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EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 7/30/20

July 30, 2020 Dr. Jayne No Comments

It’s been a wacky week in the informatics trenches, as I had a run of non-clinical days in preparation for working three in a row this weekend. I used the time to attempt to catch up on email and voice mail. Although I’m still woefully behind, it’s a little more under control.

One of the voice mails that was left for me was priceless. “Hi, this is Kate from X Company. We’re one of your company’s approved vendors for staff augmentation services and wanted to talk to you about your upcoming projects and any staffing needs you might have.” Since I’m the person that would approve any vendors and had never even heard of this company, I just chuckled and hit delete. I wonder if this is the way they do business all the time, and if people actually fall for it.

I also had a chance to catch up with some of my colleagues across the country and get a feel for how they’re coping with either an extended first wave, or the beginnings of a second wave, of COVID cases. It seems the theme of the last couple of weeks has become “patients behaving badly,” with increased conflicts at the front desk from patients who refuse to wear masks. Especially entering a medical office, I think having a healthcare institution require a mask is no different from “no shoes, no shirt, no service” anywhere else (although I always wondered why they didn’t require pants, but that’s another discussion).

One colleague’s practice had to bonus their receptionists because they were threatening to quit due to the stress of having people come in and yell at them. Another physician friend told a story about coming around the corner in the office and having a patient raging in the hallway about being refused a rapid test, because his son is a major league sports player and the dad needs a documented negative to be able to interact with him. The kicker – dad was standing in the hallway with no mask on in a healthcare facility that has a 20% positive return rate on tests. You can’t make this stuff up.

In other news you can’t make up, rumor has it that HIMSS is moving the HIMSS21 conference from spring to August next year, but still in Las Vegas. A friend mentioned it after seeing it in Modern Healthcare, but HIMSS didn’t bother to put an announcement on its website or send anything out to members, including our local chapter president. Seems like their communication is really improving since the debacle of this spring.

That would make it almost a year and a half between HIMSS meetings, which is plenty of time for vendors to come up with new and creative offerings. Still, it remains to be seen how many companies will actually exhibit, given how much money was lost on HIMSS20 and the potentially limited pool of attendees if international travel is still snarled and domestic institutions aren’t eager to allow their employees to head to a 40,000 person Petri dish. I spoke with my favorite traveling technology consultant the other day and his employer has him grounded, even though he’s amenable to travel and clients are requesting him on site.

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Perhaps by August 2021 we’ll see a healthcare implementation of smart glasses again. Remember the exciting times of Google Glass and when wearables were just coming on the market? We need some cool offerings to get us excited again. Vuzix has an industrial application that includes Bluetooth connectivity and voice recognition, which might be attractive in healthcare. Apparently, several healthcare institutions in the US are already piloting the device and it’s also being used internationally. Battery life is supposedly 16 hours, which is pretty impressive. It uses the same chip as Google Glass, but seems more rugged and can be disinfected with alcohol-based products so it meets the COVID challenge. If they’re looking for a sassy urgent care doc to give it a try, I might know someone. It might also find interesting applications in education, since it looks like many school districts across the nation will be embracing distance learning this fall.

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I attended the Health Impact Summer Forum and really enjoyed the keynote speech with Wendy Dean MD, who is a psychiatrist and co-founder of the non-profit group The Moral Injury of Healthcare. I’ve written a couple of times about moral injury and it’s gotten even worse with COVID. Organizations are still rationing personal protective equipment and we’re still operating under crisis standards of care, seven months into this pandemic. Clinical workers are risking their lives daily, often for patients who don’t care and who may be hostile to them. One local practice refused a physician’s request to put up signs asking patients to keep their masks on in the exam room while waiting because it would be perceived as “unwelcoming.” This is nonsense, plain and simple, and Dr. Dean validated the negative impacts of decisions like this.

She commented that calling healthcare workers “heroes” makes the public think we can do anything, when in reality our “superpower” is our humanness. She commented on the business challenges that are impacting clinical care as well. The pandemic certainly highlighted the broken pieces of our healthcare system in the US and identified opportunities for improvement. She notes that there is no clearly drawn road map that gets us where we want to go and proposes that we start orienteering with our moral compass as our guide and excellent patient care as our true north.

As someone who knows her way around a map and compass but who has been lost in the healthcare trenches for years, that definitely resonated with me. I really enjoyed Dr. Dean’s commentary on the issue and just having my feelings validated gave me hope. There’s another Forum in the fall and I’ve already signed up.

Is your employer taking any steps to combat moral injury as the pandemic rages on? How are your support structures? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 7/27/20

July 27, 2020 Dr. Jayne 5 Comments

I’m not sure if I ever thought I’d reach this point, but today marks my 1,000th post for HIStalk. I should have hit it earlier in the year, but without daily posts from HIMSS it took a little longer than anticipated. I’ve been struggling with what to write about, since I felt like it should be something with gravitas for a momentous occasion. I don’t think any of us thought we’d be in the middle of a global pandemic this year, and that our industry would be going through all kinds of changes as the world’s healthcare system is pushed to the breaking point. After floating in the neighbor’s pool for a couple of hours, which is marvelous for achieving clarity, I decided to do a little tour down memory lane.

My first post appeared on January 8, 2011, when we were deep in the world of Meaningful Use. Browsing through my first few months of writing, I came across a quote that certainly applies to 2020. “The life of a CMIO is never dull; there’s always a fire to be put out somewhere, and usually an angry physician behind the scenes holding a lit match.” Over the last nine and a half years, the physicians have become less angry about IT projects, but now they’re burned out and frustrated from the challenges of treating a brand-new and deadly virus in less than ideal circumstances. I don’t envy members of technology teams that have to try to deploy new solutions in this challenging new environment.

The next year brought such adventures as the transition to the HIPAA 5010 transaction standard and the beginning of Medicare allowing its claims database to be used for provider report cards. August 2012 brought the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong, and I had a few things to say about his passing that still ring true today:

His death was marked in a way that matched the way he lived – quietly and with little fanfare. By commanding the Apollo 11 mission and being the first person to walk on the moon he had earned the right to be celebrated. The amazing part of his story however is what happened after July 20, 1969. He didn’t dance in the end zone or become tabloid fodder. He went back to work and back to his roots. I’m touched by a quote from an article marking his passing. In an interview in February 2000 he said:

I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.

We should all take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of his profession. Not to take anything away from the astronauts, but I’m talking about the engineers. NASA’s steely eyed missile men sent people to the moon using chalk boards and slide rules. They didn’t have anywhere near the technology that most of us carry in our pockets today, but they changed the world.

Those of us working in health care IT today are up to our eyeballs in technology. It feels like things are moving so fast we will never catch up. As hospital leaders we are challenged to deploy the latest “thing” regardless of quality or outcomes. I have many friends in the medical software industry ranging from developers to CEOs. The aggregate of their skills and creativity could propel us into a new era of patient care. Instead we seem mired between the twin terrors of governmental compliance and simply improving yesterday’s products. I want to see the software equivalent of the space race where vendors are competing for the best designers and engineers and working to deliver a superior product.

Rather than the challenge of getting a man to the moon and returning him safely, the goal should be to deliver patients safely through the health care experience while we collect all the telemetry data needed to make the next trip with even better safety and quality. Another challenge – it’s easy to forget that as broken as our health care delivery system is, it is still better than what is available in some parts of the world. Let’s figure out how to make those leaps for all mankind.

It really got me thinking about whether we’ve really made the great leaps we could have been making over the last eight years. Although there are some nimble companies innovating, from the physician end-user perspective, it feels like we’re still dealing with marginal improvements on older products. The exam room of the future has not yet come to pass for the more than a handful of physicians, and although we can ask Alexa for the weather forecast, we certainly can’t ask her to predict when we’ll actually see the results of the COVID swab we just ordered. We’ve had a substantial missed opportunity as far as improving the lives of our end users, who have largely slipped into the mode of learned helplessness.

Thumbing through posts from around Thanksgiving in that year, I had a moment of sadness as I read “Dr. Jayne’s Holiday Recipe Guide.” I think it’s safe to say that the days of the office potluck are over for the foreseeable future. I treasure those times spent with my team as well as the delicacies shared – whether it was Bianca Biller with her “Hot Bacon Dip” or Paul the Intern with his “Crave Case” of White Castle hamburgers, there was always a variety of interesting things to eat and a lot of laughter.

Don’t get me wrong, things can still be fun and relationships can be built in the virtual world, they’re just different. In a world built around virtual meetings, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to clink glasses with both Jonathan Bush and Judy Faulkner within 10 minutes of each other (thank you, HIStalkapalooza 2013). There’s something about the bonding that happens when you stroll the HIMSS exhibit hall with a friend (especially one wearing a beauty queen sash that he won the night before), whether you’re trying to do serious work or just making fun of the insanity that is our industry. There’s also something about trying to get your shoulder back into its socket after dancing with Matthew Holt, but that’s another story for another day. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to do those things in-person again, and when we do, I’ll have the sassy shoes I purchased for HIMSS20 at the ready.

To my readers, thank you for being part of my world for the last 1,000 posts. I hope that each of you is able to stay safe, healthy, and sane during the great dumpster fire that is 2020. Whether you’re on the clinical front lines or in a supporting role, I appreciate your contributions to the care of patients around the world. The practice of medicine would be substantively different without everyone in the healthcare IT family. And so, I raise my virtual martini glass to each of you – here’s to the next 1,000 posts, and to better times ahead.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 7/23/20

July 23, 2020 Dr. Jayne 1 Comment

The big news of the last week has been the unexpected and mandatory shift in COVID-19 data reporting away from the Centers for Disease Control and directly to the US Department of Health and Human Services. It was done with minimal communication and in the middle of a pandemic, which isn’t the ideal scenario for any IT project. I guess the contractor involved had never heard of setting up a parallel system and validating data or having a robust cutover plan, let alone involving stakeholders and end users in the testing.

Needless to say, more than 100 industry groups have signed on to a letter asking the White House to reverse the shift. The major concerns revolve around transparency and data availability, but the undercurrent of public health policy versus politics is a factor as well.

Small news of the week includes a reprieve for Elizabeth Holmes, whose trial might be delayed until 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns. The trial was scheduled to start in October, but attorneys argued via Zoom that moving ahead with a trial would create risk. More than 170 people from 14 different states are on the witness list, with more than a dozen of them being high risk due to age. An August hearing will determine the exact date for a new trial.

