John D. Halamka, MD, MS, is chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; chief information officer at Harvard Medical School; chairman of the New England Healthcare Exchange Network (NEHEN); chair of the US Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel (HITSP)/co-chair of the HIT Standards Committee; and a practicing emergency physician.
How would you describe, if you had just a couple of minutes, how stimulus funding will change healthcare IT as an industry?
If I look at my own region, we have docs who were all waiting on electronic health record implementation because there wasn’t a value proposition. They said, well, gee, you know I can get this Stark safe harbor, I know the hospital can help out, but still, my office manager’s going to quit. I’m going to lose productivity for three months … what a hassle.
Now with the HIT stimulus funding, they say, “Wait a minute. I get 85% funded by the hospital and I get to keep the $44,000 when this is all done? OK, where do I sign up?” It’s truly accelerating physician adoption by motivating them to move forward.
What I really like about Meaningful Use is it is constructed so that the doctors are paid only when they’re done. That is, it isn’t go buy hardware and software and it’s going to be Christmas for vendors. It’s the fact that docs then have to e-prescribe, and docs are going to have to share data with patients, and docs are going to have to use quality measures. Only when you do that do you get paid.
The mindset of the clinician is, “Ah, I’m going to do it, and now I know exactly what I have to do. Help me out.” So I, as a hospital organization and my community, can work together to make all that happen. It’s an alignment of industry, academia, and practices like I’ve never seen before.
Do you think there’s a risk that they’ll get enticed enough to at least start the journey, but then because of usability issues or just lack of time, it will never really go anywhere?
I wrote a blog, which some people have criticized me for, that said I actually trust ONC. David Blumenthal and the gang he has put together are very good people. If what they discover is that, as we are actually rolling this thing out that there are barriers, then I believe they’re going to help everybody work through the barriers.
I really don’t think that this is a disconnected ONC that is going to force us to do things that are too hard and are going to first, people, as you described, to begin the journey and then fall off. What they’ll say is, “We’ll build the toolkit. We’ll help with the accelerators. We’ll break down the barriers. We’ll make sure you have the resources.” I actually feel good about people getting to the finish line.
Do you think it was a mistake to combine what should be a fairly thoughtful introduction of electronic health records with the urgency of stimulus funding?
My experience in healthcare IT is, unless you create a sense of urgency, nothing gets done. I would rather see us all move forward with great haste and get as far as we can, then along the way do a mid-course correction, than to say, “You know, we’re going to wait five years and then we can get it perfect.” There’s a lot to be said for moving the industry forward now.
These are not new products — they’re the same ones doctors didn’t want before. Do you think there will be some buyer’s remorse?
I love seeing the vendors react by creating new functionality. Certainly they’re much more open to healthcare information exchange and patient engagement than ever before, so in some respects, yeah. It may be products that have existed, but there are feature sets that have never existed.
Then with the modular EHR certification approach that’s been proposed, there’s a capacity for combining many EHR and EHR-lite together in a way that’ll get docs started. I think there’ll be new market entrants, but new features. I don’t think it’s going to be business as usual.
Will there be time for new market entrants given that people have to get on the train really quickly?
I’m now driving, actually, through Westborough, Mass. where eClinicalWorks is located. What I’m seeing these guys do is focus on patient portals. Something called provider-to-provider exchange. It’s like a Facebook function. They’re introducing all this new stuff very, very quickly.
I know the timeframes are crazy, but they have been able to innovate to adapt to ARRA requirements pretty rapidly. You’re seeing Athena move out its athenaClinicals product pretty rapidly. Software as a Service is becoming more and more common, and probably it’s because of thinner, Web-based Software as a Service architectures they can move fast enough to meet some of these deadlines.
What do you think is the majority of the work that needs to still be done to really get us down the path to getting potential benefits?
80% of what I do is people, training, workflow redesign, and process re-engineering. Only 20% is the technology stuff. When I write blogs about this stuff, I just focus on the workforce, focus on the people, and focus on the change management. That’s all the really hard work.
