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Epic Mounts Clumsy Public Defense On False Claims Lawsuit

Posted on November 6, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

A former employee of a health system using Epic filed a False Claims Act whistleblower suit claiming that the vendor’s platform overbills for anesthesia services by default. The suit claims that Epic’s billing software double-bills both Medicare and Medicaid for anesthesia, as well as commercial payers.

At this point, let me be clear that I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but in theory, this could be a very big deal. One could certainly imagine a scenario in which multiple Epic customers colluded to permit this level of overbilling, which could generate staggering levels of overpayment. If so, one could imagine hospitals and health systems paying out judgments that add up to billions of dollars. To date, though, nobody’s made such a suggestion. In fact, Epic has said essentially the opposite and pointed to the need to understand how medical billing works, but we’ll get to that.

In the suit, which was filed in 2015 but unsealed this month, Geraldine Petrowski contended that Epic’s software was billing for both the base units of anesthesia for procedures and the time the procedure took.

Petrowski, a former employee with the compliance team at Raleigh, N.C.-based WakeMed Health & Hospitals, alleges that setting the billing to these defaults has resulted in “hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent bills” submitted to Medicare, Medicaid and other payers. (WakeMed is an Epic customer.)

According to an article appearing in Modern Healthcare, Petrowski developed these concerns when she worked with Epic as the provider’s liaison for its software implementation between 2012 and 2014. In the complaint, she says that she raised these concerns with Epic, but got a dismissive response. Eventually, after Petrowski kept up the pressure for a while, Epic fixed the billing issue — but only for WakeMed.

Apparently, the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed Petrowski’s case and decided not to intervene, a fact which Epic has not-surprisingly mentioned every chance it gets. Perhaps more tellingly, the vendor has suggested that Petrowski filed the suit largely because she’s clueless. “The plaintiff’s assertions represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how claims software works,” Epic spokesperson Meghan Roh told the magazine.

Now, I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but if the best public defense Epic can mount in this case is to offer some mixture of “everybody’s doing it” and “you’re a big dummy,” you’ve got to wonder what it’s got to hide.

Not only that, trying to brush off the suit as the product of ignorance or inexperience makes no sense given what’s involved. While False Claims whistleblowers can collect a very large payoff, getting there can take many years of grueling work, and their odds of prevailing aren’t great even if they make it through the torturous litigation process.

No, I’m more inclined to think that Epic has tipped its hand already. I’d argue that fixing only the WakeMed billing system shows what the legal folks call mens rea – a guilty mind — or at least a willingness to ignore potential wrongdoing. Not only that, if the system was operating as expected, why would Epic have gotten involved in the first place? Its consulting services don’t come cheap, and I’m guessing that Petrowski didn’t have the authority to pay for them.

It doesn’t look good, people…it just doesn’t look good.

Sure, the hospitals and health systems using Epic’s billing solution are ultimately responsible for the results. Maybe Epic is completely blameless in the matter this case. Regardless, if Epic’s hands are clean, it could do a better job of acting like it.

RCM Tips And Tricks: To Collect More From Patients, Educate And Engage Them

Posted on November 1, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Hospitals face particularly difficult challenges when trying to collect on patient bills. When you mix complex pricing structures, varied contracts with health insurers and dizzying administrative issues, it’s hard to let patients know what they’re going to owe, much less collect it.

Luckily, RCM leaders can make major progress with patient collections if they adopt some established (but often neglected) strategies. In short, to collect more from patients you need to educate them about healthcare financial issues, develop a trusted relationship with them and make it easy for them to pay that bill.

As a thought exercise, let’s assume that most patients want to pay their bills, but may need encouragement. While nobody can collect money from consumers that refuse to pay, you can help the willing ones prepare for the bills they’ll get. You can teach them to understand their coverage. In some cases, you can collect balances ahead of time. Toss in some smart patient engagement strategies and you could be golden.

What will that look like in practice? Check out this list of steps hospitals can take to improve RCM results directly, courtesy of a survey of hospital execs by Becker’s Hospital Review:

  • Sixty-five percent suggested that telling patients the amount due before they come to an appointment would be helpful.
  • Fifty-two percent believe that having more data on patients’ likelihood to pay could improve patient collections results
  • Forty-seven percent said that speaking to clients in different ways depending on the state of the finances would help improve patient collections.
  • Forty-two percent said that offering customers payment plans would be valuable.

