come into play. However, they are also aware that by making it too easy for patients to access records they risk liability and HIPAA issues. They also don’t want to provide documents that can easily enable cost comparisons or raise questions about charges.

Consumers Uniting

Riding the wave of interest in accessing personal medical records are organizations like Get My Health Data. Org. The organization was founded in June 2015 as a collaborative effort among leading consumer organizations, health care experts, former policy makers and technology organizations that believe consumer access to digital health information is an essential cornerstone for better health and better care, coordinated by the National Partnership for Women & Families, a non-profit consumer organization. On July 4 it launched #DataIndependenceDay to create awareness for the HIPAA law which states that patients must be granted access to their health information with very few exceptions. An update to those laws that was finalized in 2013 extends these rights to electronic health records.

Despite the introduction of Personal Health Records (PHRs), Blue Button technology and product introductions from blue chip technology leaders such as Microsoft and Google, there has been no significant, unifying technology to ignite pent up demand for their medical records by consumers. This lack luster interest and ongoing interoperability issues might be the unifying force to drive many consumers to consider Personal Health Information Exchanges (PHIEs) as an alternative to EHRs and Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) that unnecessarily duplicate data and risk HIPAA violations.

Will PHIEs Ignite the Patient Record Access Movement?

Frost & Sullivan, in its research report, “Moving Beyond the Limitations of Fragmented Solutions Empowering Patients with Integrated, Mobile On-Demand Access to the Health Information Continuum”, identifies Personal Health Information Exchange (PHIEs). They are described as providing individual patients, physicians, and the full spectrum of ancillary providers with immediate, real-time access to medical records regardless of where they are stored by using an open API.

The PHIE can provide access to the entirety of an individual patient record, regardless of the number of sources or EHR systems in which the patient data resides. This technology is made possible through fully interoperable integration servers that can access any EHR system with available APIs and portray the integrated data in a viewable, secure and encrypted format on a mobile device.

By leveraging the powerful simplicity of open APIs, PHIE technology can also access medical records in a way that is much more comprehensive than the closed EMR portals commonly used by doctors’ offices. Despite their pervasive use, these portals are cumbersome and expensive for patient’s use. The portals also include the same lack of interoperability that plagues hospital EHR systems.

“PHIEs can be the breakthrough everyone has been waiting for; challenging every consumer health organization, third-party payer, hospital, ACO network, and Congress to recognize the need to move away from proprietary systems. Adoption of this technology would also demonstrate the healthcare industries’ commitment to allowing patients access to their own records,” notes Dr. Donald Voltz, an anesthesiologist at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio who leads a campaign for EHR connectivity.

“If done correctly, PHIEs can lead in the consumer health information campaign for change, interoperability now, quality and safety through license relationships with hospitals, payers, telecommunications companies, mobile device firms and large employers. Interoperability issues could be a thing of the past and lead to integration with leading EMR systems, integration with HIEs, VAR agreements with health and wellness IT firms and application distribution through the online market place with Google Play and iTunes,” says Voltz.

Tomorrow in part 2 of the series we’ll talk about current interoperability efforts and the challenges they face.

About Cora Alisuag
Cora Alisuag is the CEO of CORAnet Solutions, Inc., a health information technology company. She is the inventor of CORAnet technology, the software engine that drives CORAnet’s Personal Health Information Exchange (PHIE), allowing patients’ mobile device access to their complete medical records. She is also an MN, MA, CFP and healthcare industry speaker and serial medical entrepreneur.

HIM Departments Need More Support

Posted on July 16, 2015 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.

As both a contributor to this blog, and an assertive, activist patient managing chronic conditions, I get to see both sides of professional health information management.  And I have to say that while health data management pros obviously do great things against great odds, support for their work doesn’t seem to have trickled down to the front lines.  I’m speaking most specifically about Medical Records (oops, I mean Health Information Management) departments in hospitals.

