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Time Capsule: The Latest Stimulus Package for Healthcare IT and a Wheezing Economy: H1N1 Reporting

October 25, 2013 Time Capsule No Comments

I wrote weekly editorials for a boutique industry newsletter for several years, anxious for both audience and income. I learned a lot about coming up with ideas for the weekly grind, trying to be simultaneously opinionated and entertaining in a few hundred words, and not sleeping much because I was working all the time. They’re fun to read as a look back at what was important then (and often still important now).

I wrote this piece in November 2009.

The Latest Stimulus Package for Healthcare IT and a Wheezing Economy: H1N1 Reporting
By Mr. HIStalk

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You are nobody as an HIT vendor unless you’re doing something fancy with H1N1 flu reporting, including spewing self-congratulatory press releases that brag about your civic contributions.

Cerner started it by sending customer ED data to Washington, supposedly giving Uncle Sam real-time H1N1 outbreak reports, even though H1N1-specific data elements are hard to come by, the vast majority of US hospitals don’t use Cerner, and the vast majority of flu sufferers don’t go to the ED. Not to mention that there’s nothing the government can do anyway except observe ("Man, Lockhart, Texas is really getting pounded.")

You would think H1N1 tracking is right up there with an actual H1N1 cure. Google has its own outbreak map generated from Web searches (they can also assess the prevalence of enlarged mammary glands and propofol overdoes, I’m guessing). Web sites loaded with AdSense ads are hoping for a quick buck from providing questionably useful maps and graphs.

Even Harvard Medical School and Children’s Boston have released their own competing iPhone H1N1 trackers ($2 and free, respectively). It’s not really clear what marginally coherent yet mobile consumers are supposed to do with their newfound information. Wear surgical masks? Do that point-and-wink thing instead of shaking hands? Head to their bomb shelters and fight off infected interlopers like the guy in “Night of the Living Dead?”

(Note to self: have my people contact Harvard to IPO a mash-up between their H1N1 tracker and traffic-enabled GPSs, allowing paranoid motorists to avoid entire swaths of geography where H1N1 is around).

H1N1 is a deadly, hand-wringing pandemic (according to TV people anxious for something somber to talk about between inane banter), even though only about 1,000 Americans have died of it so far compared to the 30,000 to 50,000 who die every single year from the plain old unsexy flu and its complications. Drug companies are licking their chops. Panicked citizens not typically known for following a healthy lifestyle or paying attention to seasonal flu vaccines are fighting each other to get the hyped H1N1 version, with the resulting shortages making them even more hysterical.

The government, meanwhile, is saying the one thing that’s guaranteed to send people into a full-fledged panic: "Don’t panic."

(This is actually Swine Flu II, of course. Gerald Ford got everybody excited about it as his presidential candidacy was flailing in 1976. The pandemic never happened, but 40 million people got the swine flu vaccine at a cost of $135 million, 30 died of its side effects, $3 billion in legal claims were filed, $50 million worth of vaccine was destroyed, Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, and Chevy Chase lost the subject of his only funny bit. It was the lowest point of the year, other than when "Convoy" went to #1 on the pop charts).

So what if you’re a small HIT player without the resources to accurately track (or even claim to track) H1N1? Here’s a plan: hire a bunch of unemployed telemarketers to just call up houses and ask whoever answers if they or anyone they know has H1N1. Put out press releases claiming it was your advanced technology, create a fancy Web page, and find yourself a politician to thank you publicly for your valuable services to a grateful nation.

Just be aware that people exaggerate their own illness for maximal sympathy or as justification for skipping work, so any kind of sniffles or tiredness will convince people to say they have H1N1 because they heard about it on Oprah ("headaches" become "migraines", "a cold" becomes "the flu", and "getting sick from too much Super Bowl beer, wings, and guacamole" becomes "food poisoning"). That’s actually a good thing, though — your H1N1 numbers will be higher than everybody else’s since most flu sufferers don’t need hospital treatment like Cerner is measuring, so you will be widely cited by people trying to prove that H1N1 is the next Black Death.

Those inflated H1N1 numbers are good. When it comes to healthcare IT and the economy in general, you just can’t have enough H1N1 stimulus. It’s what I call "viral marketing."

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