EHR: Managing the changes to your organization

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

Where to begin? How to build your team? (Those who wish to throw cabbages should move closer to the front of the room so as not to be denied a decent launching point.) There are two executives, I hasten to add, who will defend what I am about to offer, a CIO, and a CMIO, ideas from both of whom you’ve probably read.

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 the 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, to be of the most value to the hospital, I’d staff to overcome whatever is lying in wait on the horizon. I believe that staffing only to execute today’s perceived demands will get me shot and will fail to meet the needs of hospital. I need to exercise an understanding of what is about to happen to healthcare and to build a staff to meet those implications for healthcare IT.

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

Here’s a simplified version of the targets I think most of today’s 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 believe 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 I’m writing, I used it.

Before I go there, may I share my reasoning? From a business perspective, many would say the business of healthcare (how it is run) is being moved from 0.2 to 2.0. The carrot? Stimulus funding—an amount—should you earn it, and you will probably want to since your CFO has already built it in to the budget—that will prove to be more of a rounding error than a substantive rebate. Large providers are being asked to hit complex, undefined, and moving targets. They are making eight and nine figure purchase decisions based in part on solving business problems they don’t articulate. If success is measured as on time, in budget, and functional and accepted, I estimate for any project in excess of $10,000,000, the chances of failure are far greater than the chances of success.

The overriding business driver seems to be that the government has told providers to do this. Providers are making purchasing decisions without defining their requirements. Some will spend more on EHR than they would to build a new hospital wing. They don’t know what it should cost, yet they have a budget. They 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—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
  • And..Disaster Recovery

None of these high-level people need to have much if any understanding of healthcare or IT. You probably already have enough medical and IT expertise to last a lifetime. That will account for about fifty percent of the success factors.

Here’s why I think this is important. Here’s what I believe will happen. Three to five years from now there will not be a network of articulated EHRs with different standards, comprised of hundreds of vendor products, connected to hundred of Rhios, and mapped into a NHIN. Under the current model, standardization will not occur if only for the fact that there is no monetary value to those whose standards are not standard to make them so. This discussion is orders of magnitude more complex than cassettes and 8-tracks.

Interoperability, cost, and the lack of standardization will force a different solution. I think the solution will have to be something along the lines of a single, national, open, browser-based EHR. Can an approach to solving this be pieced together by looking at existing examples like airline reservations, ATM, OnStar, Amazon, FaceBook, and others? I believe so. Are some of my words and examples wrong? Count on it. Please don’t pick a fight over my lack of understanding of the technology.

The point I am trying to drive home is that from a staffing perspective, lean towards staffing the unknown. Staff it with leaders, innovators, and people who can turn on a dime. Build like turning on a dime is the number one requirement. Don’t waste all of your resources on 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 three years from now. Second, if I am the person writing a rebate check, I want to know one and only one thing; can your system connect with the other system for which I am also writing a check.

However, when all is said and done, I call upon us to remember the immortal words of Mel Brooks “Could be worse, could be raining.”


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

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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.

Should HIT make the Top 10 list for medical advances for 2009?

Below is a reply I made to a report that HIT was one of the top medical advances for 2009.  It came from
Great point.  An advance requires movement.  I do not think an 8% penetration with a 60% failure rate and high churn is the type of movement that would qualify.  If anything, it appears more like a retreat or stagnation.
User acceptance is so low that the feds are offering $40 billion in incentives and penalties if that doesn’t work.
Acceptance will not be enhanced by the addition of regional extension centers (RECs); appointed committees with no more HIT expertise than the folks at K-Mart.
It will be hindered further  by similarly provisioned RHIOs building HIEs that are as different from one another as snowflakes, 400 vendors with no standards, and no incentives to create any.
Then there is the N-HIN, Meaningful Use, and Certification, all of which exacerbate the national roll out of EHR to the point where it the current plan will fail.
My take?  Meaningful Use and Certification will not exist in 3 years and firms like Apple, MS, and Google will be the N-HIN.

