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Health Wonk Review: October Surprise edition

The newest installment of Health Wonk Review is up, courtesy of David Williams at the Health Business Blog, and my recent post about politicians perpetuating the myth that the U.S. has the “best healthcare in the world” is featured prominently. If you’re looking for anything else even vaguely related to health IT in this edition of HWR, you might be disappointed, but Williams offers a nice sampling of opinions on other topics that arose during the first presidential debate last week as well as a few ideas that could be considered part of overall health reform.

Speaking of health reform and politics, this morning I received a plea to donate money to the Romney campaign from the nutbars over at Docs4PatientCare. As a rule, I do not give money to any political candidates or to PACs because I want to maintain as much objectivity as possible for someone who occasionally calls people “nutbars.” Why do I say this about D4PC? A year and a half ago, I wrote this:

D4PC contacted me last fall with links to a series of videos, including one from group representative Scott Barbour, M.D. According to the original pitch to me, “Utilizing quotes from Dr. Berwick, Dr. Barbour exposed that, ‘He is not interested in better health care. He is only concerned about implementing his socialist agenda.’”

In another video, Docs4PatientCare Vice President Fred Shessel, M.D., said of Berwick, “This is a man who has made a career out of socializing medicine and rationing care for the very young, the very old and the very sick. It is a backdoor power grab. It is dragging our country down the road to socialism and we should resist it.”

I responded to this pitch with a short question: “Berwick isn’t interested in better care? Do you know anything about his work at IHI?” I never got a response. Docs4PatientCare seemingly was trying to hoodwink media that don’t know any better and/or care more about politics than facts.

Today’s pitch, from Michael Koriwchak, M.D., who calls himself the HIT expert of the group, said, “ObamaCare came along with its promise to destroy our health care system.” I would love to know who made that promise, and why anyone thinks we have such a great “system” now. (Prominent Republican Mike Leavitt, HHS secretary in the Bush administration, has often said we do not have a healthcare “system,” but rather a poorly run, inefficient, dangerous healthcare “sector.”)

“Every dollar you give brings us a step closer to victory in November and the opportunity to replace ObamaCare with doctor-driven improvements to our health care system,” Koriwchak adds. Do we really want “doctor-driven” improvements when physicians won’t admit that they make far more mistakes than any advanced nation should tolerate? I want data-driven improvements.

“The voices of physicians who care for patients every day are now heard in Washington. This may be the last opportunity for you to take back control of your health care. Do you want your health care decisions to be made by you and your doctor, or by an indifferent bureaucrat in Washington?” Koriwchak concludes.

With all due respect, that argument has been beaten to death for years. No bureaucrat in Washington is going to be making care decisions any more than a bean counter at a private insurer does. And patients can’t “take back” control of their care because they don’t have much control now as long as defenders of the status quo in the medical establishment won’t let patients see their own health records and act like physicians are infallible.

Koriwchak kills the little credibility he has left by saying he has “participated in conversations” with several members of Congress and includes the nutty Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who famously formed her views against the HPV vaccine based on what some random woman told her after a debate last year during the GOP primary season.

“She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn’t know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions,” Bachmann said, without offering a shred of scientific evidence. But if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. Right, Dr. Koriwchak?

October 12, 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.

Most ‘sentinel events’ caused by poor communication

LOS ANGELES—I’m on the west coast now, first for the  USC Body Computing Conference here Friday, and then for the annual Health 2.0 conference up in San Francisco Monday and Tuesday.

Friday there was a lot of talk of healthcare reform. One interesting — and plausible — idea I heard for the first time is that the new Medicare policy of denying reimbursements for preventable readmissions within 30 days of discharge for patients with heart attack, heart failure or pneumonia might have an unintended consequence: We’ll start seeing a lot of readmissions on or after Day 31.

The new policy is one of the many aspects of true reform in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act beyond the controversial insurance expansion. And there seems to be a loophole that you can be sure  a lot of hospitals will seek to exploit. Even if they don’t, it is hard to change patient behavior, so it’s likely many will come back to the hospital for the same condition, even if it’s not within 30 days.

