A special day here today; time to reflect on the direction of one’s life and its path. The past, its present and the future. It’s a hard process sometimes to think about where one has come from and, and most difficulty, where one is going; where one wants to go.
My time off the grid today was spent with those that matter most, because I could. Left it all behind and felt like I went back in time before technology placed me in the always on mentality. It felt nice taking the time to focus on other priorities and spending time disconnected.
Have to admit, the time away did make me think about life back on the ranch, though. Specifically, the promises told of health IT and how they make the lives of those who use the systems in their professional lives better, easier and efficient.
It might be a bit cliché by now, but during my time serving the health IT industry and its professional partners, I’ve told and been told countless times how systems like EHRs allow physicians to practice more effectively in a shorter amount of time and essentially lock up shop within minutes after the final patient has left.
In fact, I’ve seen testimonials by clients of one vendor say nearly this exact thing, and I understand from personal experience that this can be an actualized reality if a proper plan is put in place and a procedure is established for getting there.
And, just recently, in this forum, I featured Dr. David DeShan who is now able to follow his dream of heading up a medical mission in Russia while also maintaining his partnership at a practice in Texas, all because of his EHR.
So, despite all of the marketing speak and the canned comments, the question is: Do these healthcare technologies actually allow providers a better quality of life?
Are you able to hit the road a lot sooner now that you have a system in place or are you just a workaholic and despite the tools you have you’ll always find a way to work more than you should?
Does health IT make your lives easier? Are you able to spend more time with loved ones or more time on the links? Are you more flexible and able to live a richer more fulfilling life because of your technology or is it all wishful thinking as far of you are concerned?
Finally, have you been able to create more balance between work and personal life since you implemented your system and implemented equipment like tablet PCs or has access to work information while on the run been that more pressure on you to perform.
My situation is different, obviously. I simply turn off my computer and ignore my phone. I’m not in the business of saving lives; I just help people and companies tell their stories.
I’d love to know, once and for all, does it really matter or are these “potential” benefits just a bunch of marketing speak?
When I go to the doctor for a check up of another ailment, I understand that the record kept regarding my care is ultimately mine. Not because I’m told, not because I’ve asked (though I have on some occasions), but because the information collected comes from me. Without my providing it, my physician would not have it to keep it.
Maybe it’s my make up, but I pride myself on knowing what others often consider trite and trivial. For most, knowing who owns their health record is exactly that, trivial.
Interestingly, though, is that for every person with a health record, there are the same number of people with a care provider to tell them that the record is theirs. So why then doesn’t everyone know that their health record is theirs?
I don’t think the answer to this question lies in the patient apathy or the population’s potential indifference toward their health outcomes. Innately, I believe people do care.
The point I’m making here is that I think the ONC’s latest effort to market direct-to-consumer (DTC) information is well intentioned but perhaps the burden for doing so is misplaced.
Do we think physicians and their practice colleagues should be spending their time doting on the ownership of their patient’s health record? Is anything other than patient health and outcomes a priority they should be focused on? The ONC thinks so, and given meaningful use and the increased pressure providers face to record and provide results of meaningful health outcomes, physicians are being arm twisted to ensure this level of grassroots marketing provides the ends to the ONC’s means.
Certainly, we as consumers must continue to receive information and education to keep us informed about the world of health IT. It’s true that very few actually understand just how far back healthcare technology is from the mainstream in regard to use of technology. But, as I’ve said before in this very forum, should all of the responsibility for this lie on the providers’ shoulders?
Not so, in my opinion. Sure, physicians and care givers can be advocates to consumer enlightenment, but more of the responsibility really should go to the health IT vendors. After all, they are the ones selling the products to the physicians. It behooves them, and enriches them, the educate consumers to the value of the systems’ worth and how help improve health outcomes.
Sending this message to consumers, and helping to educate them of the benefits of these systems, will go a long way toward convincing them that their physicians need the systems. If consumers find value of these systems, they’ll let their wallets do the talking and give their business to physicians and practice that employ health IT.
And, if the physicians are truly going to be “the sales force for health IT,” perhaps it’s time the vendors started incentivizing these walking billboards the ONC wants them to be.
In speaking with a CEO of a major EHR/PM vendor recently, the conversation about the future of health IT kept coming back to money. Not necessarily the money saved by practices because of the implemented technology, but the money being flushed into the space by the government.
Though the money is flowing and the incentives are pouring into the economy and getting freely spent, there are obviously some still inside the vendor (and probably the practice) space that remain concerned about the viability of the government’s financial involvement in health IT in the long term.