As I noted in a related blog post, I recently had a small run-in with the HIM department of a local hospital which seems emblematic of this problem. The snag occurred when I reached out to DC-based Sibley Memorial Hospital and tried to get a new log-in code for their implementation of Epic PHR MyChart. The clerk answering the phone for that department told me, quite inaccurately, that if I didn’t use the activation code provided on my discharge summary papers within two days, my chance to log in to the Johns Hopkins MyChart site was forever lost. (Sibley is part of the Johns Hopkins system.)

Being the pushy type that I am, I complained to management, who put me in touch with the MyChart tech support office. The very smart and help tech support staffer who reached out to me expressed surprise at what I’d been told as a) the code wasn’t yet expired and b) given that I supplied the right security information she’d have been able to supply me with a new one.  The thing is, I never would have gotten to her if I hadn’t known not to take the HIM clerk’s word at face value.

Note: After writing the linked article, I was able to speak to the HIM department leader at Sibley, and she told me that she planned to address the issue of supporting MyChart questions with her entire staff. She seemed to agree completely that they had a vital role in the success of the PHR and patient empowerment generally, and I commend her for that.

Now, I realize that HIM departments are facing what may be the biggest changes in their history, and that Madame Clerk may have been an anomaly or even a temp. But assuming she was a regular hire, how much training would it have taken for the department managers to require her to simply give out the MyChart tech support number? Ten minutes?  Five? A priority e-mail demanding that PHR/digital medical record calls be routed this way would probably have done the trick.

My take on all of this is that HIM departments seem to have a lot of growing up to do. Responsible largely for pushing paper — very important paper but paper nonetheless — they’re now in the thick of the health data revolution without having a central role in it. They aren’t attached to the IT department, really, nor are they directly supporting physicians — they’re sort of a legacy department that hasn’t got as clearly defined a role as it did.

I’m not suggesting that HIM departments be wiped off the map, but it seems to me that some aggressive measures are in order to loop them in to today’s world.

Obviously, training on patient health data access is an issue. If HIM staffers know more about patient portals generally — and ideally, have hands-on experience with them, they’ll be in a better position to support such initiatives without needing to parrot facts blindly. In other words, they’ll do better if they have context.

HIM departments should also be well informed as to EMR and other health data system developments. Sure, the senior people in the department may already be looped in, but they should share that knowledge at brown bag lunches and staff update sessions freely and often. As I see it, this provides the team with much-needed sense of participation in the broader HIT enterprise.

Also, HIM staff members should encourage patients who call to log in and leverage patient portals. Patients who call the hospital with only a vague sense that they can access their health data online will get routed to that department by the switchboard. HIM needs to be well prepared to support them.

These concerns should only become more important as Meaningful Use Stage 3 comes on deck. MU Stage 3 should provide the acid test as to whether whether hospital HIM departments are really ready to embrace change.

What’s the Mission of Your Healthcare Organization?

Posted on March 10, 2014 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.

Saturday I had the tremendous (that’s in the sarcasm font in case you missed it) opportunity to do a pediatric walk in visit for my daughter. Everything is fine and my daughter’s doing well. However, while I was waiting in the lobby, I saw the following sign posted on the wall:
Partners Healthcare Mission Statement

For those who can’t see images, here’s what it says:
Mission: Deliver the highest quality of care to tall of our patients.
Promise: HealthCare Partners of Nevada and its team of professionals will not tolerate nor be indifferent to poor quality.
Creed: Live our mission; Keep our promise

Someone recently described my blog focus as covering the business of healthcare. I thought that was a pretty decent description. Certainly we have an IT bend to almost all of our content, but we’re happy to write about anything that relates to the business of healthcare. It just so happens that IT is involved in almost every business aspect of healthcare.

With this focus, I think I sometimes get a little jaded when it comes to healthcare organizations motivations when it comes to the care they provide their patients. I’ve often argued for the importance of the almighty dollar when it comes to influencing doctors in healthcare. This was reinforced just today in Dr. Jayne’s post on HIStalk where she said, “At least all of our physicians were migrated to a common contract in tandem with our EHR project more than half a decade ago because we realized only money would align them with our goals.

