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HIStalk Interviews Alan Weiss, MD, Director of Medical Informatics, Memorial Hermann Medical Group

February 2, 2015 Interviews 3 Comments

Alan Weiss, MD, MBA is director of medical informatics with Memorial Hermann Medical Group of Houston, TX.

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Tell me about yourself and the organization.

I’m a general internist by training. I have a computer science background and an MBA. I’ve been involved in the development of EMRs for about 15 years. I practiced at the Cleveland Clinic for about 10 years doing EMR implementation and practicing.

I’ve been at Memorial Hermann for about a year and a half. It’s a 10-hospital system, about to become a 12-hospital system, with an outpatient medical group directly affiliated with about 170 providers. We’re a GE shop on the ambulatory side and a Cerner shop on the inpatient side. We also have an affiliated group of physicians, about 600 to 700, on a whole different group of EMRs, with our biggest one probably being eClinicalWorks. We are the largest healthcare provider here in Houston.

 

What is the state of EHRs and in what areas should they be better?

EHRs need to improve. When people talk about the current state, I always think about what the basics are of EMR — what does it have to do? It has to be able to allow providers to look at data, to enter orders, and to write notes in a clean and efficient manner. A lot of the EMRs don’t allow for this. Each EMR has its benefits and its drawbacks, but if you can do those three simply and easily, that’s when providers can use the tool as best as possible.

 

What is the place for the doctor’s true narrative and rather than text generated from click boxes?

I think we’re going to see a throwback away from the computer-generated text and back into true narrative. It’s gone too far. It doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning and notes are way too long. It doesn’t convey the clinical impression, which is what we need to provide the best care we can.

 

It wasn’t doctors who originally wanted to click boxes to create text. Do they have enough voice to turn the EHR back into a record that’s for them and not for someone else?

There are providers out there who love the being able to do all the clicking of text and checking the boxes to get things done. But it’s more to get things done, not to create the narrative. The problem is that the narrative that’s created through clicking boxes becomes a hard to read mess.

I think we’re going to see everything change back into a much better narrative. A better way of actually describing what providers want from the EHR, which is an easy way to document, but also a way that gives their notes meaning to them.

 

What parts of the note could give clinicians an immediate sense for what’s going on with that patient?

There’s a whole movement of trying to get the notes to be meaningful again. One of the best ones is to change your SOAP note — Subjective, Objective, Assessment, Plan — into an APSO note, where your assessment and plan are at the top. If you want additional information, you can go through and see the rest of the information. 

Many organizations have changed from SOAP to APSO as a way of making sure that the assessment and plan, which is what you really want, is right in your face with the supporting documentation later on. I think we’re going to see more of that as time goes on.

 

What do you think about the OpenNotes initiative and the new plan to allow patients to contribute to the notes?

It’s probably going to be the way of the future. I think we’re going to see open notes. I don’t see anything wrong with having patients see the notes the providers have written. It’s actually very good, and especially for patients who are very concerned about their own health, seeing what the providers write will help them. I think it will also help some providers write better notes in the process of providing care. That’s going to be great.

It’s interesting that in the whole notion of having the patients come in and add to the notes themselves; we have started looking at ways of taking some of the surveys that patients are filling out and incorporating those into the notes. It can have some very positive effects, especially when it comes to patient engagement.

 

Will the least technically savvy patients do that?

The technical savviness of patients versus physicians is interesting. I tend to think that patients right now are more technically savvy than a lot of physicians. They want more apps, they want more access to their data, and they want to be able to access their physicians all the time in as many ways that they possibly can. 

The technical savvy aspect is extremely important. The patients,though, who are least technically savvy also have some of the greatest health problems. For that population, we still need a better strategy.

 

What are some system-agnostic EHR changes you might recommend to improve care?

I’ve worked ambulatory and I’ve worked inpatient. You have to really distinguish between the two.

On the inpatient side, certainly order sets and standards are a lot easier to implement than on the ambulatory side. The ambulatory side is more of people doing whatever they want to do. It’s much easier to create rewards to get people to do either the right thing or to stop ordering the wrong thing. That’s much easier on the inpatient side.

On the ambulatory side, sometimes the right thing to do is actually not to change your EMR, but to give reports. For instance, we’ve got a very simple report that shows providers their top 20 medications, the ranking, and the amount. When we show it to the providers, they start to see patterns. We have one provider who saw their pattern with  very high antibiotic prescribing, lots of Zithromax, lots of Z-Paks prescribed. In fact, she was providing about one or two Z-Paks a day on average to her patients. When she realized that that was the most common medication and not the most appropriate medication for what she was seeing, she changed her behavior. She has reduced her prescribing of Z-Paks by two-thirds.

That’s the kind of thing you may do outside of the EMR itself. If you can provide those simple reports showing behaviors, they can often have a bigger effect than making huge changes in the EMR itself.

 

As more physicians who practice in ambulatory setting are acquired or are working more collaboratively on the patient as a whole via new payment models, will they see EHRs as the bad guy that enforces rules that they didn’t follow when they were on their own?

I don’t think it’s going to be EHRs. I think it’s going to be the medical practice itself. When you’re in large groups, you’re being held accountable for all of the costs. At the same time, you’re going to have a natural progression where everybody is going to be seeing that they have to be responsible for every single order they put in.

 

What is the medical group doing with managing populations and not just encounters?

