What is the future of the EHR/N-HIN landscape?

One may argue it is possible to build the real Brooklyn Bridge with nothing but toothpicks, and a lake filled with Elmer’s Glue.  Difficult yes; prudent, no.   Urban legend is when the United States first started sending astronauts into space, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity.  To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 million to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300C.

The Russians used a pencil.

The ability to do something is not justification for doing it.  Nor is that fact that someone has put it forth as an idea.  The willingness to do something merely because everyone is doing it or because someone instructed it be done probably has nothing to do with a business strategy, or if it does, it shouldn’t.

In the next five to seven years the business of healthcare at the provider level will have the opportunity to change markedly—the unanswered question is, will it have the ability?  To answer that at the provider level—primarily hospitals and clinics—I believe one must distinguish between the business of healthcare (how the business is run) and the healthcare business (how the care is delivered).

In many respects, the business of healthcare and the strategy surrounding it is pinned to a 0.2 business model.  Certainly there are exceptions to any aphorism, but taken as a whole, there is plenty of room for improvement.  As one hospital CEO told me, “What we really lack is adult supervision.”

So, how exactly does the toothpick bridge apply to healthcare?   Here’s my take on the situation.

  1. It may be possible to build and roll out a national network of EMRs through EHRs connected by HIEs to an N-HIN—I don’t think will happen in the next five to seven years, especially if to be effective the network requires a minimal participation of somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of healthcare providers.
  2. Even if I am wrong, why would anyone build a national EHR network out of toothpicks?  Could they possibly have devised a more complex and costly approach?
  3. The government arrived late for the party, has only limited authority, and chose to provide cash incentives instead of direction or leadership.  They passed the responsibility of the success of the national EHR roll out to hundreds of thousands of healthcare providers.
  4. The providers are burdened by having no experience in the sector, hundreds of EHR systems from which to select, no standards, hundreds of HIEs, no viable plan, no one with singular authority, a timeline that cannot be meet, and an unwritten set of Meaningful Use requirements.

The plan sounds like something designed by Rube Goldberg.  Could it be done this way?  I do not think we will ever know.  Not necessarily because it will fail, but because I think the plan will be supplanted by a more realistic one from the private sector.

The government’s plan relies on a top-down approach—albeit with a missing top; from the government, to the providers, to the patients.

The private sector plan will come from firms like Apple, Google, and Microsoft.  It will work because it will be built from the bottom up; from the patients, to the providers, and back.  Personal Health Records (PHRs) will become EMRs.  This approach will allow them to flip their PHR users to EMR users, and will be adopted quickly by millions of customers (patients).  Their approach will have a small handful of decision makers calling the shots instead of hundreds.

This model’s other component will be driven from another direction, by large hospitals and clinics that connect to small hospitals, small practices, and ambulatory physicians via a SAAS model.  Something like this is underway today at the Cleveland Clinic using their offering, DrConnect.

I believe the approach will be refined even further as the distinction between PHRs and EMRs erodes.  Instead of requiring remote care providers to have their own mini-EHR integrated with their practice management system, they will be able to use the EHR of a large hospital.  I anticipate that they will be able to log on to the system to access their patients’ EMRs as though they were actually resident in the large hospital.  This will all but eliminate the role of Health Information Exchanges (HIEs).  It will also extend the reach of those large hospitals, and aid in the retention and recruiting of physicians.

Why is this important?  Because the federal plan, which won’t be viable for several years, is designed to use software solutions which address a current business issue.  By the time their networked solution is fully functional it will be well on its way to obsolescence.  The government is forcing the expenditure of more than a hundred billion dollars on a static offering to address a non-static issue.  Their approach will not be able to keep pace with the changes demanded by market forces.  It reminds me off building a plan to go to the moon based on where the moon was instead of where it will be.

 

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