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Podcast: Scot Silverstein talks health IT safety risks

In a sidebar to the September cover story I did for Healthcare IT News, I reviewed some of the work of Scot Silverstein, M.D., who has long been chronicling problems with EHRs and other health IT systems. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available for an interview in time for that report, but he was last week, so I got him for a new podcast.

Silverstein, a professor of health informatics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, considers EHRs to be experimental and, sometimes, less safe than paper records and would like to see health IT subjected to the same kind of quality controls as aerospace software or medical devices. “Suboptimal system design could lead even careful users to make mistakes,” Silverstein said in this interview.

During this podcast, we refer to a couple of pages that I promise links to, so here they are. Silverstein writes regularly for the Health Care Renewal blog, a site founded by Roy Poses, M.D., a Brown University internist who runs the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine. His definitions of good health IT and bad health IT appear on his Drexel Web page.

Podcast details: Scot Silverstein, M.D., on health IT safety risks. MP3, mono, 128 kbps, 33.8 MB. running time 36:59.

1:10 How this interest came about
3:05 His blogging
3:45 His 11 points demonstrating why he believes the FDA should be concerned about health IT risks
5:00 IOM, FDA and ECRI Institute statements on health IT safety
5:50 Comparing EHRs to medical devices and pharmaceuticals
8:35 Lack of safety testing in health IT
9:25 Issues with EHR certification
10:00 Safety validation of software
10:35 EHR’s role in Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital’s initial discharge of Ebola patient
11:50 EHR failure causing medical harm to a close relative
13:10 Poor design vs. poor implementation
14:35 Who should regulate?
15:55 Billions already spent on EHRs
16:45 Threat of litigation
17:40 “Postmarket surveillance” of “medical meta-devices”
18:50 EHRs now more like “command and control” systems
19:30 Movement to slow down Meaningful Use
20:17 Safety issues with interoperability
21:40 Importance of usability
22:30 His role at Drexel
24:18 “Critical thinking always, or your patient’s dead”
25:05 Lack of health/medical experience among “disruptors”
29:30 Training informatics professionals and leaders
31:15 Concept vs. reality of “experimental” technology
32:50 Advice for evaluating health IT
33:55 Guardians of the status quo
35:10 Health IT “bubble”
36:10 Good health IT vs. bad health IT

 

October 20, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Docs, stop whining, start e-prescribing

The whining is getting old.

Per Surescripts, in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, about 69 percent of physicians nationwide used e-prescribing technology in one way or another, and 44 percent of all prescriptions written nationwide were routed electronically. (That report came out in early May 2013, so expect some new numbers soon.) Both are up substantially from the previous year, probably due in no small part to the Meaningful Use EHR incentive program, which does require a minimal level of e-prescribing.

But what about the holdouts? A recent article in the journal Perspectives in Health Information Management found that cost remains the No. 1 reason why physicians still haven’t ditched the paper prescription pad in favor of electronic prescribing.

“While e-prescribing offers many benefits, not all providers have been excited about implementing e-prescribing systems. A major barrier, reported by more than 80 percent of primary care physicians, has been lack of financial support. New technology requires training and information technology support for installation and upkeep. A practice must take these costs into account when deciding whether to implement an e-prescribing system and also when choosing a stand-alone system or one that is integrated into an EHR system. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, in a 2007 study the total cost of implementing an e-prescribing system was found to be $42,332, with annual costs after implementation of about $14,725 per year, for a practice of 10 full-time equivalent psychiatrists,” the authors reported.

Yes, but the paper also says this: “E-prescribing improves the efficiency of the prescribing process. Though the actual entering of a new prescription takes about 20 seconds longer per patient than writing a prescription, this time is offset by the time saved because of the fact that less clarification is needed for electronic prescriptions. Prescribers spent more time on the computer, on average an extra 6 minutes per prescriber per day or an increase of 20 seconds per patient when seeing 20 patients per day. If implemented correctly, e-prescribing should cause little disruption in the workflow of ambulatory care settings.”

