Rebuilding the Tower of Babel – A CEO’s Perspective on Health Information Exchanges

The United States is facing the largest shortage of healthcare practitioners in our country’s history which is compounded by an ever increasing geriatric population. In 2005 there existed one geriatrician for every 5,000 US residents over 65 and only nine of the 145 medical schools trained geriatricians. By 2020 the industry is estimated to be short 200,000 physicians and over a million nurses. Never, in the history of US healthcare, has so much been demanded with so few personnel. Because of this shortage combined with the geriatric population increase, the medical community has to find a way to provide timely, accurate information to those who need it in a uniform fashion. Imagine if flight controllers spoke the native language of their country instead of the current international flight language, English. This example captures the urgency and critical nature of our need for standardized communication in healthcare. A healthy information exchange can help improve safety, reduce length of hospital stays, cut down on medication errors, reduce redundancies in lab testing or procedures and make the health system faster, leaner and more productive. The aging US population along with those impacted by chronic disease like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma will need to see more specialists who will have to find a way to communicate with primary care providers effectively and efficiently.

This efficiency can only be attained by standardizing the manner in which the communication takes place. Healthbridge, a Cincinnati based HIE and one of the largest community based networks, was able to reduce their potential disease outbreaks from 5 to 8 days down to 48 hours with a regional health information exchange. Regarding standardization, one author noted, “Interoperability without standards is like language without grammar. In both cases communication can be achieved but the process is cumbersome and often ineffective.”

United States retailers transitioned over twenty years ago in order to automate inventory, sales, accounting controls which all improve efficiency and effectiveness. While uncomfortable to think of patients as inventory, perhaps this has been part of the reason for the lack of transition in the primary care setting to automation of patient records and data. Imagine a Mom & Pop hardware store on any square in mid America packed with inventory on shelves, ordering duplicate widgets based on lack of information regarding current inventory. Visualize any Home Depot or Lowes and you get a glimpse of how automation has changed the retail sector in terms of scalability and efficiency. Perhaps the “art of medicine” is a barrier to more productive, efficient and smarter medicine. Standards in information exchange have existed since 1989, but recent interfaces have evolved more rapidly thanks to increases in standardization of regional and state health information exchanges.

History of Health Information Exchanges

Major urban centers in Canada and Australia were the first to successfully implement HIE’s. The success of these early networks was linked to an integration with primary care EHR systems already in place. Health Level 7 (HL7) represents the first health language standardization system in the United States, beginning with a meeting at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. HL7 has been successful in replacing antiquated interactions like faxing, mail and direct provider communication, which often represent duplication and inefficiency. Process interoperability increases human understanding across networks health systems to integrate and communicate. Standardization will ultimately impact how effective that communication functions in the same way that grammar standards foster better communication. The United States National Health Information Network (NHIN) sets the standards that foster this delivery of communication between health networks. HL7 is now on it’s third version which was published in 2004. The goals of HL7 are to increase interoperability, develop coherent standards, educate the industry on standardization and collaborate with other sanctioning bodies like ANSI and ISO who are also concerned with process improvement.

In the United States one of the earliest HIE’s started in Portland Maine. HealthInfoNet is a public-private partnership and is believed to be the largest statewide HIE. The goals of the network are to improve patient safety, enhance the quality of clinical care, increase efficiency, reduce service duplication, identify public threats more quickly and expand patient record access. The four founding groups the Maine Health Access Foundation, Maine CDC, The Maine Quality Forum and Maine Health Information Center (Onpoint Health Data) began their efforts in 2004.

In Tennessee Regional Health Information Organizations (RHIO’s) initiated in Memphis and the Tri Cities region. Carespark, a 501(3)c, in the Tri Cities region was considered a direct project where clinicians interact directly with each other using Carespark’s HL7 compliant system as an intermediary to translate the data bi-directionally. Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics also played a crucial role in the early stages of building this network. In the delta the midsouth eHealth Alliance is a RHIO connecting Memphis hospitals like Baptist Memorial (5 sites), Methodist Systems, Lebonheur Healthcare, Memphis Children’s Clinic, St. Francis Health System, St Jude, The Regional Medical Center and UT Medical. These regional networks allow practitioners to share medical records, lab values medicines and other reports in a more efficient manner.

