What must the ONC do to make EHR a success?

The following is my second reply to Brain Ahier’s interview of Dr. Blumenthal.  The purpose of this post was to outline some steps the ONC could take to retrofit its EHR strategy.  PLease let me know what you think.

Grab a soft-drink—this one is rather long. Please forgive any formatting mistakes–it looked good in Word.

I have never been one who thinks hit-and-run critiquing is fair. It is too easy to throw metaphorical tomatoes at an idea with which you disagree. As such, perhaps instead of just being critical of the national EHR rollout plan, here are a few ideas which may be worth exploring in more detail.

It just occurred to me that the ONC’s role, the Office of the National Coordinator, is just that—coordination. Who or what is the ONC supposed to be coordinating—among its various functions, or the providers? There are the coordinators, and its constituents—the uncoordinated. I know at least one provider who already spent $400 million on its EHR. They didn’t get coordinated. I asked one of their executives who played a major oversight role in the implementation, with whom they worked at the ONC. She was not even familiar with the acronym.

I don’t think providers are looking to be coordinated—they are looking to be led. I also think they are looking to be asked and to be heard. They are looking for answers to basic questions like; why should we do this, what is in it for me—this has nothing to do with incentive dollars?

It often seems like the ONC has developed many solutions seeking a problem, filling their tool bag in the hope they brought along the right one. This is where I think we see a good portion of the disconnect. It is better to say we know where we are going, but getting there slowly, instead of, we don’t know where we are going but we are making really good time.

People don’t buy drills because they need a drill—they buy them because they need—say it with me—holes. Providers need holes, not HIEs and RECs.

You understand the pressures you face much better than do I. Has anyone from the ONC asked you if they should reconsider their plan, their approach, their timing? Chances are good that you are not implementing EHR and CPOE because you have a vision or a business imperative of someday being able to connect your EHR to Our Lady of Perpetual Interoperability. CIOs and their peers are not spending eight or nine figures because you want a virtual national healthcare infrastructure. The C-team is investing its scarce resources to make its operation better, to reap the rewards of the promise of EHR.

The ONC is spending its resources towards a different goal, a virtual national healthcare infrastructure. The two goals do not necessarily overlap. I am reminded of the photo showing the driving of the Golden Spike—the connecting of the Union Pacific Railroad to the Central Pacific Railroad—the final link of the Transcontinental Railroad that in the 1870’s allowed Americans to cross the US by rail. What would have happened had the two railroads worked independently of each other? They would have built very nice railroads whose tracks would never have met, tracks dead ending in the middle of nowhere. Even if they almost met, say got within a few feet of each other, they would have failed.

There are those who see the work of the ONC as a real value-add. I dare say that most of those are not hospital CIOs or physicians. Both groups define value-add and success differently.

This is not to say that providers would not accept all the help they can get. However, providers want the help to be…what is the word I am searching for—helpful—to them, to their issues. The ONC’s mission will not work until the providers successfully deliver what the ONC needs from them. How many providers must be Stage 7, Meaningful Use, Certified compliant for the virtual national healthcare infrastructure to work? Fifty percent? Eighty? Who knows.

So, the providers own the critical path. It is all about the providers, bringing fully functional EHR systems to hospitals and physicians. The numbers I have seen do not paint a promising picture. The critical path is in critical condition. Ten percent hospital acceptance and a sixty percent failure rate. Let’s say those numbers are wrong by a factor of three—thirty percent acceptance, and a twenty percent failure rate. Even those numbers do not bode well for ever achieving a virtual national healthcare infrastructure under the current plan. Subtract from those figures—supply your own if you would like—the churn figures—those hospitals that are on their second or third installation of EHR. Something is amiss.

In a more perfect world the ONC might consider shifting course to something aligned with the following:

• Segment its mission into two parts; one to build a virtual national healthcare infrastructure, and two, provide hands-on support individual hospitals’ and providers’ EHR initiatives.
• Standards
• Standards—I wrote that twice because it is important to both missions
o Let us be honest, the largest EHR vendors do not want standards. Why? Because if all else fails, their standards become the standards. They don’t phrase it this way, but one can assume, their business model calls for them to do what is best for them.
o The vendors do not want to open their APIs to the HIEs
• Do not set dates for providers which to be met require meeting rules which do not yet exist. If the government wants providers to meet its dates, the government must first meet some of its critical success factors—standards, for example.
• Mandate vendor standards for however many vendors make up ninety percent of the EHR install base for hospitals. Give vendors 18-24 months to agree to a set of standards and have them retrofit their applications.
• Use a garrote and stick approach on the vendors. Create a standards incentive program, heck, underwrite it. Pay the vendors to develop and get on a single set of standards—this will have a much more positive impact than REC and PR money. Many will say, especially those who have an incentive for this not to happen, this cannot be done. Of course it can.
• Processes. EHRs are failing in part due to not enough user involvement, not enough user authority and governance. There is no usable decompositionable process map of how a hospital functions. No Level Zero through Level Whatever You Need. No industry standard, mega-diagram, boxes and arrows, which can be laid on a table or hung on a wall that shows, “This is what we do. This is how it all ties together.”
• I am building this process map, along with a colleague. Why isn’t the ONC? It will not match you hospital. It may not match anyone’s hospital. What it will do is give someone a great base from which they can edit it. Why is this important? Because it will enable the users, IT, and the vendor to overlay the EHR application to show:

o which business and clinical areas are impacted
o the process interfaces
o duplicated processes
o processes with no value-add
o which other facilities have similar and differing processes
o where change management resources must be focused
o what needs to happen if an acquisition is made

The ONC must move from coordinating to leading. To do that they need the authority to mandate the execution of some of the items listed above.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942

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