EHR–“Our Lady of Perpetual Implementations”

“There is no use trying,” said Alice;
“one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.
“When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day.
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as
six impossible things before breakfast.”

There are a number of people who would have you believe impossible things.  I dare say some already have.  Such as?

“My EHR is certifiable.”

“They told me it will pass meaningful use.”

“We’re not responsible for Interoperability; that happens at the RHIO.”

“It doesn’t matter what comes out of the reform effort, this EHR will handle it.”

“We don’t have to worry about our workflow, this system has its own.”

Sometimes it’s best not to follow the crowd—scores of like-thinking individuals following the EHR direction they’ve been given by vendors and Washington.  Why did you select that package—because somebody at The Hospital of Perpetual Implementations did?

There is merit in asking, is your organization guilty of drinking the Kool Aid?  Please don’t mistake my purpose in writing.  There are many benefits available to those who implement an EHR.  My point is is that there will be many more benefits to those who select the right system, to those who know what business problems they expect to address, to those who eliminate redundant business functions, and those who implement proper change management controls.

EHR’s 5 stages of grief

Being a blogger is not too dissimilar to being a failure’s biographer.  Unless you simply repeat the ideas of your contemporaries, good blogging requires a certain avidity to oppugn those who revel in the notion that theirs was the only good idea.  To me, their Sang-froid calmness has all the appeal of a cold omelet.  Good writing requires that you make intellectual enemies across a range of subjects, and that you have the tenacity to hold on to those enemies.  So let us step off Chekhov’s veranda and bid farewell to the sisters of Prozorova.

The Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as the five stages of grief, was first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.  I heard a story about this on NPR, and it made me think about other scenarios where these stages might apply.

My first powered form of transport was a green Suzuki 250cc motorcycle.  My girlfriend knitted me a green scarf to match the bike.  One afternoon my mother walked into the family room, saw me, and burst into tears.  When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that one her way home she saw a green motorcycle lying on the road surrounded by police cars and an ambulance—she thought I had crashed.  I asked her why, if she thought that was me lying on the road, she did not stop.

My girlfriend’s mother, didn’t like my motorcycle—nor did she like me.  Hence, my first car; a 1969 Corvair.  Three hundred and fifty dollars.  Bench seats, AM radio.  Maroon—ish.  It reminded me a lot of Fred Flintstone’s car in that in several places one could view the street through the floor.  Twenty miles per gallon of gas, fifty miles per quart of oil.

Buyer’s remorse.  We’ve all had it.  There is a lot of buyer’s remorse going around with EHR, a lot of the five stages of grief.  I see it something like this:

  • Denial—the inability to grasp that you spent a hundred million dollars or more on EHR the wrong EHR, one that will never meet your needs
  • Anger—the EHR sales person received a six-figure bonus, and you got a commemorative coffee mug.  The vendor’s VP of Ruin MY life, took you off his speed dial, unfriended you in Facebook, and has blocked your Tweets. You phone calls to the vendor executive go unanswered, and are returned by a junior sales rep who thinks the issue may be that you need to purchase additional training.
  • Bargaining—when you have to answer to your boss, likely the same person who told you which system to purchase, as to why productivity is below what it was when the physicians charted in crayon.
  • Depression—you come in at least fifteen minutes late, and use the side door, taking the stairs so you won’t see anyone.  You just stare at your desk; but it looks like you are working. You do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. You estimate that in a given week you probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work. (Borrowed from the movie, Office Space.)
  • Acceptance—the EHR does not work, it will never work, you won’t be around to see it if it ever does.  Your hospital won’t see a nickel of the ARRA money.  You realize the lake house you were building will never be yours, but the mortgage will be.

The five stages of EHR grief.  Where are you in the grieving process?

True, there are a handful of EHR successes.  Not nearly as many as the vendors would have you believe.  More than half of hospital EHR implementations are considered to have failed.

If you are just starting the process, or are knee-deep in vendor apathy you have two options.  You can bring in the A-team, people who know how to run big ugly projects, or you prepare to grieve.

If it was me, I’d be checking Facebook to see if I was still on my vendor’s list of friends.