More importantly, I heard some statistics presented by Stanford dermatology resident Michelle Longmire, M.D., about medical errors: 7o percent of all sentinel events in U.S. healthcare facilities — and there were 8,859 such events voluntarily reported to the Joint Commission between 1995 and the first quarter of 2012, meaning that many times more probably occurred —result from breakdowns in communication. Half occur during patient handoffs such as shift changes, specialist consultations and transfers to other wards or facilities, Longmire said.

I am convinced all the buffoonery that took place while my dad was hospitalized prior to his death was due to communication problems, poorly designed work processes and a culture of covering one’s posterior in an error-prone organization.

This happens far too often, yet some politicians who want to repeal “Obamacare” keep trying to convince the ignorant masses that American healthcare is just in need of a few tweaks.

At the Republican National Convention in August, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the following: “”Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world’s greatest healthcare system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor.” PolitiFact.com generously rated this as “half true.” However, PolitFact itself noted that the World Health Organization rated U.S. healthcare as 37th of 191 countries in terms of “overall performance.” The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says we spend more on healthcare as a share of gross domestic product than any of the other 33 OECD countries. If that’s the “world’s greatest,” I’d sure hate to be worst.

Last week, during the first presidential debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the very same Gov. Romney who championed near-universal health insurance coverage with an individual mandate in his home state — a plan first hatched by the conservative Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton healthcare reform proposal in 1993 — said this:

Look, the right course for — for America’s government — we were talking about the role of government — is not to become the economic player picking winners and losers, telling people what kind of health treatment they can receive, taking over the healthcare system that — that has existed in this country for — for a long, long time and has produced the best health records in the world.

Without getting into what the role of government should or should not do, our health records suck, Our record on producing healthier people is not so wonderful, either. So no matter what Romney meant by “best health records in the world,” he was lying.

I couldn’t help thinking he was playing to this crowd:

 

Now, this cartoon makes it seem like Obamacare is so wonderful. It’s not. As I’ve said before, having insurance does not mean you will get good care. Having “good” insurance that requires very little out-of-pocket for the patient doesn’t guarantee good care, either, nor does being a VIP. Recall the case of James Tyree, who died from a medical error at a prestigious teaching hospital he was on the board of. The late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) suffered a similar fate despite having “Cadillac” insurance coverage.

I’m going to repeat what is fast becoming my mantra: It’s quality, stupid.

UPDATE, Oct.8: Here’s a summary of what actually is in the Affordable Care Act, and when each provision takes effect, courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

October 7, 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.

Podcast: This time, I’m the interviewee

In a rare turn of events, I’m the one being asked the questions on a podcast by Sivad Business Solutions, which hosts regular audio discussions on a variety of business topics. I give kind of a high-level view of health IT and offer my very strong opinions on patient safety and healthcare reform. There’s an interesting discussion about EHRs being designed to maximize reimbursements rather than assure safety.

Interestingly, we recorded this via Skype. I like the audio quality, if not the nasal quality of my own voice, more than usual that day.

Hopefully the embedded audio works. If not, click here.

September 18, 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.

ACA decision is a beginning, not an end, to health reform

I’ve spent a lot of time on social media since Thursday morning debating the meaning of the Supreme Court’s rather stunning decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was stunning in that Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, sided with the four liberal-minded justices, but also stunning in that the court went against conventional wisdom by upholding the individual mandate on the grounds that it was a legal exercise of Congress’ constitutional right to levy taxes.

I had to remind a lot of people that this decision neither solves the crisis, as supporters have claimed, or turns us into the Soviet Union, as some on the lunatic fringe have suggested. Expanding insurance only throws more money at the same problem. This was my first tweet after I learned of the decision:

Breaking news: American #healthcare still sucks. It's quality, stupid. #ACA #hcr #SCOTUS #Obamacare
@nversel
Neil Versel

The cynic in me likes to point out that the individual mandate was an idea first conceived by the conservative Heritage Foundation and championed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. Both somehow now oppose the idea. The law that ultimately passed Congress was written by Liz Fowler, a top legal counsel to Max Baucus’ Senate Finance Committee who previously was a lobbyist for WellPoint. Her reward for doing the bidding of the insurance industry was for Obama to appoint her deputy director of the Office of Consumer Information and Oversight at HHS. This was insider dealing at its finest, as much a gift to insurers as the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act was a gift to Big Pharma.