This week has driven me to the maximum level of frustration with regards to COVID-19 testing. We are now seeing patients who have had five or more COVID tests because they continue to engage in risky behavior and “just want to get checked out.” We’re also running into employers who are requiring negative tests before allow patients to return to work. Those who have multiple positive tests but who are no longer considered contagious by the CDC standards are subjected to unnecessary medical procedures as they continue testing, which also takes away supplies from other patients. Employers are requiring testing of workers who have even remote contacts with potential patients, wasting more supplies.

We have been out of rapid testing kits for weeks, but somehow the NFL, NBA, their respective employees and the media have access to them. This is in the context of announcement that the US is trying to reduce unnecessary COVID testing. As far as I’m concerned, the message can’t get to these employers soon enough.

I also had my first patient come back in for a visit hours after he was texted with his positive COVID result, for a re-test “just to be sure, because it might be a false positive.” Hate to tell you, sir, but (a) you are still quarantined regardless of the outcome of this second test; and (b) congratulations on exposing my office staff, me personally, and everyone you might have come into contact with along the way. We had a difficult conversation which I’m sure will lead to a one-star or zero-star review, but at this point I say “bring it,” because in many ways, it would be relief to just get fired by my ratings-centric employer. I hate that the pandemic is turning something I used to love (seeing patients in person) into something I sometimes dread, and that it’s being driven largely by economic forces.

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I found some time to recharge my batteries this week and enjoyed attending the Telehealth Innovation Forum on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was a welcome break from what I’ve been doing for the last several months. The sessions were engaging as well as fun. Tuesday’s end-of-day session included a live martini class, where we learned tricks of the trade. I was glad to learn that the way I shake my martinis is how the pros do it, but apparently I’ve been holding my jigger wrong.

Wednesday we had our volunteer activity of decorating backpacks that will be filled with school supplies and sent to Puerto Rico, while learning about the World Telehealth Initiative. As much as we think about telehealth as a convenience in some countries, it’s striking to realize how much of a true game-changer it can be in developing nations. Thanks to the many sponsors that made this activity possible and to Teladoc Health for putting it all together.

The US is still pretty keyed up about the promise of telehealth, although a new survey from Sage Growth Partners and Black Book Research highlights that many organizations anticipate a decline in telehealth volumes over the next year. Respondents cited lack of integration and/or interoperability as a key reason for dissatisfaction, along with a lack of data needed for continuity of care. Payment issues also made the list.

I say the jury is still out, because we have no idea what will happen when flu season starts and other respiratory pathogens start rolling in. If you’re still using Zoom to try to deliver virtual visits and haven’t begun the transition to an integrated system or one that at least plays nice with your EHR, I suggest you start looking.

In other telehealth news, I received an email announcing the “HHS Telemedicine Hack,” which is apparently a 10-week virtual learning community aimed at accelerating telemedicine implementation among ambulatory providers. The program includes various online panels and presentations along with virtual discussion boards. It runs from July 22 to September 23. I wonder if I’m the only one who thought it was weird that they announced it after it had already started. I read my CMS emails pretty religiously and searched both my voluminous inbox and my trash without finding any other announcements.

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The American Board of Surgery admits a complete meltdown of its online general surgery board qualification exam last week. Candidates describe a “nightmare” scenario where morning test-takers finished Day One of two, but afternoon testers had technical issues, so the entire test was canceled early Friday morning. The Board promises to “regroup and develop a new process.” Candidates were also frustrated that the Board was communicating via Twitter rather than directly with them through email, citing delays in mass emails to over 1,000 impacted surgeons as an explanation.

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The absolute highlight of my week was a care package from the folks at Medicomp Systems. The company is a Founding Sponsor of HIStalk, a former sponsor of HIStalkapalooza, and has supported our favorite charities as we’ve competed on their game show stage at past HIMSS conferences. Along with a UV sanitizing bag for my constantly rotating supply of masks, they managed to source some coveted N95 respirators from 3M as well as classily embroidered multi-layer masks that have both a bendable nosepiece and adjustable straps. They are the “little black dress” of masks.

Given our current situation, I’m thinking of shifting my love of shoes to one of stylish masks. A patient had on a bedazzled mask last week, so there’s plenty of opportunity for creativity and style. I’m touched that they would think of me and sincerely appreciate the additions to my PPE wardrobe.

What’s the sassiest mask you’ve seen? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 7/20/20

July 20, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

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The team at the Virtual Telehealth Innovation Forum and Teladoc Health continues to hit it out of the park with the preparations for their virtual conference. I received my welcome package at the end of last week, which includes “a notebook to capture thoughts” along with “cocktail making materials to unwind at the end of day 1 with our guided mixology session.” The cocktail supplies included a jigger, an insulated tumbler (courtesy of NTT Data), and an engraved cocktail shaker to commemorate the event. A girl can never have too many martini shakers, and the tumbler is the perfect accessory for my upcoming efforts as a pool sitter for my neighbor later this week.

They also emailed a shopping list for the martini-making session on Tuesday. The State Street Martini looks simple yet elegant: vodka, St. Germain, lemon juice, and basil. I have everything but the elderflower liqueur. I’m pulling long shifts in the ED the next couple of days, so I’ll be the person at Total Wine when they open on Tuesday morning so I can pick up the final supplies and get home for the conference sessions.

Another aspect of the virtual Telehealth Innovation Forum is for everyone to lunch together using a Grubhub gift card on Tuesday. I received an email over the weekend notifying me of my new Grubhub account and inviting me to set my password, so everything is happening as planned. The only element I’m missing is the supply package for the virtual volunteer activity on Wednesday, but I suspect it’s en route based on a random USPS Package Tracking notification I received.

I’m curious whether putting an event like this together is more or less stressful than trying to do one in person. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know the marketing teams of some of the major vendors pretty well and know how exhausting it is to put together an in-person show.

Earlier this year, I was accused of being negative towards marketing professionals when I wrote about the HIMSS rebranding efforts. I’m not going to deny the fact that I still find it annoying when companies spend too much time talking about their brand as opposed to talking about what they do or what they make. I loathe press releases with phrases like “our brand is reflected in our new color scheme” or when they attempt to explain nonsensical-sounding company names selected after mergers.

So far, my impression of this week’s conference and the surrounding communications are that they represent branding done right. They didn’t have to come out and say “our brand, with its clean, hip graphics and soothing light teal color typifies martini-loving healthcare folks,” but rather they’re letting their materials do the talking for them. Let’s hope the conference lives up to the hype.

I’m intrigued by the whole virtual conference transformation. I figured that without having to rent conference center real estate, pay for security, order signage, and provide an assortment of questionable finger foods and cheap drinks at the obligatory opening reception, that online conferences should be cheaper. That’s not the case with most of the conferences I’m seeing advertised.

Certainly organizers are playing up the fact that you don’t have to pay travel or hotel expenses, but they’re not discounting much off the fees. Most are not offering truly interactive sessions, so I can’t imagine they are spending as much money on conference software as they would have on hotel ballrooms or the trimmings. If someone really wants to put a believable message out to attendees, they should specifically note how much less their attendees will spend on exorbitantly-priced but mediocre coffee outside an exhibit hall, or how short the line in their kitchens will be for their beverages of choice.

Looking at international flight restrictions that are likely going to persist for months, it’s hard to imagine that an in-person HIMSS21 is even on the table. The US is doing so poorly with this that it’s going to be amazing that anyone from a country that has the virus under control would want to come here. A friend of mine from Australia that was scheduled to visit the States this fall told me his airline wouldn’t ticket anything for him this calendar year. I shamelessly booked my Las Vegas accommodations outside the HIMSS room blocks right after the Orlando hotel debacle, so on the odd chance that the virus “disappears” as was previously predicted, I’ll be covered with somewhere cheap. It won’t be as classy as my last stay at the Venetian, but $300 per night is steep, especially when you’re paying for it yourself and not charging it off to your company or health system.

One of the conferences I was supposed to attend in April was postponed to September, but with the COVID-19 cases on the rise in the South, it’s been canceled altogether. Although Southwest Airlines extended the expiration dates on tickets for flights during the first peak of the pandemic in the US, these tickets were somehow outside that window and are going to expire in October.

This is a weird year for me. I’ve only been on two planes the entire time, and I have to say I’m eager to go somewhere other than my house or to a medical facility. Since the tickets are use it or lose it, I’m tempted to book a random flight to a part of the country that’s relatively unscathed, if for no other reason than flying two segments would let me preserve my frequent flyer status and I’m out the money regardless. Too bad many of the beaches I usually frequent are in hot spot areas because I could use some sand between my toes about now.

I’d love to hear from marketing folks about your plans for virtual meetings and seminars. How does the planning of the different types of events differ? Is there commercially available software that meets your needs, or are you having to cobble solutions together? Have you had to institute special processes to make sure presenters are camera-ready in an appropriate environment? You can speak on the record or I’m happy to keep you anonymous. This is your chance to let the entire healthcare IT community peek behind the curtain of the new normal in professional meetings.

For attendees, what are your thoughts? Good, bad, or indifferent? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 7/16/20

July 16, 2020 Dr. Jayne No Comments

I was glad to have had some time off from the clinic recently. I’m tired of dealing with patients who have unrealistic expectations.

We’ve been running out of testing swabs for COVID-19 tests nearly every day. Patients absolutely lose their minds when our receptionists tell them we’re out. For everyone who ever said we can’t reform healthcare because it would lead to rationing, guess what? We’ve been here a long time and the fact that we can’t manufacture enough glorified Q-tips to help slay the monster isn’t very reassuring.

Speaking of the monster, I strongly recommend that people read this Twitter thread by Sayed Tabatabai, MD. Although I’m not working in the ICU, my friends who are agree with his depiction. It should be required reading for the PA in my practice who keeps posting selfies from bars, often hugging on someone who doesn’t live in her household. I think I’m going to start calling her Typhoid Mary the next time I see her.

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I enjoyed this JAMIA piece on “User reactions to COVID-19 screening chatbots from reputable providers.” The authors recruited 371 people to watch a two-minute video of a staged chat between a user and a COVID-19 screening hotline. Participants were told that the video was either a real person or a chatbot, although the same video was used either way. The study found that perception of the agent’s ability was the primary driver of user response, noting the need to help users better understand that chatbots can use the same knowledge base as humans and can have the same quality outcomes as a human-human interaction.

The whole idea of “what is a chatbot” is somewhat debatable. The ones I’ve seen vary from using simple responses to suggest an outcome, to much more complex interactions. An example of the former is the CDC’s COVID-19 symptom checker, which basically uses data points such as age, location, medical conditions, and recent exposures to suggest whether you need a test or not. I wouldn’t consider it a true chatbot per se since it’s not truly interactive and users are just selecting items from a menu.

