Sunday, January 30, 2011

Timeout for Measurement

These are exciting times for anyone involved in the Health Information Technology (HIT) industry. HIT has evolved from an obscure endeavor, with mild success, to a National priority. After all, how many industries can list the President of the United States as one of their most ardent champions? Two - clean energy and health IT. We have arrived. Federal funds are constantly flowing into the industry and ONC does a tremendous marketing and messaging job to increase sales of everything from small EHRs to large HIE platforms, and an amazing large number of industry leaders and very talented folks are exceedingly busy setting standards, policies and certifications. Publicly traded HIT companies are surpassing projected earnings and stock prices are on a healthy upwards trajectory. I suspect private enterprises are doing equally well, if not better.

Meaningful Use Stage 1 is pretty much a done deal with Stage 2 and 3 coming up fast. The Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN) is slowly coming to life and so is its little cousin Project Direct (formerly known as NHIN Direct). Health Information Exchanges are sprouting up in every state due to Federal largesse or private efforts and according to Dr. Blumenthal the vast majority of hospitals and physicians are on board, or planning to be any day now. The crowds are cheering. First down and ten, at the 50 yard line! Or is it? Would it be too much trouble to ask for a measurement before we move the chains? I am starting to have an uneasy feeling that some adjustments may be necessary if we aim to “win the future”.

The current issue of Archives of Internal Medicine contains a study by Romano & Stafford titled “Electronic Health Records and Clinical Decision Support Systems” (CDS). The study period is from 2005 to 2007 and it is focused on ambulatory visits of over a quarter million patients nationwide. The findings “indicate no consistent association between EHRs and CDS and better quality”. The “rebuttal” comment is quoting the famous 2005 Garg et al. study which reached different conclusions. The Garg review is aggregating studies from the early seventies all the way to 2004 and concludes that “Many CDSSs improve practitioner performance. To date, the effects on patient outcomes remain understudied and, when studied, inconsistent.” I would agree that Romano and Stafford considered rather older technology, but whatever is sold to ambulatory offices today bears almost no resemblance to what Garg et al. studied.

Also this month, a U.K. based study published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and examining international publications, including the U.S., from 1997 to 2010, concludes that “There is a large gap between the postulated and empirically demonstrated benefits of eHealth technologies. In addition, there is a lack of robust research on the risks of implementing these technologies and their cost-effectiveness has yet to be demonstrated”. A month earlier, the American Journal of Managed Care published a study funded by the RAND Corporation which examined “the relationship between quality improvement and electronic health record (EHR) adoption in US hospitals”. Using data collected between 2003 and 2007, the authors concluded that “Mixed results suggest that current practices for implementation and use of EHRs have had a limited effect on quality improvement in US hospitals”.

At the very least, it seems that so far EHRs and perhaps even CDS are not making much difference to quality of care. Perhaps we are not measuring the right things. Perhaps all these studies suffer from flawed methodology. Perhaps Meaningful Use certified EHRs are much better than their predecessors. Perhaps when “meaningfully used” EHRs will yield better outcomes. Perhaps our assumptions, and associated expectations, are incorrect. If this is to be a “learning system”, shouldn’t we start learning?

In the January issue of Health Affairs, Advocate Physician Partners of Illinois is describing their model for creating an Accountable Care Organization (ACO), which includes quality improvements and cost reduction. It seems that Advocate had pretty good success with several quality initiatives. Oh yes, Advocate is using lots of HIT and EHRs to collect data, share information, coordinate care and measure progress. A case study for the Rhode Island Quality Institute (RIQI) published by the Commonwealth Fund in December 2010 describes RIQI efforts at improving quality of care in the state. According to the study, RIQI decided in 2005 to reduce ICU complications. By 2009 significant improvements have been achieved and associated costs were reduced by over $3M through a well-planned and massive collaborative effort of all hospitals in the state. There is a nice data table in the report quantifying these improvements. Next, as part of an HIT adoption program, “RIQI chose to increase electronic prescribing by providers as a strategy to reduce prescription errors.” The report goes on to list the impressive eRx adoption rates in Rhode Island, but there is no table for illustrating either reduction in prescription errors or savings associated with such effort. In 2003 Kaiser Permanente embarked on a quality improvement effort dubbed ALL (aspirin, lovastatin and lisinopril) to reduce incidence of heart attacks and strokes in people with diabetes or heart disease. The results as reported in 2009 were very favorable. Somewhere towards the bottom of the report, the Kaiser EHR is mentioned as the means by which patients were identified and collaboratively monitored.