Of course, I initially was misinformed about the Supreme Court ruling because CNN jumped the gun (as did Fox News) and erroneously reported that the court had struck down the individual mandate on the grounds that it violated the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution. But so were millions of others.

I suppose that was fitting, since the national media have for more than two years been misinforming the public about what is really in the law. There are small but real elements of actual care reform — not just an insurance expansion — in there, but very few have been reported. The actual reform has been drowned out by ideologues on both sides. Here’s a handy explanation of most of what’s really there (it’s a good list but not exhaustive). The insurance expansion, the only thing people are talking about, really is just throwing more money at the problem. There is a lot more work to be done to fix our broken system.

What I consider real reform in the ACA includes accountable care organizations and the creation of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. Along with the innovation center, CMS also gets the power to expand pilot programs that are successful at saving money or producing better outcomes. In the past, successful “demonstrations” would need specific authorization from Congress, which could take years.

Notice that there isn’t a whole lot specific to IT. That’s because the “meaningful use” incentive program for EHRs was authorized by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Another key element of real reform that also is not part of the ACA is Medicare’s new policy of not reimbursing for certain preventable hospital readmissions within 30 days of discharge.

We need more attention to quality of care. Many have argued that tort reform needs to be part of the equation, too, because defensive medicine leads to duplicative and often unnecessary care. Perhaps, but lawsuits are a small issue compared to the problem of medical errors. Cut down on mistakes and you cut down on malpractice suits. Properly implemented EHRs and health information exchange — and I do mean properly implemented — will help by improving communication between providers so everybody involved with a patient’s care knows exactly what’s going on at all times.

All of these facts lead me to conclude that true healthcare reform hasn’t really happened yet. Look at this Supreme Court ruling as a beginning, not an end, to reform.

 

June 29, 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.

Facebook community for reporting patient harm

Kudos to investigative journalism organization ProPublica (yes, some journalists still have integrity today) — and a hat tip to HealthLeaders for bringing it to my attention — for setting up a Facebook community for people to report stories of patient harm. I’ve just shared the story of my dad’s torturous final month. I’m glad that a news organization with wide reach beyond the healthcare and technology industries cares about real stories, not distractions related to insurance coverage and partisan politics.

The group now has 661 members. There really should be 1,000 times as many. Please join and share your own stories, then help get the word out about the poor state of U.S. hospital care. (Note that I only accept Facebook friend requests from people I know personally.)

June 1, 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.

NPR examines hospital quality problem

I knew my dad was not alone in experiencing poor hospital care. Thousands of people are harmed in hospitals every week. Yet, some politicians and pundits still insist America has the “best healthcare in the world.”

Just this morning, NPR helped dispel this myth with a report on the myriad problems with U.S. healthcare—including the quality problem. Read and listen here. And share with your friends both inside and outside the healthcare industry. Share my dad’s story. Share your own stories. Let’s make this priority No. 1. Too many people die and suffer unnecessarily  in this country.

May 21, 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.

Mark Versel, 1944-2012

My father passed away late last Friday night from a most insidious disease called multiple system atrophy (MSA). It’s a rare, progressive, neurodegenerative condition that presents itself with symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease, but it is far more aggressive and debilitating. Essentially, muscles stop working until the disease kills you. In my dad’s case, he ultimately lost the ability to breathe.

Nobody knows the cause of MSA and there is no cure. There really aren’t even any effective treatments. You can only treat the symptoms with medications designed for Parkinson’s to address muscle stiffness, balance and such, and with physical and speech therapy, but that’s like standing in front a speeding train with a stop sign. It’s a futile battle.

My dad never had any real health issues other than sciatica until he was diagnosed with what was thought to be Parkinson’s less than five years ago (MSA didn’t really come into the picture until maybe a year and a half ago). He ate well, exercised somewhat regularly and generally took pretty good care of himself before the disease came along. Now he’s dead at the relatively young age of 68 after an excruciatingly fast decline that kept him hospitalized for his final month.

He fought the disease valiantly and courageously, but he never got the chance to retire. He was forced to stop working because he was physically unable to continue. He never even got to come home to die. The end came so fast that we didn’t get past the first hospice discussion.

As sad as it is to lose my dad in the way that I did, I want something positive to come out of his ordeal. He was selfless, kind and generous in life, and my family intends to carry on his legacy in some way that we haven’t had time to figure out just yet. I want to use his memory and my little corner of the Internet to help educate people about MSA and about patient safety.