Seventeen US communities have been designated as Beacon Communities across the United States based on their development of HIE’s. These communities’ health focus varies based on the patient population and prevalence of chronic disease states i.e. cvd, diabetes, asthma. The communities focus on specific and measurable improvements in quality, safety and efficiency due to health information exchange improvements. The closest geographical Beacon community to Tennessee, in Byhalia, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, was granted a $100,000 grant by the department of Health and Human Services in September 2011.

A healthcare model for Nashville to emulate is located in Indianapolis, IN based on geographic proximity, city size and population demographics. Four Beacon awards have been granted to communities in and around Indianapolis, Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, Indiana Health Centers Inc, Raphael Health Center and Shalom Health Care Center Inc. In addition, Indiana Health Information Technology Inc has received over 23 million dollars in grants through the State HIE Cooperative Agreement and 2011 HIE Challenge Grant Supplement programs through the federal government. These awards were based on the following criteria:1) Achieving health goals through health information exchange 2) Improving long term and post acute care transitions 3) Consumer mediated information exchange 4) Enabling enhanced query for patient care 5) Fostering distributed population-level analytics.

Regulatory Aspects of Health Information Exchanges and Healthcare Reform

The department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the regulatory agency that oversees health concerns for all Americans. The HHS is divided into ten regions and Tennessee is part of Region IV headquartered out of Atlanta. The Regional Director, Anton J. Gunn is the first African American elected to serve as regional director and brings a wealth of experience to his role based on his public service specifically regarding underserved healthcare patients and health information exchanges. This experience will serve him well as he encounters societal and demographic challenges for underserved and chronically ill patients throughout the southeast area.

The National Health Information Network (NHIN) is a division of HHS that guides the standards of exchange and governs regulatory aspects of health reform. The NHIN collaboration includes departments like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), social security administration, Beacon communities and state HIE’s (ONC).11 The Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Exchange (ONC) has awarded $16 million in additional grants to encourage innovation at the state level. Innovation at the state level will ultimately lead to better patient care through reductions in replicated tests, bridges to care programs for chronic patients leading to continuity and finally timely public health alerts through agencies like the CDC based on this information.12 The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act is funded by dollars from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. HITECH’s goals are to invest dollars in community, regional and state health information exchanges to build effective networks which are connected nationally. Beacon communities and the Statewide Health Information Exchange Cooperative Agreement were initiated through HITECH and ARRA. To date 56 states have received grant awards through these programs totaling 548 million dollars.

History of Health Information Partnership TN (HIPTN)

In Tennessee the Health Information Exchange has been slower to progress than places like Maine and Indiana based in part on the diversity of our state. The delta has a vastly different patient population and health network than that of middle Tennessee, which differs from eastern Tennessee’s Appalachian region. In August of 2009 the first steps were taken to build a statewide HIE consisting of a non-profit named HIP TN. A board was established at this time with an operations council formed in December. HIP TN’s first initiatives involved connecting the work through Carespark in northeast Tennessee’s s tri-cities region to the Midsouth ehealth Alliance in Memphis. State officials estimated a cost of over 200 million dollars from 2010-2015. The venture involves stakeholders from medical, technical, legal and business backgrounds. The governor in 2010, Phil Bredesen, provided 15 million to match federal funds in addition to issuing an Executive Order establishing the office of eHealth initiatives with oversight by the Office of Administration and Finance and sixteen board members. By March 2010 four workgroups were established to focus on areas like technology, clinical, privacy and security and sustainability.