I’m working with a health system right now that is trying to create a chatbot, but it really isn’t interactive. Although the prompts are written in a conversational style and it tries to have a certain tone and vibe, it’s really no different than a person with a clipboard peppering you with questions. Needless to say, it has a high abandonment rate when patients try to use it, so we’re trying to walk the fine line between gathering the data they want and keeping patients from dropping out.

Other chatbot solutions parse the language in the user’s responses to make it a more interactive experience compared to selecting from a list and reorder the prompts based on information it receives. The most sophisticated ones also incorporate AI and machine learning to become “smarter” as they go, detecting new patterns and being able to identify elements such as regional variation in content.

I find some website-based chatbots annoying, especially if they keep popping up on the screen asking you if you need help even after you’ve already tried to minimize or close them. It will be interesting to see where chatbot technology goes in the next few years.

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The American Academy of Family Physicians is talking up its new website that is set to launch on August 17. Among the changes is a replacement of unique user names by one comprised of the user’s email address. AAFP warns practices that use shared email addresses that it might be a good idea for physicians to have their own. I wonder how many physicians share email accounts at this point?

Other changes include “expandable mega-menus,” which sounds kind of scary. I hope they didn’t include a bunch of hidden controls. I’ve experienced other recent redesigns (including some Windows and Office elements) and am sick to death of controls being hidden until I mouse over them. It’s distracting and often requires a decree of precision that my tired hands and eyes don’t have at the end of the day. If you have the real estate, show the controls already.

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I’m still wildly optimistic about the Telehealth Innovation Forum that is scheduled for next week, sponsored by the folks at Teladoc Health. They recently released their agenda and I love the calendaring portion of the process. It allows you go to through the agenda and select the sessions you’re interested in and creates a personal calendar for you. Once you’re done, you can select to have the whole thing set up for you in your calendar program of choice. In Outlook, it adds the appointments as a separate calendar that you can turn on and off, which is especially cool for those of us managing multiple calendars. I don’t have to have it cluttering up my screen until it’s time.

Much better than other conference platforms that create a calendar for you but require you to be in their app or logged into their website to see it. I’m also geeking out about the inclusion of a Mixology course on Tuesday afternoon where I can expand my martini skills. Wednesday afternoon is the volunteer activity. I’m still waiting for my backpack decorating kit to arrive, but I’ll have my fabric markers at the ready.

I’ve been away from patient care for a while but have to head back into the trenches on Friday. My boss has coined a new word – we are not short-staffed, we are apparently “overpatiented.” And the patients are becoming increasingly frustrated by our long wait times and lack of COVID testing supplies.

Despite seeing more patients in June than I’ve seen since I worked there, I received a very small productivity bonus due to low patient satisfaction scores. I’ve never been below 98% and this month I was apparently at 92%. The entire company’s scores were down, but it doesn’t make me feel less annoyed, especially since my employer received a nice chunk of Paycheck Protection Program funds. Seems like this would have been a good time to change the bonus formula to take into account the extenuating circumstances and properly compensate the team for working their tails off.

Not only have we been challenged by the high volumes, but nearly every patient is upset and cranky by the time we see them. I’m told that we should be glad to be employed, since our hospital colleagues are taking pay cuts. I guess we’re going to start going the way of many industries and join the race to the bottom.

Has your patient satisfaction suffered in the era of COVID-19? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 7/13/20

July 13, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

HIPAA has been a thing for most of my medical career. Although the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was actually enacted on August 21, 1996, it didn’t actually begin to go into effect until April 14, 2003 when the HIPAA Privacy Rule was required. Of the sub-parts of HIPAA, this is the one that most people know the most about.

It is also frequently used to create an inappropriate barrier to information sharing. I can’t count the number of times that hospitals have told me they can’t tell me the status of a patient who I have referred to their emergency department “due to HIPAA.” Apparently they think that HIPAA is a magical force field, and if you’re not part of the hospital’s medical staff, you can’t be allowed in.

Despite the Privacy Rule being in place more than 17 years, I’m working with an IT organization that isn’t doing very well from a Privacy Rule standpoint. They are a mature user of their EHR, having been on the system for at least a decade. However, their use of its features hasn’t kept pace with the evolution of the tool, and they find themselves in a bit of a legal pickle.

I enjoy working on projects like these. It gives me a chance to dust off my database skills and help a group understand its vulnerabilities and how it can improve. Some of these items spill over into the HIPAA Security Rule, circa 2005, with its emphasis on technical safeguards for protecting patient information. In the spirit of sharing some free consulting, I offer you the lessons learned from my client’s situation.

First, have a documented policy and procedure on access to electronic health record systems and other ancillary applications, such as laboratory information systems, radiology information systems, and any other systems where Protected Health Information is stored. These are part of the administrative safeguards in the Security Rule, but beyond that, you can’t claim employees didn’t do the right thing when you never spelled out what actions were right and what actions were wrong. The policy should include a mention of educational resources to be sure that staffers understand the terminology of HIPAA and understand how those elements fit the systems they access.

I remember the health system I was working for when the Privacy Rule went into effect made a series of videos that were themed somewhere in the vicinity of gangsters a la Al Capone, and the fact that they’ve stuck with me this many years later shows that they were memorable. The video linked back to written content that we had to review along with an acknowledgement we had to sign in order to continue being employed. The organization I’m working with at present has an outdated employee handbook with little mention of HIPAA and the obligations of staff to do the right thing.

Second, be sure you have clearly documented job descriptions as well as roles and responsibilities. When you find out that someone administrative was trolling around in EHR charts that have nothing to do with their role in the billing department, you don’t want them to explain that they were “helping Dr. X that day” or that someone was out so they were doing “other duties as assigned” with no way to prove or disprove that what they were doing in the EHR was inappropriate. For those situations where people do have to cross cover, make sure they know where their boundaries are. As an example, someone covering telephone messages for refill requests probably doesn’t need to be accessing the alcohol and tobacco history in patient charts.

Third, make sure you are keeping up with the security features of your EHR. If it allows you to restrict security by job role, make sure you have this set at the most granular level appropriate for the job roles in your organization. Purely clinical employees shouldn’t have access to the billing side of the system, and non-clinical employees who might have to reference clinical information should have their access appropriately controlled. If a billing team member often has to provide copies of office visit notes or test results, give them access to those parts of the system. Do not give them access to document on clinical visit templates or to order medications.

I’ve seen unfettered access more times than I care to recall. If your system allows use of inclusion/exclusion lists to further secure subgroups of patients (such as employees, or professional sports teams, or VIPS) consider using those features.

Fourth, make sure you understand the audit functionalities of your system and that you have a policy in place for regular auditing, even if it is just spot auditing. Of course, if you see high-profile or celebrity patients, you might need to have a more active audit program, but many organizations can get away with spot audits to make sure employees are doing the right thing.

One of the issues facing my client right now is that they didn’t have the right pieces of the audit tool enabled. Although they were tracking access to clinical data, they weren’t properly tracking whether that data was updated, printed, exported, or simply viewed.

Finally, make sure you have a policy that addresses access of patients’ own charts or those of their family members. Even if a staff member is legally permitted access to a patient’s information, whether by being a parent / guardian or through a signed release, it’s probably not a good idea to allow them to access those charts on their own. In my practice, if I want to print a copy of my own lab results for my personal records, I have to work with one of our clinical staff to request the document and have them generate it for me, just like any other patient would. The only difference is that I’m making my request in person rather than over the phone. Our process keeps everyone honest and reduces the risk of inappropriate access.

These are simple things, and you would think organizations would have figured them out by now. Unfortunately, quite a few haven’t.

How does your organization handle similar issues? What’s the wildest HIPAA violation you’ve seen? Leave a message or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 7/9/20

July 9, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

CMS never misses an opportunity to make its incentive programs more complicated, so they recently posted guidance on how telehealth encounters will fit in for Eligible Professional and Eligible Clinician electronic Clinical Quality Measures for the 2020 and 2021 performance periods. This includes the Quality Payment Program with its Merit-based Incentive Payment System and Advanced Alternative Payment Models (APMs); Comprehensive Primary Care Plus; Primary Care First; and Medicaid Promoting Interoperability Program for Eligible Professionals. Honestly, at this point I’m not sure many of us care any more. My brain is too fatigued at this point to even try to understand this:

There are 42 telehealth-eligible eCQMs for the 2020 performance period. When reviewing this list of eCQMs, please note there may be instances where the quality action cannot be completed during the telehealth encounter by eligible professionals and eligible clinicians. Specifically, telehealth-eligible CPT and HCPCS codes may be included in value sets where the required quality action in the numerator cannot be completed via telehealth. Therefore, it is the eligible professionals’ and eligible clinicians’ responsibility to make sure they can meet all other aspects of the quality action within the measure specification, including other quality actions that cannot be completed by telehealth.

I’m personally going to blame my foggy-headedness on having to wear a mask all the time, since my patients have been telling me they trap carbon dioxide and need work notes so they don’t have to wear masks. As someone who grew up watching M*A*S*H and idolizing Hawkeye Pierce, masks are cool, and I’m not about to make you miss out on the pleasure of wearing one. In all seriousness, there are a couple of good health-related reasons why people shouldn’t wear masks, but I have yet to have a patient request a note for one of those reasons.

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I’ve been down on conferences lately, especially after being burned by the HIMSS hotel debacl, the non-event that was HIMSS Digital, the American Telemedicine Association’s sad attempt at a virtual conference. With that in mind, I want to give props to people who are doing it right. The Telehealth Innovation Forum’s initial communications caught my eye, so I signed up. They provided plenty of lead time to allow people to block their schedules for July 21-22, and have been transparent about the sessions.

They sent out an attendee update last week, and I have to say they’re about as close to pulling off the feel of a real conference in a virtual format as I imagine you can get. First, they’re mailing some kind of swag kit to those who request it. Second, they’ve got a volunteer activity with the World Telehealth Initiative. Participants will receive materials to decorate backpacks that will be filled with school supplies and donated to children in need. I’m eagerly awaiting my backpack and have some bedazzling supplies at the ready. I always enjoyed the vendors who had similar activities at HIMSS. Last, they’re offering a virtual “lunch together” with digital GrubHub gift cards sponsored by NTT Data for use on July 21. Kudos to the team at InTouch Health (now part of Teladoc Health) for getting the plan right.