Of course, you won’t be doing this in a vacuum, and some of the trends affecting patient financial responsibility are beyond your control. For example, unless something changes dramatically, many patients will continue to struggle with high-deductible health coverage. Nobody – except the health insurers – likes this state of affairs, but it’s a fact of life.

Also, it’s worth noting that boosting patient engagement can be complicated and labor-intensive. To connect with patients effectively, hospitals will need to fight a war on many fronts. That means not only speaking to patients in ways they understand, but also offering well-thought-out hospital-branded mobile apps, an effective online presence and more. You’ll want to do whatever it takes to foster patient loyalty and trust. Though this may sound intimidating, you’ll like the results you get.

However, there are a few strategies that hospitals can implement relatively quickly. In fact, the Becker’s survey results suggest that hospitals already know what they need to do — but haven’t gotten around to it.

For example, 87% of hospital respondents said they had a problem with collecting co-pays before appointments, 85% said knowing how much patients can pay was important, and 76% of respondents said that simplifying bills was a problem for them. While it may be harder than it looks to execute on these strategies, it certainly isn’t impossible.

Healthcare Execs See New Digital Health Technologies As Critical To Success

Posted on October 30, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Healthcare organizations have spent massively on HIT in recent years, in hopes of preparing for success by building next-generation tech infrastructure.  If a new survey is any indication, while the current set of efforts haven’t born as much fruit as their leaders like, they remain hopeful that the next wave will better support their goals.

The SAP Digital Transformation Executive Study, which surveyed about 400 healthcare executives, looked at whether the healthcare industry was prepared for the digital economy.

Respondents told SAP (and survey partner Oxford Economics) that the existing technology investments weren’t delivering the value they wanted, with only 22% saying they supported customer satisfaction efforts and 23% saying that they helped foster innovation.

Fortunately for health IT vendors, however, that wasn’t the whole story. Perhaps because hope springs eternal, healthcare leaders predicted that in two years thing should look different.

In fact, 70% said that the latest technologies were essential to growth, competitive advantage and customer experience. In two years, 61% expect technology investments to boost customer satisfaction, and 59% believe the technologies will help support innovation.

This may be, at least in part, because many healthcare organizations are in the process of kicking off digital transformation efforts and are relying on new technologies to achieve their goals. Though the process hasn’t advanced too far in many organizations, respondents all seem to be making some progress.

According to the survey, healthcare execs expect the importance of digital transformation to climb over the next several years. While 61% said it’s important today, 79% expect it to be important in two years and 86% believe that it will be important in five years.

To prepare for these eventualities, 23% of respondents said are planning digital transformation initiatives and 54% are piloting these approaches. In addition, 32% reported that their efforts were complete in some areas and 2% said their process was complete in all areas. Almost half (48%) said a lack of mature technology was holding back their efforts.

When asked to name the technologies they expected to use, 76% of healthcare leaders predicted that big data and analytics will help them transform their business. They also named cloud computing (65%), IoT technologies (46%) and AI (28%) as tools likely to foster digital transformation process.

I don’t know about you, but personally, I’d be pretty upset if I’d spent tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on this wave of health IT and felt that I’d gotten little value out of it. And given that history, I’d be reluctant to make any new investments until I was confident things play out differently this time.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that healthcare execs are taking their time with implementing digital transformation, as important as this process may be. With any luck, the next wave of digital technology will be more flexible and offer greater ROI than the previous generation.

Predictive Analytics Will Save Hospitals, Not IT Investment

Posted on October 27, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Most hospitals run on very slim operating margins. In fact, not-for-profit hospitals’ mean operating margins fell from 3.4% in fiscal year 2015 to 2.7% in fiscal year 2016, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

To turn this around, many seem to be pinning their hopes on better technology, spending between 25% and 35% of their capital budget on IT infrastructure investment. But that strategy might backfire, suggests an article appearing in the Harvard Business Review.

Author Sanjeev Agrawal, who serves as president of healthcare and chief marketing officer at healthcare predictive analytics company LeanTaaS, argues that throwing more money at IT won’t help hospitals become more profitable. “Healthcare providers can’t keep spending their way out of trouble by investing in more and more infrastructure,” he writes. “Instead, they must optimize the use of the assets currently in place.”

