Interoperability in healthcare is a national disgrace. After more than three decades of effort, billions of dollars in incentives and investments, State and Federal regulations, and tens of thousands of articles and studies on making all of this work — we are only slightly better off than we were in 2000.
Decades of failed promises and dozens of technical, organizational, behavioral, financial, regulatory, privacy, and business barriers have prevented significant progress and the costs are enormous. The Institute of Medicine and other groups put the national financial impact somewhere between tens and hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Without pervasive and interoperable secure communications, healthcare is missing the productivity gains that every other industry achieved during their internet, mobile, and cloud revolutions.
The Human Toll — On Both Patients and Clinicians
Too many families have a story to tell about the dismay or disaster wrought by missing or incomplete paper medical records, or frustration by the lack of communications between their healthcare providers. In an era where we carry around more computing power in our pockets than what sent Americans to the moon, it is mystifying that we can’t get our doctors digitally communicating.
I am one of the many doctors who are outraged that the promised benefits of Electronic Medical Records (EHRs) and Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) don’t help me understand what the previous doctor did for our mutual patient. These costly systems still often require that I get the ‘bullet’ from another doctor the same way as my mentors did in the 1970s.
This digital friction also has a profoundly negative impact on medical research, clinical trials, analytics, AI, precision medicine, and the rest of health science. The scanned PDF of a fax of a patient’s EKG and a phone call may be enough for me to get the pre-op done, but faxes and phone calls can’t drive computers, predictive engines, multivariate analysis, public health surveillance programs, or real-time alerting needed to truly enable care.
Solving the Surround
Many companies and government initiatives have attempted to solve specific components of interoperability, but this has only led to a piecemeal approach that has thus far been overwhelmed by market forces. Healthcare interoperability needs an innovation strategy that I call “Solving the Surround.” It is one of the least understood and most potent strategies to succeed at disruptive innovation at scale in complex markets.
“Solving the Surround” is about understanding and addressing multiple market barriers in unison. To explain the concept, let’s consider the most recent disruption of the music industry — the success of Apple’s iPod.
The iPod itself did not win the market and drive industry disruption because it was from Apple or due to its great design. Other behemoths like Microsoft and Philips, with huge budgets and marketing machines, built powerful MP3 players without market impact. Apple succeeded because they also ‘solved the surround’ — they identified and addressed numerous other barriers to overcome mass adoption.
Among other contributions, they:
– Made software available for both the PC and Mac
– Delivered an easy (and legal) way for users to “rip” their old CD collection and use the possession of music on a fixed medium that proved legal “ownership”
– Built an online store with a massive library of music
– Allowed users to purchase individual tracks
– Created new artist packaging, distribution, licensing, and payment models
– Addressed legalities and multiple licensing issues
– Designed a way to synchronize and backup music across devices
In other words, Apple broke down most of these barriers all at once to enable the broad adoption of both their device and platform. By “Solving the Surround,” Apple was the one to successfully disrupt the music industry (and make way for their iPhone).
The Revolution that Missed Healthcare
Disruption doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The market needs to be “ready” to replace the old way of doing things or accept a much better model. In the iPod case, the market first required the internet, online payment systems, pervasive home computers, and much more. What Apple did to make the iPod successful wasn’t to build all of the things required for the market to be ready, but they identified and conquered the “surround problems” within their control to accelerate and disrupt the otherwise-ready market.
Together, the PC, internet, and mobile revolutions led to the most significant workforce productivity expansion since WWII. Productivity in nearly all industries soared. The biggest exception was in the healthcare sector, which did not participate in that productivity revolution or did not realize the same rapid improvements. The cost of healthcare continued its inexorable rise, while prices (in constant dollars) leveled off or declined in most other sectors. Healthcare mostly followed IT-centric, local, customized models.
Solving the Surround for Healthcare Interoperability
‘Solving the Surround’ in healthcare means tackling many convoluted and complex challenges.
Here are the nine things that we need to conquer:
1. Simplicity — All of the basics of every other successful technology disruptor are needed for Health communications and Interoperability. Nothing succeeds at a disruption unless it is perceived by the users to be simple, natural, intuitive, and comfortable; very few behavioral or process changes should be required for user adoption.
Simplicity must not be limited to the doctor, nurse, or clerical users. It must extend to the technical implementation of the disruptive system. Ideally, the new would seamlessly complement current systems without a heavy lift. By implication, this means that the disruptive system would embrace technologies, workflows, protocols, and practices that are already in place.
2. Ubiquity — For anything to work at scale, it must also be ubiquitous — meaning it works for all potential players across the US (or global) marketplace. Interoperability means communicating with ease with other systems. Healthcare’s next interoperability disruptor must work for all healthcare staff, organizations, and practices, regardless of their level of technological sophistication. It must tie together systems and vendors who naturally avoid collaboration today, or we are setting ourselves up for failure.
3. Privacy & Security — Healthcare demands best-in-class privacy and security. Compliance with government regulations or industry standards is not enough. Any new disruptive, interoperable communications system should address the needs of different use cases, markets, and users. It must dynamically provide the right user permissions and access and adapt as new needs arise. This rigor protects both patients from unnecessary or illegal sharing of their health records and healthcare organizations in meeting privacy requirements and complying with state and federal laws.