What does patient safety have to do with this, you ask? My dad had pretty terrible care at a poorly run community hospital near his home for more than three weeks before he was transferred to the wonderful Georgetown University Hospital in Washington for what turned out to be his final days. The contrast was striking.

The community hospital was a place of inadequate communication, broken processes, obsolete workflows, neglect and harm. My dad came in with what turned out to be a urinary-tract infection. They treated that with antibiotics, but he developed pneumonia in a matter of days—a condition a doctor admitted he had acquired in the hospital. So he was transferred to intensive care, where the hospital could make a lot more money despite being responsible for the complication. (Perverse incentives rule in American healthcare.) My dad was a Medicare beneficiary, so you and I, as taxpayers, get ripped off by the incompetence.

Meanwhile, the clinicians there, who had been trained to treat the acute symptoms, neglected the MSA for more than a week, even taking him off his regular meds for several days, during which time my dad’s muscles continued to stiffen. Physical therapy was essential to prevent further atrophy. The order went in for him to receive physical and occupational therapy at least three times a week, but the PT and OT were nowhere to be found for a week or more.

Meds that had been ordered didn’t get delivered. One night while I was there, a perky medical assistant or tech or someone of that ilk burst into the room announcing it was time for an AccuCheck test, and nearly went through with taking a small blood sample before I stepped in to ask what was going on. She explained that it was a test for blood sugar (who would know what AccuCheck was if they didn’t have diabetes or some familiarity with the healthcare industry?) only after I enquired, but I stopped her to tell her that my dad did not have diabetes. Because of the MSA, he had difficulty speaking and would not have been able to stop someone acting so quickly. It turned out that the tech had gone to the wrong room. The hospital did require clinicians to scan bar codes before administering tests and meds, but who knows if the system really worked?

Later that evening, the nurse nearly gave my dad an eye drop that had not been ordered. The proper instructions were to administer an ophthalmic drug orally, but only if he had excess saliva. The nurse didn’t see that part of the note, despite the fact that the ICU had a partial EHR (Cerner, for those of you keeping score at home) with electronic medication lists.

The infectious disease specialist at the community hospital was not even familiar with MSA — and he didn’t bother to tell us that for three weeks. It should be his professional duty to call in an experienced neurologist or consult with my dad’s personal physician.

Worst of all, my dad stopped breathing for a few seconds last week under questionable circumstances and was intubated, despite the fact that he had an advance directive on file specifically stating that he did not want to be intubated.

At Georgetown, we saw nothing but compassion and competence. Care was well coordinated. People talked to each other. Clinicians huddled together during shift changes to discuss all the patients on the ward. The medical director of the ICU, a pulmonologist, personally managed my dad’s case. The neurologists at this major teaching hospital had seen MSA before, but that didn’t stop them from talking with my dad’s personal physician. It was too late to save my dad’s life, but he died comfortably and with dignity at Georgetown, without the needless agony he endured at the other place.

I am now vowing to dedicate my own career to educating as many people about MSA as possible and about the danger of uncoordinated care and poorly designed workflows. Interestingly, one of the last stories I wrote before my father passed and before I took leave was a piece in InformationWeek about patient engagement. I love the mantra of the Society for Participatory Medicine that I mentioned in the story: “Nothing about me without me.”

Every patient should live by those words. And every healthcare facility should respect that concept.

Rest in peace, Dad. You have not died in vain.

UPDATE, April 2013: If you would like to make a donation to MSA support and research, please visit our family’s fundraising page, which is helping the Multiple System Atrophy Coalition. Thank you.

May 17, 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.

$10M settlement in death from medical error

Remember James C. Tyree, the University of Chicago Medical Center board member who died last year from a preventable medical error at the very same hospital he was on the board of? His estate has reached a $10 million settlement with the prestigious teaching hospital for “alleged negligence,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

As I previously wrote, Tyree died from an intravascular air embolism, the result of an improperly removed catheter. That just happens to be one of the National Quality Forum’s so-called “never events.”

Tyree, as chairman and CEO of  financial services firm Mesirow Financial, was pretty well-off. He also should have gotten VIP treatment at U. of C. Medical Center since he was a board member. Yet his money and connections could not save him from a preventable error that really should never happen.