In other words, those resisting the switch are being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Besides, e-prescribing systems don’t have to cost that much. In fact, they don’t have to cost anything. Allscripts offers a free, standalone e-prescribing system online, while PracticeFusion, DrChrono and Kareo have e-prescribing modules in their free EHRs. A startup named ScriptPad has an e-prescribing app for Apple iOS that’s free to prescribers; transaction fees get billed to pharmacies. I can’t vouch for the efficacy of any of this software, but cost doesn’t have to be an issue.

I think the real problem here is intransigence. Some doctors simply don’t want to get with the times, and the only losers are patients.

April 24, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

About those Obamacare numbers and the ICD-10 delay

While I’ve been busy writing a couple of stories on different topics, you’ve probably heard two pieces of news that will affect healthcare providers nationwide: the close of the first open enrollment period for Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges and the Congressional “fix” (read “Band-Aid”) to the Medicare sustainable growth rate that statutorily delays the ICD-10 compliance deadline for another year, until October 2015.

The White House yesterday reported that 7.1 million people had signed up for health insurance through healthcare.gov or state-run exchanges, barely exceeding the Congressional Budget Office’s projection of 7 million. Independent tracking site ACAsignups.net says it’s more like 7.08 million, but still just above the goal. That site also tallies the following sign-ups as a result of the ACA:

  • 6.37 million – 12.45 million in private “qualified health plans” (plans that meet ACA standards) via private exchanges, insurance agents or direct purchases from insurers, including deductions for the estimated 3.7 million whose “noncompliant” policies were canceled;
  • 4.71 million – 6.49 million through Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program expansions;
  • 2.5 million – 3.1 million “sub-26ers,” young adults whom the ACA allows to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26; and
  • 1.8 million “woodworkers,” those who came out of the woodwork because they did not know before the Obamacare enrollment push that they were eligible for Medicaid or CHIP.

ACAsignups.net places the total range at 14.6 million – 22.1 million as of March 31, not counting the healthcare.gov numbers, though my math puts it at 15.38 million – 22.06 million. Add in the healthcare.gov sign-ups and you get about 22.5 million to nearly 29 million newly insured people. However — and this is a big however — we do not know how many of the beneficiaries are newly insured and how many were replacing previous coverage.

Personally, I bought a high-deductible, ACA-qualified health plan through an independent agent to replace a rather restrictive high-deductible plan that was grandfathered in, and should save about $70-$80 a month on premiums starting in May. The new insurer rejected me several years ago due to a pre-existing condition; the ACA assures that I can’t be denied for that reason anymore. I imagine there are millions in the same boat as I am.

The U.S. Census Bureau placed the number of uninsured for 2012 at about 48 million, or 15.7 percent of the population. (The same year, 198.8 million had private insurance.) Until we see new figures for uninsured Americans, we will still just have “gross” statistics, not a net figure to show if the insurance part of the ACA is working.

By the way, the ACA is about much more than insurance coverage, despite what the national media have focused on. I encourage you to read up on this before you say Obamacare is saving or ruining our country.

Now, as for the temporary SGR fix, the ICD-10 delay kind of came out of nowhere last week when it got slipped into the House version of the legislation, but the Senate adopted the same language — reportedly without debating ICD-10 at all — and President Obama today signed it into law. I’ve said before that ICD-10 and other transactional elements of healthcare stopped mattering to me as I watched my dad being mistreated in a hospital due to broken clinical processes in his last month of life. I still think this way. However, this sneaky move shows that the AMA, AHA and other groups more intent of protecting the status quo than fixing healthcare still have enormous sway in Washington.

It makes me wonder whether lobbyists haven’t already started pushing hard for Congress to delay the Medicare penalties for not achieving Meaningful Use that are due to kick in next year. Actually, I don’t wonder. I’m sure it’s happening.