There are many more such examples of quality improvements and cost savings achieved by health systems and physicians with assistance from HIT, with the most recent example of significant savings and health improvements being Dr. Atul Gawande’s latest article in the New Yorker describing cost reductions precisely by providing more and better care to those with highest utilization rates. “Care” in the context of this article refers to sitting with patients in hospital rooms and getting to know them, visiting their homes, assisting them beyond medical care and sometimes speaking to them with a nagging authoritative tone as their mother used to do when they were young. Rather peculiar approach in this day and age where relationships are defined through an Internet browser page. The doctors in the New Yorker article didn’t just stumble upon this archaic way of caring for unfortunate people. They planned, researched and implemented and, yes, they do use computers and data and EHRs. Are we learning yet?

We have reports and studies describing successful quality improvement projects that use HIT as one of the many tools employed by the organization, and we have studies of widespread implementations of HIT, mostly for the sake of implementing HIT, that show no benefits whatsoever. The Meaningful Use project is paying doctors to buy and use HIT in a prescriptive way. There are no stated quality or effectiveness goals, but the architects of Meaningful Use remind us that by 2015, we will be paying physicians for actual outcomes. Outcomes which would be facilitated and measured by all the HIT tools we are now putting in place. So by the time Meaningful Use Stage 3 comes about CMS will be resurrecting a Pay for Performance (P4P) program on steroids. Unfortunately, a new study from the U.K. which tracked half a million patients from 2000 to 2007, concludes that paying doctors for performance does not improve performance, as the chief researcher, Brian Serumaga, told the New York Times, “It seems policy is heading in one direction, while the evidence is heading in another direction”. The most succinct explanation to these findings is provided by an anonymous physician commenting on the study at “We are doing the best we can, given the situation we find ourselves in. If you incentivize us, we will still do the best we can given the situation we find ourselves in. Output change: virtually zero.”

We need to change “the situation we find ourselves in” before we can expect any improvements to health care. HIT and EHRs are only as powerful as the people employing them and those people are bound by the situation they find themselves in. The doctors in Rhode Island and those at Advocate and even those working for Kaiser were in a different situation than most. Dr. Jeffrey Brenner featured in the New Yorker story is an outlier who created his own “situation” and is currently operating on the edges of insolvency while saving boatloads of money to the system. There are probably many others out there, but to affect change on a national scale, they need support on a national scale. CMS would be well advised to shift its focus from micromanaging physicians’ tools to creating innovation where it really counts – health care delivery and reimbursement, particularly for Primary Care. Sadly, it’s only fourth down and inches. Do we predictably punt, or do we cleverly adjust a bit and go for it?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

EHR Product Management

It has become politically incorrect to refer to EHRs as products. Instead, EHRs are now “technologies” as evident in all ONC and CMS published rules and regulations. This subtle change in terminology was intended to encourage, yes you guessed it, Innovation. It was supposed to signal an open market for alternatives to existing EHR products in the form of modular approaches, open platforms, mobile applications and web-based software-as-a-service. Naturally, the industry is obliging and all efforts now are geared towards creating stuff that runs on iPads, preferably “cloud” based and with minimal utility. The new stuff looks very cool and promises to become even cooler, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that these new things do not solve any problems. Traditional product innovation concentrated on identifying problems, designing solutions and then selecting technologies that were capable of enabling those solutions. New technologies were usually born out of the necessity to solve a burning problem and those with enough applicability to larger markets became blockbusters. Every frying-pan today sports technology first invented in the process of creating refrigerants and later used for nuclear destruction (Teflon). Every large enterprise embarking on cost cutting, new markets acquisition, or general improvements, should know all too well that selecting a “cool” technology first, and then attempting to find a good use for it, is recipe for failure. As a former good friend of mine used to say, “There are three types of companies: engineering driven, sales driven and successful”. Successful companies are market driven – they look for those needs and problems that people are willing to pay to have resolved. Very successful companies create their own new markets by creating new needs that people didn’t even know they had. Sometimes, during this process, new technologies are invented for the purpose of creating products that solve people’s problems. Customers usually buy products and services. Rarely, if ever, do they buy “technology”. Moreover, technology should be transparent to the user and really good technology should feel like magic.

