The Swarm theory of failure

According to National Geographic, a single ant or bee isn’t smart, but their colonies are. The study of swarm intelligence is providing insights that can help humans manage complex systems. The ability of animal groups—such as this flock of starlings—to shift shape as one, even when they have no leader, reflects the genius of collective behavior—something scientists are now tapping to solve human problems.  Two monumental achievements happened this week; someone from MIT developed a mathematical model that mimics the seemingly random behavior of a flight of starlings, and I reached the halfway point in counting backwards from infinity–the number–infinity/2.

Swarm theory. The wisdom of crowds. Contrast that with the ignorance of many to listen to those crowds. In the eighties it took Coca-Cola many months before they heard what the crowd was saying about New Coke. Where does healthcare EHR fit with all of this? I’ll argue that the authors of the public option felt that wisdom.  If you remember the movie Network, towards the end of the movie the anchorman–in this case it was a man, not an anchor person–besides, in the eighties, nobody felt the need it add he/she or it as some morphed politically correct collection of pronouns.  Whoops, I digress.  Where were we?  Oh yes, the anchor-person.  He/she or it went to the window and exhorted everyone to yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Pretty soon, his entire audience had followed his lead.

So, starting today, I begin my search for starlings.  A group whose collective wisdom may be able to help shape the healthcare EHR debate.  The requirements for membership is a willingness to leave the path shaped by so few and trodden by so many, to come to a fork in the road and take it. Fly in a new flock.  A flock that says before we get five years down the road and discover that we have created such an unbelievable mess that not only can we not use it, but that we have to write-off the entire effort and redo it, let us at least evaluate whether a strategic change is warranted.  The mess does not lie at the provider level.  It lies in the belief that hundreds of sets of different standards can be married to hundreds of different applications, and then to hundreds of different Rhios.

Where are the starlings headed?  Great question, as it is not sufficient simply to say, “you’re going the wrong way”.  I will write about some of my ideas on that later today.  Please share yours.

Now, when somebody asks you why you strayed from the pack, it would be good to offer a reasoned response.  It’s important to be able to stay on message.  Reform couldn’t do that and look where it is. Here’s a bullet points you can write on a little card, print, laminate, and keep in your wallet if you are challenged.

  • Different standards
  • Different vendors
  • Different Rhios
  • No EHR Czar

Different Standards + Different Vendors + Different Rhios + No Decider = Failure

You know this, I know this.

To know whether your ready to fly in a new direction, ask yourself this question.  Do you believe that under the present framework you will be able to walk into any ER in the country and know with certainty that they can quickly and accurately retrieve all the medical information they need about you?  If you do, keep drinking the Kool Aid.  If you are a starling, come fly with us and get the word out.  Now return your seat backs and tray tables to their upright and most uncomfortable positions.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

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

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My remarks to Brian Ahier’s insightful interview of Dr. Blumenthal

I encourage those who have not read Brian’s interview of Dr. Blumenthal on to make time to read it.

Brian also has a link to the audio.

Brian asked me to comment, and I was pleased to do so.  Here is what I wrote.

I enjoyed reading your interview with Dr. Blumenthal. Clearly he and the members of his team are working very hard on a number of difficult and rather diverse issues.

I have been wondering, how does one tell the story of EHR to someone who has no understanding of EHR? Not the story about the EHR system in a physician’s office, or the ungainly one in a hospital. The story to which I refer is the story of the national rollout of EHR and the drive for interoperability.

For me, the question of how to tell the story in a way to make it understandable raises a number of other questions. Is there a story, or is it a collection of short stories written by different people, guided by different principles and goals? Is there a plot? Does the story come together in a natural manner?

Sticking with the story theme for a moment—who are the main characters, do they relate to one another? Does it come to a meaningful conclusion, in fact, does it conclude?

Look at the various antagonists—EMR, EHR, PRH, Meaningful Use, Certification, HIEs, RECs, the N-HIN, interoperability, the ONC, CMS, ARRA, standards, vendors, and PR. I am sure I missed several.

Imagine if Random House allocated millions of dollars to publish and market a book which had yet to be put to paper. No plot, no outline. What if they hired a dozen writers, each with their own areas of expertise—and lack of expertise—and crossed their fingers.

Would they be more successful if they offered penalties and incentives to the writers—a garrote and stick approach? What if they changed the rules after the writers started? What if they left undefined numerous areas of rules, rules which will impact the story, and told the writers to keep pushing ahead?

I do not see how the national EHR rollout story comes together. Now or some distant tomorrow—at least not under this approach. Is the approach viable? Having a few disparate successes does not make me a believer. Call me a cock-eyed nihilist.
Once every so often, an announcement is made that another single hospital reached Stage 7. One among thousands. Why do I view this from the vantage point of a glass half-empty? For me, the existing approach is one of guidance and facilitation. There are no long lines of providers trying to beat the others to the front of the EHR line. There have been several hundred million dollar do-overs.