Yes, there are things that have to be done in Washington; and as you’ve seen coming out of ONC in the last week, consent models. How, if we’re going to do information exchange, do we ensure the patient controls the flow of their information? How do we do simple things like controlled substance e-prescribing, making sure that the workflow around writing Lipitor and writing OxyContin is pretty similar? How do we ensure that?
No interoperability’s ever going to be totally plug and play, but if it’s not USB drive kind of plug and play, can at least it be a couple hundred dollars, not a couple thousand dollars, to get a lab interface? It’s the work on specificity, on content, and transmission that still need to be done. All of this stuff on process transformation and workforce development, primarily, and then some of these things the Policy Committee and Standards Committee are doing on privacy, doing things like e-prescribing clean up and making the standards easier to use and more prescriptive.
Do you think federal funding makes it too easy to forget there are workflow changes involved?
I just met with these folks at Lawrence General and they had thought they were ready to go into a procurement phase. I said, well, let’s look at what Meaningful Use really requires. You know, what is your strategy for your local public health interface? What is your strategy for bi-directional data exchange for the community? “Oh yeah, this is a whole lot about workflow, isn’t it? It’s not about bits and bytes.”
As people begin to understand Meaningful Use, they really will understand the community and the workflow and not just the products.
You mentioned privacy. Are there currently debates going on about what form that should take or who should be involved?
I think there are two kinds of architectures that will protect privacy. One of my favorites, of course, is the idea that the medical home, the patient, becomes the steward of their own data. We send the data to them and they elect privacy preferences — who and what they’re going to share with.
Alternatively, of course, there is the clinician-to-clinician exchange. That is really going to require a persistent declaration of patient privacy preferences as to OK, if I the patient am not going to directly control it, how can I declare my preferences of those who do exchange data; whether it’s providers, payers, public health, etc. always use my declared privacy preferences when data is being exchanged?
The HIT Standards Committee, over the course of the next few months, is going to be taking testimony on what standards exist that will help support such a thing. That in combination with work on the policy side and such things as the consent white paper, I hope get us to a place where either EHR to EHR or EHR/PHR/EHR exchanges are ultimately controlled by patient preference.
You mentioned that a lot of data will be collected and exchanged. When will we start seeing the benefit of all the EHR-created data that isn’t out there now, and who do you think will use that to advance the practice of medicine?
Of course, 2011 is more about getting the data in electronic form to begin with; and 2013 more about getting data exchanged. But some beacon communities. some early adopters, I think, by 2011 are going to have substantial improvements in data sharing.
In the Boston area, I funded the creation of a quality registry for 1,560 providers that are loosely affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess so that we begin to do all of our pay-for-performance, all of our PQRI and Meaningful Use reporting, as a community, rather than as a bunch of individual point-to-point connections. We’re doing public health reporting for the city of Boston in a common way as a community. All of this will be live in 2011. So for some, 2011. For many, 2013. For the majority, 2015.
Do you think there should be a relationship between having more technology and being able to deliver care less expensively?
That is a very good point. What we all want to achieve is high-value care where reimbursement is based on quality rather than quantity. I think the answer to your question is a couple-fold, but everything that I do these days is Software as a Service. I’m able to deliver an EHR at a lower cost than normal because the fact that I have so many clinicians sharing resources, sharing a data center, and sharing interfaces.
My hope is that I can at least, from my IT perspective, reduce the cost of implementing Meaningful Use. Then, we will gather data from a quality perspective that can be used in accountable care organizations and new mechanisms of reimbursement so that, as you pointed out, reimbursement will be fair based on the outcomes that are achieved.
Do you think technology is ready to help offset or mitigate in some way the shortage of primary care physicians?
This is an excellent point. What you hope, coming out of healthcare reform, is differential payments for primary caregivers and accountable care organizations. If I look at the Harvard Medical School experience, the number of folks going into specialty or procedural areas far exceeds those going into primary care. If you’re going to have effective reform, if you’re going to have lower costs, we need more primary caregivers.
Sure, as you point out, maybe technology can help us use extenders wisely so that whether that is some tasks can be delegated to nurse practitioners, physician assistants; some decision support can be offered in the Cloud so that we are delivering coordinated and better care more effectively by using technology rather than physician time for every intervention. All of this still presupposes that we have the primary caregivers who can actually be at the center of the medical home. In my view, you need to redo reimbursement so that the primary caregiver is the one making more than the specialist, not vice versa.