We’re doing a huge amount of population health. We’re doing a lot of analytics, looking at gaps in care where we can better provide care for diabetics who are falling outside the ranges of desired HbA1C and other testing. We’re trying to make sure all the screens are being done.

We have a great population health program that is doing some wonderful things. We are part of ACO, and as part of that ACO and the analytics that it provides, we’ve become one of the highest savings ACOs in the country.

 

How are people reaching out to the patients who might need an intervention or education? They aren’t necessarily used to getting a call from a medical practice.

A lot of patients want it. They want people to be involved in their care, but certainly there are ways of making sure that the patients have access to the things they’re missing.

For instance, we have a patient portal that provides a way for our patients to check the things that are due for them. At the same time, the diabetics who haven’t been in for a while or who need testing done tend to like it that we’re reaching out. It makes them feel like we care about them, and in fact, we do care about them. It gives them a way of closing the loop in some of the testing that they need. Most patients are reacting very positively to it.

 

What opportunities and challenges do you see with being paid for value instead of volume?

Part of the problem is that what patients often want are more tests and more medications. The conflict that I see is that the advertising that’s out there, what’s on the Internet, seems to get patients to want to have all those tests done. It’s more testosterone testing, thyroid testing, checking this and checking that.

If anything, if you look at all of those news articles about the tests you should have, a lot of it is creating almost like a culture of fear. You have to get certain tests done in order to make sure you are healthy. Those are the kind of things that are coming out of the general advertising. Yet at the same time, all of the data shows we should be doing less testing.

For instance, there’s no reason to check for kidney problems in an otherwise healthy person without high blood pressure. There’s no reason to check for urine or chest X-rays or EKGs unless you have a reason for doing it. But the common practice often is that those things are checked and the patients demand them and want them.

It’s the same kind of thing with antibiotics. When patients come in for a URI, they want and they expect antibiotics because that’s what they think the medical practice should be giving them. They’ve taken time off from work or school and they feel like they need something to justify them being there. I’ve had friends who have said to me that if they don’t give them something, the patient has threatened to go see other doctors.

Certainly there are patient satisfaction scores that are part of this whole issue, the need to satisfy the patient and give them what they want. We have to divorce that. We have to start thinking about what we should be doing. What is good evidence and what do the patients really need. That’s going to be the big conflict that we are going to have in the next five to 10 years to try and rein in some of the healthcare costs.

 

Do you have any final thoughts?

EHRs are just one great tool to help us. If anything, it makes it easier to provide care in the EHR. I’ve been on EHR since I finished my residency almost 15 years ago and I would never go back to a paper system. There’s just absolutely no way. For me, it’s the way things should get done.

What I look forward to being able to do is to optimize EHRs to create a healthcare system that helps you to provide the best care possible. If we do it the right way, we can rein in costs. We can provide better care. We can take care of those gaps. It will work its way through, but the EHR has to be the backbone. It has to be the new tool for us.

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Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. You make a FANTASTIC point about changing the patient culture of “more is better”…that antibiotics are better than permitting something to run its course.

    How is the medical community going to change what took decades to instill into the popular culture? If I leave you as my physician because you didn’t give me what I wanted, your scores will suffer and we will be back to where we started with patients getting their way and being happy with more…more…more.

    I suspect this is why there is a large group of people who would like to see the entire financial transaction be in the hands of the patient. The more skin we have in this reimbursement game the more demands we would make on it for efficiency.

    Great piece Dr. Weiss

  2. Love the article; thanks for the frank talk on the value of the narrative. “It [doctor’s true narrative] doesn’t convey the clinical impression, which is what we need to provide the best care we can.”

  3. Thank you both for your responses. Very appreciated. Just a couple of things I’d like to say.

    First on EMRs: they have been around a long time, but the recent thrust to encorporate them into healthcare has been largely due to Meaningful Use and a regulatory environment emphasizing their need. This push has been a bit of a “square peg in a round hole” routine: ignoring workflows which may have existed for decades, operations which were developed over many years and patient data which had been gathered through other means. The result has been more of a disruptive technology than a constructive one for many practices.

    Of course, everyone knows those prior practices were error prone, paper heavy, inefficient and in need of change. Medicine as a whole was similarly in need of change and repair. EMRs were sold as a panacea for these problems, without evidence to support their intervention, or, in many cases, the right resources to configure them to achieve their goals. In some cases, the vendors of the EMRs are to blame since some do not allow for the kind of easy personalization needed to meet physician needs.

    In either case, though, Medicine needs to change. The thrust towards EMRs, ACOs, the ACA and other regulatory mechanisms would not be occurring at this pace were Medicine less expensive, more efficient and have better outcomes. And I do mean “this pace”, because I think the move to electronic records was inevitable, especially with the advent of the internet, smart phones and and increasingly technological society. We just now need to commit the time and resources to improve EMRs to get the most out of them.

    In terms of getting patients and providers to jointly order fewer inappropriate tests, take fewer unnecessary medications and undergo fewer procedures, I would first advocate showing everyone data on evidence and ordering patterns. I would also de-emphasize the patient satisfaction scores from reimbursement by the federal government. Too often those scores have created an attitude of “give the patients everything and anything they want” for fear of income loss rather than as a tool to correct specific aspects of hospitals and practices (timeliness, communication, cleanliness, appropriateness, etc). Better to spend our energies on cleaning up the EMRs and workflows first.







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