The federal government’s money has created the structure of what we now know as health IT. Because of the push – the money, or the carrot and the stick, if you will – there’s now a deeper foundation set; there are studs and rafters in place, and even a few pieces of siding in some cases.
With roughly half (being generous) of the ambulatory market currently using some sort of an EHR, ground has obviously been gained in the market. It would have come eventually, the advancements, but the federal incentives no doubt hastened the proliferation of the technology. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say the federal money drives up or is re-appropriated. What happens then? Where does that leave the market, as my CEO colleague hypothesized?
I hadn’t exactly thought of it that way, especially now at this late stage in the program. But the man does pontificate an interesting point.
Given all of the money flowing into the health IT market, it’s one of the few booming economic segments, and given the number of parties staking claim to it hoping to make monumental returns on their investment, the scenario actually brings another very similar boom to mind.
From early 2004 though 2005, the profits were record breaking. Ad sales were way up, circulation was expanding into new markets and staffs were being bumped up to counter efforts made by the competition.
However, by late 2006, as a cautionary note, hiring slowed and expansion stopped. At the beginning of 2007, the layoffs began. Reporters, editors and production staff were cut. The newspaper chain I wrote for shuttered offices and cut more costs. Another round of employees was let go. Ad revenue hit the floor; newspapers stopped circulating, the market shrank and even more people were laid off. The business entered a tailspin that even now, five years later it hasn’t recovered from.
It never will.
The boom times went bust, and for newspapers, caught up in the seemingly never ending flow of cash from advertisers, who happened to be home builders and contractors, little planning for the future was done and any thoughts of a rainy day fund seemingly were little more than thoughts.
In Florida, at the time, you couldn’t spit or throw a stone without hitting a new housing development or condo conversion. There were housing starts everywhere. Houses, in all phases of development, were being erected. The building was constant. There was no end in sight. Contractors were hiring employees everyday, banks were lending, people were fighting, literally, over houses that were for sale.
When the boom was booming, everything even peripherally related to the market was booming. But when the housing market busted, well, I don’t need to tell you about how that affected each one of us.
So, my friend the CEO asks an interesting question. One that was probably asked thousands of times during the great housing bubble of the middle of the 21st century’s first decade: What happens if, God forbid, the money suddenly runs out of Health IT?
Come down to South Florida and see. I’m sure you could get yourself a pretty good deal on one of the thousands of properties sitting half built and empty.
Sure, they’ve got a good foundation, walls, rafters and, in some cases, a bit of siding, but they sure aren’t much to look at much less much better to live in.
In honor of the first ever National Health IT Week, here’s a gem of a story that seems to voraciously support the need for more integration of electronic health records, and technology in general, to find their way into more medical practices.
According to an article published by Referral MD, in a report issued by Health and Human Services (HHS), despite all of the attention surrounding the security of electronic health records, in actuality, between May 17 and June 17, there were 45 security breaches involving paper health records – 42 more than with EHRs.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I guess I am. Perhaps I’m programmed to think about EHRs exclusively, but paper records are still the majority of records kept, at least in the smaller ambulatory practices where EHRs haven’t been implemented, so security breaches in environments like this are quite likely.
According to the report, the following fit the definition of a “breach,” including theft, unauthorized access, improper disposal and loss.
Some of these I understand, to a point. Loss. That’s easy. It’s one of the most common complaints about paper health records. They get shuffled about the office, from room to room. With the library of other records, it’s surprising that more don’t end up getting misplaced. Getting found is another story, though. If they’re found, what happens to them? Are they then stolen? Five-fingered discounted from the crevice in which they’ve been laid? And, truly, if practices are losing copious volumes of paper records – I’d think losing records would be somewhat of an ongoing problem because of internal procedures and record keeping – then I don’t want to patronize the practice.
Improper disposal. Well, that doesn’t take too much imagination, either. In fact, I once remember not too long ago that the state of Oregon disposed of thousands of Medicare patients’ records improperly by simply tossing them in a dumpster behind the state’s office building, in the same dumpster shared by the state’s capitol newspaper, The Statesman Journal.
If an organization as large the state of Oregon improperly destroys paper records, I’m sure countless others do so as well.
Unauthorized access. Okay, sure. Unwanted eyes get their mitts on the occasional (I assume it’s the occasional) record and potential danger ensues. I’m not sure how one goes about getting his mitts on someone else’s records since I’ve never thought of wanting to see someone else’s record, but I assume it has to do something with hurdling the records desk and making a mad dash for the shelves with the millions of cream-colored folders.
