It was such a beautiful, logical vision: The creation of “an electronic circulatory system for health information that nourishes the practice of medicine, research, and public health, making health care professionals better at what they do and the American people healthier,” as David Blumenthal, the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology from 2009 to 2011, wrote in an article on the potential of the HITECH Act’s subsidization of the adoption of EHRs by hospitals and physician practices that appeared in the Dec. 30, 2009, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The HITECH Act was combined with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), an economic stimulus bill created to help the U.S. economy recover from an economic downturn that began in late 2007. The passage of the bill spawned an ambitious vision of an elaborate national health information infrastructure that would enable frictionless, collaborative data sharing primarily through a National Health Information Network (NHIN) that would connect an interlocking web of regional health information organizations (RHIOs) and health information exchanges (HIEs).
It must be emphasized that the NHIN vision was a federal government vision—not one generally shared by the private sector. It was never realized, and the adoption of EHRs by healthcare providers has been described as “a digital revolution gone wrong” and “a bridge to nowhere,” in the 15-page cover article of Fortune magazine’s April issue, entitled “Death by a Thousand Clicks,” by Erika Fry of the magazine and Fred Schulte of Kaiser Health News.
For their report—which has the feel of an exposé — Fry and Schulte interviewed more than 100 physicians, patients, IT experts, administrators, health policy leaders, attorneys, government officials, and representatives from several leading EHR vendors. They employ a combination of poignant vignettes of patients who were harmed by EHR shortcomings — including the experiences of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau and the husband of CMS Administrator Seema Verma — as well as ample facts and figures.
Per Fry and Schulte, the federal government has spent $36 billion to date to subsidize the adoption of EHRs by healthcare providers, and today, 96 percent of non-federal acute care hospitals and 86 percent of physician offices have EHRs.
Despite the significant amount of federal funding and broad adoption of EHRs, they have not fulfilled their potential, as Blumenthal has admitted. The expected “digital dividend” from EHRs has not materialized, or at least its magnitude is much smaller than hoped for. According to Fry and Schulte, EHRs’ general demerits include poor, tedious usability—which adds work and is cited as a major contributing factor to physician burnout — rampant errors that lead to patient safety risks, “upcoding” (bill inflation), lack of interoperability, widespread data blocking, and patients’ inability to access their EHRs. Data silos clearly exist between the 700 federally certified EHRs of widely varying functionality, as well as between provider organizations and other players in the healthcare system. In short, idealism has run into the reality of commercialization.
Fry and Schulte provide no optimistic, Hollywood ending to the article. Industry attempts to promote interoperability are described as fledgling, and their sobering conclusion is that the state of EHRs in the United States is “an unholy mess.”
Have you ever sought medical care from multiple providers for the same condition? Then you probably already know how difficult it can be to coordinate care from one practice or facility to the next. One provider may not necessarily have access to the test results ordered by another provider, and even getting a prescription filled can be a hassle — you have to wait while the pharmacist fills your prescription and hope that he or she doesn’t misread the prescribing doctor’s terrible handwriting.
But all of that is changing; for many patients across the country, it has already changed, thanks to the Health Information Technology for Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009. This law was enacted to encourage the transition to electronic health records (EHRs) in medical practices, hospitals, and other health facilities. Researchers agree that the use of EHRs can have many benefits for providers and patients alike, including improved patient outcomes, reduced costs, streamlined administration, and even improved ability to perform medical research.
What Are EHRs?
An EHR is an electronic record of a patient’s medical history that combines test results, diagnoses, and other data accumulated as the patient moves from one provider to another. Your EHR is meant to be longitudinal in nature, meaning that the record represents a lifetime picture of your health history.
Unlike a medical record, which is maintained by a single provider, an EHR is comprehensive; since it includes information compiled from every provider who works with you, it will offer each provider all of the information necessary to make your next treatment decision. That means no more re-ordering an expensive test you’ve already taken somewhere else, and no more waiting for test results to be faxed over from another doctor’s office.
Advantages of EHRs
Ideally, EHRs will someday travel with you. When all providers have made the transition to using EHR systems such as RevenueXL, you’ll be able to get the same quality of care from providers anywhere in the country. They’ll simply be able to check your EHR for pertinent medical information, and even update it so that your providers back home will be able to adjust your care accordingly. Even if you’re incapacitated, your EHR will ensure that providers around the country will be alerted to your medication list and existing medical conditions.
EHRs should make life easier for everyone involved in your care. You’ll be able to:
Schedule doctor’s appointments online
Ask medical questions via email
Request prescription refills electronically
Access test results whenever you want
Keep track of scheduled appointments
The use of EHRs should streamline the many administrative tasks associated with patient care. EHR system software will prompt your doctor to file necessary Medicare and insurance paperwork, will help them keep track of which best practice guidelines apply to your specific case, and will reduce numerous costs.
With a flourish of congressional shenanigans lifted almost word for word from the teleplay of Netflix’s House of Cards, the HHS-mandated 2014 transition to use of the ICD-10 coding classification was brought to a screeching one year “delay.” We are left, once again, with “at least” another year of collecting healthcare information via ICD-9, an awful but omnipresent healthcare coding system. And more concerning, we are left with the impression that diligent and expensive work to comply with rules in a host of other areas, such as meaningful use of electronic health records, could become abruptly irrelevant. The result of the delay is that not only do we have a significant number of long-time objectors to the change to ICD-10, but they are also joined by a surge of rightfully angry and dubious ‘compliers’ who put in time and investment dollars to meet the deadline. But there are also some additional considerations given the amount of time that has passed as we prepare to make the trip.
Is this trip still worth the aggravation and expense?
The major underlying rationale of moving to ICD-10 remains laudable: to provide greater clarity to our understanding of healthcare practices through the use of better industry standard, diagnosis codes. With more granular, relevant and precise core codes at the foundation, medical quality and effectiveness studies utilizing these codes for analysis and program development were to have benefitted dramatically.
Given that our desire to advance healthcare value and improve outcomes through accountable care practices (‘fee-for-value’) we must acknowledge our dependence on much better information collection for analysis than is possible from ICD-9. Significant questions remain however, as to whether the move to ICD-10, using codes predominantly still entrenched to support fee-for-service billing processes will get us where we want to go. While we can hope the enhanced and detailed nature of ICD-10 might yield greater insight into the real value of our activities, this remains a particularly frail hope in light of the way we use the codes as revenue cycle fuel.
Guest post by Andy Nieto, health IT strategist, DataMotion.
The HITECH Act’s goal of improving clinical outcomes for patients using technology through meaningful use is admirable and quite overdue. However, where the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), and to a much greater extent, electronic health records (EHR), have missed the mark is in the deployment and execution.
The stated goal of meaningful use Stage 1 (MU1) was to deploy, integrate and use EHRs to gather and document “structured and coded” healthcare data. Rather than take ONC’s directives as a framework to improve provider care tools, they viewed it as a “minimum requirement” and missed the spirit of the initiative. EHRs remain cumbersome, challenging and inefficient.
Providers now spend more time clicking boxes and typing than they do speaking to their patients. To make matters worse, the data gathered is maintained in the EHR’s “unique” way, making exchange and interaction challenging and interfaces costly.