HHS Hires Deputy Health Technology Secretary, Raising More Questions about ONC’s Future | Healthcare Informatics Magazine | Health IT | Information Technology Skip to content Skip to navigation

HHS Hires Deputy Health Technology Secretary, Raising More Questions about ONC’s Future

March 21, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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According to a report today, John Fleming, who accepted the position at HHS, thought he might have been interviewing for the National Coordinator job at ONC

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has hired former Louisiana Rep. John Fleming, M.D., as a deputy assistant secretary for health technology within the federal agency.

The position is a new one within HHS, and according to a report in NOLA.com, Fleming “described his role as a linchpin in finding ways to improve how physicians use technology to practice medicine.” The report noted that Fleming will report to HHS Secretary Tom Price, M.D., who was confirmed by the Senate last month. Fleming, who worked closely with Price in Congress, will not have to be confirmed by the Senate for this position, according to the report.

Fleming, 65, a Republican, served as the U.S. Representative for Louisiana's 4th congressional district from 2009 to 2017. He missed the runoff last fall in the Senate race to succeed David Vitter, ultimately losing the seat to John Kennedy, the Republican state treasurer at the time. He specializes in family medicine in Minden, La.

According to the NOLA.com report, Fleming said, “It's clear there's a lot of work to do, and they're anxious to get somebody in place and start activating this.” He added that “he sees his role as writing and championing policies that encourage more physicians to embrace technology, rather than view it as a mandated burden.”

Fleming, former co-chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus and Freedom Caucus, was part of a petition to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) last fall to make the MIPS (Merit-Based Incentive Payment System) payment path under MACRA far less complex for eligible Medicare doctors. Fleming and others noted at the time that “In order to be successful, MIPS must engage clinicians with a reporting system that is not overly burdensome, a scoring system that is simple and transparent, attainable thresholds, and a short enough quality/payment feedback loop to allow physicians to learn to and make necessary changes to avoid further penalty.”

It remains to be seen what this means for the future of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), the health IT branch of the government that made most of its progress under the Obama Administration. ONC was not mentioned in Trump’s proposed federal budget last week, and as Healthcare Informatics reported at the time, “One informational source who is not inside the federal government but who has extensive contacts with the government, told Healthcare Informatics that OMB officials had prepared the budget without any consultation with anyone within CMS or ONC.”

To this end, a Politico Morning eHealth report today noted that Fleming actually thought he was interviewing for the National Coordinator position at ONC when he met with Price to discuss the deputy assistant secretary for health technology position at HHS. “I think it’s the same or a similar position,” Fleming told Politico, adding that ONC “may be reorganizing,” though that latter comment was pure speculation on his part, per the report. He further noted to Politico, “Health IT policymaking has always been scattered among several HHS agencies. CMS is in charge of setting meaningful use requirements and tech-heavy MACRA rules.”

In the end, the hiring of Fleming at HHS will add more uncertainty as to what’s in store for ONC. There has been talk in some circles that while ONC was created to spur the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) in hospitals and physician practices across the U.S.—which it has done successfully—there are now major questions about the department’s future role. In a recent letter to Secretary Price, the Health IT Now Coalition said that Congress and the administration must “clarify what role and to what extent ONC should play in the overall regulation of health information technology, and how such a role would interact with other regulatory agencies.” The many health IT companies in the Coalition think that ONC has overstepped its authorities in certain cases, such as its oversight on EHRs and other health IT products.

What’s more, in one of its Top Ten Tech Trends for 2017, Healthcare Informatics closely examined how value-based care and health IT will move forward in the Trump administration. In that story, Farzad Mostashari, M.D., former National Coordinator for Health IT, noted that the agency’s annual budget “has been basically frozen” for the better part of the last decade.


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Research: Physician Burnout is a Public Health Crisis; Improving EHR Usability is Critical

January 18, 2019
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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Physician burnout is a public health crisis and addressing the problem requires improving electronic health record (EHR) standards with a strong focus on usability and open application programming interfaces (APIs), according to a new report from leading healthcare researchers.

The report is a “call to action,” the researchers wrote, “to begin to turn the tide before the consequences grow still more severe.” The researchers also recommend “systemic and institutional reforms” that are critical to mitigating the prevalence of burnout.

The result of collaboration between researchers with the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Harvard Global Health Institute, the report's aim is to inform and enable physicians and health care leaders to assess the magnitude of the challenge presented by physician burnout in their work and organizations, and to take appropriate measures to address the challenge, the researchers say.