By May of 2010 data sharing agreements were in place and a production pilot for the statewide HIE was initiated in June 2011 along with a Request for Proposal (RFP) which was sent out to over forty vendors. In July 2010 a fifth workgroup,the consumer advisory group, was added and in September 2010 Tennessee was notified that they were one of the first states to have their plans approved after a release of Program Information Notice (PIN). Over fifty stakeholders came together to evaluate the vendor demonstrations and a contract was signed with the chosen vendor Axolotl on September 30th, 2010. At that time a production goal of July 15th, 2011 was agreed upon and in January 2011 Keith Cox was hired as HIP TN’s CEO. Keith brings twenty six years of tenure in healthcare IT to the collaborative. His previous endeavors include Microsoft, Bellsouth and several entrepreneurial efforts. HIP TN’s mission is to improve access to health information through a statewide collaborative process and provide the infrastructure for security in that exchange. The vision for HIP TN is to be recognized as a state and national leader who support measurable improvements in clinical quality and efficiency to patients, providers and payors with secure HIE. Robert S. Gordon, the board chair for HIPTN states the vision well, “We share the view that while technology is a critical tool, the primary focus is not technology itself, but improving health”. HIP TN is a non profit, 501(c)3, that is solely reliant on state government funding. It is a combination of centralized and decentralized architecture. The key vendors are Axolotl, which acts as the umbrella network, ICA for Memphis and Nashville, with CGI as the vendor in northeast Tennessee.15 Future HIP TN goals include a gateway to the National Health Institute planned for late 2011 and a clinician index in early 2012. Carespark, one of the original regional health exchange networks voted to cease operations on July 11, 2011 based on lack of financial support for it’s new infrastructure. The data sharing agreements included 38 health organizations, nine communities and 250 volunteers.16 Carespark’s closure clarifies the need to build a network that is not solely reliant on public grants to fund it’s efforts, which we will discuss in the final section of this paper.

Current Status of Healthcare Information Exchange and HIPTN

Ten grants were awarded in 2011 by the HIE challenge grant supplement. These included initiatives in eight states and serve as communities we can look to for guidance as HIP TN evolves. As previously mentioned one of the most awarded communities lies less than five hours away in Indianapolis, IN. Based on the similarities in our health communities, patient populations and demographics, Indianapolis would provide an excellent mentor for Nashville and the hospital systems who serve patients in TN. The Indiana Health Information Exchange has been recognized nationally for it’s Docs for Docs program and the manner in which collaboration has taken place since it’s conception in 2004. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of HHS commented, “The Central Indiana Beacon Community has a level of collaboration and the ability to organize quality efforts in an effective manner from its history of building long standing relationships. We are thrilled to be working with a community that is far ahead in the use of health information to bring positive change to patient care.” Beacon communities that could act as guides for our community include the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County and the Indiana Health Centers based on their recent awards of $100,000 each by HHS.

A local model of excellence in practice EMR conversion is Old Harding Pediatric Associates (OHPA) which has two clinics and fourteen physicians who handle a patient population of 23,000 and over 72,000 patient encounters per year. OHPA’s conversion to electronic records in early 2000 occurred as a result of the pursuit of excellence in patient care and the desire to use technology in a way that benefitted their patient population. OHPA established a cross functional work team to improve their practices in the areas of facilities, personnel, communication, technology and external influences. Noteworthy was chosen as the EMR vendor based on user friendliness and the similarity to a standard patient chart with tabs for files. The software was customized to the pediatric environment complete with patient growth charts. Windows was used as the operating system based on provider familiarity. Within four days OHPA had 100% compliance and use of their EMR system.

