Healthcare IT’s Black Hole

Last year scientists turned on the largest machine ever made, the Hadron Collider. It’s a proton accelerator. This all takes place in a donut-shaped underground tube that is 17 miles in circumference.

Fears about the collider centered on two things; black holes and the danger posed by weird hypothetical particles, strangelets, that critics said could transform the Earth almost instantly into a dead, dense lump. Physicists calculated that the chances of this catastrophe were negligible, based on astronomical evidence and assumptions about the physics of the strangelets. One report put the odds of a strangelet disaster at less than one in 50 million, less than a chance of winning some lottery jackpots—what they failed to acknowledge is that someone always wins the lottery, so negligible risk exists only in the mind of the beholder.

If I understand the physics correctly from my Physics for Librarians mail-order course—and that’s always a big if—once these protons accelerate to something close to the speed of light, when they collide, the force of the collision causes the resultant mass to have a density so massive that it creates a gravitational field from which nothing can escape. The two protons become a mini black hole. And so forth and so on. Pascal’s triangle on steroids. Two to the nth power (2ⁿ) forever. Every proton, neutron, electron, car, house, and so on.

The collider could do exactly what it was designed to do. Self fulfilling self destruction. Technology run amuck. Let’s personalize it. Instead of a collider, let’s build a national healthcare information network (N-HIN) capable of handling more than 1,000,000 transports a day. What are the rules of engagement?  Turn on the lights and let’s see how it functions.

Let’s say we need to get anybody’s record to anybody’s doctor.  That’s overly simplistic, but if we can’t make sense out of it at this level, the N-HIN is doomed.  The number of possible permutations, although not infinite, is bigger than big.  Can you see what can happen? Strangelets.  The giant sucking sound comes from ARRA and stimulus money as it is pulled in to the black hole.

So what is the present thought leadership proposing to fight the strangelets? Healthcare information exchanges (HIEs)—mini N-HINs.  Regional Exchange Centers (RECs).  A few million, a few billion.  Not only does their plan have them repeating the same flawed approach, they are relying on embedding the same bad idea, and doing it using hundreds of different blueprints.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Stop the craziness. I want to get off.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine. R.E.M.

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.

AP reports national EHR rollout will fail-now what?

I just fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down. But lest I get ahead of myself, let us begin at the beginning. It started with homework–not mine–theirs. Among the three children of which I had oversight; coloring, spelling, reading, and exponents. How do parents without a math degree help their children with sixth-grade math?

“My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.” Hedley Lamar (Blazing Saddles). Unfortunately, mine, as I was soon to learn was merely flooded. Homework, answering the phone, running baths, drying hair, stories, prayers. The quality of my efforts seemed to be inversely proportional to the number of efforts undertaken. Eight-thirty–all three children tucked into bed.

Eight-thirty-one. The eleven-year-old enters the room complaining about his skinned knee. Without a moment’s hesitation, Super Dad springs into action, returning moments later with a band aid and a tube of salve. Thirty seconds later I was beaming–problem solved. At which point he asked me why I put Orajel on his cut. My wife gave me one of her patented “I told you so” smiles, and from the corner of my eye, I happened to see my last viable neuron scamper across the floor.

One must tread carefully as one toys with the upper limits of the Peter Principle. There seems to be another postulate overlooked in the Principia Mathematica, which states that the number of spectators will grow exponentially as one approaches their limit of ineptitude.

Another frequently missed postulate is that committees are capable of accelerating the time required to reach their individual ineptitude limit. They circumvent the planning process to get quickly to doing, forgetting to ask if what they are doing will work. They then compound the problem by ignoring questions of feasibility, questions for which the committee is even less interested in answering. If we were discussing particle theory we would be describing a cataclysmic chain reaction, the breakdown of all matter. Here we are merely describing the breakdown of a national EHR roll out.

What is your point?  Fair question.  How will we get EHR to work?  I know “Duh” is not considered a term of art in any profession, however, it is exactly the word needed.  It appears they  are deciding that this—“this” being the current plan that will enable point-to-point connection of an individual record—will not work, and 2014 may be in jeopardy—not the actual year, interoperability.  Thanks for riding along with us, now return your seat back and tray table to their upright and most uncomfortable position.

Even as those who are they throw away their membership in the flat earth society, those same they’s continue to press forward in Lemming-lock-step as though nothing is wrong.

It is a failed plan.  It can’t be tweaked.  We can’t simply revisit RHIOs and HIEs.  We have reached the do-over moment, not necessarily at the provider level, although marching along without standards will cause a great deal of rework for healthcare providers.  Having reached that moment, let us do something.  Focusing on certification, ARRA, and meaningful use will prove to be nothing more than a smoke screen.

The functionality of most installed EHRs ends at the front door.  We have been discussing that point for a few months. When you reach the fork in the road, take it.  Each dollar spent from this moment forth going down the wrong EHR tine will cost two dollars to overcome.  To those providers who are implementing EHR I recommend in the strongest possible terms that you stop and reconsider your approach.

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.

