Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On a Clinical IT Abomination and a Health IT Leadership Gap

... If there ever was a reason for physicians, other clinicians and patients to oppose the use of Electronic Medical Records forced upon them by third parties, here it is. Assuming this story is accurate, it reflects what I believe will be an increasing trend towards control of the medical profession via computer:
Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS)

August 2008 News

Innocent Caught in Dragnet

With a 19.7% increase in budget, and a 64-person increase in staff to a total of 1,495, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is aggressively looking for fraud. The anti-fraud cash cow brings in $20 for $1 spent. To "find" fraud, the government gets creative, elevating ordinary billing disputes to fraud.

"The government overkills. It ruins their life. Doctors lose their career. They overbill Medicare, and it may have been sloppy," states attorney Patric Hooper. "But rather than pay back $100,000, they owe millions" (MCA 6/30/08).

One Pinellas County, Fla., physician was hauled off in handcuffs because of an ongoing dispute with UnitedHealth Care over E&M coding. What preceded the indictment was a refusal by the physician to use [healthcare IT] products sold by Ingenix, a United subsidiary. "It's clear from the documents that United filed the claim in retaliation," said the doctor's attorney. "I've never before encountered such a blatant attempt at coercion by a payer public or private" (ibid.).

Note that electronic medical record software, such as Amazing Charts, could make you liable for false claims, as through unintentional misuse of cut-and-paste functions or templates that automatically fill in blanks (ibid.).

Enforcement is being enhanced through use of anti-fraud "strike forces." The investigators are often retired policemen, and they do not treat physicians as "white collar" (MCA 6/30/08).

Some suggestions from Medicare Compliance Alert: Guard your NPI. Screen staff carefully, and watch out for "rogue employees" who might be identity thieves. Report business partners to the government; it can protect your own business. Have procedures in place to deal with search warrants. Be sure the information on your Medicare enrollment form is accurate; wrong information from a form filled in 20 years ago could result in a false claim (ibid.).

AAPS advice: consider opting out.

I believe a much more aggressive response is needed from the medical profession, including organized medicine, besides "opting out" of abusive third party payer arrangements.

In a former role of Manager of Medical Programs for a regional transit authority, I've seen labor unions that were representing bus drivers and janitors act far more aggressively and wisely in representing their members against management whims than organized medicine represents physicians against payer and government whims.

If organized medicine were performing its role in representing the profession aggressively, considering the evidence that paper charts can perform as well as electronic records in many circumstances and that most clinical IT benefits accrue to payers and other third parties, then major concessions would have been demanded of the primary beneficiaries for physicians to adopt electronic medical records.

"Musn't be too aggressive or appear disgruntled" is one of the reasons I've heard from academic colleagues that this does not occur. Physicians must be "gentlemen" and "team players." ("Team player" in today's context often means "co-conspirator to mediocrity" or to even worse).

I ask "why?" [should physicians avoid appearing angry]. The directness and actual aggressiveness of the labor union representatives I saw in action was quite effective in improving the conditions for their members. Interestingly, the union people were aggressive when "in role" yet polite when I encountered them in other settings, such as the daily commute to work. The public would likely respond to legions of angry doctors like few other means of communication could muster.

In a similar vein, I have heard from numerous circles that it's best to advocate for informatics leadership of Health IT (such as EMR, CPOE etc.) without demonstrating emotion or 'disgruntledness.' That raises several questions:

  • Are physicians finding themselves marginalized and at the whim of IT managers, payers and other non clinical third parties because they have been just too angry and aggressive in demanding what was best for medicine and for themselves?
  • Has there ever been any disagreement or conflict of such major proportions (and profitability) as healthcare that has been resolved purely through gentleman's dialog?
  • Finally, are there lessons to be learned from these gentlemen who "petitioned for redress of grievances in the most humble of terms", only to be answered by even worse treatment?

On leadership of Health IT efforts: the sudden push by government towards universal HIT in recent years has often puzzled me. HIT rapidly moved from "experimental" status to godsend and panacea, although ample evidence was available that this was not the case. Enterprise EHR's seem to cost as much as entire new hospital wings. Yet ONC, AHRQ and other agencies seemed to start operating from the panacea assumption, largely since the internet hype that began at the end of the last decade.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) was established in 2004 to promote electronic health records in the United States. Regarding ONC, I've recently had some conversation with persons instrumental in the evolution of VistA, the Veteran Administration's EHR, and listened to presentations on VistA at a number of conferences.

It seems VistA is a very different universe from commercial HIT, one of strong collaboration and pride and creativity. This is likely due to its unique and relatively constrained purpose (care of veterans and family) and the non-profit nature of its history. You can get a good sense of this from the new book "
Medical Informatics 20/20: Quality and Electronic Health Records through Collaboration, Open Solutions, and Innovation" (Amazon link here) written by key VistA personnel from that perspective. (Note: I use the book for teaching graduate students about the best ways to create and implement HIT and am cited in it for my views on social issues in HIT as at my website).

