Bart Howe, MBA is CEO of HealthMark Group of Dallas, TX. He is also president of the Association of Health Information Outsourcing Services (AHIOS).
Tell me about yourself and the company.
I’m a problem solver. I like to work on big projects. I started in finance and quickly determined that my entrepreneurial bug was a little too strong to stay put there, so I started a solar energy technology company and worked in molecular diagnostics before getting into my career in health information management.
I’m the CEO of HealthMark Group, which is a digital health information management solution provider that is most known for our work in the secure and digital exchange of medical records. Oftentimes that’s referred to as release-of-information. That function is perceived at times by the rest of the healthcare industry as a bit archaic, but it can, and has, benefited greatly from the evolution of technology and the way that we maintain records and transmit records. HealthMark is committed to changing that dynamic by providing technology that drives digital self-service and immediate access to patient health information.
I’m an unapologetic patient advocate, so I’m always trying to think from the patient’s perspective. I am a consumer of healthcare, as are all of the end users of the clients that we serve. I always try to have my patient perspective hat on when we’re looking at how we can do things different and better at HealthMark.
I am also, as of a few months ago, president of the national industry association that represents release-of-information vendors. It’s called AHIOS, the Association of Health Information Outsourcing Services. In that, I take a pretty active role in speaking with regulators and legislators around the evolution of the health information management industry from a regulatory perspective. There are tons of opportunities to work with ONC, OCR, and even FTC as we see them starting to regulate more in this space, to make sure that we are creating the right pathways and incentives for organizations, providers, and digital health app developers to engage more in the interoperability solutions of the future. I’m a believer, and I think that opportunities are on the horizon that people don’t even realize exist yet in terms of what can happen when information flows more freely.
How has technology changed the release-of-information process over the past five years?
It continues to change regularly, so it has changed quite a bit in the past five years. I’m sure the next five will as well. What drove me to the space was the rapid change in the way that health information is managed and being transmitted.
I had a personal challenge in one of my prior roles. I was at a molecular diagnostics company, and we were pushing the bounds of scientific discovery in some of the tools that we were using to do oncology diagnostics and provide therapeutic guidance. One of the challenges was getting access to the longitudinal patient information to demonstrate that our diagnostic tool was actually generating better outcomes for patients, and therefore should justify better reimbursement. I saw a need for a better solution for accessing and transmitting health records. When I came across HealthMark, it struck a nerve as an opportunity to jump into an industry that is changing quite a bit and that has a lot of opportunities for improvement.
But to answer your question more acutely, the way that it has changed over the past five years is that everything is going faster. Medical records requests take all sorts of shapes and sizes and they come from all sorts of different parties, such as patients, other physician practices, attorneys, and insurance companies. But expectations for turnaround time for delivery of those records have increased dramatically. They will continue to increase until we can truly hit that target that I’m shooting for with our organization, which is immediate. We want to be able to provide immediate access to that medical information for a variety of different purposes while maintaining the security and privacy of that information.
As EMRs have proliferated throughout the healthcare ecosystem, a lot of that information is now stored digitally instead of on paper, where it was copied or scanned and delivered via snail mail. Today, we try to digitize as much of that delivery as possible. You would be surprised how much of that information is still being requested via a snail mail pathway, but in every chance that we get, we’re pushing requesters towards receiving and ingesting that information in a digital form.
The molecular diagnostics example is a near real-time, business-to-business transaction. How you see the line drawn between release-of-information versus interoperability?
That line is blurring entirely, and that is a good thing. From my perspective, the release of information function, again, has historically been perceived as relatively archaic and lagging behind much of the rest of the industry in terms of moving towards interoperability. I would challenge you to look at HealthMark a little bit differently. We are definitely embracing interoperability as a tool to be able to help deliver digital self-service and immediate access to those records.
To your point, we deliver records for both B2B purposes as well as B2C purposes or B-2-patient purposes. It covers all aspects of what we do. I’m incredibly excited about the trajectory of the industry from an interoperability perspective, and I really want HealthMark to be a leader on the forefront of that push.
On the patient side, how has the Cures Act change how patients request and receive access to their medical records?
I don’t think we’ve seen yet the inflection point of adoption that I hope that we will see at some point, in terms of the adoption of FHIR endpoints and the delivery of information through API methods that will enable a digital healthcare app ecosystem that doesn’t yet exist. We certainly have elements of it and we’re starting to see more of it, but we haven’t hit the inflection point yet.