All delaying real reform of a broken industry does is prolong the agony, and ensure that millions more people will be affected by errors and neglect in institutions that are supposed to “do no harm.” The status quo is not acceptable.

 

April 2, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Patient safety update

I’m passionate about patient safety. I’m happy to report a couple of things that aren’t exactly breaking news, but still worth bringing to your attention.

First off, there is a fairly new peer-reviewed journal called Diagnosis, and it’s about exactly what the title suggests. The first, quarterly issue, from German academic publisher De Gruyter (North American headquarters are in Boston), came out in January, so the second issue should be published soon. The online version is open access. That means it’s free. (A print subscription is $645 a year.)

A highlight of the premiere issue is a submission from the legendary Dr. Larry Weed and his son, Lincoln Weed, discussing diagnostic failure and how to prevent it. “Diagnostic failure is not a mystery. Its root cause is misplaced dependence on the clinical judgments of expert physicians,” they begin. The answer? Clearly defined standards of care and wider use of clinical decision support tools. It’s not anything new. Larry Weed has been advocating this for a good 50 years and saying that the unaided human mind is fallible for probably 60 years. Yet, medicine still largely relies on physicians’ memory, experience and recall ability at the point of care.

This doesn’t mean evidence-based medicine ,which is based on probabilities. Probabilities are fine when the patient has a common condition. They’re useless for outliers. No, Weed has long said that IT systems should help with diagnosis by “coupling” knowledge to the patient’s particular problem, and this starts with taking a complete history.

Weed, of course, created the SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment, plan). I recently talked to a CMIO who is advocating flipping that around a bit  into an “APSO” (assessment, plan, subjective, objective), which he said works better with electronic records. I’ll have more on that in an upcoming article for a paying client, and I’ll probably want to dive into that again in the near future.

For those who still believe American healthcare is safe, effective and efficient, ProPublica worked with PBS Frontline and marketing firm Ocupop last year to produce a video “slideshow” called “Hazardous Hospitals.” It’s worth a view for healthcare industry insiders, and definitely merits sharing with laypeople. I recommend that you share it. Please. Do it. Now. I’m serious. Patient safety is a problem that doesn’t get enough attention. :)

 

March 25, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

‘Escape Fire’ leaves out IT, ultimately disappoints

I finally got the opportunity to catch the documentary film “Escape Fire,” a good 15 months after it went into limited theatrical release and became available in digital formats. I thought it would be an eye-opening exposé of all that ills the American healthcare industry, particularly for those who somehow believe we have the greatest care in the world. I excitingly ran this graphic when I first mentioned the movie on this blog back in October 2012:

The well-paced, 99-minute film interviews some notable figures in the fight to improve American healthcare — safety guru and former CMS head Dr. Don Berwick, journalist Shannon Brownlee, integrative medicine advocates Dr. Andrew Weill and Dr. Dean Ornish — as well as some lesser-known people trying to make a difference. It goes through a laundry list of all the culprits in the overpriced, underperforming mess of a healthcare system we have now, and examines approaches that seem to be producing better care for lower cost.

I expected the movie to have a liberal slant, but it really stayed away from the political battles that have poisoned healthcare “reform” the last couple of years. About the only presence of specific politicians were clips of both President Obama and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell both praising a highly incentivized employee wellness program at grocery chain Safeway that reportedly kept the company’s health expenses flat from 2005 through 2009, a remarkable achievement in an era of escalating costs.

However, filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke did discuss all the lobbyists’ money presumably buying off enough votes in Washington and at the state level that has helped entrench the status quo. They even scored an interview with Wendell Potter, the former top media spokesman for Cigna, who became a public voice against abuses by health insurers because his conscience got the better of him. As Brownlee noted in the film’s opening, the industry “doesn’t want to stop making money.”

