Ogechika Alozie, MD, MPH is CMIO at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso, TX.
Tell me about yourself and your work.
I’m chief medical informatics officer at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso. That’s a mouthful. We became an independent campus last year. We were part of the Texas Tech system, which includes Lubbock, El Paso, Amarillo, Odessa, and Dallas. We’re a separate entity legally. We’re doing a lot of separation things that happen when two organizations have been together for tens of years.
The biggest thing of interest for our environment is that El Paso is about 70 to 80 percent Hispanic and we’re also on the border. It creates some unique challenges in terms of language, socioeconomics, a lot of things that big cities have anyway, but they don’t have them in the magnitude that we probably have them. We’re a new medical school as well, so that creates some of unique challenges of financing. We’re just moving forward with the challenges of healthcare, academic healthcare, and academic education that a lot of other people are dealing with at the same time.
You’re probably the only informatics person I know whose background is infectious disease with an ID fellowship. Does that impact how you think about informatics?
I hope it that it changes it a little bit. I hope I think of things in a more of a public health manner.
How I got into ID and then informatics … I was born in Nigeria, but grew up in the Twin Cities. I went back to Nigeria to go to medical school. I did a lot of public health work while I was post-medical school in Nigeria. I realized that I had no idea what I was doing in terms of the skills of basic statistics and epidemiology. I came back to Minnesota, got my MPH from there, and then did residency and fellowship.
It was during residency that my mentor, Kevin Larsen, who’s at the ONC now … we started flipping to Epic. We were one of the first hospitals in the Twin Cities to go to Epic. That whole process of EMR and notes and things being digitized for me just seemed really cool. I hated writing, so for me, it was very selfish in that it was just easy.
I’ve taken that going forward as I think about things like HIV and hepatitis C, which are my clinical specialties. I hope that I think about things at a more population level. Instead of thinking about it as one patient at a time, every encounter is important. When I talk to our president and CFO and CIO, I try to look at, how is this going to affect the organization as a whole? Not only the organization — how’s it going to affect the El Paso population as a whole?
I’ve sometimes said that public health in a sense mirrors in a way some of the thinking in clinical informatics. You have to think about populations and how it will change the effect of a population. Payment is always important to whether you’re thinking of public health or informatics. I think I’m cognizant of the fact that the public health background and the infectious disease background lets me think about that a little bit better.
We’ve always exported our public health expertise to other countries while here we just cranked out encounters. Is public health thinking now essential for practicing physicians?
I’m not sure it is necessarily essential to be a practicing physician. A lot of providers across the country, especially in Texas, do not look at healthcare IT as a good thing. They don’t look at it in an improvement in care. No matter how much information you give them about reduction in drug-drug interactions, drug-allergy interactions, cost, or sending a patient off to get five x-rays in under a week just because a couple of providers were too lazy to go get the chart from their next door neighbor … think that’s kind of crazy. But I do think that as Meaningful Use and PQRS and a host of other quality measures start to actually measure bits and pieces of what we do as providers or as health systems, it starts to build a case whereby doctors for the first time have to look at, "Oh, wow, this is how I’m doing on a global scale."
As part of my job, we have private practices that we either own or help them or do technical assistance with. It’s always amazing to me when you put just the PQRS numbers in front of a provider and they say, "I do excellent diabetes care" … we can argue about whether A1C is a process or outcome, but the fact is this: it’s what we use for parts of diagnosis and parts of monitoring, so if you haven’t ordered one in three years and you say you’re a great diabetes manager, I’m not really sure what you’re looking at. If you haven’t done a foot exam or an eye exam or any of those basic things that are outcomes of having long-term, uncontrolled diabetes, it’s really hard to make that case.
When I put it in front of some providers who are private practice guys, one or two docs who probably have four or five thousand patients, it’s always amazing to see the shock on their faces. For the first time, public health has intersected with their lives in terms of their practice and what they have to do to change their process to hopefully give their patients better care.
What systems have you worked and what do you think of the technology that’s available?
For Nigeria, I worked with a pen-and-paper technology [laughs] It was what it was. When I was at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, we initially had a homegrown system. When I was an intern, we switched over to Epic, so we were the first residency in the Twin Cities to have Epic. By the time I became a fellow at the University of Minnesota, it was switching over to Epic. As a fellow, you know how it is — you go from the university hospital to a private hospital to the VA. I used CPRS at the VA. We had Allscripts at that point in time at the University of Minnesota. We eventually switched over to Epic.
When I came to El Paso, our county hospital, University Medical Center, uses Cerner on the inpatient side and NextGen on the outpatient side. We used CPRS for about a year and now we’re on GE on the ambulatory side. In my private practice, I have Athena, so [laughs] seven or eight different EMRs.
At one time right now, I have to understand at least four of them, which is as you can imagine, kind of a pain after a while. One of my biggest pushes to our president and our CFO is that we really need to be on one platform — to improve our interoperability, to improve the efficiency of training, a host of other things that I think it will bring to us. That’s one of the biggest pushes that we’re having right now.
Having seen those systems and thinking about population health aspects, are those systems going to be appropriate for where the payment model is shifting?
My personal take on it right now is that none of them are adequate to really do what we need to do. If we’re going to leverage data to change the way we treat patients and bend the cost curve, I don’t think Epic or Cerner or anybody on their own has the ability to do that. They’re getting into that space after the whole MU debacle and trying to get certified, but I just don’t think they have the tools right now.