The report also offers recommended actions for healthcare leaders to take, which the researchers acknowledge are not exhaustive, but “represent short-, medium-, and long-term interventions with the potential for significant impact as standalone interventions.”

The authors of the report include Ashish K. Jha, M.D., the K.T. Li Professor of International Health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute; Andrew Iliff, lead writer and program manager, Harvard Global Health Institute; Alain Chaoui, M.D., president of the Massachusetts Medical Society; Steven Defossez, M.D., vice president, clinical integration, Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association; Maryanne Bombaugh, M.D., president-elect, Massachusetts Medical Society; and Yael Miller, director, practice solutions and medical economics, Massachusetts Medical Society.

In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78 percent of physicians surveyed said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout. Burnout is a syndrome involving one or more of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession, according to the report.

By 2025, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that there will be a nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven away from medicine or out of practice because of the effects of burnout.  Further complicating matters is the cost an employer must incur to recruit and replace a physician, estimated at between $500,000-$1,000.000. 

“The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” Dr. Jha, a VA physician and Harvard faculty member, said in a statement in a press release accompanying the report. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines – our physicians – are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.”

The beginning of the physician burnout crisis can be traced back to several events, according to the researchers, including the “meaningful use” of electronic health records, “which transformed the practice of many physicians, and was mandated as part of the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.” Going back further, the 1999 publication of the Institute of Medicine’s “To Err is Human” highlighted the prevalence of medical errors, brought new attention to quality improvement and the value of physician reporting and accountability, the report states.

The researchers note that the primary impact of burnout is on physicians’ mental health, “but it is clear that one can’t have a high performing health care system if physicians working within it are not well. Therefore, the true impact of burnout is the impact it will have on the health and well-being of the American public,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers note, “If we do not immediately take effective steps to reduce burnout, not only will physicians’ work experience continue to worsen, but also the negative consequences for health care provision across the board will be severe.”

And, while individual physicians can take steps to better cope with work stress and hold at bay the symptoms of burnout, “meaningful steps to address the crisis and its root causes must be taken at a systemic and institutional level,” the researchers wrote.

According to the researchers, the primary drivers of physician burnout are structural features of current medical practice. “Only structural solutions — those that better align the work of physicians with their mission — will have significant and durable impact,” the researchers wrote in the report.

To that end, the researchers’ immediate recommendation is for healthcare institutions to improve access to and expand health services for physicians, including mental health services.

In the medium term, technology can play a large role. Addressing physician burnout will require “significant” changes to the usability of EHRs, the researchers wrote, including reform of certification standards by the federal government; improved interoperability; the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) by vendors; dramatically increased physician engagement in the design, implementation and customization of EHRs; and an ongoing commitment to reducing the burden of documentation and measurement placed on physicians by payers and health care organizations.

New EHR standards from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) that address the usability and workflow concerns of physicians are long overdue, the researchers state. One promising solution would be to permit software developers to develop a range of apps that can operate with most, if not all, certified EHR systems, according to the report. The 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 mandates the use of open APIs, which standardize programming interactions, allowing third parties to develop apps that can work with any EHR with “no special effort.” There already have been efforts on this front, such as Epic’s “App Orchard,” the researchers note, but more work remains to be done.

To expedite this critical process of improvement, the report recommends physicians, practices, and larger health care delivery organizations, when seeking to purchase or renew contracts for health IT, adopt common RFP language specifying and requiring inclusion of a uniform health care API.

The researchers also say that artificial intelligence (AI) can play a promising role as AI technologies can support clinical documentation and quality measurement activities.

Long term, healthcare institutions need to appoint executive-level chief wellness officers who will be tasked with studying and assessing physician burnout. Chief wellness officers also can consult physicians to design, implement and continually improve interventions to reduce burnout, the researchers wrote.

“The fundamental challenge issued in this report is to health care institutions of all sizes to take action on physician burnout. The three recommendations advanced here should all be implemented as a matter of urgency and will yield benefits in the short, medium, and long term,” Jha and the research team wrote.

 

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GAO Report: Patient Matching Efforts Can Be Significantly Improved

January 17, 2019
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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The report did conclude that no single effort would solve the challenge of patient record matching

There is a lot that can be done—such as implementing common standards for recording demographic data—to improve patient matching, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that closely examined the issue.

The 21st Century Cures Act included a provision for GAO to study patient record matching, and in this report, GAO describes (1) stakeholders' patient record matching approaches and related challenges; and (2) efforts to improve patient record matching identified by stakeholders.

