I’ve always been a sucker for trivia. In most cases, the information that sticks in my head is useless and, well, trivial. People — including those that know me best — often shoot me quizzical looks and wonder where the hell I came up the crap that pops out of my mouth. Most of the time I shrug and respond with the I’m-so-stupid-sorry-for-breaking-the-silence, “What.”
But, in healthcare, this kind of mindset set has a place; maybe it’s just a data place of mind sort of thing. Nevertheless, I’m comforted by all of the (sometimes) useful technology information floating around, and today, I’m proud to share a kindred spirit at HIT Consultant, who posts an incredible plethora of devourable data worthy of sinking your teeth into in the piece, “80 Mind Blowing EMR and Meaningful Use Statistics & Trends.”
Feel free to check out the full course, but for a primer, let’s dig in here.
• According to the list, 75 percent of patients are willing to go online for health information. Not surprised by this one bit. I’d argue the number is low. Check out this article by American Medical News for more on the subject. We spend our lives online wherever we can get online. If we have access to the web, we’ll be on it; this isn’t necessarily mind blowing, just trivia, and a reality.
• Next up, financial troubles at the practice level. Interesting topic, but given the conversations I’ve had with physicians I’m not surprised. More than 40 percent of physicians have financial troubles, and given the overwhelming reform practices face, it’s no wonder the private practice is being ambushed.
• More than 70 percent of hospitals employ full-time staff to scan charts into their electronic systems. WOW! Seriously? This doesn’t sound efficient to me. Someone please explain.
• “Solo practitioners are particularly unlikely to be using EHRs or to have plans to implement them. Also, older physicians are less likely to be pushing for adoption of HIT.” Again, no surprise, though, it’s sad. Truth is, both of these segments will be out of private practice in the next three years under the current healthcare structure. No joke.
• Just a bit more than 20 percent said their EHRs made them more efficient and only 6 percent said their making more money with their systems. Again, not surprised by this data. These are PR talking points EHR vendors push to sell their systems. Pay attention, you’ll probably see some CEO on this site talking the same points sometime soon.
• Apparently, according to a study reposted by Becker’s Hospital Review, 91 percent of physicians want/are interested in mobile EHRs. I don’t buy it. I’d like to see the data, but I bet it’s a flawed report. Physicians are too concerned with their in-practice solutions, mandates and reform. We haven’t tipped that far in the mobile direction yet. Not possible; just another PR talking point from a vendor.
• “Each patient visit requires approximately 10 to 13 pieces of paper.” That is shocking.
• Top 5 EMR vendors by number of users are:
o Care 360
Care 360 is in the Top 5? Hmmm.
• The feds believe they’re on the hook for more than $20 billion of taxpayer’s money for meaningful use before the program wraps. This is one of those facts that I’m not surprised by, but I am, if you know what I mean. It just makes me look side ways.
And the list goes on and on, some shocking pieces of trivia, some less so. The point is there’s much to consume, some more positive than others. But, HIT Consultant does make a great point: a lot of the data available doesn’t point to a land of milk and honey. On the contrary, there’s a lot of disappointment in health IT.
There’s apparently much to learn and much to improve. Everything is yet to be perfect, while some things are wonderfully, wonderfully good.
After a detailed conversation recently with a practicing physician, my long-held suspicions about meaningful use may be coming to fruition.
You see, though I’m a believer in meaningful use from a data collection perspective and for the benefits it provides the healthcare community in being better able to track outcomes and measure results, I’m also concerned with the amount of regulation and oversight required of the reform. Additionally, I’m concerned about how the overbearing amount of added reform is affecting the thousands of small businesses that are private practices.
With the added mandates and with the continual burdening requirements of the physician as educator to patients, there’s only so much room left for them to take on their tasks as caregiver.
All of that said there is some growing resentment in the healthcare community that suggests physicians are growing resentful of their educational assignment.
“Our job is not patient education,” the physician I spoke with said, asking that his name be withheld. “We’re on the precipice, teeter tottering on the verge of collapse and the system is going to fall down. We’re being pushed to the extreme with patients. We need to see more patients per hour just to cover our expenses because the margins have disappeared.