One of our physician assistants called me today to vent about life in the patient care trenches. I feel for her, because she’s early in her career and hasn’t been through a truly terrible flu season yet. As such, she hasn’t learned how to “embrace the suck” or figure out how to arrange her own personal psychology to make it through the crazy practice environment we’re currently in.

Apparently patients were lined up in lawn chairs outside the office today before the clinical team even arrived, and everyone was expecting to be tested. While another provider focused on handling the in-person visits, she had the unenviable task of calling patients whose lab results have finally returned after 10 days (thank you, Quest Diagnostics!) and most of them have already ended their quarantines based on CDC’s time-based strategy. It’s absolutely surreal that professional athletes are getting daily COVID tests and the average person in our city may have to wait more than a week to get results back.

The big hospitals are adding to the problem because they are refusing to test patients unless they are referred to the testing sites by physicians who are on their medical staff. Funny, they were happy to run lab orders and profit on radiology studies from independent physicians previously.

Since Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp understandably won’t perform COVID swabs in the patient service centers, the patients have descended on the urgent cares, where the lab backlogs are crippling. It’s not like we could all work together and serve the community – I guess it’s much better for them to protect their fiefdoms.

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For those of you in the trenches, you’ll recognize the four Abbott ID NOW machines in the photo above. We have more than 100 of them at our sites, but we can’t use them because we can’t get supplies. Apparently you don’t get testing supplies unless you’re a hot spot, even though the only way to avoid being a hot spot is to have testing supplies so you can give solid advice to patients other than “everyone just stay home,” which isn’t happening.

I was able to talk my colleague to a semi-happy place, but it’s a shame that providers have been put in this position by ineffective and uncoordinated response over the last four months. It’s bad across the country, not just here. One friend of mine in California told me about how bad things are at local hospitals and having dubious honor of being tied for the most saturated ICU.

Another friend of mine in the Midwest who was furloughed for two months  — unpaid and without the option to use PTO or vacation time because he’s part time and doesn’t have those benefits — learned through a news story that his clinic received more than $5 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds. It’s not like they only furloughed the docs since nearly 50% of their workforce was off without pay. He’s wondering what happened to those funds and why they weren’t used to protect paychecks as intended. Unfortunately, in the current environment with physicians being downsized across the country, he’s reluctant to speak up about it.

Did your organization get PPP funds and how did it use them? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 7/6/20

July 6, 2020 Dr. Jayne No Comments

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I survived the Independence Day weekend in the emergency department trenches without seeing anyone who had finger or eye injuries, so it was a good one.

I didn’t get to see any fireworks or have popsicles, but the PPE fairy paid me a visit. I’m happy to report that exactly four months after seeing my first positive COVID-19 patient, I finally have an honest-to-goodness actual 3M healthcare N95 respirator, as opposed to a non-medical version from the hardware store. To be precise, I have two of them. Which I’m supposed to rotate indefinitely.

Excuse my cynicism, but I’m not exactly sure what the US has to celebrate today. The actions of our fellow citizens exercising their freedom to not wear masks and their freedom to congregate in large groups is sending patients to the hospital, if not to their graves. Our testing volume is up by about 20%, but our positive case rate is nearly triple what it was recently, so we’re gearing up for a bumpy ride.

Our group has moved into testing entire cohorts of workers from various employers, which is straining resources. The first bolus of patients came from a hair salon, where they are meticulously separating clients with plastic barriers and stylists and clients are all masked. Unfortunately, the 20-somethings who work there all huddle up in a break room together between clients with masks off, or stand outside the door smoking, so close to 80% of them came back positive. No surprises there.

The next set of workers came from a country club, where even though the dining area has been moved outside, servers are still in close contact with patrons. The wait staff also had a communal break area, and frequently took masks off in between runs to the dining area. Now everyone gets to hang out at home for 14 days waiting for tests to come back. Unless something changes with our reference lab, there’s a good chance we’ll be clearing them based on time before their results come back — the lab’s turnaround time has skyrocketed to 10 days.

At this point, I truly wish my EHR had the capability to do a standard visit that could be copied from patient to patient. Although we have some templates for physical exams, everything else has to be keyed from scratch for each patient unless they’re a returning patient. I’d love to be able to bulk-copy these HPIs since they’re essentially the same. “Patient presents for employer-mandated testing, was exposed to a patient over the last two weeks who is now positive. Patient reports non-masked interactions at close range in a common break area and sharing of plates of food by co-workers.”

You might ask why I’m writing an HPI when the patient is just there for testing. Our new reality is that payers have gotten burned by the “sure, we’ll pay for COVID-related visits” policies and are now requiring documentation of medical necessity to support payment for testing. I thought this article from mid-June was over the top until I started experiencing “concern” from payer reps about our testing patterns.

As much as everyone is focusing on the struggles of the hospitals and the potential for overwhelmed ICUs, ambulatory practices (especially independent ones) are really struggling right now. Many are not performing testing because of lack of PPE and we’re still challenged to keep patients safe. Unlike larger facilities, small offices don’t have the luxury of being able to set up dedicated respiratory clinics within their footprint or to offer separate waiting areas for suspected COVID patients. The best they can do is to try to separate patients temporally, bringing in the well patients in the morning and sicker patients as the day progresses.

Many of my colleagues in this situation are using automated screening solutions to try to risk-stratify patients the day before, although the system isn’t perfect. For example, one of my patients who came in for food poisoning recently was actually COVID. It’s hard to triage that without doing a full telehealth visit up front.

I get a lot of direct to doctor emails from tech companies, and I’m surprised by the silence from the companies that have sanitizing technologies. There seemed to be dozens of booths at HIMSS for solutions to sanitize laptops and keyboards and otherwise keep technology clean. If anyone is in that space, I would be interested to see what business looks like right now and if you’re just overwhelmed or how things are going.

The push for telehealth technologies has also slowed. It feels like practices that jumped into the pool with Zoom or other non-healthcare solutions are starting to transition to telehealth solutions that are embedded in their EHR or otherwise integrate. I agree that expecting clinicians to work in two systems is daunting and no one wants to do it for long.

There used to be several players in the hand hygiene market. What’s going on in that space? Are hospitals going high tech to monitor staff compliance, or are they running out of money and worried about taking care of the basics? Any action on expansion of robotic healthcare assistants to reduce the need for humans to go in and out of exam rooms?

It seems like there are so many interesting technologies with potential, but I struggle to keep up with how other organizations might be innovating because I’m simply swamped seeing patients.

I hope that readers had a chance to recharge at least a little this weekend. Many people had Friday off in honor of the holiday or had modified work schedules. In many states where cases are rising, this is just the beginning of a long slog.

How is your organization helping workers recharge their batteries, or making sure they are holding up OK under the stresses of our new normal? Have you instituted new technologies to try to make an impact? What about the addition of recharge zones or stress reduction rooms? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 7/2/20

July 2, 2020 Dr. Jayne 1 Comment

We had more craziness in the clinical trenches this week. Several of our sites ran out of COVID-19 testing swabs and we were told by vendors that shipments were being diverted to Texas, Florida, and Arizona. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to prevent outbreaks if we can’t test, but welcome to the world of supply chain shortages. It’s not like we haven’t had months to ramp up production, or that we aren’t unaware of the need to keep testing for the foreseeable future.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional career helping practices with capacity management as they transition from regular (long wait time) scheduling to open access scheduling, along with figuring out how to ramp up or down with EHR go-lives and upgrades. I’ve never dealt with anything like the capacity management needed to handle the unpredictability of COVID, so if anyone else has tips or tricks, I’m listening.

The New York Times also picked up on the issue of variability in testing capacity. One of the physicians interviewed mentioned lack of personal protective equipment as a reason why primary care practices aren’t taking on testing.

Many of the staffers at my practice gave up on having full PPE long ago and aren’t gowning up when performing swabs. Although we have an adequate but not ample supply, it’s a pain getting gowned up, and most of our staff members are taking their chances. Those of us who aren’t actually performing the swabs aren’t allocated gowns, so you just get in the habit of figuring you’re exposed and sprint to the shower when you finally arrive home.

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CMS continues to blast out information like nothing else is going on in the world. This time it was an update that “2021 MIPS Self-Nomination Materials” are apparently are now available, so Qualified Clinical Data Registries and Qualified Registries can now start the paperwork for next year. I feel like I’m a million miles away from MIPS right now, and I’m betting 80% of the US healthcare folks share the sentiment.

The FCC continues to fund telehealth projects as more organizations enter the space. I have practiced on several of the major telehealth platforms, and all I can say is that they have a long way to go before they have the features that physicians really need to do a good job. My experience is that they’re clinging to their episodic care roots and there’s not much funding to create the kind of longitudinal health record that is needed for coordinated care.

None of the systems I’ve worked in have the ability to receive records from patients or providers (or at least I’ve never been trained on how or where to see them), so it’s like starting with a new patient every single time. They are also light on clinical decision support. Documentation is barely a step above Microsoft Word, with many providers keeping their own cheat sheets for copying and pasting.

A recent report from McKinsey & Company looks at the potential for a $250 billion shift to telehealth in upcoming months and years. That’s approximately one-fifth of what payers spend on ambulatory and home health visits. I’m not sure I’m quite that optimistic given the fact that in the month since the report was released, many patients are going back to brick-and-mortar visits. Since we didn’t ramp up remote provision of other services like blood draws for chronic condition monitoring, it’s often just as easy for a patient to go back to their physician’s office for labs and a visit than it is for them to do a telehealth visit and then have to go to a reference lab’s patient service center. In order for a seismic shift to occur, we have to figure out how to deliver other outpatient services remotely and how to practice telehealth in non-crisis situations.

Other care delivery paradigms such as Direct Primary Care (DPC) are also gaining traction. I was interested to see that Baylor Scott & White is including DPC as part of its health plan. Employers can choose to separate primary care from other fee-for-service offerings. There are a lot of different flavors of DPC out there, and in this one, the physician is paid a flat rate for all primary care services regardless of the number or type of visits. It’s much more like old-school capitation than true Direct Primary Care, which cuts out the middle layer between the patient and their health provider. Another typical hallmark of DPC is that the physician no longer needs software or staff to handle coding and billing processes, which leads to savings. I think the Baylor approach is going to lead to practices not realizing the benefits because they’re going to have one foot in the boat while the other is still on the dock.