Think about that the next time someone tells you that having health insurance automatically gives you access to good care and that the wealthy get better care than the rest of us. Health insurance just means the insurer will help pay the bills — and often the bills rise (as does hospital revenue) — when there’s a preventable error, as seems to be happening with my own father this week. (He’s still in the hospital, though the pneumonia has subsided.) Being a VIP at a teaching hospital just means you might get faster service, more — not necessarily better — care and perhaps direct supervision from executive faculty, not just residents and the occasional attending physician.

Poor quality is epidemic in American healthcare. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Kudos to David Doherty of Ireland-based telehealth provider 3G Doctor for this summation of the problem, which he tweeted in response to the post about my dad:

In 2012 where else but the sickcare industry do you make more money by failing http://t.co/pUOebYho Hope Dad gets well soon @
@mHealthInsight
mHealth Insight

Keep spreading the word: It’s quality, stupid.

April 24, 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.

Poor healthcare quality hits home

My dad, who already was dealing with a serious health issue, was hospitalized a week ago with what turned out was a urinary-tract infection. That cleared with antibiotics in a couple of days, but then he developed a fever, so he could not be released. While we were waiting for that to subside, he developed a hospital-acquired infection, namely pneumonia. He’s still in the hospital and the hospital is still able to bill Medicare for all these extra days — plus the physical therapy he will get in a rehab center that the hospital owns once he’s discharged because being in bed for a week is a serious setback to his original condition.

If anyone thinks the U.S. has the “best healthcare in the world” and that good insurance will get you good care, think again. Please pass this link around and share your own stories in the comments section so we can help spread the truth about quality deficiencies and perverse financial incentives.

April 22, 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.

Sen. Whitehouse, make some more noise, please

I have railed more often than I can count against politicians and the national media for misleading or at least failing to inform the public on what health reform is all about. For me, it was quite refreshing to see an interview in the Washington Post with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), attempting to shed some light on the parts of reform that have nothing to do with insurance.

“The Affordable Care Act is mostly known as an insurance expansion, expected to extend coverage to more than 30 million Americans,” started the post by Sarah Kliff. “But … a big chunk of the law is dedicated something arguably more ambitious: an overhaul of the American business model for medicine. ‘This is a very significant piece of the bill that has received virtually no attention because it’s so non-controversial,’ Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told me in a recent interview.”

On Thursday, Whitehouse released a 52-page document outlining what he sees as the 47 changes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is making to how care is delivered. That doesn’t even count the reforms in the HITECH section of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from a year earlier, by the way.

Health IT, of course, is a big part of reform.”The HITECH Act took important steps to restructure financial incentives to shift the pattern of health IT adoption. The HITECH Act’s Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments are encouraging doctors and hospitals to adopt and “meaningfully use” certified
electronic health records,” Whitehouse noted.

Also from that report:

Health information technology (IT) will radically transform the health care industry, and is the essential, underlying framework for health care delivery system reform. The ACA’s payment reforms, pilot projects, and other delivery system reforms are built with the expectation of having IT-enabled providers. In particular, the shift to new models of care, like ACOs, will rely heavily on information exchange and reporting quality outcomes. Indeed, the formation of ACOs is contingent on having providers “online” to transfer information and patient records, and report quality measures.

Whitehouse did discuss ACOs with the Washington Post, but there’s a reason why the interview appears on a page called the WonkBlog. This stuff is too complicated and wonky for the average person.

What isn’t complicated is explaining that throwing more money at a broken system, as the insurance expansion does, will not lower the cost of care. It also isn’t complicated to explain that tens of thousands of Americans needlessly die each year due to medical errors or low-quality care. Yet, more than a few defenders of the ACA have said that the insurance mandate would help guarantee “quality care” for millions.

Wrong!

The insurance expansion guarantees insurance coverage. It does not guarantee quality care. Whoever wins Friday’s Mega Millions drawing wouldn’t necessarily be able to buy quality care, either. Nor would Bill Gates, for that matter. You can’t get quality care unless you’re willing to address the causes of errors and adverse events. Period.

Sen. Whitehouse seems to understand that. I doubt too many other members of Congress do, despite the fact that a former colleague, the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who had the “Cadillac” coverage so many people covet, died as a result of a medical error.

March 30, 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.