I jest. Obviously, info thieves aren’t jumping over counters. Perhaps one of you can set me straight, but I imagine it happens as a passerby passes someone’s record that’s sitting in the pocket outside the exam room door or something similar; just a passing glance at someone’s record as they scurry on by.
The hard one for to understand, though, is record theft. How are these records getting stolen? From a doctor’s car as he runs into the convenience store for a soda? Are they misplaced in some unfortunate public place? Are they scattered to the winds by disgruntled employees?
How on earth do they disappear?
And, perhaps more importantly, could any of these breaches been avoided with the use of an electronic health record?
Improve healthcare for patients. A lofty goal for many clinics; perhaps easier said than done for most practices, but not all.
But with the tools now available to practices and physicians, some believe it’s only a matter of time until the entire healthcare landscape changes.
This drive for change is one of the reasons why practices are increasingly bringing electronic health records into their practices.
Sure, the EHRs help practices save money, space and supplies, such as paper, but for Adrienne Laverdure, medical director of the Lac du Flambeau Indian Health Center – the Peter Christensen Health Center – in Wisconsin, implementing an EHR wasn’t a matter of less paper or creating more space in the clinic; it was the obvious choice for improving the quality of healthcare for all of the practice’s patients.
However, Laverdure had little idea that implementing an EHR would lead to a 35 percent jump in revenue, longer life expectancies for the patient population and allow clinic to add more providers, which in turn, means more patients are now being served than ever before.
For her, all of these benefits were the surprising part of adding an EHR.
Community clinic meets community need
Located on the 400-square-mile Lac du Flambeau reservation in northern Wisconsin, the Peter Christensen Health Center provides approximately 16,000 patient visits annually. Until recently, the clinic served only Native Americans on the reservation, but now provides healthcare for employees and non-native patients.
Many of the members of this community and surrounding areas are medically underserved, said Michael Popp, director of information technology for the clinic, and the number of under or uninsured of people who are unable to afford the expense of paying out of pocket for a visit with the doctor or a trip to the emergency room continues to grow.
“We have a mission, and it’s to provide healthcare to all members of the community,” said Popp. “Care isn’t discriminatory, and we’ve found that when people don’t have proper coverage, they don’t know where to turn for healthcare. We’re in the position to help. We decided not providing care to everyone who needed it creates even more problems, so we opened to doors to everyone in the community that needs care.”
That decision meant the clinic went from being a Native American health center to a community health center, and for the patients that are under or uninsured, the clinic’s billing and finance specialists work to find them coverage, such as Medicaid.
To that end, the clinic recently moved from its 5,000-square-foot building into a newly built 26,000-square-foot facility. The clinic was able to accommodate more patients because of the practice management and enhanced patient care that was facilitated by the clinic’s EHR.
There was one problem with the move, though, said Popp. Architects blueprinted a chart room for paper records. A staple for most practices, the EHR changed that, he said, but the solution was simple: “We took that 400 square feet meant for the patient chart room created additional space for offices. By shifting around office space, we had more room for providers to see patients.” said Popp.
Without the room dedicated to storing paper, additional patient visits were accommodated resulting in additional revenues. With increased revenue, tangible gains beyond that of the savings created from the lack of paper ordered by staff each week, began to pile up.
Improving patient healthcare outcomes
Peter Christensen Health Center is considered an early adopter of electronic records, having implemented its system more than five years ago. There isn’t a paper record in the clinic, said Popp, adding that clinic staff uses the EHR to streamline billing and claims processing, increase appointment setting and scheduling efficiency.
Streamlined billing means more cash, and with the EHR, most claims are paid within 14 days. Improved scheduling means there’s time for more patients, which means more people can be seen. Along with three M.D.s, an advanced practice nurse practitioner and a physicians assistant, the clinic provides podiatry, oral surgery, mental health and dentistry services. Each exam room has a computer with access to the EHR, which helps with patient education, Laverdure said.
“There are so many facets to how the EHR has been able to help us,” said Laverdure. “It has created so many efficiencies and it allows more time for our providers to spend time with our patients.”
The results don’t end there, she added.
Revenue increases aside, the EHR allows the clinic to track patient health data and providers can see health trends across the population. “We can see trends in the health of the people we’re seeing and we can really dig deep into the data,” she said. “With the data, we’re able to provide preventive care, and we’re much better equipped to handle state and federal reporting requirements.
“The EHR provides a phenomenal record for us to help us help our patients get the healthcare they need; I like to think that we’re improving each of our patient’s quality of life.”