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From LegalTroubles: “Re: lawsuits from healthcare staff or unions around PPE and related issues. What are your thoughts?” Workers, including physicians, will have little recourse if they suffer illness, injury, or even death from inadequate PPE and unsafe workplace conditions. I’m a member of several COVID-specific provider forums and everyone is singing the same song about lack of PPE and being expected to work at a ridiculous pace in many areas. Any lawsuits will be defended by lawyers claiming that employers were doing what they could in a national health crisis. The reality is that that nearly 90,000 healthcare workers have been sickened by COVID-19, 600 have died, and there’s no end in sight.

I’ve worked in probably close to 100 facilities in my career. Healthcare workers have never had the level of oversight from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that you see on most construction job sites. When is the last time you saw a “days since last accident” poster in the patient care areas of your hospital? Personally, I never have, except once on the loading dock of big-city tertiary care center.

The other day I refused to provide care to a thrashing patient due to the risk of a needle stick injury. I had to wonder whether I would be backed up by administration.

Even if employers operated with the level of diligence that they should, playing the “sorry, we just can’t get supplies” card is our new reality. The abject failure of this nation to fully leverage the Defense Production Act or other legislative actions or incentive programs to provide healthcare workers with the protective equipment they need (and deserve) is despicable. The reality is that each and every one of us, more so than the general population, wakes up each morning waiting for the other shoe to drop and wondering whether every cough or sniffle is the beginning of the end.

Do we have any MD/JD or DO/JD or legal folks in the room? What’s your take on the reader question? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 6/29/20

June 29, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

Back in the early days of Meaningful Use and the beginnings of the transition from volume-based payments to value-based care, I used to be knee-deep in politics, legislation, and regulation. Over the years I gradually spent more time with my nose to the grindstone helping organizations figure out how to transform and adapt to what were then final rules. From there I moved into more technology roles, helping vendors tweak their offerings and helping clients optimize their implementation.

I got away from following legislators and the courts, but the year 2020 has brought all that back on my radar. Understanding how closely tied the US healthcare system is with the US political system, especially through lobbying by powerful interests, I’m once again following the US Supreme Court and US Congress more carefully, along with various parts of government that are responsible for promulgating rules, policy, and guidelines. It’s a different place to be in, but still within the CMIO wheelhouse.

The US Supreme Court was busy last week, and although I thought I understood the meat of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program situation, I failed to fully appreciate its ramifications on healthcare. When thinking of those impacted by DACA, most news stories feature high school students, college attendees, or young people in the workforce who are concerned about being deported after being brought here as children. An article put out by the AMA notes that approximately 30,000 of the workers impacted by the DACA decision are in the healthcare workforce.

What would our healthcare delivery situation look like with 30,000 fewer workers, some of whom have skillsets that are in shortage? Those impacted include physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. Looking at just the physicians and physician trainees, they have the potential to care for anywhere between 2 and 5 million patients during the course of their medical careers. Our nation continues to have a significant nursing shortage, to the point where we bring in travel nurses from around the world to staff patient beds in many parts of the US. Many of the lower-wage jobs in large urban health centers are staffed by immigrants, and I’m sure some of them fall under DACA as well.

The Department of Homeland Security will be re-visiting this issue and providing documentation to try to have the matter heard again, since the decision hinged on some specific details. If they do, I’m sure the more than 30 healthcare organizations that submitted a “friend of the court” brief for this case will continue to advocate on behalf of those impacted by an additional consideration of the program. In the mean time, hospitals and healthcare organizations should work to gain a better understanding of the immigration status of their workers.

CMIOs have historically been a lightning rod for complaints about physician burnout since EHRs were the vehicles used to add additional documentation burden and cumbersome workflows as part of federal incentive programs. In more than one client situation, I’ve been pulled in to use this expertise to try to address burnout that’s being exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. I never sought to be known as “the EHR guru and burnout expert,” but that’s how I was introduced the other day. Although I’ve helped a couple of organization streamline their workflows, mostly around ordering and results management related to COVID, I’ve been doing additional work on the organizational development side to help leaders work better with clinicians who can only be described as shell-shocked.

I feel validated every time I see an article about this phenomenon. The AMA wrote about it recently in a piece titled “Four ways COVID-19 is causing moral distress among physicians.” I’ve worked a string of back-to-back shifts at urgent care, which essentially has become the emergency department because people are afraid to go to the hospital and come to us instead. I even had a gunshot wound the other night who required a trip to the operating room, which freaked my staff out, but given where I did my residency training, didn’t make me blink.

Already existing physician burnout is being exacerbated by not only a lack of effective treatments for the COVID-19, but lack of adequate personal protective equipment, which receives zero media coverage but is do-or-die for most of us. Now we’re dealing with either an extended first wave or a nascent second wave populated by patients who refuse to social distance or wear masks but desperately need our help when they find out they’ve been exposed at the neighborhood block party or their child’s sports practice. Frankly I’m tired of exposing myself personally while trying to help patients who just don’t give a damn or who are all about instant gratification.

Today I had every room in the center fully utilized, some rooms with 2-3 patients in them as part of a family unit, and was still 10-deep in the waiting room (which was actually 10-deep with people waiting in their cars in 90-degree weather.) Fortunately, I had my favorite physician assistant to help me fight the battle and we kept each other’s spirits up. We could only be described as “medieval warrior meets LL Bean” since I was wearing a modified welding face shield that looked like I meant serious business, and she was wearing a face shield with plaid trim. Based on our shifting case mix, I’m once again isolating in a corner of the house mostly away from others, and I guess if it continues to get bad, I could always go back to staying in a tent in the yard.

At least I’m a fully trained physician and making the choice to expose myself to this craziness voluntarily, which can’t be said of the thousands of resident physicians who are staffing hospital beds and clinics across the country. Earlier this month, residents in New York staged a walkout at their Brooklyn hospital, sharing a list of demands they want met prior to a potential second wave. During the peak of the surge, residents felt alone and abandoned by their facility’s leaders, forced to cope with a lack of supplies and little recourse. I found the statistics in the article staggering, including the fact that by May, a whopping 70% of the emergency medicine residents had tested positive for COVID-19. Residents also cited 160 patients in an emergency department that was 100 patients over capacity. Needless to say, this is not ideal.

A couple of readers have asked why I focus so much on the “in the trenches” experience lately rather than writing about healthcare IT. In addition to it being what I’m living on a regular basis, it’s something that all of us on the technology side need to understand. Organizations are trying to roll out numerous solutions to help solve problems and make things smoother for us, but I truly believe that to be effective in that effort they need to understand where we are, physically, mentally, and emotionally. We’re not going to show up on a web-based training session when we’re post-call and exhausted, and if we’re not focusing on what a trainer is saying because we haven’t eaten in 10 hours and really need to go to the bathroom, it’s something that should be considered.

I’d be interested to hear from readers on how your organizations have modified rollout plans for new solutions or how you’re addressing changes to functionality while your end users are on the edge. Are you making tweaks to try to streamline systems, or are you staying static to allow people to focus on other matters? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 6/25/20

June 25, 2020 Dr. Jayne 4 Comments

This week has been absolutely crazy, with plenty of firefighting of both the informatics and clinical varieties.

A client that I did a quality project for last year is in the middle of an EHR go-live with “virtual elbow support,” but they had no physician super-users identified. Hard to believe, but there are still physicians out there who feel like they really need to learn it from a physician. For the client, figuring that out right before the go-live was a big miss. I’ve been playing WebEx Whack-a-Mole with a couple of physicians who won’t listen to the resources right in front of them and trying to convince them to get with the program. I’m always happy to help clients who are in a rough place, but it’s exhausting.

At the same time, my clinical practice has been having record-breaking days that make the “Flumageddon” season of a couple of years ago look like a cakewalk. They’re constantly pleading for people to come in on their off days, and I’ve covered a couple of times just so the physicians who are scheduled can have a break to sit down, eat, and have a minute to themselves. Still, it’s a never-ending revolving door of COVID swabbing, antibody testing, and processing of lab results as well as following up on infectious patients. Add in the usual summertime orthopedic injuries, lacerations from whacking the back of your head on a diving board while trying to execute the perfect cannonball jump, and a couple of ruptured appendixes in patients who were “afraid to go to the hospital” and it’s a recipe for disaster.

We’re leading the region with antibody (serology) testing, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. The visits take a tremendous amount of time, as we counsel patients to understand that having a positive antibody test isn’t the immunity passport that they thought it would be based on what they saw on Facebook. Many of the patients had respiratory infections in January or February and we have to explain that with that timeline, it’s much more likely that they had flu or bronchitis or one of the other garden-variety illness that was going on.

The rates of positive antibody results in my area are low, and although it’s good data from the public health perspective, it doesn’t do anything for the management of individual patients and it sure adds a lot of cost to the healthcare system. Since most insurers are covering it 100%, patients are eager to feel like they’re “doing something.” The American Medical Association continues to be vocal in spreading the word that antibody tests aren’t the path back to our old normal. We still know too little about what protection antibodies might provide or how long it may last, and there are risks for both false-positive and false-negative tests.

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The traditional July 1 start date for new interns and residents is less than a week away, and I don’t envy them the weirdness that they’re walking into. I was glad to read this heartwarming piece about a mother and daughter who both graduated from medical school this spring and matched together for residency. The elder Dr. Kudji had been a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner prior to entering medical school in her 40s and matched in family medicine. The younger Dr. Kudji will be pursuing a residency in general surgery.

Another piece sent by a reader tugs at the heart strings: A pediatric cardiologist in Bolivia was challenged to find a machine to create implanted devices to fix heart defects through a non-invasive procedure. He turned to the country’s indigenous women to weave the amazing devices by hand, often using a single piece of wire. It’s worth the watch just to see the devices in action as they deploy.

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Less heartwarming was the invitation I received from the American Telehealth Association for their virtual conference, a mere three days before the multi-day meeting was to start. They must be desperate for attendees because they offered a code for $350 off the regular $650 registration price. I don’t know of too many physicians who can clear their schedule with just a couple of days’ notice. InTouch Health did a must better job promoting their upcoming conference with more than a month notice. The July conference is free and features multiple tracks, including a COVID one.

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This week, CMS announced the creation of the Office of Burden Reduction and Health Informatics. It’s designed to continue the “work of reducing regulatory burden to allow providers to focus on patients instead of paperwork and reducing healthcare costs.” It appears to stem from the Patients over Paperwork Initiative (with CMS stubbornly refusing to capitalize the O, for some reason).