Back to EHRs, we are now trying to convince physicians and hospitals to buy cutting edge EHR technology, some of which has not been invented just yet. We are asking them to buy open platforms, clouds, information networks and more recently search-engine optimized data architecture. And when they drag their feet in utter confusion, we label them Luddites and technophobes. Furthermore, those supposedly concentrating on the “next generation” of health care computer tools are designing them in deference to the same cutting edge technology requirements with almost no consideration for business process. And when the business model gets in the way of the chosen technology, then the business model must go. This is why you always find criticism of our “fragmented” mom-and-pop health care system and vilification of the fee-for-service model in most health care technology reports. We have moved from the pre-HITECH sales driven approach to EMR (with an M), to an engineering driven effort to increase EHR technology adoption. I would like to suggest a third option: the market driven Product Management route.

Forget about EHR and databases and servers and networks. What problems do physicians and hospitals face today? This of course is a huge question and the answer will vary based on many factors. Hospitals are different than individual physicians; large hospitals are nothing like small rural ones; physicians’ problems vary with specialty, practice location, practice type and time of day. But why start with providers? If this is a National discussion, shouldn’t we primarily consider what Government and consumers need? Unless you are aiming at selling something to the U.S. Government, or to individual patients, my answer would be a resounding, and unpopular, No. Of course, providers’ problems will be inextricably tied to constraints placed upon them by both Government and their own customers, but the paying customer for our imaginary Product is the provider, and as all other industries that we so eagerly want to copy, already know: The Customer is King.

At this point, you would go out and talk to your customers, potential customers and non-customers. Most existing provider surveys are asking people about barriers to EHR adoption and why providers would be interested in paying for an EHR. This is not a very “innovation fostering” approach. Considering the large spectrum of customers we are exploring here, if you asked an open-ended question about pressing problems, you would most often elicit two general responses: inadequacy of reimbursement and a perpetual desire to provide better care. These two overarching requirements translate into different things for different market segments. The reimbursement issue, for example, can be looked at in two ways. How do I get more money from payers? How do I cut my costs down so I decrease overhead and increase profit? Providing better care is an even larger subject and more controversial too. For a primary care doc, this could translate into a desire for more time with each patient. For a hospital, it could mean reducing complications. For both these examples, the computer would be required to actively do something that either consumes time now, or something that is so time consuming that it is not done at all. Writing for The Health Care Blog, Dr. Steve Sanders describes a very simple vision of how computers, integrated into operations, could reduce falls in hospitals by triggering well defined sequences of human actions. This is how computers are used in manufacturing and supply chain operations.

Identifying business problems and suggesting adequate solutions requires careful examination of workflows, identification of commonalities and opportunities and constraints posed by conflicting requirements and external factors. Then, and only then, comes the time to select, or build, technologies capable of supporting your customer’s business goals. In 2006, a computer scientist thought that putting medical records on mobile phones would be pretty cool. In 2009, Eric Schmidt had the same thought, this time involving a motorcycle trip to Mongolia. In 2011, someone else had a similar epiphany. It’s not catching on. Although, the concept is very cool, it is only incrementally cooler than flinging “Angry Birds” on your cell phone and nobody has been able to locate a market segment willing to pay for implementing this concept because “pay it forward” is not a viable business strategy.