Diabetes strikes much of the patient population in Lac du Flambeau, as well as other chronic conditions, but by using the EHR, physicians are able to track patient health outcomes, risk indicators and condition variations. This information better enables clinic staff help control and manage patient chronic conditions.
Because the patient’s care is now managed so thoroughly across the entire practice, Popp said the life expectancy of patients has actually increased by more than three-and-a-half years since the EHR was implemented.
Return on investment
The health center returned its EHR investment within six months, having paid it off in less than half a year, but the returns – far exceeding financial gains — keep coming, said Popp.
Other than saving supply costs, increasing revenues and improving patient care, the clinic has become a model of how an Indian health center can operate as a viable business.
During the last five years years, Peter Christensen has drawn the envy of other clinics, and at least two other Indian health centers are following suit and implementing an EHR similar to that of Peter Christensen.
“Other tribes have purchased their EHR based on what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Popp said. “Perhaps we can be advocates for more than our patients, but for the healthcare system.”
But hurdles still remain, the biggest of which is often faced by Peter Christensen, like most clinics, is that it is underfunded, Laverdure said. But now there are ways to fix the healthcare system and control the practice’s costs, she added.
And that means something to the folks in northern Wisconsin, where until now healthcare seemed to have been rationed. “Now there’s money for preventive care. Now there’s money for care,” said Laverdure, “and we’ve been able to use the system to get out of that hole.”
As you know, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued final requirements for meaningful use stage 2 on August 23. Since then, it’s clearly been one of the most discussed topics in healthcare technology circles, perhaps this site aside.
While the dust finally settles, the nuances of the regulation are being turned over and devoured. Providers and practice leaders are examining the 17 core (required) measures and wondering which of the three menu items will allow them the clearest path to overcome the hurdles of stage 2.
Successfully meeting the meaningful use measures aside, for me the meaningful use exceptions for noncompliance are what stand out here.
Let’s have a look.
CMS established hardship exceptions to the penalties practices and providers will face for noncompliance of meaningful use. Exemptions are available for physicians who:
Have insufficient Internet access for any 90-day continuous period between Jan. 1, 2013, and July 1, 2014.
Are new to Medicare.
Encounter extreme circumstances outside the physicians’ control, such as practices closing, natural disasters, EHR vendors going out of business and similar scenarios.
Practice in multiple locations and have a lack of control over the availability of EHR systems.
Have a lack of face-to-face visits or other patient interactions, or the need to provide follow-up care.
I’d love to know your favorite exception. Feel free to let me know in the comment section below. What caught my eye, though, is the third exception. Specifically: “EHR vendors going out of business.”
Perhaps I’m giving this single point more importance than it deserves, but I find this to be wonderful foresight on the part of CMS. Kind of like the nation’s forefathers providing exceptions to the success of the United States; a caveat to hedge against the Constitution’ failure.
Here, tucked in with acts of God and insufficient Internet access, CMS ensures that physicians need not worry about their EHR vendor putting plywood over the windows in the middle of your attestation process.
Clearly, contraction in the vendor market is going to happen. It’s a matter of time. Those of us in the vendor space have speculated on this very fact for several years. Analysts have provided their opinions and they agree, as do my counterparts.
Perhaps the next year won’t bring a dramatic change to the EHR vendor landscape, but we all know it is coming. The fact is, there’s just not enough physicians and care providers to support between 400 and 600 vendors.
Stage 2 is most likely going to prove too complex for many of the smaller shops. Those without a tool that’s robust enough to make the meaningful use push or companies without a sizable enough footprint to be an attractive acquisition target are going to fold. Their clients may expect them to weather the storm, but a ship without a sail is nothing more than a lost vessel without direction.
So, with all the other exceptions that can cause a set back, and given the level of commitment required to meet stage 2, the easiest exception to avoid may in fact be making a vendor switch now. Given the set backs a vendor collapse could cause your practice, I might prefer taking my chances with an act of God because at least I might be able to pray my way out of it.
When looking forward, it sometimes helps to look back; sometimes.
Though the past is not always an indicator of things to come, sometimes we’re able to find a little guidance in the hindsight.
Much is being written by folks like myself in response to HIMSS asking the question of where Health IT is going to be a year from now, on the anniversary of second annual National Health IT Week.
Unlike several of my counterparts — perhaps I’ll be considered less of a forward thinker because of it — but instead of fast forwarding one year, I’d like to go back one year to formulate a response.
In May 2011, I had the pleasure of helping draft a column for my then boss for Imaging Economics magazine. The piece, one of my favorites, seemed to strike a chord, even if just with my office colleagues.