The CMS press release touted its successes, but as a frontline urgent care clinician, absolutely nothing has changed as a result of this ongoing work. My staffers are still collecting plenty of data elements that aren’t helpful at the point of care for the conditions I’m treating in the majority of my patients. There may have been benefits in reporting and streamlining of conflicting initiatives, but that doesn’t help us in the exam room.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma was quoted as saying the new office will “increase the use of health informatics” and I’m as eager as the next person to see what they have in store. Perhaps we could start with a nationwide unique patient identifier, since CMS says that “fostering innovation through interoperability will be an important priority.” That will also help with their goal of “new tools that allow patients to own and carry their personal health data with them seamlessly, privately, and securely throughout the healthcare system.”

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From Just Betty: “Re: BJC HealthCare. Check out this data breach notification letter from one of its flagship hospitals. The return address on the letter is for a construction company in Sacramento, CA. Do you think it’s a scam?” There’s nothing quite like following one unfortunate event with another one. In this case, some suspicious activity in employee email accounts resulted in an investigation that was “unable to determine whether the unauthorized person actually viewed any emails or attachments in the employee email accounts.” Compliance officers reviewed the contents of those email accounts and found patient information that may have been accessible, including patient name, date of birth, account number, diagnoses, medications, providers, treatments, and facility locations. It’s hard to believe people are still emailing files around that contain PHI. The return address does indeed belong to a construction company 2,000 miles away from the corporate headquarters. In addition to looking for some employee training to prevent phishing, I bet they’re also looking for a breach notification vendor.

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A reader sent me a link to a paywalled article about a “recovery area” at New York City’s Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital. Designed for healthcare workers who need to escape, it features recliners, music, and aromatherapy to reduce stress. They’ve opened more than 10 rooms at different facilities and note a self-reported reduction in stress after only a 15-minute visit. Since this was the week I was supposed to be volunteering at a camp which is instead holding “Virtual Summer Camp,” I’m de-stressing in my yard. Today’s challenge was to build a camp gadget or campsite improvement. I’m not sure what my neighbors think of my COVID-essentials dispenser, but my fellow virtual campers enjoyed it.

What’s your favorite knot or lashing? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 6/22/20

June 22, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

Former CMS Administrator Donald Berwick was featured in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, writing about “The Moral Determinants of Health.” I was glad to see it, as I sorely needed a break from COVID-related literature and from the ongoing firefighting related to the pandemic’s many downstream impacts. Given the level of turmoil in our society right now, coupled with a disease that is disproportionately affecting various segments of the US population, it was just the read that I needed.

Many of us chose careers in medicine because we wanted to make a difference. Those of us who selected the realm of primary care knew we were taking on the challenge of being among the lower-paid and often less-respected subspecialties, but that was often balanced out by the knowledge that what we would be doing would be important.

For many of our patients, we would be the first member of the healthcare team they would turn to. Our training would help us be uniquely positioned to help solve their problems, through promotion of healthy behaviors or the recommendation of medication therapies or surgeries when needed. We didn’t choose to fight insurance companies or administrators, but as we left residency training for the real world of healthcare, it was obvious we were going to have to operate in an environment for which we were ill prepared.

Whether or not a patient is insured often dictates the care a patient receives, and that quickly creates a line between the haves and the have-nots. My generation of physicians didn’t learn about social determinants of health (SDOH) in our training, but SDOH always formed an undercurrent as we rotated through various clinics and offices in different parts of town. Depending on the ZIP code, the care we recommended varied widely and was largely tied to factors that led certain patients to be sicker than others and whether they could afford to have the care the needed. I had been in practice for nearly a decade before I ever heard a label for this phenomenon.

Berwick notes how significant these factors are, stating that “the power of these societal factors is enormous compared with the power of healthcare to counteract them.” He mentions the “subway map” view of life expectancy, where life expectancies decline for every minute of a subway ride between the “have” and “have not” areas of cities such as New York or Chicago.

Berwick describes the lack of logic in how wealthy nations address health. Although science can identify social causes for poor health, we spend our resources on “expensive repair shops” including medical centers and emergency care, rather than on prevention. He notes a lack of political will to date in shifting the focus of spending upstream, where a difference could be truly made. He mentions the concept of moral determinants of health, one of which is “a strong sense of social solidarity in the US.” In this construct, “Solidarity would mean that individuals in the US legitimately and properly can depend on each other for helping to secure the basic circumstances of healthy lives, no less than they depend legitimately on each other to secure the nation’s defense.”

He goes on to describe the foundations of a “morally guided campaign for better health,” which includes such concepts as the US catching up with the rest of western democracies on such topics as ratification of international treaties and conventions on basic human rights, action on climate change, and statutory support for healthcare as a human right. He notes that “no sufficient source of power exists to achieve the investments required other than discovery of the moral law within… the status quo is simply too strong. The vested interests in the healthcare system are too deep, proud, and understandably self-righteous; the economic and lobbying forces of the investment community and multinational corporations are too dominant; and the political cards are too stacked against profound change.”

Berwick ponders what it means for healthcare to stay in its lane and whether health leaders should take on these social challenges. He believes that the healthcare community needs to go beyond caring for illness, and that “it is important and appropriate to expand the role of physicians and healthcare organizations into demanding and supporting societal reform.” He calls on the healthcare community to spend less time lobbying for regulatory relief and improved reimbursement and more time lobbying for universal health insurance coverage. He calls for the healthcare workforce to use the ballot box to drive change. He closes with this:

Healers are called to heal. When the fabric of communities upon which health depends is torn, then healers are called to mend it. The moral law within insists so. Improving the social determinants of health will be brought at least to a boil only by the heat of the moral determinants of health.

The physician community is a microcosm of our society, and I know plenty of physicians who would rapidly align either for or against these ideas. I spent time this weekend with a surgeon who is “so over this whole COVID thing” and just wants to operate, and also with a psychiatrist who is helping others deal with the trauma they’ve experienced from having multiple family members die due to the pandemic. They’ve had dramatically different exposure to the downstream effects of the pandemic, even though both “healers” live in the same ZIP code and their kids go to the same school. We have to find a way to get past the polarization and to see things from other’s perspectives rather than just shutting them out because we have different experiences that may have driven different viewpoints.

I’ve learned of healthcare organizations that are tackling these issues head on and others that are trying to go back to the pre-pandemic, pre-protest era we lived in prior to 2020. It will be fascinating to see how strategies evolve and what organizations are willing to shift revenue upstream to public health and community projects that might just eliminate good portions of certain service lines.

Berwick has certainly given us food for thought, and it’s an ambitious list of actions he proposes. However, we just picked one of them, such as the idea that healthcare should be a human right, and figured out how we could come to consensus, we would still be in a much better place.

Is your organization addressing the moral determinants of health, the social determinants of health, or just trying to figure out how to get elective procedures scheduled again? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 6/18/20

June 18, 2020 Dr. Jayne No Comments

More than 100 professional groups are lobbying Congress to create a safe harbor for COVID-19-related litigation. They are advocating protections against bad-faith legal action for primary care practices and physicians. The Coronavirus Provider Protection Act (HR 7059) would provide liability protection for services that are provided during the COVID-19 public health emergency period and for a reasonable time after the emergency declaration ends. It specifically notes issues around services that are provided or withheld in situations that may be beyond the control of physicians and facilities (e.g., following government guidelines, directors, lack of resources) due to COVID-19.

The threat of lawsuits hangs constantly over physicians. I’ve seen the toll it causes, both financially and emotionally, even if a case is dismissed. Some cases are filed well after the care was delivered, and we know that over the last six months, there has been quite a bit of care delivered that doesn’t follow published guidelines for a variety of reasons (including lack of guidelines, lack of appropriate personal protective equipment, lack of medical equipment, etc.)

Although some states have passed protections, it would be good to have a national standard, especially for providers who practice across state lines. There is also plenty of lobbying for protections in other industries, where workers might claim that their employers didn’t protect them adequately from the pandemic or that they were injured as a result. I see the waters becoming muddied rapidly and wouldn’t give the House bill good odds for passage. I would, however, give good odds on the US legal system becoming more entertaining if attorneys and judges started wearing wigs.

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Since most of my summer fun has been canceled, I’ve used the time to wade through scores of emails that I intended to answer and were pushed down the inbox by the pandemic. I had missed the announcement of the newest tools from Athenahealth’s Epocrates division, one of which delivers consensus guidelines on drug therapies. The main data table includes not only the recommending bodies, but also the date of last update in a clean format, which is great for those who don’t want to try to sort out the status of multiple recommendations on a daily basis. There’s also a tool for drug therapy trial updates and a great listing of COVID-19 resources, including key points about clinical conditions that can be related to or mistaken for COVID-19.

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As a consultant, I’m getting a little twitchy about the fact that I’ve spent three months in the same city without any travel. I’d love to get back on the road, spending time in other parts of the country and meeting people, but I’m not sure those days are ever coming back.

As much as I miss travel, I don’t miss being in a corporate office setting every day. As people go back to work, the CDC has recommended significant changes to US office settings. Recommendations to those returning to office jobs include temperature / symptom checks, distancing of desks (with plastic shields where spacing them out isn’t possible), and face coverings. All those organizations that spent money tearing out cubes and individual offices in favor of open-plan concepts are probably kicking themselves as they try to bring people back.

In a slap to the environment, CDC is recommending avoidance of mass transit or carpools in favor of solo transportation. Employee perks like communal coffee machines and snack stations are out as well, in favor of prepackaged, single-serve products. Not surprisingly, some companies are deciding that it’s better to keep workers remote and cut their office overhead. Even when I was in a corporate role, I was more productive on my “work from home” days due to the lack of interruptions and ability to frequently relax my brain with a distraction, even if it was moving laundry from the washer to the dryer between conference calls. We’ll have to see what productivity looks like over the long term.

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It’s been a while since I’ve been up close and personal with concerns about my facility having Certified EHR Technology, so I enjoyed reading this recent ONC blog about the ongoing certification process. The 21st Century Cures Act requires the Department of Health and Human Services to establish Conditions and Maintenance of Certification requirements for the ONC Health IT Certification Program. There are seven Conditions of Certification that vendors will have to meet, along with ongoing Maintenance of Certification requirements. As physicians who have dealt with our own Maintenance of Certification pains, welcome to the club.

As tiresome as I found the Information Blocking requirement to be (everyone talks about it, no one does anything about it), I was intrigued by the Communications requirement. It prevents health IT developers from restricting or prohibiting communications about usability, interoperability, and security of certified health IT modules. I’m sure some vendors will continue to apply plenty of pressure to prevent such discussions, but would love to see some clients come clean about how awful their technology really is before others buy the same tired software.

