A Dream About U.S. EMR’s; A Reality in th U.K.

I’m back at it again, talking about my continued love/hate relationship with EMR’s. From my conversations with doctors at different hospitals in our region, it seems that most docs appear to be falling into the “hate” column. Meanwhile, I’m still chugging along with the Allscripts Professional EHR that’s been installed in my office. And while it works just fine for the needs of a 3 physician single-specialty outpatient practice, it’s hardly the type of technology that, by itself, can change medical care for the better for a large number of people.

A recent study challenges that notion. In a study published in Chest, researchers in England sought to determine if inhaled steroids are a risk factor for pneumonia among asthmatics. It has already been shown inhaled corticosteroids are associated with an increased risk of pneumonia among patients with COPD. To determine this they looked at a database of medical information known as The Health Information Network (THIN).

In the UK, EMR’s have been in use for years, and general practitioners are encouraged (but not required) to participate in THIN. When a general practice elects to participate in THIN, software is installed in their EMR which runs in the background. The program collects data, while de-identifying it. The anonymized data is then uploaded to THIN, where approved researchers may have access to it.  There is no cost to the practices for participating, and in return for their participation practices not only receive in depth practice metrics, they also receive a percentage of any research revenue generated from the use of the THIN data. At the time that the study was conducted, the database contained data from 9.1 million patients.

But back to the question at hand. From a cohort of 359,172 people with asthma the researchers were able to identify 6857 people with pneumonia, along with 36,312 control subjects.  They were thus able to find a positive correlation between inhaled steroids and pneumonia. (for more on these findings, see my previous post: ) Continue reading “A Dream About U.S. EMR’s; A Reality in th U.K.”

Why I Stopped Working with Express Scripts

Mail order pharmacies like Express Scripts and Medco have become increasingly prominent players in health care. But these companies are a lot more than simply mail order pharmacies, they are in fact a new generation of pharmacy benefit managers (PBM’s). PBM’s are essentially middle-men between insurance and pharmacy, with companies like Express Scripts merging the dual functions of a PBM and pharmacist into one. PBM’s manage and administer medication benefits for insurance companies. The largest insurance companies contract with them not only to manage the medication benefits of their clients (that would be you), but also to contain costs. Since insurance companies are not in the business of directly managing pharmacy services themselves, they contract with PBM’s to coordinate and manage their patients’ insurance benefits for them. If a PBM can do that at a lower cost, they save (make) money for themselves and the insurance company.

Mail order pharmacies are in a unique position to do this, as they don’t have to maintain brick-and-mortar outlets, and can use the mail to reduce costs . With such an advantage in cost containment, mail order PBM’s are quickly pushing traditional brick and mortar outfits to the periphery (remember Netflix vs. Blockbuster?). Mail order pharmacies are thus becoming giants in this industry. In 2012, Express Scripts completed a $29 billion acquisition of Medco, to create the country’s largest PBM, a publicly traded company with $100 billion in annual revenue. Continue reading “Why I Stopped Working with Express Scripts”

Smartphone App Allows COPD Patients to Individualize Their Care.

Health-care technology advocates have long been preaching about the potential of smartphones and other types of disruptive technology to improve health-care delivery. We in organized medicine have been slow to answer the call. Studies that showcase the ability of these tools in major medical journals are rare.  However, in a recent issue of CHEST, we see a welcome addition to the medical literature.

In this study,  researchers taught patients with COPD to create daily symptom diaries on smartphones (BlackBerry 8700s).  The results were uploaded to a research server and the program alerted staff when certain predetermined criteria were met. Using the data, researchers were able to accurately and quickly identify patients who were having an exacerbation of their COPD. They were also able to collect data on both the timing and length of the exacerbation.

This has exciting implications. Perhaps this kind of patient centered  data could be used to identify patients with severe symptoms and prevent hospitalizations, or to serve as a measure of response in clinical trials to various interterventions. The possible applications are numerous.

Though there is one aspect of this study that, as a tech geek, leaves me ambivalent. Should I be excited that even an obsolete smartphone could prove to be so useful? Or depressed that even an obsolete smartphone is so far ahead of current medical technology?

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This article is also posted at the ACCP Thought Leaders Blog.

Should EMR’s Be Able To Talk to Each Other?

