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HIStalk Interviews Tom Liddell

September 21, 2009 Interviews No Comments

Tom Liddell is executive director of the Michiana Health Information Network of South Bend, IN.

Every RHIO and HIE sounds successful, but clearly some aren’t. What yardstick should they be measured against?

I think the yardsticks they should be measured against are sustainability from the standpoint of broad-based community support. That would be support not only from the institutional community — hospitals, laboratories, radiology centers — but from the physician and clinical community as well. That’s the foundation of an exchange in a medical service or medical trading areas.

The second one is, they really do have to have an economic or financial model that is accountable not only to the servicing organization but to the physician provider. In our particular market, we ask financial participation from most, if not all of the parties that are involved. That’s been an interesting secret, because then the value is not only perceived, but it is realized. You actually then have to deliver.

The third thing, I think, is the actual delivery of results. In our particular case, we are extremely focused on enabling the physician provider to have what we call 100% of the data in relevant care of an individual. So physician-led care that is driven by as much appropriate information that should be available.

If you have all those things, I think you then really have that sustainability, and it can provide a good long-term success.

What are some of the most innovative aspects of your service?

In terms of innovation, our approach is to try to be innovative in the service delivery components. By that, we do probably two things that are unique. We are standards based, so whether it’s HL7 or CCHIT qualifications or the emerging meaningful use qualifications, we try to stay pretty close to those bodies of work.

In doing that, there are times when we have to shape an interface delivery service where there’s an electronic health record that’s not quite there. But we try to have its origination as close to the standards as possible. I don’t know if it’s innovative, but we think it is, and we still get the job done.

I think the second innovation that we came to a few years ago was we said we want to have some available service for every provider, be it fax replacement, pushing clinical results, or, what we call clinical messaging: a community health record that is extendable, meaning over 9, 10 years worth of data, or interface integration.

Innovation is an innovation in service. We have something for everybody. If you’re a nursing home, we’re going to make you more efficient. If you’re a specialty provider, anything that you’re copied on that a primary care doc orders is coming your way, whether it be through a delivered portal or through your integration or interface integration.

The other thing that we’ve done, which I don’t know if it’s innovative, but it’s really working, is that we are one pipe into that physician provider. We are really taking care of so much of the burden that a physician practice would have if they had to go out and say, “Hey, I need to connect to laboratory, and then I need to go to this hospital, and then I need to go to that hospital.” We literally take it all the way down through the vendor and watch results go into that electronic health record. That’s been a huge spark and fuel that’s been there.

The last thing that we do is what I would call it a best-of-breed provider. I believe that the market is still pretty early with an incredible amount of business opportunity, meaning I think we’re going to see a ton of innovation over the next five to ten years. We are not, “Hey, it’s only going to be Cerner’s architecture.” While we think it’s great, we see that Axolotl had a fit for us, and we see that Medicity might have a play with their box. We also see that there are places where something like the Mirth engine might fit.

So we’re a best-of-breed, meaning we want to keep ourselves open to not being only locked into a single vendor, a single strategy.

How many employees do you have and what do they do?

We have 14 full-time, two part-time, and two interns. They’re largely boxed in three areas. The first area is our development area. That is the area that we have services around the creation development, the deployment of, that which is exchanged. That could be anything from standards creation for an interface bringing a new hospital onboard, bringing a large multi-site physician provider practice and literally doing that development. That’s coding interfaces that’s creating the roadmap for those things. In some cases it’s sort of boring, benign, making sure that we have a common set of standards that are deployed. That’s the development group.

We then have the service and operations team. That’s where hardware, technical, and application support reside. That’s everything from working with our servers and data farms to data management to our Oracle database as well as we have other database management tools to the team that runs what we call our frontline services. We try to, if anything, overemphasize that first-line service, and that we answer calls all the time. There’s no other drop boxes for that. We believe that that’s important, because if anything, it’s right at that point that that coordination and service needs to be there. That’s that group.

The third group that we have houses what we call our physician services. That’s comprised of anything that relates to the physician or clinical service that goes out to the community. They do all statements of work, all integrational projects around, whether it be pushing results to our clinical messaging system and rolling it out for a hospital. We do work with Dragon, those kinds of things and add-on products. It’s really enablement in that physician clinic space for that.

