The New Year’s Day issue of the Boston Globe had an article discussing some objections by people concerned that HIT systems aren’t ready for the large-scale investments being advanced as part of the economic stimulus package (“Letter highlights hurdles in digitizing health records”). The critics advocate investing at a slower pace and focusing investments not on purchasing current technologies but on creating new technologies to fix perceived shortcomings in current systems.
I understand the concerns – after all, we’re talking about spending billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars, and as a citizen and former federal government employee, I see that as a sacred trust. From what I’ve seen though, these concerns are either misplaced or readily addressable and therefore don’t warrant delaying large-scale investment.
It is certainly true that current EHR systems are complicated, cumbersome, and barely inter-operable. They are that way for a reason: US health care delivery is complicated, cumbersome, and barely inter-operable.
The supply-side of health care is unbelievably fragmented. According to the AMA, there are about 670K practicing physicians in the US. Roughly 150K of them are hospital-based and practice in 7500 hospitals, two-thirds of which are community hospitals. The other 520K physicians work on the ambulatory side and, according to the CDC, they are spread across 170K office-based practices nationwide, 80% of which are solo or 2-physician practices. This is a cottage industry where the individual businesses face little market pressure to standardize around anything except billing codes. Not surprisingly, when they purchase technology, they don’t demand standardization either, and indeed, they demand the opposite, namely, that the technology be able to adapt to their non-standardized and idiosyncratic workflows and clinical decision-making processes.
This fragmentation among so many small and independent providers has three negative effects on health care delivery that federal HIT funding can help resolve. First, care is difficult to coordinate. Second, basic reporting for public health and performance measurement does not exist. And third, clinical documentation and data standards are impossible to promulgate and enforce. Federal HIT funding can help overcome these obstacles by giving all users the tools to document and communicate key information according to national standards, and requiring that they do so as a standard of care.
Getting back to the main point then, the critics have it all wrong. We shouldn’t be waiting for better technology, because technology is an ever-moving target driven by technical and scientific improvement and user demand. If we had insisted that Tim Berners-Lee anticipate live streaming of HD video from the likes of YouTube and Netflix, we’d still be waiting for the World Wide Web. Nor should we be spending a lot on “innovation” or “simpler, easier” technologies, because we’ll almost assuredly get that wrong. Governmentally-directed innovation spending would never have come up with Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, Yelp, Sermo, and craigslist, and we’d be much worse off for it.
So, government funding is needed, but spent the wrong way it can stifle innovation and just plain waste a lot of money. What we need to do is first recognize that this will take a long time to get right, it’s wrong to try to architect it perfectly in advance, and it will only become mature when more users engage in using technology to accomplish real business needs. With such a decentralized user base, fast-moving technology, and a dynamic, complicated field such as medicine, we should specify as little as we can get away with technologically but create a flexible architecture that can efficiently accommodate changes into the future. New York is working on just such a model.
EHR technology has gotten as far as it can in a thin market – what’s needed now is more bottom-up pressure from more users, and more top-down pressure from policy-makers and businesses to align these users. Federal dollars can facilitate this by creating a large user base and imposing a policy and programmatic overlay to what would otherwise be a funding free-for-all.
My personal recommendations for an economic stimulus funding program would be:
- Establish goals focused not on technology, but on what we want people to do with technology, such as coordination of care, adherance to guidelines, reduction of medical errors, and improvement of population health
- Each state should designate an HIE entity (or entities) to broker and enforce statewide health data exchange, and make Medicare and Medicaid data available to authorized users through this HIE infrastructure
- Require that all clinical entities use the state-designated HIEs to provide patient-specific post-visit reports to each other
- Require that all clinical entities use the state-designated HIEs to regularly report public health and quality/safety data to state-designated public health and quality data entities
- Require that all clinical entities use the state-designated HIEs to populate patient health records (PHRs)
- 90% of funding be earmarked for EHRs, and 10% for state-designated HIEs, quality data warehouses, and public health reporting infrastructure
- Require that state-designated HIE, public health, and quality data entities monitor and enforce health data exchange according to existing HITSP standards for data exchange and existing quality and safety measurement standards established by AQA, NQF, HITSP, and others, and penalize states that don’t do this
Is it scary to spend so much taxpayer money so fast? You betcha. But that’s true for every part of the economic stimulus package, not just health care. The need is great, however, so we need to roll up our sleeves and put in place the right vision, leadership, and management. The health IT infrastructure and experience base is perfectly poised to make excellent use of such funds to accomplish the goals of immediate economic stimulus and improvement in health care. By outfitting physicians with modern tools, and requiring that they use them to achieve societal goals, our federal stimulus dollars will provide returns to the country for years to come.