Facing the Challenges of the Healthcare Industry – An Interview with Eric Stephens of The Open Group Healthcare Forum

By The Open Group

The Open Group launched its new Healthcare Forum at the Philadelphia conference in July 2013. The forum’s focus is on bringing Boundaryless Information Flow™ to the healthcare industry to enable data to flow more easily throughout the complete healthcare ecosystem through a standardized vocabulary and messaging. Leveraging the discipline and principles of Enterprise Architecture, including TOGAF®, the forum aims to develop standards that will result in higher quality outcomes, streamlined business practices and innovation within the industry.

At the recent San Francisco 2014 conference, Eric Stephens, Enterprise Architect at Oracle, delivered a keynote address entitled, “Enabling the Opportunity to Achieve Boundaryless Information Flow” along with Larry Schmidt, HP Fellow at Hewlett-Packard. A veteran of the healthcare industry, Stephens was Senior Director of Enterprise Architects Excellus for BlueCross BlueShield prior to joining Oracle and he is an active member of the Healthcare Forum.

We sat down after the keynote to speak with Stephens about the challenges of healthcare, how standards can help realign the industry and the goals of the forum. The opinions expressed here are Stephens’ own, not of his employer.

What are some of the challenges currently facing the healthcare industry?

There are a number of challenges, and I think when we look at it as a U.S.-centric problem, there’s a disproportionate amount of spending that’s taking place in the U.S. For example, if you look at GDP or percentage of GDP expenditures, we’re looking at now probably 18 percent of GDP [in the U.S.], and other developed countries are spending a full 5 percent less than that of their GDP, and in some cases they’re getting better outcomes outside the U.S.

The mere fact that there’s the existence of what we call “medical tourism, where if I need a hip replacement, I can get it done for a fraction of the cost in another country, same or better quality care and have a vacation—a rehab vacation—at the same time and bring along a spouse or significant other, means there’s a real wide range of disparity there. 

There’s also a lack of transparency. Having worked at an insurance company, I can tell you that with the advent of high deductible plans, there’s a need for additional cost information. When I go on Amazon or go to a local furniture store, I know what the cost is going to be for what I’m about to purchase. In the healthcare system, we don’t get that. With high deductible plans, if I’m going to be responsible for a portion or a larger portion of the fee, I want to know what it is. And what happens is, the incentives to drive costs down force the patient to be a consumer. The consumer now asks the tough questions. If my daughter’s going in for a tonsillectomy, show me a bill of materials that shows me what’s going to be done – if you are charging me $20/pill for Tylenol, I’ll bring my own. Increased transparency is what will in turn drive down the overall costs.

I think there’s one more thing, and this gets into the legal side of things. There is an exorbitant amount of legislation and regulation around what needs to be done. And because every time something goes sideways, there’s going to be a lawsuit, doctors will prescribe an extra test, and extra X-ray for a patient whether they need it or not.

The healthcare system is designed around a vicious cycle of diagnose-treat-release. It’s not incentivized to focus on prevention and management. Oregon is promoting these coordinated care organizations (CCOs) that would be this intermediary that works with all medical professionals – whether it was physical, mental, dental, even social worker – to coordinate episodes of care for patients. This drives down inappropriate utilization – for example, using an ER as a primary care facility and drives the medical system towards prevention and management of health. 

Your keynote with Larry Schmidt of HP focused a lot on cultural changes that need to take place within the healthcare industry – what are some of the changes necessary for the healthcare industry to put standards into place?

I would say culturally, it goes back to those incentives, and it goes back to introducing this idea of patient-centricity. And for the medical community, to really start recognizing that these individuals are consumers and increased choice is being introduced, just like you see in other industries. There are disruptive business models. As a for instance, medical tourism is a disruptive business model for United States-based healthcare. The idea of pharmacies introducing clinical medicine for routine care, such as what you see at a CVS, Wal-Mart or Walgreens. I can get a flu shot, I can get a well-check visit, I can get a vaccine – routine stuff that doesn’t warrant a full-blown medical professional. It’s applying the right amount of medical care to a particular situation.

Why haven’t existing standards been adopted more broadly within the industry? What will help providers be more likely to adopt standards?

I think the standards adoption is about “what’s in it for me, the WIIFM idea. It’s demonstrating to providers that utilizing standards is going to help them get out of the medical administration business and focus on their core business, the same way that any other business would want to standardize its information through integration, processes and components. It reduces your overall maintenance costs going forward and arguably you don’t need a team of billing folks sitting in an doctor’s office because you have standardized exchanges of information.

Why haven’t they been adopted? It’s still a question in my mind. Why would a doctor not want to do that is perhaps a question we’re going to need to explore as part of the Healthcare Forum.

Is it doctors that need to adopt the standards or technologies or combination of different constituents within the ecosystem?

I think it’s a combination. We hear a lot about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the health exchanges. What we don’t hear about is the legislation to drive toward standardization to increase interoperability. So unfortunately it would seem the financial incentives or things we’ve tried before haven’t worked, and we may simply have to resort to legislation or at least legislative incentives to make it happen because part of the funding does cover information exchanges so you can move health information between providers and other actors in the healthcare system.