Nevertheless, this piece essentially answers the very question asked by HIMSS, a year before the asking.
And so, as we wrote back then, I’ll begin here again, with an encore of the piece as a response.
“Here’s how I see it: Healthcare is a world of major transition. Like life, there is some unpredictability, and most likely, there always will be.”
We continue: “Yet, during this time – call it one of change, progress, upheaval — we must continue focusing on creating a more mobile and connected place in which physicians and their patients share tools. We need to encourage a greater, more vested conversation, where health information exchanges and practice and patient portals are used, secure messaging and 24-hour access to records and patient data for the patient and their physician.”
This observation, according to my best estimate, couldn’t be any timelier.
We continue again:
“I see a healthcare environment that mirrors the rest of the world. Where, as a patient, I can see my labs at 3 a.m., can query my doctor and request refills; if I’m up for it, pay bills anywhere there’s a connection. I see this as accepted and practiced, in the practice of medicine. Always. Any time. Now.”
Perhaps we’re there now; perhaps not. Regardless, we’re talking about it and, given another year, I might be able to more profoundly announce, “Always. Any time. Now!”
If I remember correctly, in helping write this next section I spoke for myself: “But, here’s what I know: Patients are demanding greater ownership of their care and records (I was). They (I) want the always, any time, now. I also know that physicians – along with constant pressure of requirements and reform – need solutions they can trust; technology tools that are intuitive that help them provide the highest quality of care, all while meeting their patients’ needs.”
It seems nothing has changed in more than a year. I suspect little will change in another. Reform continues as we move past Stage 1 and into Stage 2, which are more rigorous than their predecessors. It will consume hours of healthcare professionals’ time. They will toil and try, and try and toil.
Despite the continuing and conflicting headlines, patients do want to get more involved in their care, but they need a reason to buy in; and physicians need tools that are going to improve their lives. They need more efficiency, more powerful and intuitive solutions. They need to start responding to survey that asks “What is the best system to use?” rather than “What is the least complex system to try to operate?”
Let me jump ahead now. “Physicians realize their sway within the healthcare market, both as practitioners and consumers, and they realize – like their patients — how technological connections enhance their experiences in other areas of their lives (read: paying bills online, online banking, booking appointments with the DMV through a website, purchasing movie tickets through a phone, etc.). This understanding of using technology as a tool is helping them improve and streamline their practices and, ultimately (for the better), engage their patients in care. “
Finally, here we get to the heart of the matter: “Technology by itself won’t improve patient care. Physicians know this – we all know this – and physicians play the key role in providing higher quality of patient care, but using technology as a tool to improve care improves outcomes, according to the physicians and patients I speak with. And, to me, that means improved outcomes equates to improved quality of care.”
“So, it makes sense that the practice of medicine is changing with technology, which calls for an adjustment of its perceptions in the space.”
And, to the tune of Paul Harvey, here’s the rest of the story:
“Because, as more attention flows into the market – with reform and regulation – it’s time to decide where the future of healthcare is going to be. Connection and interoperable features that drive ownership of patient care may be rooted in the patient-centered medical home and accountable-care organizations, but for that, more needs to be done. We have to be able to share data – again, that’s where connectivity comes in — and we’ll have to be able to move records quickly and efficiently, all while trying to remove the shackles from providers attempting to do what they sought the schooling and expertise for: To practice medicine.”
“All of this begins with the electronic record – other tools are essential, too, including patient portals; physician referring portals with the ability for images and notes to be accessed from anywhere there’s a connection; labs; refills and appointments through one interface, a seamless integration between practitioner and patient – is where I think we need to be, so we can move forward with the rest of the marketplace (meaning: banks, media and communication segments). With the value perceived in being able to share and communicate endlessly and with ease socially, we have to reach these heights in the practice of medicine.”
“Technology helps make lives better. Though, as noted above, technology doesn’t make doctors (or people of all kinds, for that matter) better, it just makes it easier for them to do their jobs (and live their lives). It won’t happen overnight, but I can see even better healthcare attained.”
And so, the encore performance may actually be a sign of things to come.
Dr. David DeShan leads a global healthcare mission from Moscow. Because of his work with Agape Unlimited, he supports thousands of poor and under served Russians while maintaining a full-time practice in Midland, Texas. Agape is a medical mission serving thousands of people
Dr. DeShan’s medical mission, through Agape Unlimited, provides everything to its patients for free. There’s no cost for the consultation, for medication or for the glasses received. Because of the care provided for the folks in the rural areas, sometimes this is the only medical treatment they’ll receive for years. Word of mouth spreads and people come for miles. In one instance, a group of patients rode on a reindeer-pulled sleigh for more than 24 hours for a visit with an Agape physician.