Other reasons given for why healthcare is so expensive, ineffective and, yes, dangerous include:

  • direct-to-consumer drug advertising leading to overmedication;
  • public companies needing to keep profits up;
  • fee-for-service reimbursement;
  • the uninsured using emergency departments as their safety net;
  • lack of preventive care and education about lifestyle changes;
  • a shortage of primary care physicians;
  • cheap junk food that encourages people to eat poorly; and
  • severe suffering among the wounded military ranks.

The filmmakers also kind of imply that there isn’t much in the way of disease management or continuity of care. Brownlee described a “disease care” system that doesn’t want people to die, nor does it want them to get well. It just wants people getting ongoing treatment for the same chronic conditions.

One physician depicted in the movie, Dr. Erin Martin, left a safety-net clinic in The Dalles, Ore., because the work had become “demoralizing.” The same people kept coming back over and over, but few got better because Martin had to rush them out the door without consulting on lifestyle choices, since she was so overscheduled. “I’m not interested in getting my productivity up,” an exasperated Martin said. “I’m interested in helping patients.”

Another patient in rural Ohio had received at least seven stents and had cardiac catheterization more than two dozen times, but never saw any improvement in her symptoms for heart disease or diabetes until she went to the Cleveland Clinic, where physicians are all on salary and the incentives are more aligned than they were in her home town. As Berwick importantly noted, “We create a public expectation that more is better.” In this patient’s case, she was over-catheterized and over-stented to address an acute condition, but not treated for the underlying chronic problems.

The film also examined how the U.S. military turned to acupuncture as an alternative to narcotics because so many wounded soldiers have become hooked on pain pills. One soldier, a self-described “hillbilly” from Louisiana, got off the dozens of meds he had become addicted to and took up yoga, meditation and acupuncture to recover from an explosion in Afghanistan that left him partially paralyzed and with a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The only laugh I had in the movie was when he told the acupuncturist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, “Let’s open up some chi.”

I kept waiting and waiting for some evidence of information technology making healthcare better, but I never got it. After leaving the Oregon clinic, Martin took a job at a small practice in Washington state where she was seen toting a laptop between exam rooms, but, for the most part, I saw paper charts, paper medication lists and verbal communication between clinicians.

What really bothered me, however, is the fact that there was no discussion of EHRs, health information exchange or clinical decision support, no mention of the problem of misdiagnosis, no explicit discussion of patient handoffs, continuity of care, medication reconciliation and so many other points where the system breaks down. You can’t truly fix healthcare until you address those areas.

 

January 21, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

‘Bitter Pill’ only tells half the story

I finally got around to finishing “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” the 24,000-word special report about healthcare costs that took up the entire feature section of the Feb. 20 edition of Time magazine. I was expecting to agree with most if not all of Steven Brill’s supposedly epic investigative piece. Instead, I was underwhelmed and quite disappointed that Brill, the founder of CourtTV (R.I.P., reincarnated as TruTV in Turner Broadcasting’s quest for more “reality” programming) and of American Lawyer magazine,  only told half the story about all that ails the U.S. healthcare industry. Brill also editorializes far more than he should.

Granted, the story is about the high cost of care, but you can’t discuss cutting costs without also delving into the subject of improving outcomes. As has been stated in many other places, we have more of a sick-care system than a healthcare system. The incentives favor treating illness, not preventing it.

I have to say I learned a lot about how the racket known as the chargemaster works to keep the true costs of care opaque to patients. I suspect that, with the exception of uninsured people who are the only ones expected to pay full price, the public was unaware of the chargemaster system that hospitals guard like a state secret. Brill is right when he says, “Unless you have Medicare, the health care market is not a market at all. It’s a crapshoot.” But he’s not telling the full story. Medicare’s payment list is public, sure, but do Medicare beneficiaries really care what the federal government pays their hospitals and doctors? No, they, like everyone else with insurance coverage, only pay attention to their out-of-pocket cost.

Sure, Brill spends a lot of time discussing the perverse incentives in healthcare, particularly those that encourage expensive testing, and even touches on some of the reforms in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that seem to have been left out of the debate over insurance coverage. Think the Medicare policy of not reimbursing hospitals for certain preventable readmissions.