Instead, he suggests, hospitals need to go the way of retail, transportation and airlines, industries which also manage complex operations and work on narrow margins. Those industries have improved their performance by improving their data science capabilities.

“[Hospitals] need to create an operational ‘air traffic control’ for their hospitals — a centralized command-and-control capability that is predictive, learns continually, and uses optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence to deliver prescriptive recommendations throughout the system,” Agrawal says.

Agrawal predicts that hospitals will use predictive analytics to refine their key care-delivery processes, including resource utilization, staff schedules, and patient admits and discharges. If they get it right, they’ll meet many of their goals, including better patient throughput, lower costs and more efficient asset utilization.

For example, he notes, hospitals can optimize OR utilization, which brings in 65% of revenue at most hospitals. Rather than relying on current block-scheduling techniques, which have been proven to be inefficient, hospitals can use predictive analytics and mobile apps to give surgeons more control of OR scheduling.

Another area ripe for process improvements is the emergency department. As Agrawal notes, hospitals can avoid bottlenecks by using analytics to define the most efficient order for ED activities. Not only can this improve hospital finances, it can improve patient satisfaction, he says.

Of course, Agrawal works for a predictive analytics vendor, which makes him more than a little bit biased. But on the other hand, I doubt any of us would disagree that adopting predictive analytics strategies is the next frontier for hospitals.

After all, having spent many billions collectively to implement EMRs, hospitals have created enormous data stores, and few would argue that it’s high time to leverage them. For example, if they want to adopt population health management – and it’s a question of when, not if — they’ve got to use these tools to reduce outcome variations and improve quality of cost across populations. Also, while the deep-pocketed hospitals are doing it first, it seems likely that over time, virtually every hospital will use EMR data to streamline operations as well.

The question is, will vendors like LeanTaaS take a leading role in this transition, or will hospital IT leaders know what they want to do?  At this stage, it’s anyone’s guess.

Avoiding EMR-Related Lawsuits In The ED

Posted on October 25, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

It’s hardly a secret that while EMRs may offer clinical benefits, they aren’t quite the patient safety or risk management tool one might hope they would be. Hospitals have much greater luck mining EMRs for clinical intelligence retroactively than they have using them to avoiding liability, in part because many aren’t designed to offer such protection.

But according to medical malpractice insurer CNA, there are steps hospitals can take to avoid EMR-related liability in the emergency department, in many cases if they simply avoid some key pitfalls which have caused problems for facilities in the past.

Avoiding copy and paste problems

As we all know, copying and pasting repetitive parts of a patient record from one note to another — such as the patient’s history — can save physicians lot of time. And if that’s all that gets copied, it’s seldom an issue.

However, when physicians rely too heavily on copy and paste functions, it can have a negative effect on patient care, in part by disseminating error-laden or outdated information, CNA has found. Overuse of copy-and-paste functions can also flood records with excess information and make it hard for subsequent providers to find what they need.

To avoid patient care errors associated with the use of copy and paste functions, CNA’s recommendations include the following:

  • Establish policies laying out how copy and paste functions should be used
  • Require clinicians to get ongoing education on proper use of these functions and patient safety risks associated with copy and paste misuse
  • Use a voice-activated dictation system for EMR data entry
  • Have the EMR highlight all copied information and/or prevent copying of high-sensitivity information such as the history of present illness
  • Audit EMRs to understand how providers use copy and paste, and responding when they seem to be abusing this function

Managing requests for EHR-based information

If your ED is facing a professional liability claim, you are likely to face requests for paper production of EMR archives. Part of your goal will be to limit how much EHR-based information is legally discoverable.

An important step in doing so is defining the legal medical record (LMR), which includes information on the provision of clinical care which would reasonably be expected upon request during discovery.

However, producing paper copies of EMR-based information differs from producing records originally created on paper, and hospital emergency departments might face additional liability issues if they haven’t prepared for this adequately. To do so, steps they can take include:

  • Developing policies and procedures for responding to requests for copies of the EMR and audit trails
  • Offering ongoing education for medical staff and employees on best practices for EMR documentation
  • Disclosing the EMR electronically in read-only mode rather than as a paper document

Eventually, of course, hospitals will want to do more than patch together defenses against problems that can occur when using a typical EMR design. Ultimately hospitals will want to make EMRs easy to use and supportive of clinical goals without being too intrusive. I know, most of us feel like we’ll grow old and gray waiting for this to happen, but we mustn’t let it fall off the radar.