The Future of HIP TN and HIE in Tennessee

Tennessee has received close to twelve million dollars in grant money from The State Health Information Exchange Cooperative Agreement Program.20 Regional Health Information Organizations (RHIO) need to be full scalable to allow hospitals to grow their systems without compromising integrity as they grow.21and the systems located in Nashville will play an integral role in this nationwide scaling with companies like HCA, CHS, Iasis, Lifepoint and Vanguard. The HIE will act as a data repository for all patients information that can be accessed from anywhere and contains a full history of the patients medical record, lab tests, physician network and medicine list. To entice providers to enroll in the statewide HIE tangible value to their practice has to be shown with better safer care. In a 2011 HIMSS editor’s report Richard Lang states that instead of a top down approach “A more practical idea may be for states to support local community HIE development first. Once established, these local networks can feed regional HIE’s and then connect to a central HIE/data repository backbone. States should use a portion of the stimulus funds to support local HIE development.”22 Mr. Lang also believes the primary care physician has to be the foundation for the entire system since they are the main point of contact for the patient.

One piece of the puzzle often overlooked is the patient investment in a functional EHR. In order to bring together all the pieces of the HIE puzzle patients will need to play a more active role in their healthcare. Many patients do not know what medicines they take every day or whether they have a living will. Several versions of patient EHR’s like Memitech’s 911medical id card exist, but very few patients know or carry them.23 One way to combat this lack of awareness is to use the hospital as a catch-all and discharge each patient with a fully loaded USB card via case managers. This strategy also might lead to better compliance with post in patient therapies to reduce readmissions.

The implementation of connecting qualified organizations began earlier this year. To fully support organizations to move toward qualification the Office of National Coordinator for HIE (ONC) has designated regional education centers (TN rec) who assist providers with educational initiatives in areas like HIT, ICD9 to ICD10 training and EMR transition. Qsource, a non-profit health consulting firm, has been chosen to oversee TNrec. To ensure sustainability it is critical that Tennessee build a network of private funding so that what happened with Carespark won’t happen to HIP TN. The eHealth Initiatives 2011Survey Report states that of the 196 HIE initiatives, 115 act independently of federal funding and of those independent HIE’s, break even through operational revenue. Some of these exchanges were in existence well before the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. Startup funding from grants is only meant to get the car going so to speak, the sustainable fuel, as observed in the case of Carespark, has to come from value that can be monetized. KLAS research reports that 54% of public HIE’s were concerned about future sustainability while only 35% of private HIE’s shared this concern.

Hospital Implications of HIP TN (A Call to Action)

From a Financial perspective, taking our hospital into the future with EMR and an integrated statewide network has profound implications. In the short term the cost to find a vendor, establish EMR in and outpatient will be an expensive proposition. The transition will not be easy or finite and will involve constant evolution as HIP TN integrates with other state HIE’s. To get a realistic idea of the benefits and costs associated with health information integration. we can look to HealthInfoNet in Portland, ME, a statewide HIE that expects to save 37 million dollars in avoided services and 15 million in productivity reduction. Specific areas of savings include paper or fax costs $5 versus $0.25 electronically, virtual health record savings of $50 per referral, $26 saved per ED visit and $17.41 per patient/year due to redundant lab tests which amounts to $52 million for a population of 3 million patients. In Grand Junction Colorado Quality Health Network lowered their per capita Medicare spending to 24% below the national average, gaining recognition by President Obama in 2009. The Santa Cruz Health Information Exchange (SCHIE) with 600 doctors and two hospitals achieved sustainability in the first year of operation and uses a subscription fee for all the organizations who interact with them. In terms of government dollars available, meaningful use incentives exist to encourage hospitals to meet twenty of twenty five objectives in the first phase (2011-2012) and adopting and implement an approved EHR vendor. ARRA specified three ways for EHR to be utilized to obtain Medicare reimbursement. These include e-prescribing, health information exchange and submission of clinical quality measures. The objectives for phase two in 2013 will expand on this baseline. Implementation of EHR and Hospital HIE costs are usually charged by bed or by the number of physicians. Fees can range from $1500 for a smaller hospital up to $12,000 per month for a larger hospital.