Commercial HIT is, on the other hand, highly corporatized, in the worst 2008 sense of the word. It is a highly competitive (need I say cutthroat) business, highly fragmented, proprietary, and anything but open. Commerical HIT is characterized by many stakeholders with widely varying agendas, forming an often dysfunctional "HIT ecosystem" (link) that largely excludes clinicians from meaningful decision making. The ecosystem is primarily centered on profit. It is an entirely different world than VistA.

In addition,
hospital IS departments are usually woefully unprepared and incapable of meeting the challenges of clinical IT. IT is not a hospital core competence. Quite frankly, many of the IT leaders I've met in hospitals have been barely competent and in some cases downright abysmal where the needs and culture of practicing clinicians -- and sick patients -- are involved.

Physicians have been "resisting" health IT for 30+ years now. The diffusion of healthcare information technology after 30-plus years of effort and billions of dollars spent remains limited. As per the 2008 statistics in the NEJM article "Electronic Health Records in Ambulatory Care - A National Survey of Physicians", NEJM 359:50-60, just four percent of physicians in the U.S. reported having an extensive, fully functional electronic-records system, and just thirteen percent reported having a basic system. Most hospitals are also lacking the technology to any meaningful extent.

Yet those same physicians have to be restrained from using new therapeutic modalities and drugs where the benefit to patients is reasonably clear cut, even procedures and devices that are complex to perform or utilize.

Perhaps our society should take the 'resistance' to clinical IT as a phenomenon for serious consideration. One should perhaps ask themselves if they'd happily volunteer to receive a new therapy or drug that physicians have been 'resisting' for several decades.

Clinical IT is a world further characterized by issues such as these (thanks to Al Borges, MD and Health IT discussion site EMRUpdate.com for some of these links):

  • "Oh no! Half of all current EMRs fail!", from 1/2007 Technology for Doctors (link to PDF)
  • "Avoiding EMR meltdown: How to get your money's worth. About a third of practices that buy electronic medical records systems stop using them within a year. A little homework can help ensure you buy one that will work for you.", from 12/2006 AMNews (link)
  • Quote: "The failure rates of EMR implementations are also consistently high at close to 50%", from Proceedings of the 11th International Symposium on Health Information Management Research – iSHIMR 2006 (link to PDF)
  • Quote: "Industry experts estimate that failure rates of Electronic Medical Record (EMR) implementations range from 50–80%.", from 7/2006 A Commonsense Approach to EMRs (link to PDF)
  • Kaiser Permanante HIT Meltdown (link)
  • UK: Milton Keyne's Care Records System caused 'near meltdown' (link)

and many others of a similar nature.

This raises several questions:

  • ONC was founded by our government. Where, exactly, was the government receiving its inputs on HIT pros and cons, drawbacks and challenges? The drawbacks have been known for a long time. Was the primary source of information from the pro-HIT optimists, opportunists and Pollyannas (per my HIT Ecosystem essay), lobbyists, and those whose experiences were largely positive in development of non commercial, large scale HIT (e.g., VA?) Could a term to describe what the administration has been told by the "HIT Ecosystem" members be this word?
  • Was ONC founded on the premise that the commercial HIT 'ecosystem' operates like the VA, i.e., a world of collaboration and creativity? Could it be seeing commercial HIT through 'rose-colored glasses?'
  • ONC seems to have focused on "technical" issues - standards, interoperability, etc. - at the expense of the social impediments and drawbacks to HIT. It seems the working assumption is that all that stands in the way of universal HIT, much like in the VA, is fine details of the technology and 'physician resistance.' Is ONC positioned to understand the commercial HIT sector and its issues, and in fact produce a candid and realistic "lessons learned" report as being called for in proposed House Energy and Commerce legislation?

These are very important questions. I do not know the answers. However, the decision makers in our government should ensure that they do.

-- SS


Anonymous said...


Is the ‘polite’ attitude displayed by doctors today (regarding IT) much different than that of two decades ago when the first biotech wunder-med (rDNA genetically-engineered insulin) was foisted upon the profession by an industry that placed profits before patients?

Doctors had the opportunity (and the clout) to demand COMPARATIVE studies. They could have actually LISTENED to their patients as “adverse events” accumulated. Instead, they admonished their patients to “try harder”; they informed their patients that “newer” and “better” were synonymous; they became complicit in prolonged patient abuse by their inaction . . . their “politeness.” Now that some of them are being hoisted by the same petard that endangered/harmed patients, they are looking for their VOICE. Had they (individually and collectively) used it years ago, they might not be so out-of-practice, ergo impotent. Are doctors’ tears more significant than patients’?