Patient Experience Management is abi-normal

I remember the first time I entered their home I was taken aback by the clutter.  Wet leaves and small branches were strewn across the floors and furniture. Black, Hefty trash bags stood against the walls filled with last year’s leaves. Dozens of bright orange buckets from Home Depot sat beneath the windows. The house always felt cold, very cold. After a while I learned to act normally around the clutter.

There came a time however when I simply had to ask, “Why all the buckets? What’s the deal with the leaves?”

“We try hard to keep the place neat,” she replied.

“Where does it all come from?” I asked.

“The open windows, the stuff blows right in.”

I looked at her somewhat askance. “I’m not sure I follow,” I replied as I began to feel uneasy.

“It’s not like we like living this way; the water, the cold, the mess. It costs a fortune to heat this place.  And, the constant bother of emptying the buckets, and the sweeping of the leaves.”

Trying to assume the role of thought leader I asked, “Why don’t you shut your windows? It seems like that would solve a lot of your problems.”

She looked at me like I had just tossed her cat in a blender.

When you see something abnormal often enough it becomes normal. Sort of like in the movie The Stepford Wives.  Sort of like Patient Experience Management (PEM). The normal has been subsumed by the abnormal, and in doing so is slowing devouring the resources of the hospital.

Are you kidding me? I wish. It’s much easier to see this as a consultant than it is if you are drinking the Kool Aid daily. When I talk to people about a statistic that indicates that 500 people called yesterday about their bill, and everyone looks calm and collected, it makes me feel like I must be the only one in the room who doesn’t get it—again with The Stepford Wives.

If I ask about the high call volume they always have an answer, the same answer.  “Billing calls are usually around 500 a day.”  They say that with a straight face as though they are waiting to see if I will drink the Kool Aid. It’s gotten to the point where no matter how bad things get, as long as they are consistently bad, there not bad at all.

This is the mindset that enables the PEM manager (I know you don’t have one—I am being facetious) to be fooled by his or her own metrics. When is someone going to understand that repeatedly having thousands of people calling to tell your organization you have a problem, means you have a problem?

It would probably take less than a week to pop something on your web site, and post a YouTube video explaining how to read the bill.  Next week, do the same thing and help patients understand how to file claims and disputes—granted, you may need more than a week for this one.

ICD-10’s Hidden Cost

The characters on the train into Philadelphia, while never dull, were more interesting than usual this morning.  The woman across the aisle from me wore her hair in a style that could be described best as resembling a termite mound.  The ride felt so much like bumper cars that I was tempted to ask the driver if he had to pass some sort of training program to get his license, or if all he had to do was to collect a certain number of bottle caps.  It gives me the feeling that there should be a lifeguard at the gene pool.

The med student seated next to me on the train reads his book, but then, everyone one the train reads. I asked him what he was reading.  Turns out it was a book about converting from ICD-9 to ICD-10.  Medical coding.  Those little numbers, charge codes, on your doctor’s invoice that enable the doctor to charge you for the specific services provided.  There didn’t seem to be much of a plot, and he did not seem to be very engrossed in the material.

The conversion from ICD-9 to ICD-10 may be the biggest gotcha on healthcare’s horizon, especially with regard to hospitals.

Money will be spent and money will be lost—lots of it.

Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that the cost of converting can be broken down into three categories, and it estimate the relative cost of those categories:

  • Training                              22%
  • Lost productivity               35%
  • System changes                43%

Two of these, training and system changes, are controlled variables.  They relate to things the service provider will be doing.  The other, lost productivity is the result of how well the service provider managed the other two.

HHS estimates productivity charges will range from 6-10% due to the fact that it will take people between 500 and 1,000 hours to become proficient in the new codes.  Others have estimated that for hospitals with more than 500 beds the total cost of the conversion (actual cost plus opportunity cost) will be more than ten million dollars.

So, in layman’s terms, what does that mean with regard to the business of managing the hospital?  How does one develop a project plan for lost productivity?  What are the tasks?

Let’s look at what is involved.

System Changes:

Everything will be changing; business rules, business processes, forms, reports, and systems.  Ask yourself which systems that you use involve coding?  Now ask yourself if you like using those systems.  Are they easy to use?  Are they easily understood?  If the only thing changed in those systems is the codes, they will still be just as tedious to use and those systems will be less usable.