Perhaps the most compelling argument to building a functional Health Information Exchange is patient and community safety. The Healthbridge reduction in disease outbreak detection of 3-5 days is a perfect example of this safety benefit. Imagine the implications in the case of a rampant virus like avian or swine flu. The goal is to avoid a repeat of the 1918 influenza outbreak and ultimately save the lives of our most at risk. Rick Krohn of Healthsense makes the case for a socially responsible HIE that serves those who are chronically ill, uninsured and homeless. As the taxpayers ultimately bear the societal burden for our country’s healthcare coverage, the need to reduce redundancies, increase efficiency and provide healthcare worthy of the United States is imperative. Right now our healthcare is in the Critical Care Unit it’s time to stabilize it through operational excellence starting with our hospital. Let’s rebuild the Tower of Babel and enhance communication to provide our patients the healthcare they deserve!

Health Care Reform Made Simple

My name is John Ross and I have spent my entire 40 + year career in health care. Specifically, my background and experience is in developing and managing evidence planning, reimbursement applications, and health economics strategies for a number of fortune 500 health care technology businesses. In short, my job was to help the companies that I worked for to understand the health care market place from three important perspectives. The first was to answer the question; “What can we expect to be paid for the medical technologies we are developing and planning to market? The second question; “will the results and/or lower costs associated with the use of these medical technologies justify the payment level we think they deserve? Finally, what product development, marketing and sales strategies do we need to employ to insure that our future medical technologies are quickly accepted by hospitals, physicians, payers and patients? Obviously with such a focus I had to deal with Medicare (health insurance for folks over age 65 and the disabled), Medicaid (state-run insurance programs for the less fortunate) and commercial health insurance companies (the companies that insure and administer employer-based health insurance plans). I also spent a lot of time assessing the needs of physicians, hospitals and large integrated health care delivery networks that purchase and use a wide array of medical technologies.

From a funding standpoint I have seen America’s health care system go from almost “anything goes” to today’s increasing focus on cost and outcomes. Outcomes, is just another way of asking the question; “for the dollars we are spending nationally or on a particular patient’s disease or injury are we getting a good value in return? In other words, is the price of the drug, medical device, procedure, diagnostic or surgical intervention worth the cost in terms of better results and lower costs compared to how we would traditionally manage this patient’s condition?

This blog is a forum for talking “honestly” about:

1. Where health care in America is going?

2. Why it is going there?

3. What can we expect from tomorrow’s health care system compared to what we have become used to?

4. What we can do to the best of our ability to use less of it (think preventive health strategies)?

5. How we should think about and help those unfortunate individuals, young and old, who need more of it than we do?

6. How can we help to make sure those who need health care get access to good health care when they need it?

7. What can we do to increase the chances that state of the art health care will be there when we need it and at a price we can afford?

I will also provide education as to how the health care system works from the various perspectives of the stakeholders. It is vital that we understand these perspectives, what drives them and the many conflicts that exist. Areas to cover will be:

1. What is happening to hospitals and physicians in this changing health care landscape?

2. What is happening to the development of innovative future medical technologies and pharmaceuticals?

3. Where is Medicare policy going with regard to payments to physicians and hospitals and other care settings?

4. What is the future of employer-sponsored health insurance plans?

5. Where is changing with regard to private health care insurance companies?

6. What will happen to patient costs?

7. What can I do to avoid premature, unnecessary or unproven health care interventions?

8. What role will “evidence and data” play in the future in giving us more information from which to make personal or family member health care decisions?

I would like this to be the place that you can visit when you hear politicians or anyone else for that matter promising something from health care that just doesn’t make sense. We all know the feeling we get when we hear an “it’s too good to be true” story. When we hear such fantastic promises, we better check it out and this will be a place where you can do that. So, bring your concerns and questions and I will do my best to help you to check them out!