Agape Expedition Life
Each expedition outside of Moscow has its own set of challenges depending on where the group of volunteers is going and the time of year, but each has several things in common. First, the expeditions to the remote areas are all two weeks long, primarily because there is a tremendous amount of travel involved. From the U.S. to Moscow takes between 20 and 24 hours then there is the travel to region where the work is done, which can take between 24 and 36 hours by train. Once the crew reaches the region, there is often another eight to 10 hours of travel by vehicle to get to the area where they will work. This is typically a large village in the region where they stay with a host family.
Once they reach the area they’ll be working in, each day the crew goes out to different villages for anywhere from one to three days. This is where the work of seeing patients begins.
Each team consists of four to six people and is a combination of Russians and foreigners, with a doctor, translator and others who fit people for eyeglasses, take vital signs, do basic lab work and patient education. Often they arrive in the morning and work late into the night as they attempt to see everyone who comes for a visit.
When they arrive in the tundra or taiga, little clinic areas are set up in any area that can accommodate volunteers – in churches, homes or government-owned buildings.
Often, the temperatures are extreme and basic comforts are a luxury. Roads are few, the people are scattered and the towns are made up of 19th century-like structures.
The medicine that is dispensed is the most readily available to those living in the area, making it easier for people to acquire drugs once the team of doctors has left.
For those treating patients in Moscow, they travel to various sites throughout the massive city, caring for the sick and poor. The story is much the same here as it is in the countryside: far too many people need care for anyone to provide in their lifetimes.
“Because of the lack of care and education about personal health, the results, in many cases for patients, are not good. Ailments of all types are seen, and too many of the devastating kind seem to appear,” DeShan said. “We’ve seen men in their 40s who have had a stroke.”
Home on the Range
Back in Texas, most of his patients have been very supportive of Dr. Deshan’s global work.
“When this all started, the big concern I had was if I was going to have any patients left,” he said. “I’ve lost a few, but gained more. They and my partners are very supportive.”
Midland Women’s Clinic office manager Marge Bossler never thought DeShan was going to be able to connect to the EHR from Moscow to make his global pursuits a viable reality. “It’s really quite amazing how he can work, respond to emergencies and attend to the needs of his patients from half a world away,” Bossler said.
“In many ways, when he’s in Moscow, it’s as if he’s only in another area of the building, not in another area of the world. He responds to alerts and takes action for his patients as needed. He’s totally aware of what’s happening back home, and gives his recommendations when required,” she said.
“Now when he leaves, there’s no hopeless feeling that he won’t be reachable,” she added. “The EHR made this possible. This approach gives him the capability to do what he feels he needs to do to answer his calling. Besides, there’s nothing he can’t do from there that he can’t do from his office.”
Where Agape Goes
To the Tundra:
In Russia’s northernmost zone is a treeless, marshy plain. The journey takes days. First, volunteers travel by jet to the region and then use 6×6 Russian trucks to travel up to 24 hours across the Tundra. There are no roads. Sometimes progress can only be measured in inches. They continue by snowmobile to the teepees where the local people live. Once there, they provide medications, medical consultations, health kits and eyeglasses that are often lifesaving for the Nenet people.
To the Taiga:
The world’s largest forest is an area about the size of the United States and spans 11 times zones across Northern Russia. Here in the Taiga, people are extremely distant from the rest of the world, both geographically and communicatively, and some still speak their own ethnic language.
To Southern Siberia:
Deep in the mountains of Southern Siberia, most people are shepherds who tend sheep and goats in these vast valleys. The closest medical help for them is often a three-day trip away, with much of the traveling done on rut filled dirt roads.
Agape Unlimited opened Medical Center Agape in Moscow in 2004, the first Christian Family Practice clinic in Russia. Since 2004, Medical Center Agape has grown to a staff of more than 50 and seeks to provide quality compassionate Christ-centered care to the people of Moscow, to send medical teams to the remote rural areas of Russia, and to provide free medical care to the poor and destitute of Moscow.
In 2007, Medical Center Agape began working in cooperation with several of the leading medical universities and residency training programs in the Moscow area. Agape asked, “How can we help?” They answered that they wanted the mission to teach their doctors to be compassionate. Through this arena, Apage’s goal is to grow a new generation of Russian medical personnel who can continue the work initially started by Agape.
Currently, there are more than 400 written invitations to come and serve in different parts of Russia, some of them are as far as 11 time zones away.
