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Blumenthal Beats HITECH Drum

by John Moore | November 13, 2009

blumenthalYesterday, David Blumenthal published a very thoughtful post on the HITECH Act as a foundation for information exchange in which he reflected on his own personal experience as a doctor.  That experience included the often frustrating realization that he could not obtain a complete longitudinal record of his patients (customers) due to either (or both) technical or business barriers.  In his post, Blumenthal goes on to elucidate on how the HITECH Act’s language is purposely worded to remove such barriers as the healthcare sector transitions from a provider-centric model to one that is patient (consumer) centric.

Following are our own reflections on Blumenthal’s post based on the reality of the market today and where Chilmark sees it heading in the future. Specifically, we’ll tackle each of Blumenthal’s bullet points in order.

HITECH Act squarely tackles the commercial barriers. Yes, HITECH funding is clearly earmarked in support of open and secure exchange of data, in fact it was one of the three core attributes of meaningful use (information exchange for care coordination) defined in the legislative language.  But HITECH Act and its provisions only pertain to those that accept the $$$ and it remains to be seen just how many entities sign-on.

Blumenthal closes his first bullet point with:

Consumers, patients and their caretakers should never feel locked into a single health system or exchange arrangement because it does not permit or encourage the sharing of information.

Ideally, this is the end result but not so sure how we get there from here.  In Boston, a very competitive healthcare market with some of the best healthcare informatists in the business, organizations and subsequently consumers are extremely challenged to get their data, let alone share it.  The video clip below from Microsoft on the deployment of Amalga for the Wisconsin HIE gives some idea as to how this might work, but even in this case, it is limited to ER, there is no consumer control.  We are in for a very, very long journey.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk_6NQVfpPQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0&color1=0x5d1719&color2=0xcd311b&border=1]

HITECH tackles economic barriers. Not really.  Sure, $36B is a heck of a lot of money for the HIT market and the potential follow-on penalties for not adopting an EHR may be significant for clinics and hospitals that derive a large proportion of revenue from CMS, but that is not necessarily the case for smaller, private practices where it is estimated that 80% of care actually occurs. For smaller practices that do not serve a large CMS population, the reimbursement of $44k/physician does not pay. The incentives, frankly, are not the powerful tool that Blumenthal claims they are for a significant portion of the market.

HITECH tackles the technical barriers. Huh?  Not sure how he came to that conclusion.  Maybe in time if the stars all align perfectly, such will come to pass but today we have a host of legacy systems that do not talk (inter-operate) with one another, strong disincentives for HIT vendors to actually create truly interoperable products (the more open and interoperable you are, the easier it is to be replaced with a competing solution) and then there is that whole issue of adoption mentioned under economic barriers above.

Yes, Blumenthal is correct in that the HITECH Act does instruct HHS to continue its investments in creating a nationwide electronic exchange for health information (the NHIN which will become the Health Internet).  But even here there have been challenges. The technology stack of the NHIN today, created by beltway bandits and not those deeply immersed in HIT, is crippled.  Hopefully, as was presented at the Harvard ITdotHealth Forum, the feds will open up and actively solicit the guidance and input of those that were present, and others to create an NHIN that is truly usable.

HITECH provides the building blocks for information exchange across jurisdictions. Yes and No. Certainly the HITECH Act will fund HIE initiatives in virtually all states with the $560M+ that was announced in early fall (States submitted their proposals earlier this month).  This will certainly accelerate activities at the state level for HIE build-out but the question remains: Will these state activities actually be able to devise a truly sustainable business model?  To date, it is rare indeed to find a public HIE that is self-sustaining.

Beyond the issue of funding these state HIE is the much thornier issue of the myriad of state laws and policies as it pertains to the distribution and sharing of medical records.  The only recourse may be a “super-DURSA” (caution PDF) passed by Congress to supersede state policies, which could prove quite challenging.

Despite outlining what are seen as some fairly significant challenges to Blumenthal’s upbeat and positive post, like him, we share in the desire to move the proverbial ball forward and more importantly (what we really, really liked about his post) focus on the patient, the consumer, the citizen.  In the end, it is they who are footing the bill for this massive initiative to get doctors, clinics and hospitals wired-up. Therefore, is it not they that should ultimately benefit from the HITECH Act through better care, greater flexibility in physician choice and who knows, maybe even receive lower cost of care.  A tall order in deed but certainly one worth working towards.

Stay up to the minute.

“As biometric data becomes cheaper and easier to collect through smart sensors, devices, and mobile apps, expect to see more innovations in consumer health.”

-Alicia Vergaras