In the meantime, the strategies CNA outlines could help your ED avoid medical malpractice litigation and protect patients from needless harm. It may be a transitional strategy but it’s better than nothing.

Apple Considers Healthcare Services Crossover

Posted on October 23, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Typically, we cover stories describing how technology companies are pitching their products to providers. This time, in a move I predict we’ll see more often in the future, it looks like Apple has been pondering how it can enter the brick-and-mortar primary care business. This should concern both hospitals and primary care organizations, particularly hospitals that own physician clinics.

Apparently, Apple has been thinking about expanding into the clinic business for at least a year, according to an article from CNBC. Sources told CNBC that the tech giant was in talks to buy a startup known as Crossover Health, which helps big employers create and operate on-site medical clinics. The article reports that while Apple and Crossover talked for months, the two didn’t strike an acquisition agreement.

That doesn’t mean that Apple is backing away from buying a provider organization. The story also notes that Apple has reportedly approached national primary care group One Medical, which charges patients an annual fee for concierge-style care. It’s clearly no coincidence that One Medical also pitches its program to employers.

There’s an argument to be made that Apple can pull this kind of deal off. If nothing else, Apple has been very successful with its chain of brick-and-mortar retail centers, which have been a major sales channel for the company. Between Apple’s magic-touch history with the stores, and large medical groups developing increasingly strong retail chops, there’s a lot of potential there. It’s possible that if Apple acquires or partners with the right clinics, it could be the first major tech company to be a roaring success in the sector.

It’s also worth noting that Apple customers are some of the most fanatically loyal buyers in the world, with many having stayed with the company during all of it ups and downs. If it can mobilize these fans, some of whom are also invested in Apple smartwatches and phones, it could invent new ways to enhance their care experiences. And that could set its clinics apart.

That being said, healthcare is far from perfecting the retail experience for its customers, though there are standouts like One Medical on the map. (Full disclosure: I was briefly a patient in its Washington DC office and came away impressed with the way the care was delivered and packaged.) Few hospitals or clinics are getting it right just yet.

Perhaps more importantly, while Apple has been at the margins of the healthcare business, I doubt it has a deep institutional understanding of healthcare mechanics. This might not be a big deal initially, but as the dust settles on an acquisition it could be a culture clash. After all, healthcare delivery is different from retail operations in some very important ways, including but not limited the herky-jerky way providers are forced to collect on their bills.

My feeling is that even if Apple pours endless capital into such a venture, what will matter more is how well it comes to understand healthcare operations. I believe that it might do better if it partners with a health system with plans to expand its clinic presence. After all, working with the health system would provide Apple with much deeper resources, a deep bench of executive talent and the ability to partner directly on rolling out medical groups. Let’s see if things head that way.

When Hospitals Leak Money

Posted on October 20, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

A couple of weeks ago I was skimming healthcare business headlines and stumbled across this guaranteed showstopper: You’re probably leaving $22 million on the table. That headline is from a column by Jim Lazarus, who works in the Advisory Board’s Revenue Cycle Solutions division. In his column, he named four ways in which hospitals could recapture some of this lost revenue.

In the article, Lazarus notes that hospitals aren’t following best practices in four key areas, namely denial write-offs, bad debt, cost to collect and contract yield.  Unsurprisingly, Advisory Board benchmarks also demonstrate that median performing organizations are having trouble reducing net days in accounts receivable. The Advisory Board has also found that the overall average cost to collect has worsened by 70 points of net patient revenue from 2011 to 2015.

To turn the stats around, he suggests, hospitals should focus on four critical issues in revenue cycle management. They include:

  • Preventing denials rather than responding to them. “Hospitals are losing, on average, five percentage points of their margin to underpayments, denials and suboptimal contract negotiations,” Lazarus writes.
  • Collecting more from patients by improving their financial experience. According to Lazarus, between 2008 and 2015 the portion of patient obligations being written off as bad debt has climbed from 0.9% to 4.4%. To boost patient collections, hospitals must offer price estimates, convenient payment methods and a positive care encounter, he says.
  • Being sure not to take a hit on MACRA compliance. See that doctors, including those coming on board as employed physicians, get up to speed on documentation performance standards as quickly as possible.
  • Building the value of merged RCM departments. If multiple RCM organizations are being integrated as part of consolidation, look at ways to improve the value they deliver collectively. One approach is to create a shared services organization providing a common business intelligence platform across entities and service lines systemwide.