The program is open to doctors, dentists, nurses, dental hygienists, chiropractors, med-techs, residents, interns and even medical students who are in their clinical clerkship years.
Want to Help?
Agape Unlimited is always seeking volunteers to serve in clinics throughout Moscow and to travel on medical expeditions to rural areas of Russia. One- and two-week slots are available.
The cost for the two-week program in Moscow is $2,200 per person or $1,500 for a one-week program. The cost of going on one of the remote expeditions is $3,000 per person. The programs begin on Saturdays. An initial deposit of $1,000 is required to reserve your space in the program, and the balance is due eight weeks before departure.
What is Covered:
Airport pickup and return
A clean bed at the guest flat with bathroom, shower, and kitchen
Public transportation around Moscow
Medical translators for the clinic, medical university, and medical expedition
A medical expedition to a poor region near Moscow
Sightseeing, translators, and touring on the weekends to selected spots (Red Square, Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Ismaylovo market for souvenirs, Mega Mall, underground metro station tour, Arbat Street, Botanical Gardens, and church on Sundays).
One Texas physician leads a global healthcare mission from Moscow, supporting thousands of poor and underserved Russians, while maintaining a full-time practice in Midland, Texas.
Part 1 of a two-part series.
For more than 10 years, Dr. David DeShan has been traveling between Midland, Texas, and Moscow, Russia. DeShan is a physician and a missionary — serving patients at Midland Women’s Clinic in Texas and providing needed prescriptions, exams or treatment to hundreds of indigenous Russians.
The contrasts between the two worlds in which DeShan lives are stark. Here in the United States, he’s connected to his patients through electronic health records and secure web-based practice portals that allow him to communicate, share records and provide consultative services. Likewise, his patients can connect with him through any web-enabled device from anywhere in the world where there’s an Internet connection. His practice, which is building a new state-of-the art clinic, provides 21st century medical care.
In Russia, he is the president of Agape Unlimited, an international Christian medical mission program. Through Agape he visits people that are often secluded in very remote villages far removed from first-world creature comforts. Sometimes, as part of his medical mission work, he travels days into the lost wilderness of one of the world’s most vast and remote regions.
Four to five times a year he ventures outside of Midland, Texas, for up to four weeks on each trip. The majority of his travels are to Moscow where he oversees the nonprofit and its network of clinics. His involvement with Agape includes both the oversight of the organization in addition to traveling to the countryside to administer medical care. Despite being half way across the world he is able to effectively take care of his patients and colleagues in Texas.
In 2002, when Dr. Deshan first started his missionary work in Russia, he was completely detached from his practice in Texas. Needing to reach his patients, he eventually secured a satellite phone. Today, with the help of his EHR, he is fully connected irrespective of his location. Dr. Deshan has access to patient charts and tracks their progress remotely. Occasionally, he will use the information from the EHR and Skype his clients if a face-to-face conversation is warranted. Either way, when he returns to his patients in Texas, he never misses a step.
“None of what I’m now able to do through the ministry and the practice would have been possible without our EHR,” Dr. DeShan said recently. “I run the ministry over there, provide medical education over there, conduct outreach in Siberia and bring doctors here to the U.S. to train. The EHR really allows me to stay connected, in a fashion not available just a few years ago. It’s nice to have the opportunity to live in two worlds at the same time, and the EHR technology really makes it possible.”
Empowering an impassioned dream
Being a full-time physician and president of Agape is highly demanding and Dr. Deshan works up to 90 hours a week.
He has been on 14 expeditions into central Siberia and has made another 16 trips to Russia working in Moscow for a total of 30 trips since 2002. Outside of the expeditions to the countryside he does not practice medicine in Russia. “My role with our organization is to administer, encourage and enable our Russia staff to do the work and to invite others to join us,” DeShan said. “I have also been spending more time in medical education working with the medical schools and hospitals in Russia.”
Healthcare is different there than in the United States, as would be expected. The system is more socialized and less open compared to the U.S. Technology is also limited and use of such tools like EHRs are minimal. In fact, DeShan says there are just a few EHR-like systems in place in Moscow at elite practices.
Each workday, he logs in remotely to his EHR, reviews the pap smears, lab work and patient calls that need his response. His nurse highlights any abnormal mammograms and scans them into the system for his review, and he reviews the physician assistant encounters with his patients. The only things remaining when he gets back home is to go through the mail and review the bone density exams and normal mammograms, usually taking about 30 minutes.
“The EHR is truly what enables me to work in Russia yet still stay caught up. Since I can do this from Russia, it greatly reduces the burden on my partners and most of my patients really don’t miss me while I am gone because everything is still answered in a very timely fashion,” DeShan said.