How about National strategies? After all, introduction of computers into the health care system is now a centralized Federal enterprise. On the surface, Government’s goals are very similar to providers’ goals: cutting costs and improving care by measuring outcomes, with the added lofty goal of conducting research. There is, however, a “slight” problem here because Government’s costs translate into providers’ revenue and you will be hard pressed to find a paying customer interested in software that will decrease revenues. As to measuring outcomes, just imagine trying to sell people software tools that would allow the IRS to better and more intimately measure their tax liabilities. Not much of a market there. As to research, while everybody probably agrees that clinical research is worthwhile, very few businesses, in any industry, would volunteer funds and effort to advance national research initiatives with no immediate and tangible ROI to the business itself.

We have reached a fork in the road. Either EHRs are built and sold according to free market rules, with some Government oversight and regulation, or they become regulatory, Government mandated and Government designed tools, required to be purchased and used in prescribed ways as a condition of licensure to provide health care in this country. The latter option, which seems to be where we are headed, will add another painful customer problem in need of solving: minimizing Government intrusion. For savvy HIT Product Managers, it is time to formally design a solution and begin the search for the best technology to minimize the pain created by, the yet to be agreed upon, Government technology. HIT is now a self sustaining enterprise.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Comment on the PCAST Report

The public comment period for the PCAST report is now closed. Since those comments are public anyway, I thought I'd post here what I submitted to ONC (with minor formatting changes to fit the blog).


This comment is not in response to the specific questions posed by ONC, which seem to presume a certain validity of the PCAST report. This comment is respectfully raising several basic questions, which in my opinion, the PCAST reports either did not address or circumvented. With this in mind, you may choose to continue reading, or not.

I would like to start by clarifying that I am now, and always have been, a strong proponent and supporter of appropriate computerization of medical records, HIT in general and the resulting opportunities for expanded clinical research. For the purpose of full disclosure, I have no financial or any other, interests in any HIT vendor.