If you’re an IT leader reading this, it’s probably pretty clear that you have a substantial role in meeting these goals.

For example, if your hospital wants to lower its rate of claims denials, having the right applications in place to assist is critical. Do your coding and billing managers have the visibility they need into these processes? Does senior management?

Also, if the hospital wants to improve patient payment experiences, it takes far more than offering a credit card processing interface to make things work. You’ll want to create a payment system which includes multiple consumer touch points and financing options, which is integrated with other data to offer sophisticated analyses of patient payment patterns.

Of course, the ideas shared by Lazarus are just the beginning. While all organizations leave some money on the table, they have their own quirks as to why this happens. The important thing is to identify them. Regardless, whether you are in RCM, operations or IT, it never hurts to assume you’re losing money and work backward from there.

Geisinger Partners With Pharmas To Improve Diabetes Outcomes

Posted on October 10, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Geisinger has struck a deal with Boehringer Ingelheim to develop a risk-prediction model for three of the most common adverse outcomes from type 2 diabetes. The agreement is on behalf of Boehringer’s diabetes alliance with Eli Lilly and Company.

What makes this partnership interesting is that the players involved in this kind of pharma relationship are usually health plans. For example:

  • In May, UnitedHealth Group’s Optum struck a deal to model reimbursement models in which payment for prescription drugs is better structured to improve outcomes.
  • Earlier this year, Aetna cut a deal with Merck in which the two will use predictive analytics to identify target populations and offer them specialized health and wellness services. The program started by focusing on patients with diabetes and hypertension in the mid-Atlantic US.
  • Another example is the 2015 agreement between Harvard Pilgrim health plan and Amgen, in which the pharma would pay rebates if its cholesterol-control medication Repatha didn’t meet agreed-upon thresholds.

As the two organizations note in their joint press statement, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death associated with diabetes, and diabetes is the top cause of kidney failure in the U.S. population. Cardiovascular complications alone cost the U.S. more than $23 billion per year, and roughly 68 percent of deaths in people with type 2 diabetes in the U.S. are caused by cardiovascular disease.

The two partners hope to improve the odds for diabetics by identifying their condition quickly and treating it effectively.

Under the Geisinger/Boehringer agreement, the partners will attempt to predict which adults with type 2 diabetes are most likely to develop kidney failure, undergo hospitalization for heart failure or die from cardiovascular causes.

To improve the health of diabetics, the partners will develop predictive risk models using de-identified EHR data from Geisinger. The goal is to develop more precise treatment pathways for people with type 2 diabetes, and see that the pathways align with quality guidelines.

Though this agreement itself doesn’t have a value-based component, it’s likely that health systems like Geisinger will take up health plans’ strategies for lowering spend on medications, as the systems will soon be on the hook for excess spending.

After all, according to a KPMG survey, value-based contracts are becoming a meaningful percentage of health system revenue. The survey found that while value-based agreements aren’t dominant, 36 percent of respondents generated some of their revenue from value-based payments and 14 percent said the majority of revenue is generated by value-based payments.

In the meantime, partnerships like this one may help to improve outcomes for expensive, prevalent conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and heart disease. Expect to see more health systems strike such agreements in the near future.

AHA Asks Congress To Reduce Health IT Regulations for Medicare Providers

Posted on September 22, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

The American Hospital Association has sent a letter to Congress asking members to reduce regulatory burdens for Medicare providers, including mandates affecting a wide range of health IT services.

The letter, which is addressed to the House Ways and Means Health subcommittee, notes that in 2016, CMS and other HHS agencies released 49 rules impacting hospitals and health systems, which make up nearly 24,000 pages of text.

“In addition to the sheer volume, the scope of changes required by the new regulations is beginning to outstrip the field’s ability to absorb them,” says the letter, which was signed by Thomas Nickels, executive vice president of government relations and public policy for the AHA. The letter came with a list of specific changes AHA is proposing.