Do hospitals see release-of-information as a necessarily evil or as an opportunity and a touch point for patient engagement?
If they are not looking at it as an opportunity or as a necessary touch point for patient engagement, then they are looking at it the wrong way. It is absolutely one of the areas that can cause the most abrasion between patient and provider if they aren’t given timely access to their information. They certainly need to think about that as a core competency of either their organization or of a partner that they’re working with to help facilitate that information flow as easily and seamlessly as possible. Maybe it used to be viewed as a necessary evil, but certainly it is an opportunity today.
Much of the information requests that the release-of-information association or partners fulfill are still continuity-of-care requests, so a lot of that information used to treat patients is still flowing through those means. It is critical to the patient as well that they get access to that information for those purposes.
You offer services related to the Family and Medical Leave Act. What kind of information requests are involved?
It’s not just FMLA. There are disability requests and requests for other information that require the physician or physician practice to complete information related to that patient’s care or related to that patient’s treatment regimen. It’s not something that you can pull directly out of a discrete data field. It often takes physician know-how of the situation, or specifically what the request is about, to complete that information. We work on behalf of our healthcare provider partners to alleviate some of that administrative burden.
Ultimately, HealthMark is trying to alleviate, across the ecosystem of our clients, the administrative burdens that we see in our US healthcare ecosystem, which is two to three times the administrative burden that we see in other developed nations. We think there are opportunities to streamline a lot of that information flow, and FMLA paperwork is one of them.
There are requests for that paperwork on a regular basis, ranging from simple requests related to a pregnancy or a surgery all the way up to things that are much more complex. Provider practices are required to fulfill that information request on behalf of their patients because it’s necessary, often for the patient to get a paycheck, so it’s critical to that patient experience.
Everything that we work on ultimately drives back to that patient experience. We are completing that paperwork on in conjunction with the provider partners that we work with to make sure that information doesn’t get stuck with the front desk staff or stuck with an MA and ultimately fall to the bottom of the priority list because it doesn’t involve treating a patient right there in front of you. These things are still critically important to the patient. We are helping make sure that we can streamline the flow of that information.
It’s vexing as a patient to go to your regular medical practice that uses an EHR and having a clipboard full of empty forms immediately shoved at you every time, especially when you know that everything you are being asked to write is already on the computer screen five feet from the clipboard. Why does that happen?
Honestly, I ask myself why that is still so often the case. Filling out paper on a clipboard should be a thing of the past. There is virtually no other situation where we complete information on a clipboard. We provide a digital patient intake solution to help streamline the flow of that information. In this case, not out of the EMR or the practice management system, but into it. We are providing a digital experience for patients to be able to bring healthcare into the modern world, into the 21st century of technology adoption.
I understand why there is a laggard nature to the healthcare industry in terms of a adopting technology. It’s a heavily regulated environment where it is difficult to make changes overnight. That has created a situation where healthcare providers are slower to adopt technology than in other industries, but I think we see that changing as well. Certainly with the pandemic, we saw a rapid overnight need to adopt technology for solutions for things that didn’t exist previously. Telemedicine skyrocketed during that period, as did things like digital patient intake, pre-registration forms, and remote check-in opportunities. We are coming along and we are making progress, but it still baffles me when I walk into a healthcare facility and I’m handed the clipboard and a pen.
Where do you see the company in three or four years?
We are going to continue to lean into the interoperability landscape. I know that is a buzzword that has been around for decades, but I hope that we are reaching the inflection point for both technical and regulatory pathways to make true interoperability a reality. There is a ton of potential in things like the Cures Act and TEFCA. As we lean into that, it will open up downstream use cases for organizations like us, where we are a trusted partner of the healthcare providers that we work with and a steward of that most precious protected healthcare information that they hold on behalf of their patients.
As we sit in that position and start to facilitate better, cheaper, faster information flow, that opens up a ton of opportunities downstream for things like analytics and focusing on the potential for using things like AI to provide relevant insights from that data back to the provider and back to driving better treatment outcomes for the patient.
This is stuff that I care deeply about, and as I mentioned at the beginning, I am an unapologetic patient advocate who tries to think about things from the patient perspective and how to make their experience better. A better experience for them is a better outcome for our clients.