An Australian Blog worth my time, maybe yours

I had no knowledge of this until Heather Leslie wrote that I was quoted.  Independent of that nicety, it makes good presentation and argument of the pertinent issues.

As always, my best- Paul


Why I differ with Mr. Halamka’s EHR strategy

Below is a comment I wrote September 30, 2009 to Government Health IT in response to an article written about a conversation the author had with John Halamka titled, “Halamka: How to build a long distance service for healthcare.” Most people whose comments I’ve read regarding Mr. Halamka’s vision for how the national EHR roll out might work tend to be quite supportive.  I don’t think my comments fall into the supportive category.  That may account for why they have yet to appear in print.  So, in the spirit of full disclosure, here’s what I offered.

I wrote several weeks ago that we ought to look at the telecoms networks, ATMs, OnStar, or some existing platform. My argument for redoing the national roll out strategy along those lines is that it may provide a way to eliminate the middleman, the RHIOs and HIEs, whose only real role seems to be like a train station in the middle of going from NY to LA. If nobody ever gets on or off, why have it.

The critical success factor of the telecommunications networks is called an interconnect, it’s what gets the call from A to B and provides redundant carriage. It’s also what eliminates the need for a middleman.

The AP wrote today that the current EHR national roll out plan will not work With all respect to those working so hard on the current roll out plan, I think we need a serious rethink about what type of plan is required for the EHR roll out to work instead of pushing water uphill trying to make the current plan work. Here’s some thoughts I had about how it might be approached.


AP reports EHR plan 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.


How can EHR be made to 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.


Could Mashups solve the EHR integration problems?

Silly walks

Silly walks

That number represents the number of different ways to arrange the seventy-five numbers on a BINGO card—five columns of a specific group of fifteen numbers.

I may have mentioned that part of what drives me to write is the need to help me frame ideas for myself.  It serves as a checkpoint before I unlock the gate and let them loose on you.  This idea required a good deal of thought, just to get me comfortable that the premise even made sense.

Here’s what got me thinking about it.  It seems there are three major groupings of things that need to work together precisely in order for EHR to work.  Each time one fails, the network fails.  What are those groupings?

  1. Data
  2. Systems
  3. Transport

The data are Personal Health Records (PHRs), Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), and standards.  There are perhaps hundreds of variations among the elements of that group.  Secondly, there are the systems, the Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems.  Again, hundreds of different systems can house the data.  How many possible combinations are there at this point in the process?  The correct answer is that there are too many.  Finally, there is the issue of transport, getting the data from one system to another system.  Under the present model (the one to which everyone seems to be building) let’s include the Health Information Exchanges (HIEs), the Regional Health Information Organizations (Rhios), and the National Health Information Network (NHIN).

The problem with each of these grouping (data, systems, transport) is that their individual elements are not grouped.  That lack of grouping means that the total number of paths that can be ridden to get a health record from provider A to provider B is much larger than that of the BINGO illustration.

Therefore, for inter-EHR (the transport part of EHR) to have any hope of functioning the groupings need to be fully grouped in such a manner so as to remove the hypergeometric distribution among the elements.

This is the point where some of you may tell me that I am not spending enough time on this planet.  If the prior discussion is at all correct we need to solve the grouping problem.  Here’s where I leave my pay-grade and need your help to see if this dog can hunt.  I was able to clarify the idea for myself by thinking about potatoes–please don’t stop reading, this is not an attempt on my part to be funny.  What happens if you take two potatoes and mash them together?  The two become one, and any individual distinctions are lost.

Is it possible to create mashups of each of these groups such that instead of having billions of billions of permutations, we have just a few?  A mash-up is a Web page or application that integrates complementary elements from two or more sources.  That one sentence used up the entirety of what I know about the topic.  I don’t know enough about it to know if the technology will work with EHR, however that is not my point.  What I am pushing for is that we look at the concept of using mashups.  If the concept is sound, then let’s figure out the technology that would be needed to drive it.  I think a solution along these lines is what is needed to have a working national EHR system.

What do you think?