Proposals of potential interest to health IT leaders include the following. The AHA is asking Congress to:

  • Expand Medicare coverage of telehealth to patients outside of rural areas and expand the types of technology that can be used. It also suggests that CMS should automatically reimburse for Medicare-covered services when delivered via telehealth unless there’s an individual exception.
  • Remove HIPAA barriers to sharing patient medical information with providers that don’t have a direct relationship with that patient, in the interests of improving care coordination and outcomes in a clinically-integrated setting.
  • Cancel Stage 3 of the Meaningful Use program, institute a 90-day reporting period for future program years and eliminate the all-or-nothing approach to compliance.
  • Suspend eCQM reporting requirements, given how difficult it is at present to pull outside data into certified EHRs for quality reporting.
  • Remove requirements that hospitals attest that they have bought technology which supports health data interoperability, as well as that they responded quickly and in good faith to requests for exchange with others. At present, hospitals could face penalties for technical issues outside their control.
  • Refocus the ONC to address a narrower scope of issues, largely EMR standards and certification, including testing products to assure health data interoperability.

I am actually somewhat surprised to say that these proposals seem to be largely reasonable. Typically, when they’re developed by trade groups, they tend to be a bit too stacked in favor of that group’s subgroup of concerns. (By the way, I’m not taking a position on the rest of the regulatory ideas the AHA put forth.)

For example, expanding Medicare telehealth coverage seems prudent. Given their age, level of chronic illness and attendant mobility issues, telehealth could potentially do great things for Medicare beneficiaries.

Though it should be done carefully, tweaking HIPAA rules to address the realities of clinical integration could be a good thing. Certainly, no one is suggesting that we ought to throw the rulebook out the window, it probably makes sense to square it with today’s clinical realities.

Also, the idea of torquing down MU 3 makes some sense to me as well, given the uncertainties around the entirety of MU. I don’t know if limiting future reporting to 90-day intervals is wise, but I wouldn’t take it off of the table.

In other words, despite spending much of my career ripping apart trade groups’ legislative proposals, I find myself in the unusual position of supporting the majority of the ones I list above. I hope Congress gives these suggestions some serious consideration.

Open Source Tool Offers “Synthetic” Patients For Hospital Big Data Projects

Posted on September 13, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

As readers will know, using big data in healthcare comes with a host of security and privacy problems, many of which are thorny.

For one thing, the more patient data you accumulate, the bigger the disaster when and if the database is hacked. Another important concern is that if you decide to share the data, there’s always the chance that your partner will use it inappropriately, violating the terms of whatever consent to disclose you had in mind. Then, there’s the issue of working with incomplete or corrupted data which, if extensive enough, can interfere with your analysis or even lead to inaccurate results.

But now, there may be a realistic alternative, one which allows you to experiment with big data models without taking all of these risks. A unique software project is underway which gives healthcare organizations a chance to scope out big data projects without using real patient data.

The software, Synthea, is an open source synthetic patient generator that models the medical history of synthetic patients. It seems to have been built by The MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit research and development organization sponsored by the U.S. federal government. (This page offers a list of other open source projects in which MITRE is or has been involved.)

Synthea is built on a Generic Module Framework which allows it to model varied diseases and conditions that play a role in the medical history of these patients. The Synthea modules create synthetic patients using not only clinical data, but also real-world statistics collected by agencies like the CDC and NIH. MITRE kicked off the project using models based on the top ten reasons patients see primary care physicians and the top ten conditions that shorten years of life.

Its makers were so thorough that each patient’s medical experiences are simulated independently from their “birth” to the present day. The profiles include a full medical history, which includes medication lists, allergies, physician encounters and social determinants of health. The data can be shared using C-CDA, HL7 FHIR, CSV and other formats.

On its site, MITRE says its intent in creating Synthea is to provide “high-quality, synthetic, realistic but not real patient data and associated health records covering every aspect of healthcare.” As MITRE notes, having a batch of synthetic patient data on hand can be pretty, well, handy in evaluating new treatment models, care management systems, clinical support tools and more. It’s also a convenient way to predict the impact of public health decisions quickly.

This is such a good idea that I’m surprised nobody else has done something comparable. (Well, at least as far as I know no one has.) Not only that, it’s great to see the software being made available freely via the open source distribution model.

Of course, in the final analysis, healthcare organizations want to work with their own data, not synthetic substitutes. But at least in some cases, Synthea may offer hospitals and health systems a nice head start.