Worse than Russian Roulette
The ability to review or transfer EHRs from one doctor or hospital to another (interoperability) is one of the major selling points for the adoption of EHRs, and is indeed essential to the smooth functioning of the health care system. However, as I wrote in the Prologue, even within Connecticut, we more resemble the Tower of Babel story, with the three major hospital systems unable to communicate with one another. So I asked myself, `How important is this? When is interoperability most critical? And just how bad is the current state of affairs?` If a patient lives in state, especially in the case of an elective, non-emergency procedure, I often would be able to coordinate with an indicated doctor in a `discordant` system to ensure that they had the essential patient records in advance. In state, I might already know the doctor in question, either directly or through mutual professional connections. But remember the frightening story in the Prologue about my colleague who died in an acute turn of events 2000 miles from home, while on vacation. Again, it is precisely this type of setting that worries me the most, when a patient is far from home, and is unknown to anyone local. In an emergency, especially if there is no luxury of time, late at night or on a weekend, the responsible physician must be able to access the patient’s essential medical records, at the very least.
When I dug into this issue more deeply, I was disturbed to discover the extent of the non-universality of EHRs. Last year, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology issued a scathing report that explained how some software developers of EHRs, as well as hospitals and health networks that own physician practices, are intentionally and unreasonably blocking the electronic exchange of health information outside the network as part of a business strategy to “enhance their market dominance.” This is occurring even when the information is required to treat patients, even though a connection is technically feasible and the doctors would be willing to pay for it. The poster child for this criticism has been Epic, although their senior executives have consistently denied participation in any such activities. Similarly, many hospitals and medical practices have made it remarkably difficult for customers and patients to switch to other providers, primarily to gain or retain an edge over competitors. In an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in November 2014 entitled `Medical Records: Top Secret`, Elisabeth Rosenthal documented the series of hurdles that had to be cleared in a six week ordeal of a highly informed patient trying to extract his own records from a hospital.
So I did a little digging into the numbers. In the analysis of the most recent (03/15) HealthIT.gov Dashboard data, we see that 10 EHR vendors control more than 90% of the hospital EHR market, with Cerner, MEDITECH and Epic Systems each at about 20% of the market share. In contrast, in the ambulatory care sector, there is much more fragmentation. About 35-40% of the ambulatory EHR market remains in the hands of many small vendors. Epic Systems tops the list at 22%, with Allscripts second at 10% of the market share. But five of the market’s top 10 vendors boast a market share of less than 5% each. Moreover, only a very few companies have significant presence in both the hospital sector and the ambulatory sector. The number of EHR products on the market continues to grow, with more than 500 vendors selling systems that generally are not interoperable except within their own product line. We can estimate the likelihood that two systems do not communicate (assuming the norm that systems from distinct vendors are not interoperable). A relatively simple calculation shows that the likelihood of interoperability between two hospital-based systems is about 15%, and about 9% between two ambulatory-based (that is, most medical practice) systems. Furthermore, since different sets of vendors top the `leaderboards` for hospital-based compared to ambulatory settings, the likelihood of a hospital-based and an ambulatory system successfully sharing information is substantially less than 9%. So overall, if you are far from home, at best you are looking at about a 1 in 7 chance of your local records being readable in a distant hospital or doctor’s office system. Not good, and far from universal.