I’ve written several times before about my love/hate status with my EMR. While I enjoy using mine, I long for it’s usefulness to get to the next level. While the EMR is useful at tracking data, it’s greatest handicap right now, is that it can’t talk to other systems. Data is still locked in individual systems and can’t be shared across platforms. This lack of inter-operability has thus far been the EMR’s greatest handicap, and I have longed for the time when EMRs are able to share data.

But as I see more and more systems being employed in my area and talk with other physicians about their experiences, I am becoming increasingly concerned that  the inexorable march forward is going too quickly.

Shouldn’t we get these systems right before introducing interoperability into the equation?

The administration and the public are now clamoring that the information in these systems should be able to be shared among providers. In effect, that the information should not be “held hostage” by each providers respective system. These are fair and reasonable requests that should be expected in the long run. To that end, some EHR vendors have agreed in principle to begin writing standards that would allow inter-operability between systems.

The unfortunate problem here, and one that the public does not understand, is that these systems are not like the  computer operating systems that they accustomed to using. It’s easy to forget that Microsoft, Word, Windows, Powerpoint, and Macs are more than 20 years old.  They’ve gone through several generations and hundreds of billions of dollars in development by the worlds most talented programmers. All to now finally be at a point where the program does not routinely stop working for some unknown reason. Continue reading “Should EMR’s Be Able To Talk to Each Other?”

The Relationship Between Cystic Fibrosis Exacerbations and Environmental Pollution.

If you don’t know this about me by now, I need to confess something, I’m a bit of a geek. I love  Star Trek (all of em), and I regularly check the NASA website  to see how the Voyager pairs are doing. And yes, of course  I follow the Mars rover’s twitter feed, who wouldn’t?.  So as I was perusing my issue of Chest recently, there was a study that really got my attention. It wasn’t only because of the incredibly important  issue of Cystic Fibrosis and identifying what causes exacerbations. It was the novel way that the authors identified air pollution as a factor that contributed to CF exacerbations.

Air pollution has long been thought to play a role in leading to lung disease. Air pollution is also thought to contribute to exacerbations in people with known lung disease such as asthma, COPD, and Cystic Fibrosis. However, these correlations have been difficult to show,  and have primarily depended upon looking at admission rates for people with exacerbations  of lung disease during periods where there is a known environmental anomaly or excess pollution. Unfortunately such conditions are not very predictable.

A study published in this month’s issue of  Chest showed an intriguing relationship between  air pollution and exacerbations of cystic fibrosis. What was intriguing to me about this study was not only that the authors showed a relationship between CF exacerbations and environmental pollution, but also how they set about demonstrating an association between the two.

They first went back and identified  2204 individual CF exacerbations that occurred at their institution in Belgium. Using the patients’ home addresses, they  calculated concentrations of  particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide the patients would have been exposed to around the time of their exacerbations. Continue reading “The Relationship Between Cystic Fibrosis Exacerbations and Environmental Pollution.”

Daily Docblock: EHR Style.

Its been a long road to readjusting to my EHR, and for the most part its been worth it. (see previous EHR articles). I’ve fine tuned my typing skills, I’ve become a black belt of check boxes, a jedi of templates, I whip through e-prescriptions and referral letters like Liam Neeson through eastern European bad guys. Yes, I am Neo, the promised one, of the EHR world. But a recent EHR update had me making yet another change to they way I see patients that I’m sad to say, has tripped me up. This relatively minor problem is that, with this recent update, my EHR takes too long to open after I log in.

