Those of us focused on health IT are spending a lot of time and energy on bringing the technology to where the patients are. Interoperability is crucial because patients get care in so many different places, and through Regional Extension Centers and other programs we're trying to get EHRs into the hands of small and independent practices at the far reaches of the health care delivery system, again, because that's where the patients are. Something like 80% of practices are small practices, and 90% of outpatient encounters are in those small practices.
I've been wondering recently about whether we're going through a Copernican revolution where the patients come to the IT rather than having us bring the IT to the patients. My own personal experience started my thinking on this. I used to get my care from a small practice primary care physician in Wellesley MA -- great guy, good doctor, gives 110% every day. But he didn't have an EHR (still doesn't) and it was basically my responsibility to get specialist records back to him to make sure that he had the whole picture of my care. I switched to Harvard Vanguard not only because they have an excellent EHR but because they are multi-specialty as well. When I need a specialist I no longer scour all of Boston for the best specialist -- I only look within the Harvard Vanguard system because I want to make sure that my records are kept on the same EHR. What I might be sacrificing on the quality of an individual specialist I'm more than gaining back in having all of my physicians reading from the same page (literally).
Since my Wellesley doctor couldn't solve the interoperability issue, I solved it myself by eliminating it. My wife gets her care at the Brigham, and I've increasingly seen her focus her decision-making in the same way -- she has eliminated the need for interoperability by limiting her choice of specialists to those who are on the Brigham's EHR.
Maybe this is just a family thing. But I started thinking otherwise after I heard a very interesting story yesterday on NPR and Kaiser Health News on consolidation of the health care delivery market, and in particular, the increasing share of outpatient physicians employed by hospitals. As the story reports, almost 20% of physicians work for hospitals today, but 50% of new physicians are taking jobs with hospitals. The looming prospect of Accountable Care Organizations' becoming the operational unit of health care delivery will put increasing pressure on hospitals and physicians to keep patients within their care delivery network. Changes in health plans that limit patient choice will also drive patients to stay in closed networks. All of these trends will increasingly funnel patients into health care delivery networks that also happen to be connected on IT networks.
There could certainly be many bad affects from such consolidation, such as higher oligopolistic prices, less customer choice, the demise of solo practices that are an iconic part of the American fabric, etc etc. But from a health information exchange perspective, it's only to the good if we can get more patients to meet us halfway on the road to interoperability.