A large hospital will spend five million or more dollars to change systems and the end result will be that those systems, at least for the first 500 to 1,000 hours will be less usable.  I believe those hours are underestimated.  Most systems are tied to other systems into what has become a bit of a kluge.  Changing integrated systems is a lot like playing the children’s game Pick Up Sticks—touching one stick often winds up making things happen to the other sticks.  Changing one system will cause things to happen to the other systems.  Ineffectiveness breeds more ineffectiveness.

Lost Productivity:

According to estimates, thirty-five cents out of every dollar spent on the conversion will be allocated to lost productivity.  This is like buying a gallon of milk and having to pour a third of it in the sink before you placed the carton in the refrigerator.

What are the why’s and where’s of the productivity loss, and what can be done about it?  Interpreting the HHS estimates, they are essentially stating that while the conversion will be done, it will not be done well.  In fact, those in the know published that hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost converting to ICD-10.

Will your hospital be contributing to that loss?  Without question; unless you figure out the causal factors of that loss, and put a plan in place to prevent it.  HHS calculates hospitals will lose thirty-five cents on the dollar even after having spent twenty-two cents of every dollar to train people.

Plan on fifty-seven cents of every dollar spent on the conversion to ICD-10 being wasted.  Get that milk carton out of the refrigerator and pour some more into the sink.

Training:

The training program envisioned by HHS that hospitals will undertake will result in a planned productivity loss of thirty-five percent.  What will your productivity loss be if your training program is less effective than whatever HHS was envisioning?  Clearly they are not holding out high hope for the success of ICD-10 training given that it is estimated that becoming proficient in the new coding could take one thousand hours.  (It only takes about 50 hours of training to obtain a private pilot’s license.)

Training, the variable over which a hospital has the most control is the area where the hospital has the least experience.  After all, the hospital has never had a business system designer design an ICD-10 training program.

Training will be about learning to use correctly new screens and forms and new business processes and business rules.  It must include those in finance and IT, coders, and healthcare professionals.  To be effective, it should be role-based; customized.

Left up to the usual way of doing it, hospitals will provide classroom study, 24-40 hours. They will probably develop a train-the-trainers program, and the trainees will be presented with a nice-looking ICD-10 training certificate.  Good luck.

Training may be needed for more than half of a hospital’s employees.  For training to be effective and to minimize the loss of productivity it must be designed.  It must include:

  • What will the altered systems user interface (UI) look like
  • Should people be trained on that UI, or will changing the UI result in much less training
  • What will the altered forms look like
  • Should people be trained on those forms, or could designing new forms result in much less training
  • Can the training be designed to be delivered online
  • Can the training be designed to be delivered on portable devices
  • Can the training be designed by roles
  • Can the training be designed by person to assess what areas need more training

The answers to these questions are Yes.  Whether it will be is up to you.  Designing a training program will significantly decrease the cost of training and significantly decrease the productivity loss.

How to push the EHR into the cloud

For those wondering if the fact that I have not written recently is a result of me having mellowed or having found the world more to my liking, not true.  I have been busy earning minus points as I tried to get it sorted in those wide open spaces of my mind.  It is difficult for me to find much comfort in sleep when I think all the leftist gremlins are in cahoots—I see two masons shaking hands and I think conspiracy.

Now, before this begins to read like I wandered too far from the republican rest home, I note that some of my best friends actually know democrats; so I am not as close-minded, or perhaps clothes-minded, as I would like to be.

Some are slow to adapt ideas to a changing world, aimlessly swatting new ideas away with a no-pest-strip as though they were plague carrying mosquitos.  Their thoughts, frozen in time, move so slowly they have been overtaken by a skateboard—and that skateboard was under someone’s arm.  These are the same individuals whose ability to play outside of the comfort of their own sandbox has not been seen since the internet was powered by steam.  It is a little like being a dinosaur while those around you are still floundering in the primordial bisque, still trying to wrap their synapses around the cold ideas distilled in the anecdote.

That is not to suggest that others do not think.  I am sure they have dozens of thoughts scribbled on the inside of their head, but those thoughts are erased each time they play with their hair—brains not big enough to swing a cat in without giving it a minor concussion.  There are fomenting alchemies of thought nuggets, but never quite enough to turn base metals into gold.  Sometimes, when the lighting is just right, you can see their curve of illogic thought arching overhead like static electricity.

