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HIStalk Interviews Farzad Mostashari, MD, National Coordinator

April 17, 2013 Interviews 7 Comments

Farzad Mostashari, MD, ScM is the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in the US Department of Health and Human Services.

4-17-2013 7-05-05 PM

Do you think the free market works when it comes to EHR functionality, vendor development priorities, and vendor transparency?

That’s a really, really good question, and one that we think about all the time. We try to be thoughtful about where the market can work, should work, is working, and where the market needs a helping hand to work well.

Let me give you some examples. When it comes to interoperability, there is a need to get vendors to work together on consensus-based standards. Purely market driven approaches to this haven’t worked. They didn’t work for 25 years in health IT. In other industries, what it requires is that there becomes a dominant player that beats everybody else out and makes their proprietary standard the de facto standard oftentimes. Maybe that will work in health IT, but it just takes too damned long.

We think that having a convening role for government, a goal-setting function, kind of what we’re doing with our standard interoperability framework, where you get them together and say, this is a real problem, we want you to work together, and we’ll help, but let’s find a solution to this. That approach has worked to accelerate the standards.

The other part of the equation to make the market work is that the customers have to ask for it. If the customers are asking for documentation and billing machines and bells and whistles around that, then by golly that’s what the industry, listening to their biggest customers, is going to build. Meaningful Use was a way for us to say, this whole other series of functionalities that EHRs can do can enable around population health management, which wasn’t even a glimmer a few years ago.

But we could say, this is our policy. You need to be able to measure your own quality, make a list of patients, have decision support. The industry, in some cases reluctantly and in other cases enthusiastically, has now moved strongly in that direction just in time for their customers who need that functionality to flourish in accountable care. The same for patient engagement. These are all things where a coordinated policy between the payment side, the policy side, and Meaningful Use helps steer the market in a direction in anticipation and preparation.

There are other parts where the market is going to respond just fine. The issue of usability is, for example, one where I’d rather have market demand push vendors to compete fiercely on usability. Something we can help there would be around removing some of the information asymmetries. If we can develop common sense guides for how to evaluate usability, the work being done with NIST and our SHARP grantees and so forth, that will help the purchaser incorporate usability more in their purchasing decisions. But there, I think, independent competitors competing fiercely should and have been driving the market forward on usability.

I guess the answer to your question is, it depends. We have to be thoughtful about where we think the market’s going to work well and where we need to create the market context.


People sometimes think that all the initiatives are punitive for vendors, but in some ways they are more of an indictment of their customers for not demanding what the healthcare system should offer patients. It’s not the vendors’ fault that they gave customers exactly what they wanted.

In another way, if you don’t change the payment system, then we’ll get what we pay for, right? Everyone responds to their context. The goal here is to create a context where everybody acting in their own self-interest creates a public good.


It must be maddening for a man of science to have to deal with the politics of your job. For instance, the report from the Republican senators that just came out.  How hard is it to try to do what’s right for patients and do it scientifically defensibly when you’ve got politicians trying to get involved?

I actually think that when you have expenditure of public funds, we are accountable. We have to be able to respond to appropriate oversight on the part of the Congress. If there’s one lesson I think in this, it’s that we have to redouble our efforts to engage with the legislative branch and to make sure that they’re aware of all that is happening.

For people who don’t live it and breathe it every day, it helps for them to hear from us, and it also helps for them to hear from people on the front lines in their own communities who they trust to say, hey look, has there been progress on interoperability or not? Is Meaningful Use really a cakewalk designed to push money out, or is it actually pretty challenging and those achievements are a wealth of phenomenally hard work on the part of providers, hospitals, doctors, nurses, and vendors?

It comes with the territory. We have to be accountable, and we do have to engage more.


Is there an endgame to Meaningful Use stages?

The legislation has incentive payments for Medicaid out through 2021. There’s not an end stage, per se, in terms of the payment adjustments. I think we take it a year at a time, a stage at a time.

It’s clear to me that we’re going to need to continue to advance. History isn’t going to be when we reach nirvana in terms of advancing interoperability, for example. These systems are dynamic. I hope that there will continue to be innovation, and maybe three years from now, we’ll have completely new ways of sharing images, and the standards, requirements, and criteria for electronic health records will have to be updated.

But I think it’s a step at a time we’re focused on now, just getting from Stage 1 to Stage 2. That’s going to take a lot of hard work on everyone’s part, but it will be well worth it.


How would you characterize the state of innovation in healthcare IT, and do you think Meaningful Use encourages it?

I think it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable. I’m floored every day I meet with entrepreneurs, startups, innovators, big companies doing innovative things, startups doing innovative things, patients that are building on top of a digital infrastructure.

