Report from HIMSS 12: wrap-up of the largest health IT conference

This is a time of great promise in health care, yet an oppressive atmosphere hung over much of HIMSS. All the speakers–not least the government representatives who announced rules for the adoption of electronic health records–stressed commendable practices such as data exchange, providing the patient with information, and engaging with the patient. Many berated hospitals, doctors, and vendors for neglecting the elements that maintain health. But the thrust of most sessions was on such details as how to convert patient records to the latest classification of diseases (ICD-10).

Intelligent Hospital pavilion shows off tempting technology
Intelligent Hospital pavilion shows off tempting technology.

I have nothing against ICD-10 and I’m sure adopting it is a big headache that deserves attention at the conference. The reason I call the atmosphere oppressive is that I felt stuck among health care providers unable to think long-term or to embrace the systems approach that we’ll need to cure people and cut costs. While some health care institutions took the ICD-10 change-over seriously and put resources into meeting the deadline, others pressured the Dept. of Health and Human services to delay implementation, and apparently won a major reprieve. The health IT community, including HIMSS, criticized the delay. But resistance to progress usually does not break out so overtly, and remains ingrained in day-to-day habits.

But ICD-10 is a sideline to the major issue of Stage 2 meaningful use. Why, as I reported on Wednesday, were so many of the 35,000 HIMSS attendees wrapped up in the next step being forced on them by the federal government? The scandal is that these meaningful use concepts (using data to drive care, giving care-givers information that other care-givers have collected about the patient) have to be forced on them. Indeed, institutions like Kaiser Permanente that integrated their electronic records years ago and concentrated on the whole patient had relatively little work to do to conform to Stage 1, and probably have the building blocks for Stage 2 in place. And of course these things are part of the landscape of health care in other countries. (The proposed regulations were finally posted last Thursday.)

Recipients of Regina Holliday jackets record patient involvement stories
Recipients of Regina Holliday jackets record patient involvement stories.

Haven’t our providers heard that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Don’t well-educated and well-paid executives invest in quality measures with the expectation that they’ll pay off in the long run? And aren’t we all in the field for the good of the patients? What is that snickering I hear?

Actually, I don’t accept the premise that providers are all in it for the money. If so many are newly incentivized to join the government’s program for a mere $15,000 per doctor (plus avoiding some cuts in Medicare payments), which is a small fraction of the money they’ll have to spend implementing the program, they must know that it’s time to do the right thing. Meaningful use can be a good framework to concretize the idealistic goals of health care reform, but I just wish the vendors and doctors would keep their eyes more on the final goal.

Redwood MedNet in Northern California is an example of a health information exchange that adopted standards (CONNECT, before the Direct project was in place) to simplify data exchange between health providers. Will Ross of Redwood MedNet told me that qualifying for Stage 2 would be simple for them, “but you won’t hear that from many vendors in this exhibit hall.”

Annual surveys by Family Practice Management journal about their readers’ satisfaction with EHRs, reviewed in one HIMSS session, showed widespread dissatisfaction that doesn’t change from year to year. For instance, 39% were dissatisfied with support and training, although a few vendors rated quite high. Still, considering that doctors tend to veer away from open source solutions and pay big bucks for proprietary ones out of a hope of receiving better support and training, they deserve better. It’s worth noting that the longer a practice uses its system, the more they’re likely to express satisfaction. But only 38% of respondents would purchase the same systems now if they weren’t already locked in.

That’s the big, frustrating contradiction at HIMSS. The vendors have standards (HL7 and others), they’ve been setting up health information exchanges (under various other names) for years, they have a big, popular interoperability lab at each conference–and yet most patients still have to carry paper records and CDs with images from one doctor to another. (A survey of HIMSS members showed that one-quarter allowed access by patients to their data, which is an advance but still just a start.) The industry as a whole has failed to make a dent in the 90,000 to 100,000 needless deaths that occur in treatment facilities each year. And (according to one speaker) 20% of patients hospitalized under Medicare have to return to the hospital shortly after discharge.

Omens of change

Suffice it say that by my fourth day at HIMSS I was not happy. Advances come, but slowly. Examples of developments I can give a thumbs-up to at HIMSS were data sharing among physicians who use Practice Fusion, a popular example of a growing move to web services for electronic records, and a CardioEngagement Challenge funded by Novartis to encourage at-risk patients to take more interest in their health. The winner was a Sensei mobile app that acts as an automated coach. Sensei CEO Robert Schwarzberg, a cardiologist, told me had put together phone-in coaching services for heart patients during the years before mobile apps, and was frustrated that these coaches were available less than once a week when what patients needed was round-the-clock motivation. Sensei Wellness is one of the many mobile apps that make both patients and doctors more connected, and HIMSS quite properly devoted a whole section of the exhibit floor to them.

Talking about Sensei Wellness with Dr. Robert Schwarzberg
Talking about Sensei Wellness with Dr. Robert Schwarzberg.

I dropped by the IBM booth for the obligatory demo of Watson’s medical application, and some background from Dr. Josko Silobrcic. I also filled in some of this report from an earlier conversation with tech staff.

Medical diagnosis involves more structured data than solving Jeopardy riddles, structure that appears mostly in the form of links between data sets. For instance, medicines are linked to diagnoses, to lab results, and to other medicines (for instance, some drugs are counter-indicated when the patient is taking other drugs). Watson follows these relationships.