Those who know me going way back know that I initially dreamed of being not just a doctor, but the first doctor on a long-term space station assignment. Needless to say, that didn’t work out (much to my parents’ relief, I’m sure), but I still enjoy keeping track of what goes on in the next frontier. I enjoyed the recent GlobalMed blog talking about the role of telemedicine in space exploration. It included discussion of the similarities between space travel and research in undersea environments and the need to to use data-driven approaches and technology to solve clinical problems when humans are hundreds of miles above the earth’s surface. If you’ve ever seen the story of the Antarctic explorer who performed his own appendectomy, it gives new meaning to crisis standards of care.

There is so much we have to learn about our potential to live and work in space and the role of technology in making it happen. For instance, we’re just figuring out how to bake chocolate chip cookies in orbit, which would definitely be on my wish list.

What did you want to be when you grew up? How close did you get? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 6/15/20

June 15, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

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I had the chance to catch up with a good friend last week. We were talking about the odds of telehealth truly achieving payment parity and continuing into the future. We share a healthy dose of skepticism, mostly around the fact that payers (including CMS) aren’t going to want to pay the same amount for an item that they used to get for less, and in some cases, for free.

Unless they’re involved in administration or work in a multi-state organization, most physicians don’t realize that CMS has different payment rates depending on what part of the country you’re in. These rates vary due to labor and real estate costs – it’s more expensive to hire nurses in the San Francisco area than in rural areas of the Midwest, for example. There have also been special payments to certain sites of care, such as designated Rural Health Clinics.

Providers are excited about being able to see patients in their own homes from their own homes, cutting down on commuting, office costs, budgets for professional clothing, and more. The reality, though, is that CMS and other payers are going to feel like they’re subsidizing your love of fuzzy bunny slippers, and it won’t be long before there is an adjustment.

CMS leadership has stated “I can’t imagine going back” and “People recognize the value of this, so it seems like it would not be a good thing to force our beneficiaries to go back to in-person visits.” I think a lot of folks in the technology space, especially those looking to get their piece of the pie with telehealth, are missing the key connection between doing the work and getting paid for it. Although equal payment drove the expansion of telehealth during the pandemic, it’s a good bet that once the payments start changing ,we start to see more visits being pushed back to the office setting unless providers are participating in programs where they’re paid on a capitated basis versus fee-for-service.

Mr. H picked up on conflicting comments that CMS has made around the long-term viability of telehealth and mentioned them earlier in the week, especially those made during announcements encouraging a return to face-to-face visits that “while telehealth has proven to be a lifeline, nothing can absolutely replace the gold standard: in-person care.” I bet it won’t be long until they begin changing the payment structure.

Another dose of reality comes in the readiness of practices to actually see patients in person. Despite the multiple announcements encouraging patients and providers to get back to business as usual, some facilities just aren’t ready. I continue to hear from colleagues who can’t get adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, and  when they find supplies, prices are exorbitant. It seems like not much has changed since the start of the pandemic as far as the availability of N95 respirators, despite our having had months to ramp up the supply chain.

My employer has provided four N95s to each employee, which we are expected to rotate indefinitely until they become soiled or the straps break, in which case we can get a new one. If I want to take advantage of the Battelle hydrogen peroxide processing unit that my state has brought in, I have to personally drive my masks to a drop point across town, wait three days for them to travel across the state and be processed, and then drive across town to pick them up. We have one option for masks and no formal fit testing (since CDC waived it due to the public health emergency), so doing your own quickie fit test every time you put it on is how we roll. If you become allergic to the foam on the office-provided masks as some of us have, you’re kind of on your own since officially the CDC says we don’t need N95s and that simple surgical masks are OK since there are shortages.

For providers, continuing or expanding telehealth necessitates understanding the reality that telehealth requires a paradigm shift, and not everyone can make the jump easily. You have to go from being able to use reliable measurements performed by your staff to trusting patient-reported data or hoping that your patient can use available technology to capture their vital signs or pictures of a rash. You have to also start trusting other indicators of a patient’s status, such as level of anxiety, tone of voice, etc. that some have tuned out during in-person visits because it seems like many patients are anxious and stressed by the entire in-office visit process, especially if it occurred at a large healthcare complex with parking challenges, wayfinding issues, etc. Additionally, some specialties aren’t amenable to telehealth visits, so brick-and-mortar offices will continue to be a must.

For patients, access can be a double-edged sword. While some rural communities have embraced telehealth as a way to avoid long and time-consuming travel, others struggle with the connectivity that is needed for successful telehealth visits. Although the majority of adults in the US have access to a smart phone, that doesn’t mean that it’s their personal phone or that the access is 24×7. Sometimes it takes patients a couple of visits to get the hang of telehealth, and even then there can be issues with dropped calls or anxiety about displaying video of their living situation.

Only time (and the will of patients and payers) will tell how this is going to play out. If payers cut back, will we reach a point where patients will be willing to pay a premium for telehealth visits? Will clinical employers use telehealth as a way to shift more burden (including scheduling, pre-visit data gathering, and more) onto providers while saving money on ancillary staff salaries? Or will they embrace using ancillary staff to continue to perform pre-visit clinical work to better support physicians? Will telehealth technology improve to a point where it’s almost like being there, perhaps with the addition of virtual reality devices? Will data from third-party tools flow seamlessly into the EHR, or will we be stuck working with multiple systems and siloed data?

I’d be interested to hear what the HIStalk community thinks. What does your crystal ball say? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 6/11/20

June 11, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

CMS Administrator Seema Verma blogged for Health Affairs last week, sharing a discussion of CMS payment model flexibilities that stem from COVID-19.

The healthcare system in the US was broken to begin with and the pandemic has pushed many organizations past their breaking points. Many of my physician colleagues have retired, closed their practices, or been downsized by their employers in the name of cost savings. Hospitals and health systems have laid off countless employees from everywhere in the process. Very few job classifications have been spared, and I suspect we’ll see a number of CEO, COO, and CFO heads start rolling before long.

Although it was a well-written read, I was disappointed that it mostly rehashed the changes that have been ongoing for the last several years in attempting to transition us from a fee-for-service to a fee-for-value model. She mentions the concept of providers taking financial risk as “the cornerstone of value-based care,” but over the last few months, most providers have figured out that financial risk is the cornerstone of all of fee-for-service as well. Plenty of providers and hospitals who counted on a certain number of procedures or encounters have been hobbled, if not sent to bankruptcy. It’s not clear if they would have been better off under value-based care arrangements since they don’t fit every specialty and situation. Verma notes that such arrangements “provide stable, predictable revenue,” but that doesn’t really apply to urgent and emergent care situations or unpredictable needs for things like cancer surgeries.

She goes on to talk about flexibilities CMS is adding, but a quick look at the summary table shows that many of the changes are extensions of existing models or delays to the start of upcoming or changing models. A handful of models have changes to their financial methodologies. Verma also mentions flexibilities with telehealth, which I hope become permanent. Nearly every patient I’ve spoken with has been happy with their telehealth visits and not having to experience the hassle of visiting an office.

Congress is paying attention to telehealth, with a bill recently introduced that would require HHS to study how telehealth has been used during the pandemic and to deliver a report back to legislators within one year after the emergency ends. The bill is HR 7078, the Evaluating Disparities and Outcomes of Telehealth During the COVID-19 Emergency Act of 2020.

I didn’t have time to dig deeply into the federal register since I’m in the middle of a couple of big projects, but I’d be interested to see how they define telehealth and how data points would be gathered. Many physicians I know haven’t been using proper billing codes while they deliver telehealth, instead performing what is essentially a free visit in the name of ensuring patients are cared for. Some of the major telehealth vendors don’t use standardized billing codes, especially if they offer a direct-to-consumer option. The bill would require analysis of the types of telehealth platforms used as well as the locations where care was delivered (hospital, physician office, health clinic, private home, etc.) I wonder how they would classify the RV flying down the highway, which was my patient’s location the other night.

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ONC announces its all-virtual Tech Forum for August 10-11, 2020. Sessions will include a mix of keynotes, panel discussions, and breakout sessions. The full agenda isn’t available, but I registered anyway. How can you not like a conference that gives you more than an hour for lunch plus two 30-minute breaks and you can do it all from the comfort of your own home? Get your fuzzy bunny slippers ready and I’ll see you there.

News of the weird: A surgery professor in California leverages telehealth and maggots to treat a patient’s wound, saving his limb and likely his life. David Armstrong, DPM, PHD is co-director of the limb salvage program at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. The maggots in question, which he refers to as “nature’s microsurgeons” are larvae from the common green bottle fly. The patient had experienced tissue death after a surgical procedure, but also had diabetes and recurrent pneumonia and was high risk for an emergency department visit due to COVID-19; the necrotic tissue in his arm placed him at high risk for sepsis. Armstrong shipped a package of larvae to the patient then instructed a home care nurse via video on how to apply the larvae and dress the arm. Two days later, they used a telehealth encounter for a dressing change. After another course of treatment, the necrotic tissue was reduced from 46% to less than 1%.

I worked with the best scribe this week. He was geeking out on ICD-10. With the nice weather and lifting of stay-at-home orders, we’ve been seeing plenty of orthopedic injuries and trauma. At the end of the day when reviewing and signing my notes, I was glad to be surprised by entries that went well beyond the usual sprains, strains, and lacerations:

  • W29.3XXA Contact (accidental) with hedge-trimmer (powered).
  • Y92.832 Beach as the place of occurrence of the external cause.
  • Y93.G2 Activity, grilling and smoking food.
  • Y92.828 Other wilderness area as the place of occurrence of the external cause.

My recent shifts haven’t been much to smile about, so I was glad for the distraction. Needless to say, I rewarded him handsomely via our on-demand bonus system. He’s leaving soon for medical school, so he’ll definitely need the extra dollars.

Although emergency physicians aren’t expressly there to deliver preventive care, I’d like to offer some guidance based on my recent experiences. First, if you’re going to be using an electric hedge trimmer, may I suggest not “rushing to beat the heat of the day” and also wearing a pair of sturdy work gloves. Second, if you’re going to engage in a beach barbecue, follow the instructions on the charcoal lighter fluid and don’t squirt it on the coals beneath the already-cooking food. Third, if you’re going to use the hunting knife you just sharpened to open the cheese and sausage packages on your picnic table, please wear shoes. That’s a wrap on today’s safety moment, folks.

What’s your favorite summertime ICD-10 code? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 6/8/20

June 8, 2020 Dr. Jayne 1 Comment

Most of the journal articles that come across my desk during the last couple of months have understandably been about the novel coronavirus or its downstream effects. Since there have been a flurry of retractions of articles recently, I was glad to see this study that took me back to my healthcare IT roots.