“We’re forced to focus on getting more patients through the door; we don’t have time to focus even more on patient care,” he said.
Besides meaningful use, there are other issues to address in healthcare, he said, like 5010, ICD-10, Medicare and Medicaid changes and insurance hurdles.
On top of these issues, physicians struggle with internal operations because of the financial cuts to their practices. With ever-changing reimbursement rates affecting the amount of money they can bring into their practices, practice leaders also have to worry about making payroll. Certainly, physician salaries are declining. Gone are the days when physicians were guaranteed lucrative careers.
The more likely model now will become the one where physicians become employees.
“Healthcare reform essentially is putting the private practice out of business,” he said.
In the long run, the only successful private practice model will likely come down to where large practices dominate the landscape. Anything less than a 300-physician group probably won’t survive, he said.
“This is the reality of what we’re seeing in the outside world.”
Add all of this to a physician shortage that’s only getting worse, and the healthcare community is indeed embarking on a tumultuous road ahead.
With the patient engagement quandary hanging its head over the next phase of meaningful use, healthcare leaders of all kinds continue to wrestle with how to meet mandates that are beyond their control.
Previously, the assignment was simple: do this, get that. But here, in stage 2, there’s a little outlier – required patient engagement – that has some physicians worried about how they are going to handle their second attestation.
Even though there are rumblings that CMS may look the other way when dealing with patient engagement, or decides not to enforce it, at least in the beginning, or chooses not to audit this measure, it’s still a mandate and it’s being taken seriously for all providers seeking the second set of financial incentives.
Some practices are taking measures that they haven’t had to in the past or at least with as much passion as they are now. They are marketing and advertising directly to patients, even if the campaign extends only to the interior of their own practices.
Such is the case for Dr. Stephen Bush, of Fox Valley Women and Children’s Health Partners in St. Charles, Illinois.
The first step in the process, Dr. Bush said is the implementation of a patient portal, which is though to help get the practice’s patients engaged or, in the very least, getting them more involved in their care protocols.
“The problem is, patients have to sign up to use the portal,” Bush said. His worry, though, is when pushing patients to engage, that if patients are pushed too hard, patients push back and essentially disengage.
“We receive significant push back from patients who get upset when trying to engage too much,” Bush said. Examples include posting too many times on Facebook or posting too many tweets to Twitter. According to Bush, patients will stop liking the practice on Facebook and stop following on Twitter if they feel the practice too involved socially.
Bush said his practice is working to implement new marketing and educational strategies to prepare for the patient engagement mandate, just to be safe, even though there’s little that can be done to audit how often patients use the portal after they have signed up.
There also may be too much attention put on patient portal’s capabilities, he said.
“They are not education tools, and they’re not meant to provide better healthcare, and in no way does it educate the patient,” he said.
Despite the patient engagement portion of the Stage 2, Bush said meaningful use is needed and ultimately, will help patients become more informed and get them involved in their care, which may help reduce costs overall. “The management of healthcare for patients is important, and can make lives better and healthier,” he said.
“All physicians are concerned about their patients are being taken care of and informed. Meaningful use gets patients involved. Patients now deal with things when there is a problem occurs rather than managing a healthy lifestyle.”
Physicians are trying to engage patients, and always have. Eventually, a change will come to the landscape, but as long as patients remain laissez-faire, there will be some push back when they are pushed.
My fascination with the benefits of patient portals continues to grow as the technology continues to grow in popularity.
Given their resurgence in popularity over the course of the last three or four years, and with the latest push for patient engagement through stage 2, clearly they have a very strong future in the practice of healthcare for the foreseeable future; probably until a game-changing technology moves us beyond the era of EHRs.
Until quite recently, patient portals have been viewed as a novel concept, and, overwhelmingly, practice leaders and physicians kept coming back to how they were going to get patients to actually use the communication systems, and, likewise, what benefit would they deliver the practice if the patients used them.
It’s safe to say we’re now living in a different time than even just a few years ago. People are more mobile, landlines have been cut and actually using a phone to make a call is essentially going to the way of the tube television.
