Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Seven Myths of Healthcare Technology
5. One Size Fits All

August is over, and so is, sadly, vacation. So, we came back to the office this week, to a pile of mail (I see that Canadian Tire had some nice sales in August) and a week of "start-up" appointments. One was a discussion with a partner company in Toronto. They are in marketing and were contacted by a potential client about an EMR/management system for small-office providers. As an SME, I was brought in to provide support. It sounded like a well-thought-out product serving a clear need. However, as we talked, I recognized a flaw in the initial assumptions;

Myth #5 "Solutions Are Shippable."

The potential client, a software vendor, was thinking of establishing a client base in Ontario and then expanding through Canada and the US--a reasonable and not uncommon business-development route for most products. Vendors and buyers of look on both sides of the border for new clients and better deals, respectively. This works with auto parts, fruit juice and so many other things--especially after NAFTA. And one would assume it would work with HIT as well--and be wrong.

Healthcare IT is only a device to enable a service process. It does not actually deliver healthcare. It just helps keep track of the healthcare being delivered. And that process is not the same everywhere. In Canada, the first goal of record keeping is accuracy of health data and surety of care. In the US, the first task is bookkeeping--determining payment liability and authority. In the US, there are HIPPA regulations carefully restricting access to patient information. These regulations are much more stringent and litigious than those in Canada, where a "circle of care" is more readily extended to include those brought into a patient's care process. These things change the nature of how electronic-record software should be not only managed and used, but actually structured.

In the US, software has be made to accommodate the tangled web of insurers and pre-authorizations required. Before care other than emergency stabilization can begin, financial responsibility and authorization have to be obtained from any one of a myriad of people and documented. Following that, HIPPA practices (coupled with litigation-risk management practices) require careful and full documentation of patient information and consent. Security functions (ID/password systems and access logging and monitoring) are required to assure HIPPA adherence by providers and facility staff. Then each service, each supply and each provider interaction has to be documented in a way that can later be billed successfully to whichever insurance company, HMO, employer fund or government plan may apply. This is often a complicated mix of incremental payments from a number. There often is still a significant balance to be charged the patient (or their family) which may require financing (and the related software functionality). Healthcare software must handle all of these requirements as core elements. This directs a large part of initial development to service coding, annotation of coding, coding-decision support and back-office interfaces and resources (billing office dataset displays and telecommunications with insurance company databases, for example). And these are core requirements for providers in the US.

In Canada, financial issues are far less complicated; a patient is either Canadian or not (or, in rare cases, not up to date on their Provincial premiums). This immediately clears authorization and billing for the majority of primary care services (more than 90% of all healthcare). For "non-urgent" care; optical and dental, elective services or "extras" like private rooms; billing is to one of the fewer-than-in-the-US insurance companies or to the patient. But the billing process is not a primary function in the electronic record. The "Circle of Care" allows easier involvement of providers and requires less documentation of patient information and consent. While patient privacy and security are highly valued in the Canadian practice, the limitations on provider liability in Canada reduce the urgency for liability-risk mitigation through documentation and security processes. Similarly, coding of diagnoses, treatments and prescriptions are important in the Canadian system, but for different reasons. While the US providers are working to ensure that they get paid, the Canadian providers are more concerned with helping organizations like CIHI in the development of trending data and national care standards (as examples).

Clerks in the US ask "Who's paying?" In Canada, they ask, "What's wrong?"

Software is a device to enable a process. While the goal may be the same everywhere, the process is not. And the software cannot.