Inside of that, sorted of grafted on to that group, we also have what we call the institutional team. That’s just one person working on the institutional side to make sure that their efforts are coordinated. That’s your hospitals, labs, etc.

The last little group we have is really myself and one other guy that do what we call our business development, which is when we go and talk to a new customer, RFIs and RFPs. What we’ve done is we actually outsource with one of our partners, one of our owners, some technical services. You can almost say we’ve got two additional FTEs that do technical capacity work for us.

Our interns — we’ve done a couple of things. We have a medical student — in fact his whole summer was dedicated to, and is still keeping track, and he’ll be back in the holiday season — we’ve been studying what we call medication management. Everything from how many people have adopted by county, by specialty, to what’s happening on medication reconciliation and what a patient needs in the hospital. It takes about 24 months to set up a service properly.

The second intern we have is a programming intern. We’ve really tried to call out both clinical users as well as people that are more in the technical line of services out there.

You are working with the GAO on PHI disclosure. What are your thoughts around that?

I guess I could say we completed the first round of work. We were the first place they called, so I guess that was exciting. They were very nice and accommodating. A team from Atlanta came and spent the better part of a day and into the next day. We went through everything.

It was actually a great example where we were able to bring security specialists from the institutions and we lined up basically according to the services. If you were doing clinical messaging, we hooked them up with a clinic, so that they could understand how that would go. If you were doing interface integration, we brought them over, and a CEO of a 25-provider oncology group showed them how they their release and how their information kind of flows. And then we did a roundtable with them in the afternoon.

I think it was a very eye-opening and kind of a learning process for those guys. I think what they also understood in the end was that we are mimicking the delivery and replacing the delivery mechanisms that are already in place today. If a provider is copied on a laboratory result, we’re basically just improving that method of delivery and really making it more secure in that. So I think it was beneficial there. Then we had a follow-up and help them see what other exchanges are operational across the country that they could coordinate with.

It’s very important, because as ONC not only lets funding out at the state level, that coordination be able to monitor if those dollars are going out appropriately. Are they being spent appropriately? Is there security and protection for that individual consumer? I think these are important integrations to that.

Many people wouldn’t think of Cerner in the practice EMR area. What’s been your experience with that product?

In my experience from my WebMD days and when I was a senior VP of product management and had a lot of work in developing an EHR, you start to see the tremendous capabilities that the tools that they’ve built have. They are committed clearly to making sure that the enterprise, whether it’s an institution, clinic, laboratory, etc., are able to be co-joined, commingled, and integrated into that process.

They’re working their tails off to change perception and image. I can only tell you that it’s pretty operational for me, with my sleeves rolled up, that the product itself has an incredible set of capabilities. If anything, you want to try to gear those back. That’s probably easier to do in the long run than to try to catch up and add an incredible set of features.

One of the nice things that I have the benefit of is for those that use the component, which is more of an EHR in our market, it’s not a question of “could we do something?” It’s how they want to do it. For me, that’s actually pleasing, because I can have a discussion that says, “Do you want to proxy to your inbox for something that was just ordered or copied to inpatient/outpatient?”

Unfortunately we want to make healthcare simple, but it’s a pretty complex enterprise, especially around health information.

Having said that, like anything, there are lumps along the way. We busted our tails to make sure that e-prescribing and all those things are up. There’s a lot of parts that are moving, whether it is Surescripts RxHub or whether it’s having a clinical summary available in an HTML or XML format.

In fact, we had a strategy call yesterday with two other executives. We do it regularly, and it went almost two hours. They can tell you they’re listening. I can tell you we’ve had a pretty significant summer in terms of adding providers to their core business as well.

How sustainable is your business model?

First of all, there’s been these naysayers out there saying, “Should we work to build these kinds of businesses and services?” I guess I would say you have to have value, and if you deliver value, I think people come and are willing to pay for those services.

Certainly health exchange has an element of a political aspect to it, but I don’t mean on the national level. I mean certainly against the competitive entities and those kinds of things. But once people get beyond the notion “don’t compete on health information; compete on everything else” you can start to make the exchange sustainable — you can make that case for doing that.