From Midland to Moscow
DeShan said he’s always been drawn to serving his faith through medicine.
“I’ve always been very interested in Christian outreach, and I see medicine as a tool to this end. I wanted to find an organization for Christian doctors and I went to Russia once and kind of got hooked. I just felt like I was supposed to do more. It called to me,” he said.
He leads a handful of international volunteers from Germany, Canada and the U.S. and a staff of 10 in Russia working on the ministry and 40 working at Agape’s clinic. About 50 serve on expeditions each year. Despite resources, these folks see more than 365,000 patients a year at the group’s clinical network throughout Moscow and provide more than 2,000 pairs of eyeglasses to people throughout the country. Outside Moscow, more than 70,000 consultations have been given since DeShan became involved with the mission.
Though Russia is considered a first-world country, more than 75 percent of its rural residents don’t have plumbing. Without running water, medical infrastructure is not just impossible, it is a wishful hope.
“There’s a tremendous need for care, especially in rural areas out there, for medicine, and things like glasses,” he said.
What is Agape Unlimited?
Agape goes where no others go, taking action to improve the health of people who may have never seen a physician. This takes the organization to remote areas in Siberia and beyond, as well as to Moscow, meeting the needs of the medically underserved in the capital city, DeShan said.
Since 1993, Agape has been providing medicine, medical consultations and assistance to those who have little or no access to medical care in Russia. Agape sends teams to areas where the need for medical help is urgent , focusing on both the most remote and isolated people in the Arctic and Siberia, as well as the poor and overlooked in rural and urban areas,.
Agape’s medical expeditions always work in conjunction with a church within the region; this way the work continues in the community after the medical missionaries leave.
Agape provides everything to its patients for free. There’s no cost for the consultation, for medication or for the glasses received. Because of the care provided for the folks in the rural areas, sometimes this is the only medical treatment they’ll receive for years. Word of mouth spreads and people come for miles. In one instance, a group of patients rode on a reindeer-pulled sleigh for more than 24 hours for a visit with an Agape physician.
For more about Agape Unlimited, visit www.agaperu.org.
For example, video tape and video stores are virtually gone already. Watches, paper maps and newspaper classifieds are on their way out; and perhaps newspapers, too.
Wired phones are hard to find (though my children will probably see a land line in my house because of their benefit in hurricanes and other natural disasters.)
Printed encyclopedias (some of the last were printed this year) and, likewise, encyclopedia salesmen are history. Printed phones books I still get, and use, but they will one day stop coming to the door; CDs, film and fax machines are all but obsolete, though, there are still enterprises trying to make their livings peddling their wares to help organizations send secure faxes.
I don’t consider myself to be old by any means; just part of a transitional generation. I remember paying $1 for a gallon of gasoline and I remember protestors picketing gas stations in Southern California when the prices topped $1.50 a gallon.
I was introduced to the web via dial-up Internet and wondered when its value would be achieved, as it was difficult to imagine a life lived through the web one AOL minute after another.
Now, the Internet is considered one of the most innovative advancements of all time. Healthcare, and nearly every other business sector, will never be what it once was because the technology allows for continuous advancement and the development of tools like EHRs, patient portals, HIEs and mobile devices.
Why all the reminiscing, then, about all of the gadgets that my children will never know?
Simple. My primary care physician uses paper charts. She has no plans to change and is unapologetic about it. Her patients sometimes ask her why and she shrugs it off like it’s not important, an overly hyped issue. One that she’d rather not discuss and one she might wish went away.
The wall of charts behind the reception desk is a symbol of her success. They represent patients she’s treated, conditions faced by the people she cares about, meetings with those of us she’s counseled. Perhaps that wall of record is her trophy case, a testament to her professionalism, outstanding demeanor and nature, and the trust she’s earned with all of us.
She doesn’t want to be forced into any kind of decision that affects her business – that’s how she sees her practice, as a business — even if she’s ultimately penalized because of it.
Though she’s got the paper to sift, she claims to be organized and just as efficient as any machine could make her. The notes enclosed are her own and won’t be shared with anyone. The only incentive for paper these days is the recycle bin.
But, she carries on. For now.
In the end, though, she’ll probably close shop, shred the records and move on to retirement if her decision not to implement an electronic health record means she can’t continue to do what she loves – practice medicine and provide care.
She has that luxury. She’s of a certain age. She remembers things that many of us have never experienced. She grew her business on typewriters, dial telephones and paper records.
And soon, she will become one more thing my children will never know.