In normal prose, I tend to be few of words.  I can get through entire days uttering no more than ‘uh-huh,’ a condition to which I attribute having exited the womb not fully-formed.  Writing is different than the spoken word.  For one thing writing is infinitely easier and more pleasingly voyeuristic, for it can be more entertaining to write about venomous ideas, not enough to kill my prey, simply to stun it.

Where then do ideas originate?  They are not like sex in a packet where all you have to do is add water.  The lack of thinking has led us to a tragic age most refuse to take tragically.  Thought patterns are aborted before they germinate, as though the thinker was taking intellectual contraceptives.  But believe it or not, I often find myself hoisted high on the petard of my own self-induced mesanic naivetés.  When a spark of a thought enters my mind, I rarely let it go quietly into that good night.  Instead I tear at it like Henry VIII coming off a forced diet—I know I mixed the metaphor, but I liked it.

I know rarely how my mind moves me from thoughts A to B.  Today proved no different.  Take the Poken.  This device is the newest technological mind-nibblet—a tiny jump-drive device about the size of prune whose purpose in life is to help two individuals sync their personal contacts by pok-in’ their respective Pokens.

You have got to hand it to them, for it sounds like it could be more entertaining than syncing one’s Blackberry.  If I understand correctly the concept, if my Poken pokes your Poken the Pokii mate—Pokii may or may not be the correct form of the plural, but it will have to do for now.  Once the mating process has ended, and before mine finishes its cigarette, I have your contact information and you have mine.

This could be an interesting way to swap business contacts, but as I live in the land of the Jabberwocky my mind does not work that way.  “Then he got an idea, an awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea.”

I jested about the Poken a few days ago, and then I thought about how this device could be made to work in healthcare.  The Poken is a communication device, sending and receiving secure requests to the cloud to permit one to access and update contact information.  Not much of a healthcare offering doing that, but what if?  What if instead of letting me share my contact information with someone I select, it, or something like it, allowed me to share my personal health record with my physician?  What if my physician was able to update my health record using a similar device?

The EMR and PMR applications would be in the cloud.  The Poken would provide the “handshake.”  One fully functional EMR.  The rest is history.  Thanks for playing along.

Will National EHR Work?

I’ve never been mistaken as one who is subtle.  Gray is not in my patois.  I am guilty of seeing things as right and left and right and wrong.  Sometimes I stand alone, sometimes with others, but rarely am I undecided, indecisive, or caught straddling the fence.  When I think about the expression, ‘lead, follow, or get out of the way,’ I see three choices, two of which aren’t worth getting me out of bed.

I do it not of arrogance but to stimulate me, to make a point, to force a dialog, or to cause action.  Some prefer dialectic reasoning to try to resolve contradictions, that’s a subtlety I don’t have.  Like the time I left the vacuum in the middle of the living room for two weeks hoping my roommates would get the hint.  That was subtle and a failure.  I hired a housekeeper and billed them for it.

Take healthcare information technology, HIT.  One way or another I have become the polemic poster child of dissent, HIT’s eristical heretic.  I’ve been consulting for quite a while—twenty-five plus years worth of while.  Sometimes I see something that is so different from everything else I’ve seen that it causes me to pause and have a think.  Most times, the ball rattles around in my head like it’s auditioning for River Dance, and when it settles down, the concept which had led to my confusion begins to make sense to me.

This is not most times.  No matter how hard I try, I am not able to convince myself that the national EHR rollout strategy has even the slightest chance of working as designed.  Don’t tell me you haven’t had the same concern—many of you have shared similar thoughts with me.  The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Here’s my take on the matter, no subtlety whatsoever.  Are you familiar with the children’s game Mousetrap?  It’s an overly designed machined designed to perform a simple task.

Were it simply a question of how to view the current national EHR roll out strategy I would label it a Rube Goldberg strategy.  Rube’s the fellow noted for devising complex machines to perform simple tasks.  No matter how I diagram it, the present EHR approach comes out looking like multiple implementations of the same Rube Goldberg strategy.  It is over designed, overly complex.  For it to work the design requires that the national EHR system must complete as many steps as possible, through untold possible permutations, without a single failure.