You’re advocating putting the individual at the center of the healthcare ecosystem. What changes need to take place within the industry in order to do this?

I think it’s education, a lot of education that has to take place. I think that individuals via the incentive model around high deductible plans will force some of that but it’s taking responsibility and understanding the individual role in healthcare. It’s also a cultural/societal phenomenon.

I’m kind of speculating here, and going way beyond what enterprise architecture or what IT would deliver, but this is a philosophical thing around if I have an ailment, chances are there’s a pill to fix it. Look at the commercials, every ailment say hypertension, it’s easy, you just dial the medication correctly and you don’t worry as much about diet and exercise. These sorts of things – our over-reliance on medication. I’m certainly not going to knock the medications that are needed for folks that absolutely need them – but I think we can become too dependent on pharmacological solutions for our health problems.   

What responsibility will individuals then have for their healthcare? Will that also require a cultural and behavioral shift for the individual?

The individual has to start managing his or her own health. We manage our careers and families proactively. Now we need to focus on our health and not just float through the system. It may come to financial incentives for certain “individual KPIs such as blood pressure, sugar levels, or BMI. Advances in medical technology may facilitate more personal management of one’s health.

One of the Healthcare Forum’s goals is to help establish Boundaryless Information Flow within the Healthcare industry you’ve said that understanding the healthcare ecosystem will be a key component for that what does that ecosystem encompass and why is it important to know that first?

Very simply we’re talking about the member/patient/consumer, then we get into the payers, the providers, and we have to take into account government agencies and other non-medical agents, but they all have to work in concert and information needs to flow between those organizations in a very standardized way so that decisions can be made in a very timely fashion.

It can’t be bottled up, it’s got to be provided to the right provider at the right time, otherwise, best case, it’s going to cost more to manage all the actors in the system. Worst case, somebody dies or there is a “never event due to misinformation or lack of information during the course of care. The idea of Boundaryless Information Flow gives us the opportunity to standardize, have easily accessible information – and by the way secured – it can really aide in that decision-making process going forward. It’s no different than Wal-Mart knowing what kind of merchandise sells well before and after a hurricane (i.e., beer and toaster pastries, BTW). It’s the same kind of real-time information that’s made available to a Google car so it can steer its way down the road. It’s that kind of viscosity needed to make the right decisions at the right time.

Healthcare is a highly regulated industry, how can Boundarylesss Information Flow and data collection on individuals be achieved and still protect patient privacy?

We can talk about standards and the flow and the technical side. We need to focus on the security and privacy side.  And there’s going to be a legislative side because we’re going to touch on real fundamental data governance issue – who owns the patient record? Each actor in the system thinks they own the patient record. If we’re going to require more personal accountability for healthcare, then shouldn’t the consumer have more ownership? 

We also need to address privacy disclosure regulations to avoid catastrophic data leaks of protected health information (PHI). We need bright IT talent to pull off the integration we are talking about here. We also need folks who are well versed in the privacy laws and regulations. I’ve seen project teams of 200 have up to eight folks just focusing on the security and privacy considerations. We can argue about headcount later but my point is the same – one needs some focused resources around this topic.

What will standards bring to the healthcare industry that is missing now?

I think the standards, and more specifically the harmonization of the standards, is going to bring increased maintainability of solutions, I think it’s going to bring increased interoperability, I think it’s going to bring increased opportunities too. We see mobile computing or even DropBox, that has API hooks into all sorts of tools, and it’s well integrated – so I can integrate and I can move files between devices, I can move files between apps because they have hooks it’s easy to work with. So it’s building these communities of developers, apps and technical capabilities that makes it easy to move the personal health record for example, back and forth between providers and it’s not a cataclysmic event to integrate a new version of electronic health records (EHR) or to integrate the next version of an EHR. This idea of standardization but also some flexibility that goes into it.

Are you looking just at the U.S. or how do you make a standard that can go across borders and be international?

It is a concern, much of my thinking and much of what I’ve conveyed today is U.S.-centric, based on our problems, but many of these interoperability problems are international. We’re going to need to address it; I couldn’t tell you what the sequence is right now. There are other considerations, for example, single vs. multi-payer—that came up in the keynote. We tend to think that if we stay focused on the consumer/patient we’re going to get it for all constituencies. It will take time to go international with a standard, but it wouldn’t be the first time. We have a host of technical standards for the Internet (e.g., TCP/IP, HTTP). The industry has been able to instill these standards across geographies and vendors. Admittedly, the harmonization of health care-related standards will be more difficult. However, as our world shrinks with globalization an international lens will need to be applied to this challenge. 

Eric StephensEric Stephens (@EricStephens) is a member of Oracle’s executive advisory community where he focuses on advancing clients’ business initiatives leveraging the practice of Business and Enterprise Architecture. Prior to joining Oracle he was Senior Director of Enterprise Architecture at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield leading the organization with architecture design, innovation, and technology adoption capabilities within the healthcare industry.

 

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