The key thing here is that when you have health records on paper and pen, the data is dead. It can’t be used for anything else. It can barely be used in the next visit. When you have digital health, that data is oxygen for innovation.

One indicator of that is the number of new companies in the field. The number of new certified products, but much beyond certified products, it’s all the things that go around it like analytics, patient engagement, population health management, vendors. The VC figures from this first quarter are stunning. While investment and venture capital in biotech or whatever is down, in digital health, it’s skyrocketing. I think the state of innovation is very strong right now.


Your office is requesting more money in the 2014 budget. What are your plans for the extra funds?

The plan is really to use those funds to offset the loss of the HITECH funds. Our budget now, the appropriated budget after sequester, is $3 million less than what it was in 2006 when the office first got a budget. There’s obviously something wrong with that picture.

The only reason we’ve been able to respond to the obligations of the office in coordinating has been because we’ve had the HITECH funds, $2 billion, most of which went to grant programs, but a chunk of which went to support our standards interoperability activities, privacy and security activities. What we want to do is to continue to maintain the coordination role and continue to push interoperability and exchange most of all and to maintain and improve our certification.


Obviously people picked out the EHR vendor fee. Do you have a feel for how that fee should be assessed fairly and how the money will be used?

A couple of points on that. If this is going to work, it’s got to add value to the software developers, more value than they would pay, obviously. Otherwise, it’s not going to work.

Why do we think that software developers would derive more value? Because if we can’t support the certification program, well, just think about … one glitch that takes one day extra for one developer day for every vendor, that adds up really quick.

The vagary and uncertainty of the budget process … I don’t have a budget now for September. I don’t know what my budget is. I don’t know when I’ll know what my budget is. The industry would be insulated from the year-to-year budget uncertainty if there were a user fee that would cover the cost of the certification program that they rely on.


Folks thought they would see national EHR problem reporting. There were different groups looking at different pieces of that and I’m not sure where it stands. Do you see it happening that there will be centralized reporting of patient impact from EHR problems?

Overall, obviously we believe, and the data supports, that the best thing for patient safety is for everyone to get off paper. But that having been said, we commissioned, based on concerns that we had, a report from the Institute of Medicine that said basically we don’t have good reporting of patient safety events exacerbated by or enabled by health IT. Our surveillance action plan does use existing authorities from ONC, from leveraging the patient safety organizations, and from CMS.

What we’re saying is that EHR-related patient safety is part of overall patient safety reporting surveillance and improvement. It’s not its own thing. We don’t want to set up a siloed system just for the reporting of EHR safety events. We want to use the same mechanism as a patient safety organization, the same protections under there, the same surveying and Joint Commission requirements, and strengthen them, focus them  in a way so they can be used to cover the health IT issues as well.

That will require some funds, and again one of the things we’re asking in our 2014 budget request are funds to be able to incorporate more of the safety analysis and mitigation factors.


When you talk to people, what are the most common complaints you get about EHR products or EHR vendors?

The biggest thing I hear about is usability issues. In particular, when we talk about making it meaningful, it’s only the providers and software developers who can make it meaningful. That’s my concern.

If you take Meaningful Use as a checklist of things you have to do to get a check, you can do it. You’ll get your check, but it would have been a waste of your time. These are functionalities that if implemented well will serve organizations very well in delivering better care to patients and also in new payment models. But if you do it the quickest line, like let’s just slam something in to get the thing certified, you’ve got to go six levels deep just to fill out the smoking score even though you already filled out smoking in other parts of the chart, that drives providers nuts, and it should.

That’s the part that I really call on everybody to work on. Not to just meet the minimum of the Meaningful Use requirements, but use it as a springboard and go above that and really incorporate it into workflows and make it meaningful.


It’s hard to be against usability, but there isn’t a lot of progress that I’ve seen in vendors that are willing to rewrite their products. Do you see that as an area in which the market is responding effectively or does there need to be more than suggestions of how it should look?

I think when it comes to user issues that have an impact on patient safety, we have a particular obligation to make sure there’s a minimum floor. That’s why we took the eight medication-related certification criteria in Meaningful Use and required that vendors undergo a user-centered design process for those. I’ve heard from a lot of usability consultants and vendors that said for the first time, they’re actually implementing user-centered design processes for those medication events. I guess we needed to do that, right?

There are other aspects of usability. Many providers say to me, I can’t deal with three different user interfaces. Why don’t you just mandate one user interface? Why didn’t you just buy one EHR for the country? Why don’t you just use VistA?