While I still believe that the financial incentives are the best motivator, I think we need to be careful and not take it too far. Healthcare should be and can be more than just the financial incentives alone. In fact, any organization with a long term view will likely have a mission similar to the one espoused by Partners HealthCare.

I strive similarly with my blogs. Certainly I need my blogs to be a viable business and I want to continue building them to be able to reach more people. However, my goal is for my blogs to be about much more than just making a buck. I believe they have, can, and will have an important impact for good on healthcare. I’m sure I’ll overstep on occasion and my good readers will hold me accountable when I do. However, hopefully the Healthcare Scene network can stay focused on providing real value to those who read.

I should maybe consider having my wife do a guest blog post on Partners HealthCare’s above mission as well. She took two of my boys to the same pediatric office today for a scheduled appointment to get some immunizations they said were needed. After waiting an hour in a non-kid friendly exam room with two children, the doctor came in for the visit and noticed my son was acting wild. The doctor then asked if my son was ready for Kindergarten if he couldn’t sit still in the exam room. My wife quickly replied that if he hadn’t kept her waiting in a non-kid friendly exam room for an hour, then our son would have been fine. Not to mention, my son was not looking forward to the shots.

To add insult to injury, the doctor returned to inform my wife that my son didn’t actually need the immunizations. They had finally found the record and he had already had all the required shots. My guess is they couldn’t find the record because they’d had to switch EHR when their EHR vendor sunset their original EHR. This is the same EHR which the doctor had told me two days previously, “He hated even more than the previous one.” That’s almost enough for me to want a PHR for my children. However, it’s not like the school would accept an immunization record from the PHR.

One could argue that my wife’s experience above didn’t compromise the quality of care my children received. That’s true unless you consider the counseling my wife will need for being driven insane while she waited for an appointment she didn’t actually need.

Having worked in clinics, I’m sympathetic to the doctor and practice. We realize things run behind. We realize their are limitations on what child friendly things they can have in exam rooms (although, how about a TV?). We understand that records get lost or that mistakes are made when looking them up. Although, when all those things conspire against my wife, you can understand her frustration.

This discussion reminds me of a topic I’ve been talking a lot about recently. There’s a difference between quality of care and customer service. As patients we have very little understanding of the quality of care we’re being provided. We don’t really know if the quality of care we’re getting is good or not. However, we’re keenly aware of the customer service experience. If you look at any doctor ratings site, it’s all rating customer service. Yet, so many of us equate those ratings with the quality of care.

What’s the moral of the story? We can all do better. That’s the journey we have ahead of us in healthcare. Continue to improve and do the best we can to provide amazing care. This is not a one time battle that you win and move on. It’s an ongoing battle that never ends. That’s what makes it so difficult. It’s also what makes it so important.

Are Patient Portals Really Helping Patients?

Posted on December 4, 2013 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

One thing’s for sure about patient portals: They’re a hot commodity.

What’s less clear is how much good they’re doing for health care.

The popularity of patient portals stems from Meaningful Use Stage 2 patient-engagement requirements. The market for the products is expected to approach $900 million by 2017, up from $280 million in 2012, according to a report from Mountain View, Calif.-based research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Patients like at least one aspect of the portals — the ability to access their own medical records. In a recent Accenture study, more than 40 percent of consumers who can’t access their own records online said they’d consider switching doctors in order to get access.

But several recent studies suggest that currently available products have a way to go before they can consistently improve care, reduce costs or perhaps even increase patient engagement.

In a review of 46 studies, researchers found little evidence that portals were helping much of anything. The doctors from Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and other institutions wrote that it’s “unlikely that patient portals will have substantial effects on utilization or efficiency, at least in the near term.”

Some of the limitations of the products, they wrote, included “disparities in who accesses these portals and instances of suboptimal patient attitudes of their worth.” The portals typically gave patients options such as looking at their test results, refilling prescriptions and communicating with doctors.

Patient portals likely are most beneficial, the authors wrote, when they’re part of a more comprehensive quality-improvement strategy.