1. Where does clinical data reside today?
  • Providers - As we all know, there are massive amounts of paper based medical records residing within the walls of providers of all shapes and types. In addition to paper based records, there is a significant (and growing) amount of medical records maintained in electronic format by mostly large providers, but smaller ones as well. The vast majority of these records are created and stored in document format (scanned, dictated, typed, annotated, handwritten, transcribed, etc.). A small portion of this data is stored in structured format, mostly if not all, in relational databases. The most common discrete data elements are demographics, insurance details, diagnoses (ICD-9), procedures (CPT), vitals, and here and there lab results, immunizations, medications, some histories and relatively rarely, findings.
  • Payers (including public ones) – Payer databases dwarf provider databases by orders of magnitude. Payer databases include demographic information collected whenever people enroll in a particular plan, which includes everything providers have and probably much more. Payer databases include every data element (structured) in an X12-837 EDI claim transaction, i.e. diagnoses (ICD-9), procedures (CPT) – including labs, imaging, immunizations, visits, treatments, hospitalizations, etc., places of service, durable medical equipment, extended care, home care, and through PBMs, all medications filled at pharmacies and billed to insurance. Payers do not have test results and imaging studies results.
  • Laboratories and Imaging Centers – Everything payers lack is stored in the equally large databases of testing facilities and for most Lab results, the data is stored in structured format. According to the FTC, the two leading national reference labs (LabCorp and Quest) control approximately 89% of the market [1], which means that 89% percent of discrete lab results are maintained in structured format by two centralized authorities. Radiology and imaging studies are infinitely less centralized, although highly computerized as well.
2. How should clinical data be collected for clinical research?
  • I don’t think anybody will disagree that it is much easier to extract data from a few centralized databases than it is to extract it from tens of thousands of smaller and diverse ones. The set of data elements contained in the union of payers, laboratories, radiology and imaging centers databases is lacking very little that can be provided from mining provider generated clinical data. As an aside, I would like to clarify that, contrary to common mythology, there should be no distinction between payers “billing codes” and provider maintained codified “problem lists”. If there is a discrepancy, it is either due to incompetency or plain fraud. Provider databases may contain longitudinal vital signs and perhaps more up to date allergies, smoking and drinking status. So why is the research effort concentrated on providers EHRs which, under best circumstances, are practically mirrors of already aggregated and analytics ready repositories?
  • With very few exceptions, population level research data need not be available in real time and need not be extracted in milliseconds. While web crawling enabled technologies and infrastructures are very appealing, the cost of retrofitting every data repository with the means to bypass a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) seems a bit unjustified and the benefits seem unclear to me in view of the multitude of algorithms continuously executing in payer databases with obvious benefits to that industry. As an additional note, I believe the report severely underestimates the costs to the industry to migrate to a web-based, data-element centric architecture, which will involve major changes to all payer, laboratory, pharmacy, clearinghouse, intermediaries, HIE, CDS, drug database providers, etc., in addition to the obvious impact on providers and their EHRs.
3. Does a browser based, research oriented infrastructure benefit health and health care?
  • There is no question in my mind that a “universal language” for health care information exchange is necessary. Languages are composed of syntax and semantics.
    • Syntax - There has been increasing agreement in the U.S. and other countries as well, that HL 7 v3, which is XML based, is capable of providing a universal syntax for data exchange either through messaging or through exchange of “documents”. Both messages and documents are based on extensible structures, with the added benefit that CDA is compatible with the needs of those who do not own and cannot process individual data elements. Those needs will be around for a very long time. Additionally, the CDA automatically provides context for all data elements it contains. One may argue that metadata tags can contain all contextual information required to recreate the CDA, in which case the question is why disaggregate the document in the first place? For illustration purposes, let’s assume that an MRI order is represented by a metadata tagged element. For a given physician, treating a given patient, seeing that an MRI was ordered sometime in the past is rather meaningless without the context of a progress note containing diagnoses, subjective and objective findings and perhaps other diagnostic tests. However, I can easily see a “measurement” being created from the proposed atomic data elements, to calculate all the MRIs ordered by Dr. X in a certain period of time. Dr. X would probably be rewarded or wrist-slapped if he ordered less-than/more-than the “norm”. Without the proper context this measurement would, of course, be meaningless. Obtaining the proper context would pretty much require the assembly of the CDA and application of appropriate logic to the query. This is a bit more complex than what a web-crawler is required to do.
    • Semantics – Here too I believe the report underestimates the complexities involved in using multiple vocabularies, translated at the edges by some type of “middleware”. If you ever clicked on the “Translate this page” link in Google, or used an online translator to obtain a nice Latin quote, you should know that using arguments like “my middleware speaks more vocabularies than yours”[2 slide 6] cannot be taken seriously by anybody with any exposure to UMLS and SNOMED-CT.
  • I have no doubt that creating a health care ecosystem based on atomic data elements is conducive to a plethora of research activities. Perhaps even clinical research. I am not certain though, that such activities will either improve health or reduce cost of health care. If you happened to read Dr. Gawande’s latest article[3], you should realize that health care is best AND most cost effectively delivered one patient at a time with very high-touch methodologies. Patient-centric was never meant to be interpreted as data-centric. Yes, computerized records can help tremendously, but I could not identify a single use case in the report that requires atomic data elements, or even benefits incrementally from such strategy.
  • Both physicians and patients need to exchange meaningful information. I cannot identify with certainty one optimal way for such exchange. The Direct Project looks to me as very promising. However, if I may be allowed one more illustration, medical records are very similar to books, mostly collections of short stories. Patients and their primary care providers may want to have a copy of the entire book. Other providers may want a chapter or two, or even just an abstract, but nobody has any use for just words or sentences being moved across the wire. Most books do have an index, but that index serves as a pointer to contextual information. There can be no understanding without the context. If I say that my book contains an index to “death panels” which appears 50 times in the book, you still have no idea if this is a liberal book, a Tea Party manifesto, a history book about ancient tribunals, a critique of the NHS, or Mr. Boehner’s latest interview. Yes, we do know how to efficiently crawl around the web and aggregate billions of indexed locations with no particular context in mind, but just because we have a hammer…..
4. What is Government’s proper role in technology?
This is not about Meaningful Use, incentives, vision for a better future, or any lofty goals. This is about capriciously and arbitrarily influencing industries and markets.
  • I do understand how technology serves manufacturing, retail and financial industries exceedingly well, but there is a reason why health care did not take the same path. As I wrote elsewhere, medicine is very different than other “industries” in that it lacks 100% repeatable processes. For example, the entire process of manufacturing, packaging, ordering, delivering, stocking and selling a box of Fruit Loops is exactly the same for every single Fruit Loops box. Automation of such process is easy. Unfortunately, people are not very similar to Fruit Loops boxes, and paradoxically, the lack of appeal and utility of current EHRs is in large part due to EHR designers thinking about Fruit Loops instead of the many ways in which people express pain and suffering. The legal industry is even less computerized than health care for the same exact reason. I do understand the frustration of technical folks and research oriented scholars with the slow adoption of HIT by physicians, but the answer is not to decree exactly how medicine should be practiced, and how it should be paid for, just so that it accommodates existing technologies, no matter how cutting edge their inventors seem to think those are.
  • I am familiar with the various theories of innovation, disruptive innovation, fostering innovation, stifling innovation and all other derivatives of what has become a meaningless term. I don’t see how Government’s role extends to arbitrarily deciding that some products are “legacy” and others, yet to be invented are not, and to creating a “vibrant market of innovators”. “Vibrant market” should suffice. Is Government engaged in similar efforts in other “industries”, whether those are technically advanced or not? Yes, there is a host of incumbent technology vendors in HIT, and yes, they are well entrenched and getting more so as adoption rates are increasing, and yes, their products are well positioned for improvement. Has the Government decided that these vendors are unable to be “innovative”? Has anybody done a bit of “longitudinal” research on how products have changed in the last few years? I do understand there is significant private capital on the sidelines, waiting impatiently to enter the “market” [2 slide 3], but is it proper for the U.S. Government to “pave the way” by imposing new regulations on the industry, which may or may not be appropriate, just so that room is made for those who could not enter, or gain enough share of the market on merit alone? Is this what we now consider innovation?
  • We will probably be better served if Government, or CMS, just defined what the outputs and inputs should be, what the rewards and penalties are, and let physicians, hospitals, HIT and the rest of the industry figure out how best to deliver. You would probably see some serious and true innovation right there.
Thank you for reading what has ballooned to 5 times what I intended it to be.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