I guess I have to disagree. Innovation around usability is something I do see the market stepping up to, that it should, and that I’m actually seeing in evidence. If you walk the floors at HIMSS, you still see some user interfaces that look like Access, but for the most part, the vocabulary is more that of Amazon than of Microsoft Access. The iPad, for example, coming into healthcare. What vendor can’t and doesn’t have to redesign the user interface to work with mobile and tablets?

The other thing that’s driving this is that the market is moving to a segment that is less forgiving. It used to be that if you were a software developer, it’s almost like your early adopters were building the product with you, and they didn’t mind that they had to rebuild the registry kind of thing. Nowadays, we’re not talking about the early adopters or even the early majority. We’re talking about the late adopters that are now being reached in new implementations. You really have to make the systems a lot more usable to get their satisfaction.

It’s also becoming increasingly possible to switch products. Those who bring pressures on vendors to make their products more usable, their products are more usable today than they were when I did product selection for New York City seven years ago.  They’re more usable than they were three years ago. I hope they’re going to be a lot more usable three years from now based on the market pressures.


One of the things that’s frustrating to technology people is the inference that healthcare should work like banking or online commerce, but we can’t even get agreement on the equivalent of an account number in a national patient identifier. Is that issue dead or alive?

I think the analogy to banking is flawed. In banking, it all boils down to one quantity – money, dollars, cents. The fundamental object you’re dealing with is one thing. If all we had to communicate was people’s weight or height, we’d be all set. We’d be all set – there would be no problem. We could do that if we only had to worry about hemoglobin levels. Solved, right?

But we don’t. We have 500,000 clinical concepts in SNOMED. We have all the medications, all the observations, the social history. It’s the order of complexity. If you screw something up, it’s people’s lives. It’s just so overly simplistic to say, oh, why can’t healthcare be like banking?

And here’s the other thing. How long did it take those ATMs to work with each other? You know? It took like 15 years. I think people need to be a little more patient and cut healthcare some slack here. We’re actually making good progress on interoperability and interchange.


The one part of the banking analogy that is true that the Visa network was formed and banks agreed to share their information for their individual as well as collective good and things started to move electronically. Do you see either the government’s programs or CommonWell or any of those as being that watershed moment where everyone agrees it’s in everyone’s interest to share data?

I think it is happening. One other thing that is scrambling the equation in a positive way are patients and their family members, caregivers taking a more active role in their own health and healthcare. I see the industry responding to interoperability demands that are, I believe in large part, pushed by customers saying I need to interoperate. It’s the top of mind issue for providers and hospitals and IDNs and a top of mind issue for vendors who are responding to that.

I think patients are going to have an important role and will be able to get their data and share it with whoever they want to share it with, kind of an HIE of one. I think the pieces are coming together.


When you look at the future of HIEs and Regional Extension Centers, do you think they will successfully wean off government grants and survive independently?

I think some will and some won’t. The ones that are adding value will do well. People who are getting value will pay for the services at a price point that’s competitive. If they’re not adding value, we always knew this was a one-time funding, that they’re going to have to have a sustainability path moving forward.

On the Regional Extension Center side, one of the things that I think is just a pity is that we have built up an unprecedented workforce, an army of relationships and data flows and infrastructure for Meaningful Use across the country, that could be leveraged to meet the real coming series of demands around practice redesign and reengineering and quality improvement using the health IT. If we think about on the health IT side, we may be 50 percent of the way done in terms of just getting EHRs in place. We’re about 5 percent done in terms of changing workflows to really take advantage of that.

The redesign of care processes to meet the demands of new payment models – pay for performance, patient centered medical home, value-based purchasing, ACOs, CCOs, bundled payment. That’s not easy, and just as docs didn’t go to medical school to be IT project managers, they didn’t go to medical school to learn anything about practice reengineering either. That’s the one piece that I sure wish there were the national resources to enable that practice redesign on a large scale.


Do you have any concluding thoughts?

You have to be optimistic to be in technology. It helps to see every day the new stuff. It’s what gets us through the real-world difficulties of transitioning to a new paradigm. It’s hard. I know how hard it is. I helped 230 practices go through go-live. It’s hard. You’re not done after you go live, you’ve just started.

We just have to remember and look back sometimes. My goodness, how far we’ve come in how short a time period. A lot of problems we’re seeing right now are blessings. We should have such problems. When people are describing the problems they’re actually having making interoperability work, it’s so far and more advanced than earlier discussions where it was just a buzzword. Now it’s real, and people are talking about certificate management instead of “we want to do information exchange.”