Huge amounts have been written all over the web about the EHR and  how difficult it is to adapt to. To those EHR haters my response has always been this; The EHR is our new reality, if you just get used to the idea that you need to adapt to the computer and not the other way around, and just get on with the process of adapting your typical routine to this new reality, your life will be much better.
But this newest update has me questioning that philosophy. Yes I have adapted my workflow to the EHR, and made all of the changes I mentioned above. Now I have to make another change after a recent update that made only modest changes to the EHR’s functionality. The update has caused a 15 to 20 sec gap from when I log in to the time that I begin to enter information. I’ve tried to fill this time to prevent an inevitable awkward silence, but 20 seconds is a long time to make small talk. Plus I can only ask “how’s the weather outside” so many times per day.
On the other hand if I delve right into history taking, I’m then 20 seconds behind when I do start typing.
So thus far, my interim solution thus far has been to log in first and then go make physical contact with the patient before entering anything in the EHR. This usually involves  a handshake and maybe a few preliminary questions. In some cases, if I’m already familiar with the patient, I may begin my physical exam right away, before I even start entering data. In any case, if you’re one of my patients and you are reading this, I apologize that I am listening to your lungs before I finish getting your complete history, now you know the reason why. I’ll probably keep going with this interim solution until I find a better one, I’m more than open to ideas if anyone out there has any. Meanwhile I’m hoping all future programming updates don’t force me to change my workflow.
Incidentally, a similar problem has occurred at the hospital’s computer system. When logging onto the hospital’s system for the first time of the day, there is about a 30 to 45 sec wait before the program will open.  I now log in, hang up my coat, maybe get some coffee from the machine or check my mailbox, and then come back to the computer.
Either way, suffice it to say, this is getting kind of ridiculous. I am dearly hoping that all future updates will not similarly dictate a change in how I go about seeing patients. . . are you listening Allscripts?

Why Physicians Should Learn to Pronounce Patient Names Properly

I have it on good authority that it’s not easy being green. But I’m willing to wager that it’s a whole lot easier when you have a lovable name like “Kermit”. Imagine being green (or brown) with a name like “Ramachandran”? Growing up with a name like mine certainly had its disadvantages. While most neighborhoods have a local bully who kicks ass and takes names, in my case, he would typically kick ass, but didn’t bother with the name part because he couldn’t pronounce it. Somehow I found that last part more insulting.

 I’ve long since outgrown the sensitivities about my name (although I still make any telemarketer pronounce it properly before talking with them). For most patients and those with whom I only occasionally associate, I go by “Dr. Ram”, which works fine by me. But perhaps those early experiences left me with an impression about how people can be affected in positive ways by getting the pronunciation of their name right, or at least trying to get it right. As well as the negative ways in which people can be affected by getting the pronunciation wrong, or by not even bothering to try.

So I would like to direct a message to those care providers out there with easy to pronounce names, because this  is something that you probably don’t  know. Getting the pronunciation of somebody’s name correctly (or at least trying to) is important. These people often wave you through that initial awkward part of an encounter, simply because they’ve given up hope that people are going to get it right. They tell you it does not matter only because they have already spent too much time in trying to get the name pronounced properly, only to have it reduced to a few letters. They wave away the mispronunciations because they’ve learned to accept that no one is going to invest the few seconds that it will take to pronounce it correctly. But they do care, and make no mistake, it is very important to them. Not taking the time to learn the pronunciation of someone’s name sends a powerful message. It says “We don’t know you, you’re a stranger here” And doing it repeatedly says “I still don’t know you, and I’m too busy to bother to try”. The subconscious message that the patient takes from these encounters is “these people don’t know who I am”. Conversely, taking the time to try to learn the proper pronunciation of a name  says “I’m listening to you” and “I want to know who you are”. Continue reading “Why Physicians Should Learn to Pronounce Patient Names Properly”

My EHR Tells Me I’m a Bad Doctor.

I’ve written before about our EHR and all the the things that I really like about it. Add to that list the fact that we can now get incentive payments from Medicare (or Medicaid) for buying and using an EHR (we were early adopters of the technology before the current incentives came out). But in order to qualify as an electronic health record in the government’s eyes, the federal government determined that everyone’s systems must meet certain minimum functionality requirements, what they call “meaningful use”. This is where things are getting tricky. . . because my beloved EHR is telling me that my medical records are are not meaningfully useful, and in fact are meaninglessly useful, or meaningfully useless, one or the other, or perhaps both.
As if that was not enough of a slap in the face after all the love and adoration I’ve showered upon the system, there’s this bitter morsel. I’m being told that the manner in which I’ve been deficient is in the department of documentation of smoking. Can you believe that? Smoking! Me! The super-anti-smoking guy! The one who wrote this article. And then the other one. Plus, remember that other one? Seriously?
Could I truly be deficient in my smoking documentation? Refusing to believe such blasphemy, I delved into the medical records. No, see, there it is? Right there.  Under HPI, “patient has no history of smoke exposure”. And there again, in the next chart, more extensive smoking data meticulously typed into the history. I knew that I was documenting this stuff. What could the problem possibly be? Continue reading “My EHR Tells Me I’m a Bad Doctor.”