Monday, December 9, 2013

Follow-Up on Electronic Health Record Portals: We're Asking the Wrong Question (and the DMCB is guilty)

Researchers pondering the EHR portal
Thanks to Twitter, the @DisMgtCareBlog had a highly rewarding tweetologue with tweetociates @Paulflevy (with an insightful bit of bloggery here), @granitehead and @subatomicdoc about a recent DMCB post on the topic of electronic health record (EHR) patient portals. As readers will recall, yet another notion of the Lilliputian Order of Unquestioning EHR Believers failed to pass scientific muster when The Annals published a negative review on patient portals. Tweeples took note with a series of tweets that simultaneously advanced the DMCB's social media chops and the antipathy of the how-does-this-make-money? DMCB spouse.

To tell the truth, however, the skeptical DMCB took unfair advantage of this latest EHR kerfuffle. It confesses that it couldn't resist this latest addition to the target-rich environment of HIT disappointments in quality, cost and governmental overreach.

So, upon further reflection, just because almost 15 years of high quality research failed to establish any lasting value doesn't mean portals should go the way of the Dodo, low-cost medical malpractice insurance or Mr. Obama's credibility.

In other words, the DMCB does think that portals have a role to play in the health care reform landscape, and it said so in front of a huge audience at the recent Star Ratings Conference in Fort Lauderdale.

Portals, thinks the DMCB, have little value as stand-alone interventions. Just dropping it into a clinic's patient population is unlikely to significantly increase communication and shift behaviors enough to produce enough of a "signal" that cost or quality outcomes are better compared to usual care.

But when EHR portals are part of a multi-channel outreach strategy that includes (but is not limited to) mailings, interactive voice response-based calls, secure messaging, emails, social media, "anniversary" time-for-your-appointment cards, live telephony as well as home visits that are all backed by predictive modeling (who is at greatest risk) that informs "impactability" (how they're at greatest risk) that's all tethered to care management that is also closely aligned with marketing and builds brand, then portals mostly likely do add value.

Unfortunately, traditional health services research cannot assesses the multiple simultaneous interventions described above.  As Dr. Donald Berwick presciently noted in this classic JAMA article:

Experimentalists have pursued too single-mindedly the question of whether a [social] program works at the expense of knowing why it works. Thus, although [traditional research] seeks generalizable relies on removing most of the local details about “how” something works and about the “what” of contexts. It therefore reveals little about mechanisms or about factors that affect generalizability. Studying a few covariates, or using stratified designs, or probing for interactions can mitigate this loss, but these are inadequate tools for studying complex, unstable, nonlinear social change.

As the DMCB has noted before, absence of any proof is not the same as proof of absence.  The studies that the DMCB ultimately quoted were based on traditional research, which is simply not up to the task of the non-linear intervention of patient-doc-team communications.

Don Berwick recommends a more insightful approach:

Health care researchers who believe that their main role is to ride the brakes on change—to weigh evidence with impoverished tools, ill-fit for use—are not being as helpful as they need to be. “Where is the randomized trial?” is, for many purposes, the right question, but for many others it is the wrong question, a myopic one. A better one is broader: “What is everyone learning?” Asking the question that way will help clinicians and researchers see further in navigating toward improvement.

When it comes to EHR portals, it's time we ask just what are we learning.

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