But because Watson is a natural language processing application–based on UIMA, which IBM donated to the Apache Foundation–it doesn’t try to do much reasoning to pick out the best diagnosis or treatment, both of which are sometimes requested of it. Instead, it dumps huge indexes of medical articles into its data stores on one side, and takes in the text about the patient’s complaint and doctor’s evaluation on the other. Matching them up is not so different from a Jeopardy question, after all. Any possible match is considered and kept live until the final round of weighing answers, even if the chance of matching is near zero.

Dr. Josko Silobrcic before Watson demonstration
Dr. Josko Silobrcic before Watson demonstration.

Also because of the NLP basis for matching, there is rarely a need to harmonize disparate data taken in from different journals or medical sources.

I assumed that any processing that uses such a large data set and works so fast must run on a huge server farm, but the staff assured me it’s not as big as one would think. For production use, of course, they’ll need to take into account the need to scale. The medical informatics equivalent of a Christmas rush on sales would be an epidemic where everybody in the region is urgently hitting Watson for critical diagnoses.

Coming to peace

Healing came to me on my last day at HIMSS, at too related conferences off to the side of the main events: a meeting of Open Health Tools members and the eCollaboration forum, run by health activists who want to break down barriers to care. Both groups have partnerships with HIMSS.

Open Health Tools positions itself as an umbrella organization for projects making free software for a lot of different purposes in health care: recording, treatment, research and more. One illustrative project I got to hear about at their meeting was the Medical Imaging Network Transport (MINT), which Johns Hopkins is working on in coordination with other teams. It’s a fresh look at the problem of exchanging and processing medical images, a huge percentage of medical data and traffic–and the speaker said the quantity of data being exchanged grows 15-30% annually. The teams have figured out how to cut down the enormous duplication of metadata in DICOM (the standard format for storing digital medical images), saving 25% on average because successive images can refer to the metadata in a single image. This also makes it easier to de-identify patients’ images for research purposes.

MINT cuts down on the transfers of huge images by doing some processing in place and transferring only portions of the data. Switching to modern storage formats (XML and JSON) and better methods of data transfer also reduces waste. For instance, current DICOM vendors transmit images over TCP, which introduces more overhead than necessary when handling the packet losses engendered by transmitting files that are several gigabytes in size. MINT allows UDP and other protocols that are leaner than TCP.

Best of all, MINT DICOM images can be displayed through HTML5, which means any browser can view them in good resolution, there is no need to install a specialized viewer at each location where the doctor is checking the image, and dependence on proprietary software is reduced. (The same reliance on standard browsers is also claimed by eMix in a recent interview.

At the eCollaboration forum, E-patient Dave DeBronkart reported that being an engaged patient is still swimming upstream. It’s hard to get one’s records, hard to find out what treatments will cost, and hard to get taken seriously as an adult interested in monitoring one’s own care. Meg McCabe of Aetna says that insurers need to offer more sophisticated guidance to patients trying to choose a health provider–simple lists of options are confusing and hard to choose from.

One speaker warned providers that if they try to open their data for collaborative care, they may find themselves hampered by contracts that maintain vendor ownership of EHR data. But speakers assured us vendors are not evil. The issue is what the providers ask for when they buy the EHR systems.

Here’s the strange thing about the eCollaboration forum: they signed up enough people to fill the room ahead of time and left many potential attendees lamenting that they couldn’t get in. Yet on the actual day of the event, there were about eight empty seats for every attendee. Maybe HIMSS attendees felt that had to devote all their time to the stage 2 regulations, previously mentioned. But I take the disappointing turn-out as a sign of the providers’ and vendors’ lack of commitment to change. Shown a dazzling roster of interesting talks about data exchange, open record sharing, and patient engagement, they’re quick to sign up–but they don’t show up when it counts.

As members of the general public, we can move the health care field forward by demanding more from our providers, at the point where we have some influence. Anyone looking for concrete guidance for increasing their influence as a patient can try e-Patients Live Longer: The Complete Guide to Managing Health Care Using Technology, by Nancy B. Finn.

Public attention and anger have been focused on insurers, who have certainly engaged in some unsavory practices to avoid paying for care–but nothing as destructive as the preventable errors and deaths caused by old-fashioned medical practices. And while economists complain about the 30 cents out of every dollar wasted in the American hodge-podge of payment systems, we know that unnecessary medical procedures or, conversely, preventative steps that were omitted, also suck up a lot of money. One speaker at the eCollaboration forum compared the sky-rocketing costs of health care and insurance to a financial bubble that can’t last. Let’s all take some responsibility for instituting better medical and reporting systems so the costs come down in a healthy manner.

Other articles about HIMSS were posted last Tuesday and Wednesday.

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  • Steven J. Davidson, MD, MBA

    You’re being generous. The week reminded me of Eisenhower’s last speech except instead of the “Military-Industrial Complex” I’d call HIMSS the epitome of the “HIT-Corporate Healthcare Complex” where corporate healthcare is both for-profit and non-profit. Thank you for the pointer to the Open Health Tools session though I can’t imagine that most hospitals have the resources to engage open source. I only caught the last four sessions of the ECollaboration day long program. Thought provocative indeed for those of us facility based in health care delivery.

  • http://www.physiciandesigns.com Ben Ratley

    Web based is definitely the way to go since it doesn’t require physicians to have any in-house servers or contract any IT companies. This also ends up saving the physicians money.