Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Government EHR

No, you didn’t miss anything, there is no Government EHR. But should there be one? And if so, what should it look like?

The argument in favor of a Government EHR goes something like this: If we have 19 Billion dollars to spend on EHR adoption, why not spend a small fraction of that money and buy or build an EHR and make it freely available to all physicians and hospitals? Not a bad idea. I would add that, if we must, we could spend the rest of those billions on training and supporting physicians in their efforts to computerize their records. So how would a Government go about accomplishing such monumental task?

The first option would be a “fixer upper”. Buy something like Epic, which has both an inpatient and an outpatient EHR, hire a team of software developers and hordes of usability and medical informatics experts and set them down to work on the existing product. A slightly less expensive option, which is frequently mentioned, is to use VistA instead of Epic. After all the Government already spent boatloads of money on VistA and many of its users seem satisfied with the product even in its current state. Epic has many satisfied customers as well. Either way, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of years to have a fairly usable product, migrated to new technologies, scaled down for small hospitals and practices and scaled down even more for patients.

The second option is similar to the process by which the Pentagon acquires new fighter jets. HHS would publish a set of requirements and various vendors would create a prototype and bid for the contract. For an EHR, one would expect the likes of Microsoft, IBM, Apple or Google to lead the pack. For this scenario the Government would be free to specify requirements to facilitate all the data collection the Government may need, and probably base the entire project on a Federal Cloud with Internet access either through a downloadable smart client (e.g. TweetDeck) or plain browser (e.g., or both, as circumstances dictate. We should have something to look at in three years or so and could begin rolling it out in earnest in four.

Either option will overcome most impediments to achieving an EHR for every American. A Federal Cloud containing all medical records will obviate the need of reporting to CMS or any other government agency. A true multi-tenant Federal Cloud will be able to uniquely identify each patient, with a very high level of confidence, and automatically create a National Patient Identifier without all the legislative and bureaucratic hassle. Since all data is managed by one entity, assembling a longitudinal, complete record for each one of us, either persistent or on-demand, will become almost trivial. One database schema, one terminology and a unified user interface would practically guarantee abundant and high quality data points for clinical research. Privacy and security policies, all residing in one place, could be driven by the patient, or consumer, through their own longitudinal, comprehensive view of the medical record. There will be no need for intermediaries and push/pull addressing systems with all the associated complexity. Every doctor, clinician, hospital, insurer, researcher and consumer will be accessing the same data, through the same software, within the scope of various privacy & security policies. And it will all be free.

For all those pulling “1984” out and looking to see if medical records are mentioned there, relax, this utopian EHR is not on the Government agenda at this time. There are as many obstacles to building the Federal Cloud EHR as there are to providing a “Public Option” for health insurance and neither one is politically feasible at this time. There is a large and rather influential Health Information Technology industry which will be summarily killed off by a Government EHR initiative. The need for instant gratification and the greater need for political campaigning material preclude anything with a longer than four years time horizon. Americans have a historical aversion to centralized control and would much rather have multiple smaller corporations control smaller chunks of activities and information, regardless of the administrative costs and pitfalls of such approach.

And then, of course, there is the freedom of choice issue. What if I don’t like the Government EHR? What if I want to build my own, or buy one that suits me better? And what comes next, a Government Automobile? And the right to privacy of both consumers and providers is not far behind. Why should the Government have access to every minute detail of my business? What would lawyers do if the Government would require that all their dossiers be uploaded to a Federal Cloud? What do the Constitution and Bill of Rights have to say about such practice? Certainly this is not what our founding fathers had in mind.

Of all the billions of dollars available for EHR adoption, the Government is timidly allocating $60 million to EHR research activities in areas such as security, usability, clinical terminology and some peculiar concept of making EHRs more like iPhones. I have very little hope of anything tangible materializing from any of these research programs anytime soon. In the meantime, tax payers, physicians and various providers of health care services, are spending billions of dollars on “fixing”, deploying and interconnecting fragmented software systems perfectly matching our equally fragmented insurance and health care delivery system. With enough duct tape, strings and wires, we should be able to pull something together.  We’ll fix the rest later….

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