Another study also found that patients, in many cases, fail to see the value of a portal — or at least some parts of it. In questions about hypothetical features, consumers showed interest in “back-office” tasks such as seeing their own medical records. But clinical digital communication capabilities, such as online video consultations with doctors, failed to impress.

The bottom line was that patient portals “may act as a complement to health-care service delivery, while substitution for clinical in-person interactions may not be viewed positively.” In other words, most people just don’t seem to be ready to give up face time with their primary-care physician.

When MU2 starts on Jan. 1, physicians will be required to give their patients electronic access to their health records. The requirement went into effect for hospitals in October.

The U.S. health care system is, with government prodding, investing a huge sum in patient portals. The idea sounds empowering for patients. But given the lack of solid evidence for a benefit at this point, it’s concerning to think the money might be better spent on something else. Let’s hope that vendors and providers are soon able to turn portals into something with tangible benefits for quality care.

Will Google Use Health IT To Make You Immortal?

Posted on November 15, 2013 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

When Google Health, an attempt at a personal health record, turned out to be an unqualified failure, the consensus was that people just weren’t interested.

But health care is too big, important and data-ridden a field for Google to ignore. And now the company has moved on to a concept sure to be in demand: It wants to help you live forever. Google’s new anti-aging initiative, Calico, will apparently treat mortality as a big-data problem.

But is data the path to eternal life — or even a few more good years? I’d feel a little more comfortable booking a cruise for the year 2199 if Google had accomplished something in health care already.

Google officials, including cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, haven’t said much about what Calico will actually do. But the project seems to take inspiration from 23andMe, a firm that Google helped to start and whose goal is “to make it possible to create a massive genomic database and thereby understand the permutations and mutations that happen to the human genome during the aging process,” according to the Washington Post.

Time explained in a feature article that medicine “is well on its way to becoming an information science.”

“Doctors and researchers are now able to harvest and mine massive quantities of data from patients,” the magazine continued. “And Google is very, very good with large data sets.”

When you put it that way, it sounds kind of reasonable. And if Google invents a medication, an app or a device that brings about a longer lifespan, then I will certainly take it, download it, wear it or whatever is required. But I doubt the human lifespan is quite that reducible.

The rich and powerful have often hoped to use their resources to overcome their mortality. And as Pete Shanks wrote, “immortality and transhumanist ideas generally have long been a source of fascination in Silicon Valley.”

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s engineering director, is a noted futurist who believes we’ll upload our minds to computers and achieve digital immortality by 2045. It’s not clear what role, if any, Kurzweil will have in Calico.

The human lifespan doesn’t seem to have budged in 100,000 years, but that’s not to say it’s impossible. I don’t doubt that humans’ maximum time on Earth could be increased. Maybe. Someday. For the longest time, humans didn’t fly or play Minecraft, either. And it’s been done in other species.

But Shanks was right when he wrote of Calico that “what’s most aggravating is the hubris involved.” A common fallacy among highly successful people is to think that expertise in one area will apply to other fields.

Google is great at search. Its map service is also ubiquitous, and I’ve heard that its driverless car works well. But when it comes to chaotic human data, the company’s algorithms might not work as well. Take free-form language, for example. When I use Google Translate to decipher the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry for “immortality,” I get sentences like this: “If you can maintain Chang Heng unchanged, it is possible to ‘live forever,’ but before the observation Everything in the world is now, whether living or heartless thing, and both are changing all the time.” It’s an app that can be helpful, but it doesn’t give me confidence that Google can overcome the limitations of our mortal coils. It can barely understand what we’re talking about.

And Google’s track record in health care is, of course, not so strong. Google Health, introduced in 2008 as a way for consumers to collect their health records online, was defunct by the end of 2011. Few consumers found it worth the effort of entering their data, given Google Health’s lack of capabilities such as appointment scheduling, InformationWeek reported.

Let’s hope that whatever Calico comes up with proves more useful. If it can be packaged as a free download, even better.

But I’d rather see Google invest its considerable resources in something with a higher chance of a payoff.