Let's Reboot America's HIT Conversation Part 1: Putting EHRs in Context

By David Kibbe
11:09 AM

This blog entry first appeared at The Health Care Blog. -Ed.

On Dec. 19, we published an Open Letter to the Obama Health Team, cautioning the incoming Administration against limiting its Health Information Technology (IT) investments to Electronic Health Records (EHRs). Instead, we recommended that their health IT plan be rethought to favor a large array of innovative applications that can be easily adopted to result in more effective, less expensive care.

The response to that post was vigorous. We received many comments and inquiries from the health care vendor, professional and policy communities - urging us to provide more clarity. One prominent commentator called to ask whether we, in fact, supported the use of EHRs. We both have been active EMR and health IT supporters for many years. Dr. Kibbe was a developer of the Continuity of Care Record (CCR), a de facto standard format for Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), and has assisted hundreds of medical practices to adopt EHRs. Dr. Klepper has been involved in EMR projects for the last 15 years, and the onsite clinic firm he works with provides every clinician with a range of health IT tools, including EMRs.

That said, we are realistic about the problems that exist with health information technologies as they are currently constituted. As we described in our previous post (and contrary to some recent claims), most products are NOT interoperable, meaning licensees of different commercial systems - each using different proprietary formats - often find it difficult to exchange even basic health care information.

Most EHRs are bloated with functions that often are turned off by practitioners, that are promoted politically through the current CCHIT certification process, and that drive up costs of purchase, implementation and maintenance. Despite moving toward Web-based delivery models that have MUCH lower transactional costs than old-fashioned client/server approaches, most commercial offerings are still extremely expensive, especially compared to the revenue flows of the relatively small operations they support. (Dr. John Halamka's recent recommendation that the Fed invest $50,000 per clinician for rapid implementation of "interoperable CCHIT certified electronic records with built in decision support, clinical data exchange, and quality reporting" provides an idea of the resource allocations that are on the table.) The very wide range of choices in the market currently raises the question of whether the implementation of a national EHR infrastructure MUST be so costly.

Many health care professionals still think of health IT as a compartmentalized function within health care organizations. But health IT has increasingly become the glue between and across all health care supply chain, care delivery and financing enterprises. In the past, it was enough for health IT to facilitate information exchange inside organizations - in which case a proprietary system would do - but we now expect information to be sent and received seamlessly, independent of platform, including over the Internet. Most of the currently dominant EHR technologies don't even begin to get us there.

Nor, despite the rampant optimism about its potential, can a focus on health IT alone - or even more emphatically, EHRs - resolve health care's deeper problems. As the noted health care economist Alain Enthoven wrote in a December 28 New York Times editorial:

[President-elect Obama]... has suggested, for example, that electronic medical records could save Americans nearly $80 billion per year. But information technology cannot bring meaningful savings if it is used in a health care system that regularly rewards waste and punishes efficiency, as ours does.

In other words, as the recent reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Dartmouth Atlas point out (yet again), real reforms will require an array of significant changes, many of which will face withering opposition from entrenched interests. One of those interests is the established health care information technology sector, which stands to finally win handsomely from huge Federal investment in their current products.

The good news is that this is the position held by Peter Orszag, the incoming Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the current Director of the Congressional Budget Office, an astute student of health care dynamics, and a key member of the Obama health team.  In July 18, 2008 testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, he said:

The bottom line is that research does indicate that, in certain settings, health IT appears to facilitate reductions in health spending if other steps in the broader healthcare system are also taken to alter incentives to promote savings. By itself, however, the adoption of more health IT is generally not sufficient to produce significant cost savings.

In other words, it is fair to be skeptical about how we should proceed with a national health IT build-out effort. The health IT industry's current product/service offerings are analogous to the auto industry's obsession with SUVs, as much the problem as the solution. Just as the auto industry can be re-purposed to build lower-energy, less wasteful vehicles, so too should the health IT industry be encouraged to offer smarter products that serve the interests of an affordable, convenient, and evidence-based health care system.

A smorgasbord of Health Information Technologies is available to help us build a far better health system. Part 2 will describe some functions that a national health IT infrastructure renewal effort might consider.

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