The 37 stakeholders that GAO interviewed, including representatives from physician practices and hospitals, described their approaches for matching patients' records—comparing patient information in different health records to determine if the records refer to the same patient.

The respondents explained that when exchanging health information with other providers, they match patients' medical records using demographic information, such as the patient's name, date of birth, or sex. This record matching can be done manually or automatically. For example, several provider representatives said that they rely on software that automatically matches records based on the records' demographic information when receiving medical records electronically.

Stakeholders further said that software can also identify potential matches, which staff then manually review to determine whether the records correspond to the same patient. They said that inaccurate, incomplete, or inconsistently formatted demographic information in patients' records can pose challenges to accurate matching. For example, records don't always contain correct information (e.g., a patient may provide a nickname rather than a legal name) and that health IT systems and providers use different formats for key information such as names that contain hyphens.

Those who GAO interviewed identified recent or ongoing efforts to improve the data and methods used in patient record matching, such as the following:

  • ·         Several stakeholders told GAO they worked to improve the consistency with which they format demographic data in their electronic health records (EHR). In 2017, 23 providers in Texas implemented standards for how staff record patients' names, addresses, and other data. Representatives from three hospitals said this increased their ability to match patients' medical records automatically. For example, one hospital's representatives said they had seen a significant decrease in the need to manually review records that do not match automatically.
  • ·         Stakeholders also described efforts to assess and improve the effectiveness of methods used to match patient records. For example, in 2017 the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) hosted a competition for participants to create an algorithm that most accurately matched patient records. ONC selected six winning submissions and plans to report on their analysis of the competition's data.

Those who were interviewed said more could be done to improve patient record matching, and identified several efforts that could improve matching. For example, some said that implementing common standards for recording demographic data; sharing best practices and other resources; and developing a public-private collaboration effort could each improve matching.

Stakeholders' views varied on the roles ONC and others should play in these efforts and the extent to which the efforts would improve matching. For example, some said that ONC could require demographic data standards as part of its responsibility for certifying EHR systems, while other stakeholders said that ONC could facilitate the voluntary adoption of such standards. Multiple stakeholders emphasized that no single effort would solve the challenge of patient record matching.

To this end, a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts outlined several key themes related to patient matching, while also suggesting recommendations to improve matching and the infrastructure needed for more robust progress in the medium and long term.

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Montana Senator to VA CIO: “EHR Modernization Cannot Fail”

January 14, 2019
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Senate VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester has urged new VA CIO James Gfrerer to avoid past failures as he helps to move forward the department’s EHR (electronic health record) modernization project.

Gfrerer, an ex-marine and former executive director at Ernst & Young, was recently confirmed by the Senate to serve as assistant secretary of information and technology and CIO (chief information officer) at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

One of Gfrerer’s top tasks will be helping to update hospitals’ infrastructures as the VA continues to work on replacing the department’s 40-year-old legacy EHR system, called VistA, by adopting the same platform as the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), a Cerner EHR system. That contract was finally signed last May and the implementation project is scheduled to span over 10 years.

In a letter to Gfrerer, Tester, a Montana senator, noted that while many of the responsibilities for the implementation of VA’s new EHR fall to the recently created Office of Electronic Health Record Management, the CIO’s role “is critical to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.”

The office that Gfrerer now leads, VA’s Office of Information and Technology, will still be in charge of managing infrastructure needs for both the patient care facilities that have received the EHR upgrades and those that have not, Tester stated. “This task will require significant resources and robust oversight as VA manages a decade-long rollout,” he said.

Tester further wrote, “EHR modernization cannot be allowed to fail, and your leadership is essential if VA is to ultimately achieve a truly interoperable health record for veterans.”

In regard to “past failures,” it’s possible that Tester is referring to media reports that have outlined some of the significant issues that the DoD has had with its own Cerner rollouts. In reports throughout 2018, the initial feedback on the four military site EHR rollouts has been less than ideal. A Politico report first detailed the first stage of implementations noted that it “has been riddled with problems so severe they could have led to patient deaths.” Indeed, some clinicians at one of four pilot centers, Naval Station Bremerton in Washington, quit because they were terrified they might hurt patients, or even kill them, the report attested.

Providing an update on Cerner’s progress with the DoD EHR implementations, a company executive recently noted that he is seeing “measurable progress” at the DoD’s initial operational capability (IOC) sites.

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