That Which We Call a Rose

What’s in a name? Sometimes nothing much. Sometimes a shift in paradigm.

The Medical Record in its current format was created over a century ago by Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer at the Mayo Clinic. When in the course of human events the Medical Record began migrating from paper folders to computer files, the Institute Of Medicine naturally named the new invention Computer-based Patient Record System (CPRS). The Medical Records Institute chose the term Electronic Patient Record (EPR). Somewhere along the line the “patient” got dropped from the concept and the software used to compose and store medical records became known as Electronic Medical Record and the name EMR stuck.

As the EMR software evolved and started exhibiting rudimentary information exchange abilities and some semblance of “intelligence”, it was felt that a name change was in order. To differentiate the newer and smarter software from the original EMR, the term Electronic Health Record (EHR) was introduced and is now enthusiastically supported by the Federal Government. The term EHR is used in acts of Congress, rule makings from CMS and ONC and Presidential speeches. Since EMR has been around for quite some time, most industry veterans, as well as most doctors, are a bit confused about the new terminology. Is it EMR or is it EHR? Is it just semantics? Would an EMR by any other name smell as sweet (bitter)?

In a recent ONC blog, Peter Garrett and Joshua Seidman argue that there is a significant difference between EMR and EHR. The former is just “a digital version of the paper charts” and “not much better than a paper record”, while the latter is “designed to be accessed by all people involved in the patients care”, including patients, and generally “represents the ability to easily share medical information among stakeholders and to have a patient’s information follow him or her through the various modalities of care engaged by that individual”. This dramatic difference stems from replacing the word “Medical”, which implies disease, with the word “Health” which is “the general condition of the body”. Note that the word “Patient” is still absent. However, Health is supposedly from cradle to grave, while Medical is episodic in nature. Since, no matter what you call it, clinicians are the primary users of this software, would we say that doctors provide Medical Care or Health Care?