I think we’re in a really exciting period. Healthcare is changing really rapidly. Technology is improving really rapidly. The consumer technology space and our understanding of human behavior is growing by leaps and bounds and marketing and behavior changes. It’s a really, really exciting time to be at the confluence of all of that.

One last thing I want to talk about is, we talked about safety issues, I think we should also always have on top of mind is around security of patient information. I think healthcare really needs to wake up to the need for them to meet their patients’ expectations that healthcare providers really do everything they need to do to keep that patient information private and secure. So many of the breaches we see, the failure to encrypt laptops and give data to business associates without having the assurances in terms of how they’re going to treat it … it just shows a lack of attention.

I think that’s changing. I think there’s a lot of education that can be done. I think there’s more we can do with the vendors to make them default settings and strengthen and harden our systems. More than anything, we have to always keep the security of patient information at top of mind and not relegate it to an also-ran, or after all the other issues are taken care of then we’ll see if we can do something about security. We really can’t. We’ve got to build it in.

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Currently there are "7 comments" on this Article:

  1. Great interview, really good questions.
    Too bad the dancing bow tie never stopped. Although I did agree with his comment about banks vs healthcare.

    And looks like ONC is already thinking about Stage 99, particularly when they dive into usability. There will be no bottom to that sink hole.

  2. Nice to see usability is finally at the top of ONC’s priorities. Providers will actually start wanting to use these systems when they are usable.

  3. Farzad states: “I think we’re in a really exciting period. Healthcare is changing really rapidly. Technology is improving really rapidly”

    But, outcomes have not improved and costs have not gone down. The $ trillions needed to wire up health care would be better served by paying for medications, care of the indigent, and nursing care and education.

    After more than a decade of HIT, how is it that you remain in the dark about the magnitude of the safety problems caused by HIT? We hope you read the ECRI reports and its opinion, that merely the tip of the iceberg of adverse events is being reported.

    Interoperability should first occur within a hospital. It remains poor within the hospitals. You will learn that national interoperability will NOT improve outcomes or reduce costs, and it radically compromises patient privacy.

    As for meaningful use, what is meaningful for one patient is a waste of time on others and distracts and confuses the mission. My doctors see the hospitals’ interest shift from providing safe care, to changing workflows so it can collect the $$$$$$cash, while the patients suffer adversity and neglect.

    What are your plans, Farzad, for reporting the incidence and durations of unavailability of the EMR systems, aka crashes, when the records vanish and patients go neglected?

  4. Great to see the head of a federal agency talk about free markets. Yes indeed, customers make buying decisions and have to look in the mirror if they’re unhappy with they bought. And yes, meaningful use created a timetable and functionality list that forced them to buy these financial and regulatory systems masquerading as clinical systems. Note that most of the exciting innovation and investment is outside the wheelhouse of MU, or at least peripheral. MU created an artificial free market instead of an organic one, then let that market come to its natural equilibrium…outdated technologies with clunky feature-function and monolithic systems disguised as “integrated” that nonetheless check all the regulatory and billing requirements necessary to stay in business. And yes, now that they’ve spent gobs of money of these systems, they are stuck living in the same artificial market created by MU and prevented from moving meaningfully back to an innovative, organic free market. We’ll all be shopping at the HIT Super WalMart for years to come while other industries move on to Whole Foods and Amazon.

  5. Nice interview, but what clinician users are finding is that patient care is meaningfully deteriorating as the MU rules become requirements. Hospitals are more interested in getting the incentive money than taking care of the patients.

    The basic necessities of these systems to enable safe and efficacious care are ignored by the MU rules put up by this interviewee., Farzad Mostashavi. He blows off the comments made by the users when issued, and fails to seek the users’ identity protected candid comments.

    The conspiracy of silence pervades this with vendors, hospitals, and ONC all aligned to shift $$$ funds from the patient care to their bottom line. That is happening while the doctors and nurses are struggling to keep their patients safe from the toxicities of these HIT systems, and, if they speak up with complaints, they are terminated, sham peer reviewed, or retaliated against in some other fashion.

    The HITECH program is radically transforming health care, but, in the wrong direction, sans outcomes and cost improvements. The foundation for financial saving for Obamacare,
    HITECH enactment, is cracked, and can not possibly garbner the envisioned savings @@.

    The GOP senators make good points in support of my viewpoint.

    Sorry Farzad, but, you need to hear this. Then again, I know you are simply following the orders of HHS Secretary Sebelius, who is following the orders of POTUS.

  6. Not Tired of Suzy, RN

    “But, outcomes have not improved and costs have not gone down.”

    Wrong- Please check the facts before posting. Hospital costs have gone down over the past 30 years- Wake up.

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