4. Directory — It’s impossible to imagine ubiquitous national communications without a directory. It is a crucial component for a new disruptive system to connect existing technologies and disparate people, organizations, workflows, and use cases. This directory should maintain current locations, personnel, process knowledge, workflows, technologies, keys, addresses, protocols, and individual and organizational preferences. It must be comprehensive at a national level and learn and improve with each communication and incorporate each new user’s preferences at both ends of any communication. Above all, it must be complete and reliable — nothing less than a sub-1% failure rate.
5. Delivery — Via the directory, we know to whom (or to what location) we want to send a notification, message, fetch request or record, but how will it get there? With literally hundreds of different EHR products in use and as many interoperability challenges, it is clear that a disruptive national solution must accommodate multiple technologies depending on sender and recipient capabilities. Until now, the only delivery “technology” that has ensured reliable delivery rates is the mighty fax machine.
With the potential of a large hospital at one end and a remote single-doctor practice at the other, it would be unreasonable to take a one size fits all approach. The system should also serve as a useful “middleman” to help different parties move to the model (in much the same way that ripping CDs or iTunes gave a helping hand to new MP3 owners). Such a delivery “middleman” should automatically adapt communications to each end of the communication’s technology capabilities, needs, and preferences..
6. Embracing Push — To be honest, I think we got complacent in healthcare about how we designed our technologies. Most interoperability attempts are “fetch” oriented, relying on someone pulling data from a big repository such as an EHR portal or an HIE. Then we set up triggers (such as ADTs) to tell someone to get it. These have not worked at scale in 30+ years of trying. Among other reasons, it has been common for even hospitals to be reluctant to participate fully, fearing a competitive disadvantage if they make data available for all of their patients.
My vision for a disruptive and innovative interoperability system reduces the current reliance on fetch. Why not enable reliable, proactive pushing of the right information in a timely fashion on a patient-by-patient basis? The ideal system would be driven by push, but include fetch when needed. Leverage the excellent deployment of the Direct Trust protocol already in place, supplement it with a directory and delivery service, add a new digital “middleman,” and complement it with an excellent fetch capability to fill in any gaps and enable bi-directional flows.
7. Patient Records and Messages — We need both data sharing and messaging in the same system, so we can embrace and effortlessly enable both clinical summaries and notes. There must be no practical limits on the size or types of files that can easily be shared. We need to help people solve problems together and drive everyday workflows. These are all variations of the same problem, and the disruptor needs to solve it all.
8. Compliance — The disruptor must also be compliant with a range of security, privacy, identity, interoperability, data type, API, and many other standards and work within several national data sharing frameworks. Compliance is often showcased through government and vendor certification programs. These programs are designed to ensure that users will be able to meet requirements under incentive programs such as those from CMS/ONC (e.g., Promoting Interoperability) or the forthcoming CMS “Final Rule” Condition of Participation (CoP/PEN), and others. We also must enable incentive programs based on the transition to value-based and quality-based care and other risk-based models.
9. On-Ramp — The iPod has become the mobile phone. We may use one device initially for phone or email, but soon come to love navigation, music, or collaboration tools. As we adopt more features, we see how it adds value we never envisioned before — perhaps because we never dreamed it was possible. The healthcare communications disruptor will deliver an “On-Ramp” that works at both a personal and organizational scale. Organizations need to start with a simple, driving use case, get early and definitive success, then use the same platform to expand to more and more use cases and values — and delight in each of them.
So here we are, decades past the PC revolution, with a combination of industry standards, regulations, clinician and consumer demand, and even tens of billions in EHR incentives. Still, we have neither a ‘killer app’ nor ubiquitous medical communications. As a result, we don’t have the efficiency nor ease-of-use benefits from our EHRs, nor do we have repeatable examples of improved quality or lower errors — and definitively, no evidence for lower costs.
I am confident that we don’t have a market readiness problem. We have more than ample electricity, distributed computing platforms, ubiquitous broadband communications, and consumer and clinician demand. We have robust security, legal, privacy, compliance, data format, interoperability, and related standards to move forward. So, I contend that our biggest innovation inhibitor is our collective misunderstanding about “Solving the Surround.”
Once we do that, we will unleash market disruption and transform healthcare for the next generation of patient care.
About Peter S. Tippett
Dr. Peter Tippett is a physician, scientist, business leader, and technology entrepreneur with extensive risk management and health information technology expertise. One of his early startups created the first commercial antivirus product, Certus (which sold to Symantec and became Norton Antivirus). As a leader in the global information security industry (ICSA Labs, TruSecure, CyberTrust, Information Security Magazine), Tippett developed a range of foundational and widely accepted risk equations and models.
He was a member of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) under G.W. Bush, and served with both the Clinton Health Matters and NIH Precision Medicine initiatives. Throughout his career, Tippett has been recognized with numerous awards and recognitions — including E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “Leadership in Health Care Award”, and was named one of the 25 most influential CTOs by InfoWorld.
Tippett is board certified in internal medicine and has decades of experience in the ER. As a scientist, he created the first synthetic immunoglobulin in the lab of Nobel Laureate Bruce Merrifield at Rockefeller University.