When we say that cost of Health Care is sky-rocketing, we don’t usually include costs for clean air, clean water, car seatbelts and gym memberships, and although we all know that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, the cost of apples is not included in our Health Care expenditures. To be sure, Medicine, “the science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease”, does include costs for direct prevention of specific diseases (immunizations) and efforts for early diagnosis of others (screenings). Historically, doctors, nurses and their less formally educated predecessors have been tending to the very sick. It is with this goal in mind that Dr. Plummer’s collaborative Medical record was created, and it is for this purpose that the American Academy of Pediatrics advocated for a Medical home for sick children, and it is Medical care for the sick which the EMR attempted to facilitate, one patient at a time. The EHR represents quite a different philosophy and places new and expanded responsibilities on the Medical profession.

The EHR is intended to serve the healthy as well as the sick, and the President’s vision is that every American should have one, whether that particular American is healthy or not. The ONC vision, shared by many innovators in the field, is that “EHRs focus on the total health of the patient—going beyond standard clinical data collected in the provider’s office and inclusive of a broader view on a patient’s care”. That broader view will presumably include lifestyle habits, diet and exercise and everything one may wish to record which pertains to one’s general health status. If and when a person becomes ill and is transformed into a patient, the various clinicians and care providers will contribute their documentation to the EHR, and since EHRs are easily shareable, all Medical care will be coordinated through the EHR and collaboration will flourish, as it should. This sounds almost exactly the same as what a Personal Health Record (PHR) is supposed to be. Is an EHR really a PHR?

No. EHRs include one feature that is not possible in a PHR: the ability to aggregate individual patients into populations. When physicians write introspectively about their work, you usually find stories about this or that particular patient, pondering whether they did too much for the 90-year-old Alzheimer’s victim, or too little for the misdiagnosed 40-year-old ovarian cancer patient. They talk about emotions, or lack thereof, about small victories and exasperatingly “non-compliant” middle aged executives who should know better. Each story has a patient with a name, physical details and most often character description. For those inclined to self-assessment, the day-in and day-out tally of these personal episodes is the decisive yardstick. When people recommend a doctor to a friend, they usually talk about “nobody could figure out what was wrong with Katie; he took one look at her and knew right away” or “you can get in today or tomorrow and she is so nice and patient ; always takes my phone calls and you know I can be a pain (giggle)” or “when Adam had that knee problem, he fixed it like magic and he did surgery on cousin Joe’s shoulder; as good as new, and I think he takes care of the Cardinals too; he is definitely the best in town”.

This unscientific, anecdotal method of both performing and assessing one’s work will be replaced by the broader view of EHR enabled population indicators and considerations. Instead of dealing with Mr. Wilson’s gout and Mrs. Wilson’s incontinence, you are now the keeper of the Health of Populations. The EHR can tell you that half of your under 40 patients are obese and doing absolutely nothing about it. You, or your team, will need to intervene because an ounce of prevention today will lead to healthier lives for this population, and lower costs for society. While managing Mrs. Wilson’s neuropathy is important (especially to Mrs. Wilson), having your population of 300 diabetics controlled within acceptable cost effective parameters will become the main focus of your practice. EHRs will provide you with the intelligence (information) to manage your numbers and with ongoing measurements to assess your performance against goals, and EHRs will continuously collect data for ground-breaking research and more effective recommendations.

EHRs, as imperfect, ineffective and downright primitive, as they are today may be our first glimpse of a future where curing or treating disease is largely a thing of the past. If populations are proactively managed and everybody gets their shots and recommended genetic therapy, or whatever they will come up with next, Medical care will be limited to trauma and exotic ailments that have not been researched just yet. While our generation will not be crossing the River into the Promised Land of perpetual Health, it is up to us to manage this transition so human dignity is preserved and collateral damage is minimized in the process of industrializing medicine, a process which starts with changing the M in EMR to the H in EHR.