Have you ever been a part of a successful launch of a national IT system that:

  • required a hundred thousand or so implementations of a parochial system
  • has been designed by 400 vendors
  • has 400 applications based on their own standards
  • has to transport different versions of health records in and out of hundreds of different regional health information networks
  • has to be interoperable
  • may result in someone’s death if it fails

Me either.

Worse yet, for there to be much of a return on investment from the reform effort, the national EHR roll out must work.  If the planning behind the national ERH strategy is indicative of the planning that has gone into reform, we should all have a long think.

I hate when people throw stones without proposing any ideas.  I offer the following—untested and unproven.  Ideas.  Ideas which either are or aren’t worthy of a further look.  I think they may be; you may prove me wrong.

For EHR to interoperate nationally, some things have to be decided.  Somebody has to be the decider.  This feel good, let the market sort this out approach is not working.  As you read these ideas, please focus on the whether the concept could be made to work, and whether doing so would increase the likelihood of a successful national EHR roll out.

  • Government redirects REC funds plus whatever else is needed to quickly mandate, force, cajole, a national set of EHR standards
    • EHR vendors who account for 90%–pick a number of you don’t like mine—use federal funds to adapt their software to the new standard
    • What happens to the other vendors—I have no idea.  Might they go out of business?  Yup.
    • EHR vendors modify their installed base to the standard
  • Some organization or multiple organizations—how many is a tactic so let’s not get caught up in who, how many, or what platform (let’s focus on whether the idea can be tweaked to make sense)—will create, staff, train its employees to roll out an EHR shrink-wrapped SaaS solution for thousands and thousands of small and solo practice
    • What package—needs to be determined
    • What cost—needs to be determined
    • How will specialists and outliers be handled—let’s figure it out
  • Study existing national networks—do not limit to the US—which permit the secure transfer of records up and down a network.  This could include businesses like airline reservations, telecommunications, OnStar, ATM/finance, Amazon, Gmail—feel free to add to the list.  It does no good to reply with why any given network won’t work.  Anyone can come up with reasons why this won’t work or why it will be difficult or costly to build or deploy.  I want to hear from people who are willing to think about how to do it.  The objective of the exercise is to see if something can be cobbled together from an existing network.  Can a national EHR system steal a group of ideas that will allow the secure transport of health records and thereby eliminate all the non-value-added middle steps (HIEs and RHIOs)?  Can a national EHR system piggyback carriage over an existing network?

We have reached the point of lead, follow, or get out of the way, and two of these are no good.

The Physics of EHR

To read and complete this post you may use the following tools; graph paper, compass, protractor, slide ruler, a number two pencil, and a bag of Gummy Bears—from which to snack.  The following problem was on the final exam in my eleventh grade physics class.  Let us give this a shot and then see if we can tie it into anything relevant.

A Rhesus monkey is in the branch of a tree thirty-seven feet above the ground.  The monkey weights eight pounds.  You are hunting in Africa, and are three hundred and twenty yards from the monkey.  You have a bolt-action, reverse-bore (spins the shell counter-clockwise as it leaves the gun barrel) Huntington rifle capable of delivering a projectile at 644 feet per second.  The bullet weighs 45 grams.  The humidity is seventy percent, and the temperature in Scotland is twelve degrees Celsius.

At the exact moment the monkey hears the rifle fire it will jump off the branch and begin to fall.  Using this information, exactly where do you have to aim to make sure you hit the monkey?

I used every piece of information available to try to solve this.  I made graphs and ran calculations until there was no more data left to crunch, computing angles and developing new formulas.  I calculated the curvature of the earth, and the effect Pluto’s gravitational pull had on the bullet.

The one thing that never occurred to me was that since the monkey was falling to the ground, so was the bullet—gravity.  The bullet and the monkey both fall at the same rate because gravity acts on both the same way.  So, where to aim to hit the monkey?  Aim at the monkey.

All of the other information was irrelevant, extraneous.  The funny thing about extraneous information is that it causes us to look at it, to focus on it.  We think it must be important, and so we divert attention and resources to it, even when the right answer is staring us in the eye.

Attempting to implement EHR is a lot like hunting monkeys.  We know what we need to do and yet we are distracted by all of this extraneous information that will hamper our chances of being successful with the EHR.  Two of the most obvious distractions are Meaningful Use and Certification.  The overarching goal of EHR is EHR; one that does what you need it to do.  If the EHR does not do that, everything else has no meaning.