But I think in all things there has to be that perceived value. One thing I do know is when you settle all the noise around it, there has to be an entity that is a facilitator of those common services, whether it’s building a referral management network, whether it’s moving or integrating data. At least it’s demonstrable in places where you don’t have that. It doesn’t get off the ground, or it doesn’t sustain, because there’s nothing to sustain itself with.

I’m certainly not naïve to say, “Are there risks in any business?” Certainly there are, but the big key, I would say, is that you’ve got to be willing to adapt. When I came in 36 months ago, the only real interfaces that we were going on were basically from suppliers and I just said, “Listen, in twelve months, we’re going to be able to deliver any piece of data we have to an EHR and have it happen in there.” Well over 65% of our total market has data integrated into their electronic health record, and we feel that by the end of next year, 15 months from now, we can be over 80%.

What effects are you expecting from HITECH?

It’s been almost a tsunami so far, in that it certainly has caused all of healthcare IT to have to think differently. I don’t mean just on the funding level potentials, but to say, “How are we going to work together in and out of markets? How are we going to work together at the state levels? What can the role of a health exchange be whether it’s a working component of the extension centers or whether it’s how we pass data from exchange to exchange?” We’re in the throes right now of connecting two different exchanges just in our particular state where we can move relevant data.

I think in the end, what it’s doing for us, or will do for us is, if anything, accelerate the level of activity that’s there. By that, I mean the services that we can deliver. It’s certainly bringing awareness to those things.

I think in the long run, what I hope doesn’t occur are some of the unnatural effects. As an example, in e-prescribing, it’s great to adopt it, but if it’s adopted in a silo, I don’t know that there’s a clinical benefit, that the clinical benefits are harder to get to. There is a clinical benefit long term, but I don’t know that the patient realizes that other than maybe a medication error. You have to kind of look at it holistically and say, “But if I can do that in a more organized, methodical way inside the complement of my full EHR, I’ll have a better perspective on the patient.” I use that as an example.

Overall, it’s great. It’s exciting. It’s causing the coffee to be made late at night and early mornings, but that’s why you play the game.

Why is Indiana so strong, do you think, in interoperability and informatics?

I think there are a few things. First of all, there’s a history of innovation across the state in terms of health IT. In the market that we serve, Northern Indiana and up in through Michigan, we had early adoptions early on — early adoption both by hospitals and by physician practices of automation.

In this particular market, there have been some pretty innovative companies that have gone on and created applications, and they’ve moved down the road. When you look to the central and southern parts of the state, both with our public universities as well as Notre Dame to the north, there’s a commitment to life sciences; there’s a commitment to health information technology. We have institutes across the state that have created products.

I think one of the things that happened is that all of a sudden, we pop up, and then a group in Indianapolis pops up. You look in Cincinnati and you can almost see a corridor developing from, I would say, the middle of Michigan all the way through Tennessee that is sort of powerfully evolving health integration, health exchange.

I think those are some of the core properties as to why there’s success.

The other thing we have going in Indiana is that we are committed as a group. We got together over a year ago and just said, “How do we start to work even more closely together? What makes sense is while we’re competing, we’re still committed to doing these kinds of things that enable it.”

We found a great working relationship in the people that are across the state that are very committed to an approach that not only takes us through Indiana, but through all the neighboring states here in the Midwest.

Anything else that you want to add?

Look at the seeds of where we are. We’re ten years old. We have services in a variety of areas that help our sustainability. We’ve had significant financial commitments in growing this exchange. All those things are all reflective of the commitment that our particular market has to the products and services that we’re about.

It’s interesting — this particular exchange started from the seeds of a workgroup that I participated in in 1994. There’s a long history of people concerned with where healthcare is going and moving, and asking, “How do we become parts of the process?” There’s been a long-term commitment to health information technology. There’s been a commitment for me in a market that I’ve been basically been around my whole life. So, there’s kind of a personal passion as well.

I guess the last thing that I would say is that I can’t say enough about the commitment of our people. They not only feel that they’re into something that’s very important, but there’s a personal mission that they have. Many of these people could be in other places, frankly even making more money, but their level of commitment is incredible. And their creativity is pretty incredible as well. So, I would compliment that in our team.

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