 

HIT: The Change Keeps Changing

Hello to those whom I’ve yet to meet.  This is rather long, so you may wish to grab a sandwich.

I write to share a few thoughts.  I reside in the small place where those who refuse to drink the Kool Aid reside. For those who haven’t been there, it’s where those who place principle over fees dare to tread.

Where to begin? How to build your provider executive team? (Those who wish to throw cabbages should move closer to their laptops so as not to be denied a decent launching point.)

I comment on behalf of those in the majority who have either not started or hopefully have not reached the EHR points of no return—those are points at which you realize that without a major infusion of dollars and additional time your project will not succeed. Those who have completed their implementation, I dare say for many no amount of team building will help. Without being intentionally Clintonian—well, maybe a little—I guess it depends on what your definition of completed is.

If I were staffing a healthcare organization, to be of the most value to the hospital, I’d staff to overcome whatever is lying in wait on the horizon, external influences—the implications of reform and Stages 2 and 3 of Meaningful Use, and a national roll out of EHR with no viable plan to get there.  Staffing only to execute today’s perceived demands will get people shot and will fail to meet the needs of hospital. To succeed we need to exercise an understanding of what is about to happen to healthcare and to build a staff to meet those implications.

Several CEOs have shared that they are at a total loss when it comes to understanding the healthcare implications of reform and IT.  They’ve also indicated—don’t yell at me for this—they don’t think their IT executives understand the business issues surrounding EHR and reform.  I somewhat disagree with that perspective.

Here’s a simplified version of the targets I think most of today’s hospital CIOs are trying to hit.

1. Certification
2. Meaningful use
3. Interoperability—perhaps
4. Budget
5. Timing
6. Vendor management
7. Training
8. User acceptance
9. Change management
10. Work flow improvement
11. Managing upwards

There are plenty of facts that could allow one to conclude that these targets have a Gossamer quality to them.  Here’s what I think. You don’t have to accept this, and you can argue this from a technology viewpoint—and you will win the argument. I recently started to raise the following ideas, and they seem to be finding purchase—I like that word, and since this is my piece, I used it.

Before we go there, may I share my reasoning? From a business perspective, many would say the business of healthcare must move from a 0.2 to a 2.0 business model. (This is not the same as the healthcare business—the clinical side.)  The carrot?  The ARRA incentives—an amount that for many providers will prove to be more of a rounding error than a substantive rebate.

Large healthcare providers are being asked to hit complex, undefined, and moving targets, and they are planning on adapting to reform and reforming their own business model while they implement systems which will change how everyone works.  Hospitals are making eight and nine figure purchase decisions based in part on solving business problems they have not articulated. If success is measured as being on-time, in-budget, and fully functional and accepted, for any project in excess of $10,000,000, the chances of failure are far greater than the chances of success.

Their overriding business driver seems to be that the government told them to do this. Providers are making purchasing decisions without defining their requirements. Some will spend more on an EHR system than they would to build a new hospital wing.  Many don’t know what the EHR should cost, yet they have a budget. Many don’t know if they need a blue one or a green one, if it comes in a box, or if they need to water it.

So, where would I staff to help ensure my success—this is sort of like Dr. Seuss’, “If I ran the Circus”—the one with Sneelock in the old vacant lot.  I’d staff with a heavy emphasis on the following subject matter experts:

• PMO
• Planning & Innovation
• Flexibility
• Change Management
• PR & Marketing

Contrary to popular belief, not all of these high-level people need to have great understanding of healthcare or IT. You probably already have enough medical and IT expertise to last a lifetime.

Here’s why I think this is important. Here’s what I believe will happen. Three to five years for now the government would like us to believe there will be a network of articulated EHRs with different standards, comprised of hundreds of vendor products, connected to hundred of RHIOs, and mapped to a N-HIN.  Under the proposed model, standardization will not occur if only for the fact that there is no monetary value to those vendors whose standards are not standard.

Interoperability, cost, and the lack of standardization will force a different solution—one which is portable.  I think the solution will have to be something along the lines of a single, national, open, browser-based EHR.  It will be driven by consumers.  Consumers will purchase the next generation of super-smart portable devices that offer a combination of iPad/iPhone functionality.

The Personal Health (PRH) will have evolved to become the EMR.  How is this possible?  What do smart devices do?  They do one thing, billions of times each day, and they do it perfectly—they send and receive ones and zeros.  That is what today’s EMR are—ones and zeroes.  Those next-gen devices will be EMR-capable.  Why?  Because there are more than a hundred million customers who will keep buying these devices.

The so-called N-HIN will be the new Super Internet—not some cobbled together network of RHIOs.

Firms like Apple, Google, and Microsoft will drive this change.  We already buy everything they offer, in fact, we line up at midnight to do so.  By then, those firms will care less about selling the devices than they will about transporting the ones and zeroes that comprise the data.  Their current PHRs are their way of introducing themselves to consumers as players in healthcare.

The point I am trying to drive home is that from being able to adapt to change and reform, lean towards staffing the unknown.  Staff with leaders, innovators, and people who can turn on a dime. Build your organization like turning on a dime is your number one requirement. Don’t waste time and money worrying about Certification or Meaningful Use. If anyone asks you why, you can blame me.