Have you heard this one; “under my health plan, you need not to worry. Your costs will remain reasonable, you can keep your doctor and you will have access to state of the art health care”. Or, “it is every ones right to access the very best in health care, young and old, rich and poor no matter your ability to pay.” This would be nice but it is simply not reality and it is time that we talk about these things and deal with them with our rose-colored glasses removed. So, no matter what your point of view on this subject I encourage you to visit ask and comment. We need a grass-roots effort aimed at understanding health care and in particular we need to talk about its funding limits and what we can do to assure that those who need it – get it, and at a level of quality and at a manageable cost such that we can afford it as a nation. If we don’t do this it is highly likely that health care as we have known it America will not be available when we face our own or a family members serious and costly illness.

The fundamental flaw in our individual approach to health care is the notion that we have no responsibility for it except to expect it to be there, with no delay, and at state of the art levels of care. And that for the most part it should be paid for by someone else. Most politicians right now are not leveling with us. They don’t want to address the areas that I have addressed even in this my first edition health care blog. Well, I think that we are better than that! I think with the right information we can manage through the changes that are coming. We want to do the right thing but to do so we have to be informed as to how stretched the health care system is and what we can do to unburden this precious resource.

First, we can stretch health care dollars and resources by taking better care of ourselves. The goal is to do what “we” can do in terms of learning about and practicing preventive disease strategies, thereby reducing the amount and cost of health care interventions we need. By behaving this way we free up our local health care systems funding and limited physical capacity to treat those who are truly in need. Every one of us that invests in preventive disease strategies will find that the beneficiary is you, your family, and your finances. Pretty tangible benefits wouldn’t you say? Perhaps bigger than that is what this behavior and better health for yourself and the avoidance of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, pulmonary (breathing) conditions, diabetes and a host of other conditions can do to unburden the nation’s health care system. We need to preserve it, both in terms of resources and dollars, for those who are less fortunate and have to access the system for serious health problems. How good would that feel?

Some would say that America is a scary place to be these days. The events of 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, continued threats from terrorism, the housing and subsequent financial meltdowns, the political infighting that gets us nowhere, and yes the health care crisis. These all create the tendency to make us want to “wring our hands” instead of “wringing the necks of politicians” that refuse to provide the leadership that we need.

I have come to a conclusion. I have seen enough to know that the leadership we need has to come from us, the individuals who make up the electorate. Waiting around for politicians to act means we don’t understand the world of politics. Politicians only move in one direction or another when an exercised and voting electorate (that’s us) frames the issues and leads the way to a solution. It is almost never the other way around.

Bringing it back to health care and the question of what one individual can do to improve things, it starts with one individual and another until we have millions pulling in the same direction. If we manage our health to the best of our ability (and I want to emphasize, truly to the best of our ability) and access the health care system only when we need it, paying a little more out-of-pocket for the incidental and non-life threatening ills and spills we all experience, the system could accommodate us all when we really need it.

So there it is in a nut shell – I have spelled out what I believe is our responsibility; that if we all pulled in the same direction as described above (think of disease prevention and what this can do for you and those who do need to access the health care system) we would dramatically and permanently free up this precious and finite resource and it would be there for others in need and, when we need it and in most cases at far less cost. We are all in this together folks, rich and poor, the older among us and the younger and if we just act responsibly and for the good of others in this matter, we would solve the problem. And then, we could work on the next challenge and the next one after that until we see clearly the power of teamwork – “all for one and one for all”. That kind of thinking and behavior can work wonders. We all know it deep down – so let’s just do it!
Look for a weekly newsletter and articles that will deal with everything about health care in America. Look for weekly newsletters that discuss changes coming to employer sponsored health care benefits, changes coming to Medicare and Medicaid plans, new technologies that should be of interest, and articles and commentary with regard to state and national healthcare policies as they develop in the months and years to come. Any kind of question you have about health care I can help to point you to resources that will answer these questions. The specifics about your employer sponsored insurance plan, Medicare, Medicaid and how you can incorporate disease prevention strategies into your life with their big benefits. Ask away and if I don’t know or can’t find the answer, maybe one of this blogs participant’s will know. We are all in this together and as long as we believe that and look out for each other – everything will be alright!