I know your interest is IT; you know my is insulin/T1DM. But one doesn’t have to look too hard to see striking similarities. Thanks for the sunshine. When a few (conflicted) KOL’s can so significantly influence government decision-making, doctors (in the case of IT) and patients pay handsomely for shortsighted easy “solutions.”


Anonymous said...

All the rhetoric and selfish editorializing in the world does not remove the fact doctor's do need oversight--are payers supposed to just hand over billions without looking?

This post is unnecessary shrill and quoting crackpot editorializing masking as journalism does not help. I am sure there are plenty of sins committed in the name or rooting out billing and coding fraud by payers so clear intelligent evidence of such is appreciated.

Whether you acknowledge it or not doctors have a huge problem with arrogance and rule-breaking (because apparently rules only apply to mere mortals). I know you have presented some good evidence of HIT failure here but the shrill tone that all evidence is bad and every doctor is good is really stupid and counterproductive.

Failure to recognize the benefit to patients and society by scouring claims and practice patterns is embarrassingly self-serving.

InformaticsMD said...

Dear "anonymous":

If you think the post is "shrill", just look at what you've written.

I'm not sure what your opposition to "shrill" is, in any case. Couching major problems in gentle words is something best left to diplomats.

It appears you may lack the critical thinking skills to discern the major purpose of the post.

One purpose is to make a case for doctors precisely becoming more "shrill", i.e., direct and demanding in defense of the profession and patient care.

Its other major purpose is to point out that commercial health IT is not a panacea for anything, is itself largely defective, and has much potential for misuse and abuse.

The focus is not on data mining for billing purposes as you seem to focus upon. The story that opens the post is indeed an abuse of IT due to forced use of a particular E&M coder followed by career-threatening retaliation.

There are many competing E&M coders. There is also paper. Physicians are not secretaries for payers, who accrue most of the benefit of clinical IT.

The other comments you make are frivolous and are useless information, of little value to critical thinkers engaged in honest debate. You do not in any intelligent fashion address the issues I raise, only show your own bias and stereotyping through ad hominem attack.

Your convenient anonymity shows at best you are afraid to take responsibility for your statements, and at worst have a motivation led by commercial interests.

Further anonymous, abusive posts of this type on this thread will be deleted.

InformaticsMD said...

Melody writes:

"Is the ‘polite’ attitude displayed by doctors today (regarding IT) much different than that of two decades ago when the first biotech wunder-med (rDNA genetically-engineered insulin) was foisted upon the profession by an industry that placed profits before patients?"

My answer: no, it is not very different.

Anonymous said...

When doctors ceded their "voice" in the case of rDNA insulin, the resultant bad outcomes passed through to the patients. Individual patients could not prove that this bad product caused harm . . . so doctors managed to stay out of the fray. Sadly, individual patients HAD NO VOICE.

But today, with "new equals better" IT products required to stay abreast of their own practices, doctors find that a wrong code here or there ISN'T inconsequential; the buck stops with them, sometimes with claims of fraud or system abuse where none was intended. If they manage to find their 'voice' now, to forego politeness and civility, to reclaim the 'clout' they (collectively) have, maybe they will become a bit more understanding and compassionate for voiceless, powerless patients.


InformaticsMD said...


Most physicians do want to do the best for their patients. There are, of course, some bad apples, but it is not the majority.

However, all find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

A book from 1970 entitled "What Computers Cannot Do" by Auerbach Publishers, a pioneering IT consultant group I once worked for, has an interesting passage.

Its author wrote that computers are tools to facilitate, not replace, smart people, that smart people are responsible for a lot of the good that accrues to everyone else, and that society should go out of its way to support and encourage smart people to be creative and productive.

Think about how society has deviated from that advice in recent decades, including in medicine.

Anonymous said...


You write: "Its author wrote that computers are tools to facilitate, not replace, smart people. . ."

Herein lies the problem--there aren't enough smart people to go around, and less-smart people ascend to decision-making roles. These less-smart individuals DO believe that computers are omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, and thus CAN replace (not facilitate) smart people.

Our corporate culture has changed so much in the past few decades that understanding and knowledge of core business values has become LESS important (for leadership bona fides) and MBA degrees and intimacy with "business models" has become MORE important.

Like I said, there aren't enough smart people . . . and being a 'team player' is now valued more highly than creativity and productivity.


InformaticsMD said...

Like I said, there aren't enough smart people

I believe there are "enough smart people" to make a major difference, as it takes very few empowered "smart people" to make a major difference where complex decisions are concerned. The problem is that many of these people are marginalized.

. . . and being a 'team player' is now valued more highly than creativity and productivity

A "team player" in today's Business-Speak means "a docile and silent (or silenced) co-conspirator to management mediocrity, madness or malfeasance", not someone who uses individual talents to help the team (and the division and the league and society in general) win in some competitive endeavor.