Ehab Hanna, MD, MBBch, FHM, understands better than most why hospitalists are frustrated with all the grand plans to utilize information technology (IT) for streamlining admissions, medical reconciliations, and the discharge process. As assistant chief medical information officer at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, he spends half his time scouting and assessing the value of new IT platforms and the other half as a front-line hospitalist.
Dr. Hanna and his colleagues are frustrated that software systems promise to deliver electronic medical records (EMR) but freeze up too often, take too long to download files, or can’t handle the functions for which they were developed. But he also knows the future of healthcare hinges on IT as much as anything else—and that done correctly, and probably expensively, it can be a savior.
“Every time we want to come up with a quality-initiative project, we want to ask, ‘What can IT do for us?’ ” Dr. Hanna says. He also acknowledges that “it’s all types of money, whether it be resources, funding, or people to implement [the system]. And there’s physician resistance to it.”
The link between quality and cost is paramount to healthcare and HM. As evidence, the keynote theme of HM09 in Chicago was quality improvement (QI)—defining it, making it a priority, setting up analytical metrics to measure it, and the most difficult step: implementing it. QI projects vary in size, shape, and scope. On one end of the spectrum: hand-washing compliance systems and simple programs to increase the prescription of pneumococcal vaccines. On the laborious and expensive end: EMR system integration with ambulatory care and pharmacy.
Industry leaders agree QI projects must include measurable goals and incentives for success. The flip side is that failure to reach those goals has to include a level of accountability.
One thing is for sure: The choice to focus on patient safety no longer is a choice, it’s a mandate. Patient-safety advocates are barking louder than ever, and the public and politicians are taking note. Medicare reimbursements are increasingly tied to performance measures, a trend that is likely to accelerate in light of recent news that Medicare will sink into the red in just eight years. Many expect that threshold to keep moving closer, too. President Obama has pledged to push major healthcare reform legislation—including a focus on EMR—through Congress. He wants to sign it into law by Labor Day.
On the other hand, there still is a relatively small sample of data on the effectiveness of pay-for-performance contracting in relation to overall patient health. There is a recurring call from many outside the HM field for more independent, empirical data that can pinpoint the quantifiable value of hospitalists. Discussions based on those values could satisfy group leaders, hospital administrators, and government regulators who still use the tried-and-true HM formula: value equals quality divided by cost.
“I see about as many challenges in QI as I do opportunities,” says SHM President Scott Flanders, MD, FHM, director of the hospitalist program at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor. “Is the horse before the cart? We have spent a lot of time and effort putting in place … programs before understanding the clinical effect.”
Can IT be EZ?
Dr. Hanna says hospitalists would embrace new IT initiatives immediately if they were easier to use. Many hospitalists are frustrated that in their pocket sits a handy, portable device that works in real time as a computer, a phone, a CD player, a GPS tracking device, and a scheduling secretary, yet they can’t use their E&M coding system without encountering constant hiccups, interruptions that take valuable time out of an already crowded 12-hour shift.