One of the main reasons my first practice implemented an EHR was to increase safety – reduce handwriting errors, reduce medication errors through the addition of allergy and interaction checking, reduce errors due to missing or incomplete data, and more. Although we did see some initial improvements, it quickly became apparent that EHRs could be the source of safety issues we didn’t even dream of in the paper world.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, looks at trends in EHR safety performance in the US from 2009 to 2018. The authors drew data from a case series using over 8,600 hospital-year observations from adult hospitals that used the National Quality Forum Health IT Safety Measure, which is a computerized physician order entry (CPOE) and EHR safety test administered by the Leapfrog Group. The authors found that mean scores on the overall test increased from 53.9% in 2009 to 65.6% in 2018. However, they noted “considerable variation in test performance by hospital and by EHR vendor” going on to voice concerns that “serious safety vulnerabilities persist in these operational EHRs.”

Digging into the methodology, the Health IT Safety Measure test uses simulated medication orders that have been previously proven to either injury or kill patients. They are entered into the system under study to determine how well it can identify potentially harmful medication error events.

Looking deeper at the measures, it was interesting to see the difference between the various levels of clinical decision support: Basic Clinical Decision Support (CDS) scores increased from a mean of 69.8% to 85.6% where Advanced Clinical Decision Support scores increased from a mean of 29.6% to 46.1%. Basic CDS functions include drug-allergy, drug-route, drug-drug, drug/one-time dose, and therapeutic duplication contraindications. Advanced CDS functions include drug-laboratory, drug-daily-dose, drug-age, drug-diagnosis, and corollary orders contraindications. Researchers looked at whether the EHR’s CPOE system correctly generated an alert, warning or stop (soft or hard) after entry of an order that may cause an adverse drug event.

The Health IT Safety Measure test is included in the Leapfrog Group’s annual hospital survey and is performed by a hospital staffer. Detailed demographic data is provided for test patients, including diagnoses, laboratory results, and more. These test patients are loaded into the EHR so that they function the same as actual patients. (Hopefully this is all being done in a copy of the production environment, but the study didn’t mention the specifics.)

Once the patients are created, a clinician is supposed to enter test medication orders for those patients and record how the EHR reacts to the orders, including whether it generates alerts, and if it does, which kind. Hospital staffers are then responsible for entering this data into the tool. The tool includes protections against the hospital trying to game the system, such as control orders that aren’t expected to generate alerts. The process is also timed and must be completed in under six hours.

As I read the study, I kept waiting for the juicy part where we would learn the details about which of the “hospitals using some EHR vendors had significantly higher test scores.” The authors used self-reported data and reported each vendor with more than 100 observations as a single vendor, although it grouped all vendors with fewer than 100 observations as “other.” Unfortunately, “vendor names were anonymized per our data use agreement.” Although the vendors all had overall scores that were in the same ballpark (ranging from 53% to 67%) the minimum/maximum score data literally ranged from zero to 100%.

The closest statement I could find to anything that might indicate how real-world vendors performed was this: “In our results, the most popular vendor, vendor A, did have the highest mean safety scores, but there was variability among Vendor A’s implementations, and the second-most popular vendor had among the lowest safety scores, with many smaller EHR vendors in the top 5 in overall safety performance. Additionally, while we found significant variation in safety performance across vendors, there was also heterogeneity within vendors, suggesting that both technology and organizational safety culture and processes are important contributors to high performance.”

As someone who has spent many thousands of hours doing consulting work in the area of organizational change, that last statement hit the nail on the proverbial head. I’ve been in plenty of hospitals and offices where safety features have been disabled or modified, and for reasons including alert fatigue and the cumbersome workflows needed to override alerts, as well as organizational culture. It would be interesting to see whether the top-performing installations were using the vendor’s EHR out of the box or in a modified fashion, and what the CPOE build actually looked like.

The authors note several limitations, including the fact that the data set only includes hospitals that completed the Leapfrog survey, which may not be representative of all US hospitals. Although it was out of scope of this study, I would be interested to see how ambulatory EHRs would fare in such an analysis. In my experience some ambulatory systems can be even less uniform, as IT teams are pressed to perform whatever customizations or configurations are requested by the physicians who sign their paychecks. I’ve seen organizations that allow physicians to turn off all medication alerts, and others who require physicians to slog through a mind-numbing parade of low-quality alerts throughout the day, and everything in between.

Regardless, the study was thought-provoking, and I hope it generates thought for additional opportunities designed to assess EHR safety and measure vendor progress towards a more optimized EHRs in the future. It will be interesting to see what the data looks like in another five years or 10, and whether individual institutions improve in their performance. I would be interested to hear observations from any hospital IT staffers or clinicians who have been involved in performing this test, including whether you feel your scores are representative of the organization’s safety culture.

What do you think about EHR safety data? Leave a comment or email me.

Email Dr. Jayne.

EPtalk by Dr. Jayne 6/4/20

June 4, 2020 Dr. Jayne 3 Comments

I attended the ONC working session on patient identification and matching on Monday. It was scheduled as a seven-hour Adobe Connect meeting, and for me, getting the most out of it in this format was challenging.

The only agenda available had been sent more than a week prior, along with my registration confirmation. It had two, three-hour blocks with the broad titles of “Challenges around Patient Identification and Matching – Boots on the Ground” and “Exploring Potential Solutions.” Under those blocks they had a list of individuals and their organizations, without a lot of detail around what they would be presenting.

According to the welcome, each presenter was supposed to have about eight minutes to speak. I tried to make my own time-boxed agenda, but it quickly was off by more than 10 minutes, so I gave up.

The first three sessions were largely review for anyone who has been dealing with this problem. Although the speakers were good, I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit a full day to gambling that I’d hear something I didn’t already know. It would have been good if the agenda included the theme of what each presenter was going to discuss so we could tune in and out in a way that made sense for us.

One of the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) parts of some of the presentations was the inclusion of examples of how things have gone wrong due to poor matching. It’s terrible from the patient perspective, but it is useful to provide concrete examples to try to engage stakeholders who may not think matching is a priority issue.

I continue to see organizations create their own matching nightmares by deliberately creating duplicate charts for patients depending on their payment status. I worked with one client who had separate charts when the payer was employee health versus when they were using insurance or cash pay. I understand their concern about having the employer have access to sensitive medical information, but if you have an employee health department that has to certify an employee’s readiness / safety for work, shouldn’t they have all the pieces of the puzzle? I worked with another practice that had separate charts for work comp versus insurance visits for a patient, simply because they didn’t understand how to use their practice management system to set up different payers on a patient and toggle from visit to visit.

Overall, the speakers did a great job of keeping within their time block, often running shorter than anticipated. Frank Opelka from the American College of Surgeons talked about silos in surgical care. The number of tax IDs that touch a patient during a major surgery could be more than 20. That’s pretty unbelievable,  but of course is believable in healthcare.

I really enjoyed hearing from Congressman Bill Foster of Illinois, who was a co-author of legislation last year that attempted to remove the ban on activities in support of a national patient identifier. I didn’t know much about him before today, but I was impressed by his background as a businessperson and also a scientist. He worked as a high-energy physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab and was part of the team that discovered the top quark. For science nerds, that’s pretty cool.

I also enjoyed Henry Wei’s explanation of “circles of trust” that evoked Robert DeNiro in “Meet the Parents.” Another great quote was David Speights from Appriss Health, who notes that regarding matching, “We’re trying to science the heck out of this.”

The bottom line for the day: Improved patient matching is a critical need, and a unique patient identifier would help and would  bring us into line with many other developed nations. A lot of smart people are working on this, but many barriers remain.

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We are all knee-deep in COVID-19 projects, dealing with furloughs and working outside our usual norms. but CMS continues its churn with various rulemaking and other activities. On May 11 they issued the FY 2021 Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) for Acute Care Hospitals and Long-Term Care Hospital (LTCH) Prospective Payment System (PPS) Proposed Rule. That’s a lot of abbreviations right there within a single rule, but I guess calling it the IPPSAPCLCHPPSPR would be a bit much.

The proposed rule includes minimum 90-day reporting period in CY 2022; maintenance of the Electronic Prescribing Objective’s Query of Prescription Drug Monitoring Program measure as optional for five bonus points in CY 2021; renaming the Support Electronic Referral Loops by Receiving and Incorporating Health Information measure to the Support Electronic Referral Loops by Receiving and Reconciling Health Information measure; and increasing the number or quarters of electronic clinical quality measure data reporting. Comments can be submitted through 5 p.m. ET on July 10.

Speaking of COVID-19, Quest Diagnostics has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) approval for its self-collected COVID-19 test last week. They hope to have half a million kits available by the end of this month. Other vendors already have similar tests available, but providers aren’t falling all over themselves ordering the tests for their patients. There are serious concerns about the self-swabbing ability of patients and with the ordering and management of the tests.

Go Mississippi: The Mississippi Hospital Association is launching a state-wide health information exchange in partnership with several regional hospitals and health systems. Initial capabilities will include admission and emergency department visit notifications, along with post-acute care transfer updates. Later phases will include clinical document exchange and referral management.

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HIMSS is at it again, spending its efforts on frivolous activities such as “rebranding” rather than figuring out how to earn back trust among members and show attendees who are still smarting from financial losses. Last week they launched new branding for their regional chapters.

I really dislike it when organizations discuss their branding strategy. Branding, when done right, should be invisible to the consumer. I dislike it even more when the branding strategy is explained in buzzwords. “Our HIMSS brand architecture has been designed to do two things. First, to maximize clarity across our brand spectrum for both internal and external audiences. And second, to enable us to realize our full brand value, both now and in the future.”

I’m pretty sure most of us already recognize the HIMSS brand by its exorbitant fees and punitive housing and refund policies. Great job, marketing folks.

Happy 17th birthday to HIStalk this week. Being part of this industry has been a wild ride at times and I’m glad to have shared the journey with the HIStalk team and all our readers.

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Reader Comments

  • HIT Girl: Yeah? I guess? The real problem is, nobody is going to pay for the things that help doctors take better care of their...
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  • skeptic: Cerner at the VA it's a chronicle of a death foretold. Complaints started from day 0, years ago - physicians, nurses, ...
  • John Moore: Wow, that Spokane article on Cerner sure was a hatchet job, but I guess it helps sell more papers, helps the publisher g...
  • Robert David Lafsky: "What Cerner does best is capture billable events via exhaustive questions and back-and-forth as you input things.... Th...

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