There are a lot of other organizations or vendors out there that probably do it a little better. At some point in time, the big players are just going to have to collaborate or cooperate with some of the other smaller population health vendors that are out there to make it a better system because I don’t think any of them owns enough pieces right now to make it work from one end of the spectrum to the other.
What are the key projects you’re working on?
We have a pretty amazing lady who works on medical education cartoons, which you’ll say, "OK, so?" But especially for us in our region, where English is not a first language or even a language of a large percentage of our patients or clients that come into our system, it’s important that we give them ways to understand what’s going on in the healthcare system, whether it’s by pictorials that explain that one to two tablets Q4 hours is not necessarily one tablet or two tablets, you make the decision.
We as providers take a lot of things for granted. We write all these prescriptions and we never really explain it to the patient because that’s not our thing. We just send the patient off to the pharmacy, and if the line at the pharmacy is 30 people deep, it never gets explained. That’s one of the things we’re trying to put on our portal right now — some of that pictorial education and cartoons and some animations that will help patients understand their medical issues and some of their medications.
We’re in the process of aligning ourselves with Tenet Healthcare out of Dallas. They have three hospitals here in El Paso. We’re in the process of aligning ourselves with them to create a clinically integrated network. We’re just starting to look at how our data exists in each hospital and how we can create a data warehouse and start to look at our payment data and our patient data and outcomes data, things like that. For us, it’s staffing. We use a lot of that information to determine how many doctors we need in a certain specialty or a certain space over the next two to three to four years.
On the education side, we’re probably behind the curve a little bit in what some of the other places have done, but we’ve just started using secure messaging with Imprivata Cortext. The residents are really excited about that. It was interesting to me how much we pushback we had from some of the more mature physicians in the organization regarding secure texting. But the people that were doing most of the patient care and the visiting in the hospital — if you look at counts of who puts in the labs and the orders and the images — it’s all the residents. If you talk to them, they were all excited about it. That basic information of a simple count of who’s actually doing work within the EMR to justify finally to security and compliance that we really needed the secure texting process. We’re about to go live with that in our PCMH.
Those are some of the big things that we’re looking at. You know how it is. It feels like there’s always a million things going on at the same time and you’re just trying to keep abreast of them so that you don’t drown. But then you have some of the fun projects. The secure text messaging project is really cool. I’m excited about that.
We have an external referral management process that we built in-house. It’s a web-based tool that our clinics use to track referrals, see who it’s going to, and send transition of cares, so we’re excited about that, too. Those are the main things we’re working on right now.
You’ve done quite a bit of work with HIV. Are you finding ways that technology can help improve the lives of people with HIV?
Yes. One of the things that I really enjoy about being CMIO and also in practice is that I was able to get some advanced toys or to move things along quicker in my clinic. It’s kind of sad, but because politically it was a marginalized population and I had really young patients … the average age of the patient in my HIV clinic was about 24 to 26, so that’s the range. They just allowed a lot of things to happen. If you look at my HIV clinic for example, about 70-80 percent of them were already on the portal. That’s probably the highest adoption rate throughout the organization.
For me, it’s fun to be able to get — I call them my kids — my kids on the portal and have those conversations back and forth. I have two full-time case managers whose job is just to respond on the portal and get people information and access and a whole bunch of other things. We set up a system with Google Voice about two or three years ago where we were sending text messages to our patients — this was before we had the portal — that gave them reminders 72 and 24 hours before an appointment and allowed them to respond to the Google Voice message as an anonymous text from them if they weren’t going to make it. We saw our no-show rates drop from almost 40 percent to about 20 percent, which is about 50 percent improvement, so that was kind of cool to us, too.
We do Google Hangouts once in a while. I haven’t done any this year, but once a quarter we would just send out a Hangout link to people on the portal and say, "Hey, free-for-all, come online, either myself or the case manager, the pharmacist, will be online for 30 minutes to an hour and we’ll answer any of your questions." Unrestricted, talk about sex, drugs … marijuana is always the biggest question clients have, not surprisingly. We would just go at it like that, which was fun.
I also do hepatitis C and a lot of my patients are co-infected, so just getting that education out to them on the portal or using our text messaging system for me has just been really cool. You have clients come back maybe a month or two later and they say, "Hey, I read this on the portal,” or, “Thanks for sending me the reminder about my appointment. I wasn’t able to make it because I was in Las Cruces or Juarez or whatever, so I responded and rescheduled it." Just a lot of missed opportunities that we would have had before that I hope we’re reducing with some of those … I call them the little technology pieces, but they seem to have a big effect on our clients.
Do you have any final thoughts?
It’s just exciting work. I enjoy being at that intersection between public health and ID and health informatics. It’s really exciting for me, looking at work I’ve done in TB and some other stuff globally, to start to think that now we can start to measure what our providers are doing. And hopefully what our patients are doing as we talk about the bring your own device, not just from a tablet standpoint, but from a consumer trackables standpoint, be it a Fitbit or a Jawbone, I’m beginning to get clients asking me, "I have this thing, what should I do with this data?" We don’t have anywhere to ingest it yet, so we’re starting to think about that.
Even though there’s a lot of angst in the overall healthcare community about where health IT is right now, I do think that we’re going in what is sort of the right direction. We’ll probably have to branch off as time goes on, but eventually that will get us to a place where we’ll have a better idea, or at least better transparency about what our healthcare really is.