Putting Meaningful Use 3 in Context

On March 20, 2015 the stars aligned to produce four simultaneous events that will never again coincide during the life of human civilization. The first three, the vernal equinox, a total solar eclipse and a new supermoon, were brought to us by the stars themselves, and the fourth one was thrown out there by the government. The regulations for Meaningful Use Stage 3 were finally published. Meaningful use of electronic health records (EHR) was presented to us back in 2009 as part of a stimulus bill to help the crashed economy and to improve the quality and affordability of health care services for all Americans. The program is administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and implemented by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

In its first stage, the meaningful use program delivered billions of dollars to technology companies that specialize in manufacturing EHR software, and ensured that clinicians of all types are no longer wasting time and resources on individual flesh and blood patients, but instead are meticulously collecting computable data for the sharing economy. This preliminary phase saw an order of magnitude increase in the number of small EHR companies and public/private, not-for-profit, certification and accreditation enterprises, along with a sharp decrease in the number of small medical practices. The second phase of the program, weeded out most new entrants into the EHR software market, solidifying the gains for large technology vendors. Physicians became disenchanted, lost interest and lost joy in their profession. Participation in the program plummeted posing a real threat to desired outcomes. Not to worry though, there is enacted regulation and legislation pending to crack a bigger and better whip on dissenters.

The brand new third phase of the meaningful use program sports a “keep your eyes on the prize” attitude and is forging ahead towards the finish line, bravely oblivious to the difficulties experienced in previous stages. Of course, six years into the program, one would expect to see some results indicating that all this money we are spending is moving the needle towards meeting the stated “do no evil” targets. There are no such preliminary results, and we are told that it is too soon to ask, because we won’t be able to see real improvements until the entire program, which is getting bigger and more expensive with each passing day, is completed. In the meantime, we are advised to entertain ourselves with an interminable stream of roadmaps, peppered with gaudy infographics supported by toddler level cartoonish videos, and continue to pay our taxes, leaving the thinking and planning to smarter people.

I will not waste your time with point by point analysis of the new meaningful use regulations, because I am certain the “industry” will produce the customary collateral, and because it is basically more of the same. If you have no idea what meaningful use is, you can stop reading now and go enjoy your last moments of blissful existence. For the rest of us, let’s just highlight a few tidbits that seem particularly helpful to practicing physicians.

    Patient Engagement

    If you had difficulties meeting the stage 2 quota of patients who view, download or transmit their medical information, the stage 3 regulations offer some relief. Just like you need not see, examine or treat real patients any longer, and can instead virtually analyze their computerized profiles, actual patients themselves need not engage with you electronically anymore. Instead you can provide something called an application programming interface (API) to your EHR, so a piece of software can extract information from your EHR on behalf of your patients, while bolstering the sharing economy.
        There is nothing more engaging than having your colonoscopy reminder and eventual results pop up in your iTunes. Apple could presumably use anybody’s Apple ID to obtain medical records from any health care facility once one agrees to Apple’s terms of service, which nobody reads and which could contain informed consent to such health promoting activities. Since no EHR vendor is going to supply you with a thousand APIs, or agree to support connections from hundreds of little vendors, Apple is a likely candidate, and so are a handful of other very large sharing platforms.

            Quid pro Quo

            Just so you don’t feel left out of the sharing economy loop, meaningful use stage 3 requires that you accept data generated by your patients (sometimes unbeknownst to them) into your EHR. Of course Apple Health comes to mind again, but maybe other wearable snooping device manufacturers could be accommodated as well, at least in the initial stages. Since in the future, you will need to treat patients electronically without actually touching the person whose name (or number) is on that record, it will be very useful to open your EHR and see two years of hourly vitals monitoring graphs, before you initiate your next Skype session.

              Practice Policies

              Meaningful use stage 3 is adding a host of structured and codified data elements that you will need to collect and record. To that end, you should consider updating your policies as follows:
              • Require each patient to provide an updated resume at least once a year, because you need to continuously collect and update work history, including positions held, and financial information.
              • In collaboration with your attorney, create a crosswalk based on State laws and meaningful use regulations regarding what you must ask or are barred from asking your patients. For example, in some states you are not allowed to ask about guns in the domicile, and for meaningful use you must inquire how often your patient goes to church, and whether he or she is a homosexual (regardless of your specialty). It’s a fine balance and you don’t want to break any laws.

              Practice Simplifications

              In return for a bit more administrative work, meaningful use is opening a path for you to unload some of the clinical burden to technology vendors. You will need to subscribe to certified clinical decision support services that will gently integrate into your workflow, guide your thinking in an unobtrusive manner and record your actions in the background. For example, you would be able to avail yourself of automatically created order sets issued to your patients, based on their recorded symptoms and measurements (precision medicine starts here). This should save you time which could be better spent on examining Fitbit streams or analyzing curriculum vitae documentation.  

              Safety and Stability

              Whereas the preceding points are of interest to end users of EHR products, the government in its infinite and supreme technical wisdom has come up with 431 pages of dicta for software developers ranging from how to think about software development to how to market their products, down to proper capitalization of common words such as Health vs. health. If you were entertaining the titillating notion that the EHR market would eventually transcend its growing pains and come up with some cool stuff that will make you actually want to use software in your practice, rest assured that the government is protecting you from such folly.


              If you are a brilliant young entrepreneur thinking of putting together a small team of dedicated and knowledgeable buddies to build a really good and useful software product for doctors, forget about it. The 431 pages published by ONC are the highest barrier ever erected to entry into a market, with the possible exception of the market for weapons of mass destruction. If you are already up to your eyeballs in health IT, perhaps have been there for a long time, but are a small and agile development shop, your days are numbered. The ONC regulations are designed to bankrupt small technology vendors, just like CMS regulations are designed to bankrupt small practices. Innovation in health care technology is as dead as a door knob.

              The meaningful use regulations have been written by and at the behest of global technology firms, both EHR and general tech, employing a novel form of lobbying, which uses current and future corporate/government employees, board officers and grant-dependent academics, with a list of conflicts of interests as impressive as I am sure their credentials are, to act as volunteer advisory groups to government agencies. There is plenty more in the new meaningful use rules and regulations, but there really is very little point in analyzing this stuff, because there is absolutely nothing you can do to change it. It is however heartwarming to see that Qualcomm, “an American global semiconductor company that designs and markets wireless telecommunications products and services”, representing the future of health care, is “beyond pleased and finally vindicated”. Hope you are too….