If we circle back to the providers for a second, three of the largest causes of failure include the arbitrary setting of go-live dates without knowing what needs to be done or can be done in that time frame; second, letting IT and the vendor drive and manage the project; third, not getting users to define what they need and then having IT replicate those needs. IT does not need an EHR.

As I look at the government’s national rollout of EHR I see the same three problems. Who are the government’s users? Doctors, clinicians, and hospitals. There are fixed dates, many having undefined requirements. These are causing some providers to dash for the cash. Who is driving the rollout—the government’s users, or the government. They way the rollout is structured, the users have all of the responsibility and little of the authority. This is a government led IT project. Where are their users? They are running their practices and hospitals. They have one ear open towards, reform, another to the garrote and stick project rollout approach, another to EHR, and yet another to their business model. They have run out of ears.

Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

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

My profiles: WordPressLinkedInTwitterMeetupBlog RSS

Call me a cock-eyed nihilist

I offered the following comment to Kent Bottles post,

My New Year’s Resolution: To See the World Clearly (Not as I Fear or Wish It to Be).’s-resolution-to-see-the-world-clearly-not-as-i-fear-or-wish-it-to-be/#comment-131

As this is the first Monday of the New Year, I had not planned on thinking, at least not to the extent necessary to offer comment on your blog.  I distilled it to three points—perhaps not the three about which you wrote, but three that tweaked my interest—happiness, counterfeit, and healthcare clarity.

Suppose one argues that happiness lives in the short-term.  It is something that one spends more time chasing than enjoying, something immeasurable, and once attained has the half-life of a fruit fly.  I do not think it is worthy of the chase if for no other reason that it cannot be caught.  As such, I choose to operate in the realm of contentment.  Unlike happiness, I think one can choose contentment.

There are those who would have us believe that contentment, with regard to healthcare, comes about through clarity, and that clarity comes from contentment—the chicken and the roaders.  Those are the ones who argue that reform, any reform, is good.  Where does the idea of counterfeit come into play?  I think it is the same argument, the one which states that any reform, even something counterfeit, is good.  The healthcare reform disciples argue that reform in itself is good; be it without objective meaning,purpose, or intrinsic value.  Therein lays the clarity, even if the clarity is counterfeit.

Call me a cock-eyed nihilist, the abnegator.  I am not content.  My lack of contentment comes not from what is or isn’t in the reform bill.  It stems from the fact that reform, poorly implemented, yields an industry strapped to change, an industry that may require greater reform just to get back to where it was.

Healthcare IT reform, HIT, will have to play a key role in measuring to what degree reform yields benefit.  Without a feasible plan, HIT’s role will be negative.  There are those who feel such a plan exists.  Many of those are the same people who believe the sun rises and sets with each announcement put forth by the ONC.

I think the plan, one with no standards, one that will not yield a national roll out of EHR, is fatally flawed.  I think that is known, and rather than correcting the flaws, the ONC has taken a “monkey off the back” approach by placing the onus on third parties, and offering costly counterfeit solutions like Meaningful Use, Certification, Health Information Exchanges, and Regional Exchange Centers.  If the plan had merit, providers would be leapfrogging one another to implement EHR, rather than forcing the government to pay them to do it.

RECs, HIEs, & EHRs: Curiouser and Curiouser

Here’s a response I wrote for a very interesting conversation started by Andy Oram, though a posting,

I think the very existence of the Regional Extension Centers (RECS)is but another sign that there is no workable plan for a national rollout of EHR. There is a plan, a word I use reluctantly—there may be several. Several things surrounding the rollout exist that reinforce the idea that the plan is not operational—Meaningful Use, Certification, RECs—and these things exist as a series of band-aids in the hope they will enable the plan. These band-aids have been cobbled together over time and by different parties.
There is no EHR Czar.

There is no roll out czar. I defy anyone to present their work plan for how this ties together and show where these add-ons are on the plan.

Back to RECs. Similar format to Healthcare Information Exchanges (HIEs). Political in their origin and format. Carte blanche in terms of how they are built, what they will deliver, how they relate to HIEs and standards, and how the quality of their output will be measured. Five hundred and ninety-eight hope this helps million dollars. Has anyone sought out the credentials of those running the hope-this-works RECs? Does anyone doubt that they don’t have the experience to make these of any value? Where’s the national REC work plan? The individual work plans?

Who likes the REC idea? The payors. Regionally deployed and state authorized, the payors have more than a vested interest in helping the healthcare providers in their region with their EHR efforts.

This is another lipstick on the pig effort. By now, the pig is just about covered with lipstick. Does it make it a better pig? Of course not, it just makes it red.