But he completely neglects accountable care. Nor is there a mention of electronic health records and how interoperability can help reduce duplicate testing and unnecessary care. And he never addresses the elephant in the room, the shamefully high rate of medical errors that makes American healthcare far from the best in the world.

July 23, 2013 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Say it with me: clinical decision support

I just read one of the worst articles I’ve ever seen about the quality of American healthcare, and it illustrates just how badly some reporters who don’t regularly cover healthcare can misunderstand this sector that accounts for more than one-sixth of the U.S. economy.

I give you this Motley Fool story entitled, “The 5 Most Misdiagnosed Diseases,” written by Sean Williams. (His profile says he has experience investing in healthcare. Investing in companies is one thing. Figuring out how to fix a broken industry is another. And really, from a financial standpoint, plenty of people are getting rich off of others’ suffering.)

The story curiously discusses a 2009 study in the Internet Journal of Family Practice that found the five most misdiagnosed diseases, based on autopsy and malpractice data. I suppose Motley Fool might decide to run something that’s four years old in order to discuss current investment opportunities. This is where the story veers off the rails.

According to the article: “The benefit of this data is twofold: it exposes problem areas in diagnosing certain diseases, which should help improve attention to detail from both physicians and patients exhibiting those symptoms, and it highlights the potential for more accurate diagnostic equipment. As investors, it also gives us definable opportunities to take advantage of instances where certain medicines or diagnostics may greatly increase in usage to improve patients’ quality of life.”

Wrong.

The problem isn’t the accuracy of diagnostic equipment and the solution isn’t more expensive testing and treatment. The problem is accessing and processing data that physicians should already have but perhaps do not. The answer to this problem is an accurate, current and complete record with an accurate, current and complete patient history, run not through the physician’s brain on the spot but through a clinical decision support engine that matches patient-specific facts with known medical evidence.

Say it with me: clinical decision support.

 

July 21, 2013 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Video: My interview with Hands On Telehealth

I recently was a guest on a vodcast with Nirav Desai, founder and CEO of telehealth consulting firm Hands On Telehealth, whom I met because I moderated a panel he was on at the American Telemedicine Association‘s annual conference in May. In a Skype interview that went up late Friday, we chatted for 45 minutes about telehealth, the broader  health IT landscape and how it all fits into U.S. healthcare reform.

I’m unable to embed the video on this page, so please visit the Hands On Telehealth page to watch the interview. (That’s a screen grab below.) The page contains a detailed description of the interview, much as I like to have for my own podcasts. Perhaps next time I’ll spend more time looking directly at the camera. :)

Hands On Telehealth screen grab

July 1, 2013 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

My HIMSS will be all about quality and patient safety

As regular readers might already know, 2012 was a transformative year in my life, and mostly not in a good way. I ended the year on a high note, taking a character-building six-day, 400-mile bike tour through the mountains, desert and coastline of Southern California that brought rain, mud, cold, more climbing than my poor legs could ever hope to endure in the Midwest, some harrowing descents and even a hail storm. But the final leg from Oceanside to San Diego felt triumphant, like I was cruising down the Champs-Élysées during the last stage of the Tour de France, save the stop at the original Rubio’s fish taco stand about five miles from the finish.

But the months before that were difficult. My grandmother passed away at the end of November at the ripe old age of 93, but at least she lived a long, full life and got to see all of her grandchildren grow up. The worst part of 2012 was in April and May, when my father endured needless suffering in a poorly run hospital during his last month of life as he lost his courageous but futile battle with an insidious neurodegenerative disorder called multiple system atrophy, or MSA. (On a personal note, March is MSA Awareness Month, and I am raising funds for the newly renamed Multiple System Atrophy Coalition.)