We’re in an always on society where access to information, regardless of the subject, must be had. As you’re well aware, portals don’t necessarily come automatically with your EHR; they’re not bolted on, in other words. They cost money in addition to what you pay for your practice management system and electronic health record. In some cases, they’re actually quite expensive, or have been known to be in a traditional sense.
And, if the case could be made to invest in the technology (practice portals that is), the most obvious question often went unanswered: How can a practice bill for the time spent by its physicians when administering it and when responding to communications from patients, for example.
I digress. This is all water under the bridge. Everyone knows this stuff. It’s been overworked and underpaid.
The feds now require portals to play a huge part in health IT through meaningful use. Insurance companies are now jumping on board and allowing physicians and practices to bill for the time they spend administering data collected through portals, and patients have become so engaged in their mobile lives that it’s only a short matter of time before portals are utilized as heavily as online banking and ATMs, let’s say.
When I began thinking about this post, I thought of grandiose ways in which I could depict the usability of the portal and speak to its ever-increasing importance to the world of heath IT, but I just don’t think I can sum up their benefits better than simply listing them, as they speak for themselves.
As we know, patient portals can increase patient engagement by providing secure access to medical information online. Additionally, they allow physicians to:
Send and receive messages to and from doctor’s office
Communicate with patients through secure messages
Post lab and imaging results
Send reminder notices to patients
Post patient consent forms
Make billing information available
Provide patient education materials
With patient portals, patients can:
View and enter medical history
View and update allergy and medication lists
Send messages to their doctor’s office
Complete registration forms
Update demographic information
Request appointments and prescription refills
Obtain patient education materials
View account statements and pay medical bills
Not a bad day’s work for a fascinating bit of technology that’s changing the face of healthcare IT.
EHR structured data begins to make a play for importance as health IT moves into Stage 2 and we begin to require useful and useable information. It’s not a new topic, but one, much like ICD-10 I suppose, that has had many a practice leader hoping to push off until later.
Unfortunately for many, the days of structured data are upon us. Hoping that the data you dumped into your system when you implemented won’t be a problem for you in the future may now begin to start causing you some nightmares.
For many practices, as they begin to look at their data and hope to find a treasure trove included, they may be surprised to find much of the information worthless, as least when trying to compare to health information as a whole.
Why? Well, according to Computerworld, there’s just not enough EHR structured data. For example, pieces of data like problem lists, medications and allergies are inconsistent between the varying EHRs and the codes are often different between the different products.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is during the initial set up of the EHR. Practices looking to get their systems up and running, they often simply dump data in and move on to the next step of the training process. This, according to Computerworld, means a lack of protocols, standards or proper charting of the data.
As we’re now finally beginning to see is that the data that goes into the EHR must come out in a standardized and useful way so that it can be reported through meaningful use and exchanged through HIEs and electronic health records.
From Computerworld, “EHR structured data is required to aggregate, report and transmit the collection of data at the point of care, it is often perceived by physicians to inhibit their ability to practice medicine and document in a fashion they feel is most effective.”
Again, the lack of proper protocols and creating a culture of success can sink a practice in the long term. Simply dumping the data and letting providers practice as they see fit is a lot like public companies with their eyes on short term, end of the quarter returns rather than trying to build a successful foundation to create a stronger organization even if it means a slower, more steady return on their investment.
In fact, a case might be made that suggests that the loss of productivity physicians face when first learning their EHRs could be related to their use of structured data. Creating a process for them to follow from the beginning will pay huge dividends in the long run. In the near term, though, there will be a minor fall off in productivity.
There are some solutions for streamlining your data structuring process:
Create a committee to police standards to maintain clinical information in your EHR and HIE
Educate physician on the importance of capturing structured data, but allow the some ability to customize how they capture notes, for example
Spread the workload for capturing structured data among your staff and allow physicians the ability to focus on providing care and maximizing their productivity
Prepare your technology solutions for extraction, and utilizing, structured data. An EHR along may not be the only solution you need to get the data you need. Plan ahead and remember that one size fits all rarely does.
Follow these, and perhaps few of your own, and the value of your data will be worth a whole lot more for your organization in the long term than any unstructured attempt you make.
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.