If you want a real reason, I have two. First, they won’t mean a thing five years from now. Second, if I am the person writing an incentive check, I want to know one and only one thing—will your system connect with the other system for which I am also writing a check?  That is the government’s home run.

 

HIEs: Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

Is the number of people working on developing Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) is greater than the total number of people who attended HIMSS in Orlando; more than 30,000?  Why are five hundred HIEs are being built?

Let us assume for a moment that there is a set of standards somewhere, a blueprint perhaps, for what a good HIE should be able to do.  Granted, if we are going to be honest, an HIE does not have to do very much; does it?  It does not change the data in a health record.  It does not add data.  And, it neither creates nor destroys health records.

In its simplest form, a health record comes in from some place, and that same record goes out to some other place.  And what is in that health record?  If we are trying to keep it simple in order to show the problem is in fact solvable, what is in the health record is a formatted collection of ones and zeroes.  And how does the HIE “move” the ones and zeroes?  The movement is caused by writing computer applications; code—ones and zeroes.

The blueprint for an HIE is nothing more than a pipe to move formatted zeroes from point A to point B.  Now in reality, we have about five hundred HIE teams working hard to build disparate HIEs.  To what end?  To move ones and zeroes from point A to point B.  So, the 500 HIE teams are writing 500 different HIE applications using ones and zeroes to move ones and zeroes.

Doing the math—500 HIE teams * 1 HIE application per team = 500 different HIE applications.  If done correctly—which is an entirely different conversation—we will have 500 HIEs, each of which are capable of doing the exact same thing; which is—moving ones and zeroes.

Let us dissect the ones and zeroes concept for a moment.  When Al Gore created ones and zeroes he did so with the premise that all ones were created equal, all zeroes are created equal, and that ones and zeroes are equal.

Now, what makes the one and zero concept particularly great with regard to HIEs and all of healthcare IT is there is never a need for a “two”.  No CIO worth his or her salt will ever sit at a steering committee meeting and state, “If I only had a 2, this whole problem would go away.”

If one looks correctly at the issue of HIEs by breaking it down to its simplest elements, it is a unique problem to solve.  Unique—as in singular.  Two HIEs do not solve the problem better than one HIE.  Once you have two, you no longer have a unique solution, and when you have 500 HIEs, you have a mess.

Here is the kicker to this argument.  What else do you have when you have a single HIE capable of reading the data from all of the various EHR platforms?  Exactly.  You have the N-HIN—the Nationwide Health Information Network.  Why?  Because when push comes to shove, the N-HIN is nothing more than a glorified HIE.

However, once you have more than one HIE, you then need an HIE for the HIEs, which is the only reason there is any discussion about building an N-HIN.

So, in addition to the fact that 500 HIEs are 499 too many, do they create any other problems?  Of course they do.  They add a very high and unnecessary degree of additional complexity to the healthcare IT systems of every healthcare provider.  Some providers offer services within many different HIE footprints.  Every provider will need to adapt their systems so that the provider’s healthcare records can be accepted by their corresponding HIE pipe.

Instead of building 500 HIEs, and forcing them to some semblance of a standard, why not just build one HIE and have that be the standard?

 

Blazing Saddles: the original HIE-NHIN model

Several have inquired as to why I came down so hard in yesterday’s post regarding the CMS-ONC’s approach to link our physicians and hospitals through the development of HIEs and the N-HIN.  I think, as do others, the goal is worthwhile but, is the current strategy going to work?

I think the current plan is fatally flawed, and is racing ahead like a herd of turtles.  Just because everyone is working hard, and has good intentions, does not necessarily mean the outcome will deliver what is needed.  It seems over engineered to the point that it is like trying to put ten pounds of turnips into a five-pound bag.

Unfortunately, until the leadership of the CMS and the ONC come to that realization the CMS, the ONC, and healthcare providers will continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to support an infrastructure that:

  • Unnecessarily complex
  • Is not necessary nor sufficient
  • Cannot be built
  • Will not work

Call me Deep Throat.  The perspective that the HIE-NHIN plan will not work is only spoken of in the bowels of the Watergate Hotel’s parking garage in hushed voices late at night.  Many of you have shared with me that you are of the same opinion but, like vampires you shudder that your voice on this matter would see the light of day.  It would be less antagonistic to open a kosher deli in Tehran than to say the CMS-ONC needs to be rethunk but, sometimes a little antagonism is what is needed.

Do you recall the scene in Blazing Saddles when Harvey Korman’s horde of bad guys is racing through the desert on horseback to get to the town of Rock Ridge only to be halted in the middle of a wide open prairie by a lone toll gate?  Instead of being able to go directly to where they wanted to go they are forced to go through the toll gate, and their progress is stopped entirely because nobody has any spare change.

What makes it nonsensical, and quite funny, is their failure to realize that all they had to do was o ride around the toll gate.  Maybe it is just the way my mind works, but trying to get electronic health records to a national network via several hundred disparate HIEs reminds me of the toll gate.  Why not just go around it?