That ordeal changed my whole perspective, as you may have noticed in my writing since then. No longer do I care about the financial machinations of healthcare such as electronic transactions, revenue-cycle management, the new HIPAA omnibus rule or reasons why healthcare facilities aren’t ready to switch to ICD-10 coding. Nor am I much interested in those who believe it’s more worthwhile to take the Medicare penalties starting in 2015 for not achieving “meaningful use” than to put the time and money into adopting electronic health records. I’m not interested in lists of “best hospitals” or “best doctors” based solely on reputation. I am sick of the excuses for why healthcare can’t fix its broken processes.

And don’t get me started on those opposed to reform because they somehow believe that the U.S. has the “best healthcare in the world.” We don’t. We simply have the most expensive, least efficient healthcare in the world, and it’s really dangerous in many cases.

No, I am dedicated to bringing news about efforts to improve patient safety and reduce medical errors. Yes, we need to bring costs down and increase access to care, too, but we can make a big dent on those fronts by creating incentives to do the right thing instead of doing the easy thing. Accountable care and bundled payments seem like they’re steps in the right direction, though the jury remains out. All the recent questioning about whether meaningful use has had its intended effect and even whether current EHR systems are safe also makes me optimistic that people are starting to care about quality.

Keep that in mind as you pitch me for the upcoming HIMSS conference. Also keep in mind that I have two distinct audiences: CIOs read InformationWeek Healthcare, while a broad mix of innovators, consultants and healthcare and IT professionals keep up with my work at MobiHealthNews. For the latter, I’m interested in mobile tools for doctors and on the consumerization of health IT.

I’m not doing a whole lot of feature writing at the moment, so I’d like to see and hear things I can relate in a 500-word story. Contract wins don’t really interest me since there are far too many of them to report on. Mergers and acquisitions as well as venture investments matter to MobiHealthNews but not so much to InformationWeek. And remember, I see through the hype. I want substance. Policy insights are good. Case studies are better, as long as we’re talking about quality and safety. Think care coordination and health information exchange for example, but not necessarily the technical workings behind the scenes.

And, as always, I tend to find a lot more interesting things happening in the educational sessions than in that zoo known as the exhibit hall. I’m there for the conference, not the “show.”

Many of you already have sent your pitches. I expect to get to them no later than this weekend, and I’ll respond in the order I’ve received them. Thank you kindly for your patience.

February 13, 2013 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Health Wonk Review gets hung up on insurance

The last edition of Health Wonk Review prior to the Nov. 6 presidential election falls into the familiar big-media trap of portraying the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, as being only about health insurance and of effectively equating health insurance to healthcare. Let me repeat: insurance is not the same thing as care, and having “good” insurance does not guarantee good care.

This installment of HWR is awfully heavy on the insurance aspects of the ACA in the context of politics the election, which is not surprising, though host Maggie Mahar of the HealthBeat blog does at least consider comparative-effectiveness research, thanks to a contribution on the esteemed Health Affairs Blog.

My post, which includes the infographic from the movie “Escape Fire” showing how medical harm essentially is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., is almost an afterthought, but at least Mahar also includes an entry from Dr. Roy Poses about medical harm in clinical trials.

There’s nary a word on health IT, which really is a shame in the context of the election, especially given that several Republican members of Congress, including Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-Okla.), have publicly questioned whether “meaningful use” so far has led to higher utilization of diagnostic testing and thus higher Medicare expenses.

By the way, Healthcare IT News is currently running a poll that asks: “With four GOP senators calling on HHS to suspend MU payments, would health IT remain bipartisan if Romney became president?” The poll is on the home page, but even after voting, I couldn’t find the results. In any case, I personally believe health IT has enough bipartisan support for MU to continue.

I also believe that no matter who wins the presidency, Congress probably will remain divided for the next two years, with Democrats holding onto the Senate and the GOP retaining control of the House, so I don’t expect any controversial legislation to pass. A Romney administration possibly could put a hold on future MU payments or revise the Stage 2 rules, but never underestimate the power of the hospital  and physician lobby.

 

October 28, 2012 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.