What about telemedicine?
We use telemedicine today to connect rural or community hospitals or emergency departments with downtown Boston for the provision of such things as stroke consultation in real-time for the administration of TPA in stroke. You’re able to leverage the academic health vendor in a far greater reach through the use of telemedicine.
I’ve had a lot of experimentation with remote visits, home monitoring, and again, leveraged telemedicine as a mechanism of making a primary care physician more efficient. Actually, the patients like it because they don’t have to travel into the city. Or, doing interventions like measuring blood pressure, measuring daily weight, and then having a team of nurses doing home care remotely and keep people out of the hospital. I certainly agree that telemedicine can have a role in reducing cost and using time more efficiently.
What do you think the Nationwide Health Information Network is going to look like and when will we start seeing it deliver benefits?
You’re probably familiar with the NHIN Direct efforts that have been kicked off over the last two weeks. The idea of a NHIN, obviously, it’s a set of policies and some open source technologies in reference to implementation to exchange data among various participants and provider, payer, government, etc. In NHIN Direct, the idea that there are some interactions that are simpler — pushing between two doctors, pushing to the patient.
Actually, what you hope is if this becomes a fairly thin, Web-based mechanism of sending data from point to point at very low cost. Here’s an idea. What if every person who wanted to participate in a patient/doctor exchange could sign up for a healthcare URL? Many people — Microsoft, Google, Dossia, who knows, various software vendors — could offer this health URL and all you need to use it is you take it to your doctor and say, “Doctor, here’s my health URL. Every time there’s an entry in my record in your office, push the data to this health URL.” There’s no HIE, there’s no transaction fee, there’s not a lot of complex business structure needed. It’s just an HTTPS post.
What I hope is that sure, for governments, for larger organizations, there will still be a NHIN that has quite a lot of security in its infrastructure, But you hope for a lot of connections that can be as simple as the home banking connection you have with an HTTPS post and it just bakes right in to every EHR.
Some of the folks that have gone into federal service work lately are interesting, like Todd Park and Don Berwick. What do you think that means that people who aren’t lifelong civil servants are popping up out of the private sector and going into federal work?
Knowing Aneesh and Todd and Don Berwick pretty well, these are people who have passion. They’re now able to see change is possible and resources are available. I think they believe that, in the current administration and the current time in history, it’s not business as usual and they’re willing to put in their energy and their passion to making change.
That’s why I write in my blog, these truly are the good old days of healthcare IT. I know I’m putting a significant portion of my time into state and federal efforts on a volunteer basis just because I believe I can make a difference.
You mentioned that you have a lot of respect for ONC as an insider to this whole process. Was the outcome what an idealistic person would have expected, or was this such an ugly compromise that nobody leaves happy?
I will tell you, sitting in the HIT Standards Committee and the Policy Committee and on calls with ONC; the amount of positive energy, as opposed to the amount of negative energy and compromise, is totally different than any other process I’ve been involved in in the past. People who have very different opinions come together and they say, “God, here’s what I want to achieve to improve patient care and quality and efficiency.” Everyone says, “Well, there’s two or three ways we could do it.” I’ve seen harmony rather than ugly compromise come out of each of these processes. That’s why I’m very optimistic.
When you look at your own organization, what are your biggest challenges and highest priorities at Beth Israel Deaconess?
I’ve laid out a 25-step plan to implement Meaningful Use across the organization. The hardest part of it is it is not just one actor. It is not just a hospital in an island. It’s ensuring that you have trust in your community so that you can do these data exchanges across the various providers, public health, payers, and government. It’s been relationship-building more than technology implementation, in my 25 projects, that’s my hard work.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
I just have to say that you do a great service for humanity. Somebody has made this comment to me, that you have become not the National Enquirer, but The New York Times of our industry. It’s built on transparency. People, just like all the stuff I’m trying to work on, are no longer afraid of this special interest or that special interest. It’s everybody opening up and just trying to get the job done. I think you’ve been a big part of that.