In late March, I headed down to Belize with a bunch of high school students to do some service work. Joining the crew was a parent, Harry (not his real name), who happened to be a urologist sharing a private practice with five other urologists. We got to talking about the industry, the rapid changes that are occurring and of course HIT, where the conversation quickly turned to health information exchanges (HIE).
This urologist’s practice has been using eClinicalWorks (eCW) for several years now and despite their proficiency with using this EHR, the practice has never fully recovered the productivity it once had. Regardless, they have come to accept this hit on productivity as just the cost of doing business. (Note: In Massachusetts all physicians must adopt and use an EHR to be credentialed, regardless of meaningful use or any other programs.)
Harry spends two days a week in surgery with most operations taking place in one of four facilities: local, unaffiliated hospital Winchester (who uses Meditech), Beth Israel Deanconess (has a home-grown EHR but encourages affiliate practices to adopt eCW), Childrens’ Hospital (a Cerner shop that also promotes eCW in ambulatory) and Partners which is now moving from its homegrown EHR solution to Epic (BTW, in a recent conversation with a contact at Partners learned that they are spending $1M/day for next five years on Epic switch - ouch!).
All of these hospital organizations want a closer affiliation with these urologists in support of future value-based payments and of course just getting these physicians to do more surgeries at their respective institutions. Thus, all of them want the urologist practice to adopt their interoperability model. Harry stated that Partners, the biggest healthcare organization in metro-Boston and arguably New England, is pushing particularly hard for them to switch to Epic as Epic does not have an HIE offering (Epic Everywhere is not an HIE in our definition nor apparently in ONC’s) and encourages its customers to put all ambulatory affiliates on Epic instead. In addition to these organizations, the Commonwealth is also encouraging this practice to join the statewide HIE.
After the pain and suffering Harry’s practice went through to become proficient on eCW, they are loathed to switch to Epic. Besides, switching to Epic would limit their ability to connect with other healthcare organizations they work with as Epic does not play well with others.
Harry’s situation is not unique and is likely being played out across the country, especially in urban areas where there may be a number of competing healthcare systems each trying to establish their own HIE. In such a situation what is an independent physician practice to do?
Certainly they could sell the practice, as many physicians have already done, to the highest bidder. Not an option for Harry and his physician partners as they like their independence and plan to keep it that way.
They could turn to the statewide HIE and hope that it will provide the depth of services (interoperability) to enable them to connect and share records in support of care coordination with all hospital systems they work with. Ideally, this may be the best approach but unfortunately they’ll be waiting a very long time for this to happen, if it happens at all. Today, most statewide HIEs, including Massachusetts are focused on enabling Direct secure messaging, a simple, political expediency that those in D.C. can point to as a shiny example of information exchange for the nearly half billion dollars spent on statewide HIEs. It is unlikely that most statewide HIEs will evolve beyond Direct providing the type of deep connectivity between a practice and an healthcare system to coordinate care effectively. That’s not to say we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater as there are some states that are doing exemplary work e.g., NY, IN
Then there is the option of just staying the course and hoping that lightweight connectivity directly into eCW will miraculously occur. For Harry and his partners, both Childrens and Beth Israel currently support eCW and interoperability with the acute care EHR will be supported. Partners may be left with no other option then to purchase a third party HIE solution to connect affiliate practices in the highly competitive, metro-Boston market. As for community hospital, Winchester, this hospital is unlikely to survive as an independent and will either be acquired or eventually be forced to shut its doors.
While the vast majority of ambulatory practices will ultimately be acquired, there will be a significant number of specialists who will continue to operate independently and with a number of healthcare institutions. The current hodgepodge of HIEs being stood up in various communities and the multitude in a given urban area will put increasing strain on physician practices such as Harry’s, who like any of us, given too much choice will simply forgo a decision.
Maybe, just maybe the efforts of the Interop Workgroup will take practices such as Harry’s to the promise land that will allow them to support coordinated care, in a simple streamlined fashion, amongst a wide range of healthcare organizations in their community irrespective of underlying HIT infrastructures. We have not heard of any such examples to date, but we remain hopeful as the current model being deployed today, while likely addressing the all too familiar 80% of the problem, still leaves a very critical 20% unresolved.