Advice to the new National Coordinator

Two and a half years ago, John posted an entry with this title – and I recall that it was a good summary of the state of the industry.  While I didn’t agree with all of his suggestions, I enjoyed the review and it offered a good set of guiding principles.  Since I was Acting National Coordinator for about the same duration as Vindell will serve, (Fall of 2013 – after Farzad Mostashari departed, and before Karen DeSalvo arrived) I’ll offer some thoughts from one who has been in his position.


  1. Certification.  The health IT certification program is the core of ONC’s responsibility to the nation.  While some have called for the eradication or reduction of the certification program, I would argue that this would be akin to scaling back Dodd-Frank.  Yeh – crazy.  As a product of ONC’s certification program, we now have health IT systems that do what their developers claim they do.  Before this program existed, creative health IT salespeople would assure customers that systems had functionality that simply didn’t exist, or was nonfunctional.  The program, like certification programs in other industries (telecommunications, transportation, etc.) is in place to assure the purchasers of products that these products do what developers claim.   Is the certification program perfect?  No.  Of course not.  The program needs to iterate with the evolution of the industry and the standards that are evolving.  Revisions to the certification program must therefore continue, so that the certification requirements don’t point to obsolete standards.  A focused “2015R2” certification regulation would therefore be an appropriate component of ONC’s fall work – so that something can be “shovel ready” for a new administration for ~ February release – with final rule in ~ April/May of 2017.

  2. The 2017 Spend Plan.  The 2017 federal budget appears to be on track to pass @ some point soon – and ONC’s appropriation for 2017 is looking like it will land at a steady ~ $60M ($65M if the extra $5M for narcotic abuse prevention lands).  The National Coordinator defines the “spend plan” for how the organization allocates this money – and the plan needs to be developed and executed at the beginning of the fiscal year: October, 2016.  The new National Coordinator is therefore making decisions now about how the funds will be spent over the next 12 months.  Office Directors are preparing proposed budgets for the year:  new FTEs, new projects that they want to launch.  Every year, it’s the same – just as it is in any large organization – proposals are submitted and the proposals represent 2x-3x the $$ available.  Tough calls need to be made.  The NC makes these calls. It’s hard to do this when you don’t know who your successor will be in January – or what their preferences will be.  When I was in this position, I worked closely with the Office Directors and the ONC Chief Operating Offer (Lisa Lewis), to identify the components of the organization’s work that were essential, and which were not.  We delayed decisions on about $2M to give Karen some flexibility to fund programs that were important to her.  As I mentioned in my response to Politico’s request for comments on the next phase of ONC’s path, my view is that it’s time to wind down ONC’s grants and health IT evangelism activity.  Perhaps it’s just my personality coming through here – as I am a well-known introvert, with little interest in quadrant 1 of the sizzle-substance 2 x 2 matrix (kudos to Janhavi for its invention), but I am concerned that it’s not government’s role to convince the public of the value/need for health IT.  If health IT has value (and I believe it does) then this value will be tangible and self-evident to the public.  If not, then no annual conference, blog post, or challenge grant will change this fact – or anyone’s perception of it.  ONC’s annual meeting – an event that costs several hundred thousand dollars and attracts the same participants every year – adds rather little to the nation’s progress toward improved health through the strategic use of health IT.  Kill the conference.  Kill the health IT flag-waving.  There’s already plenty of that to go around, and the taxpayer need not pay for it.

  3. Focus on quality.  No – not quality measures.  Quality of health, quality of care, quality of decisions.  Do these need to be measured?  Of course they do – and with the growth of value based payment in federal programs upon us, measurement of quality is imperative.  But we have conflated the concepts of quality and measurement.  As many know, I’ve long been concerned that the way that we use clinical quality measures in health care is fundamentally flawed.  Indeed, it was my concern about these flaws that led me to join ONC in the first place:  as the CMIO at Allscripts, I was responsible for helping our EHR development teams meet the requirements of Stage 1 of the EHR incentive programs (“meaningful use”) and it became clear that the accuracy of quality measure reporting would be terrible across the industry.  Why was this?  Because the 2011 certification criteria and Stage 1 meaningful use requirements were too vague about the data that would be used to measure quality.  For example, a quality measure might express that patients with “severe congestive heart failure” would be expected to be on a certain class of medications.  But there was no clarity for how “severe” was to be assessed, and many EHRs didn’t even formally capture ejection fraction, which would be an imperative component of an assessment of the severity of one’s CHF.  For Stage 2/2012 certification, we changed all of this, and while most readers don’t know or care about the details, these quiet changes represent the first important step toward improved quality measurement:  the data elements that are required for quality measures are explicitly identified in the certification regulation, and no measures are required that exceed the scope of these data elements. Read the last sentence again if you need to – as it’s very important and this guiding principle remains ignored by NQF, by many commercial health plan quality measures, and by many state Medicaid programs that are trying to implement quality programs.Simply put:  it’s impossible to report on data that was never captured.  A “quality measure” that assumes the presence of information in an IT system that is not present will be an invalid quality measure.  Period.  I thought / hoped we solved this problem in 2012.  Unfortunately, we did not.  Quality measures are still proposed without consideration for the data that EHRs have captured.  It’s now easy to know what the EHR can capture (what it can capture and what it has captured may of course differ).  Start with the NLM’s Data Element Catalog (Jesse James won the naming competition).  If the concept that you want to measure isn’t in here, then re-design your measure, because the EHRs don’t capture the data in a uniform manner.   If it is there, then the likelihood is high (but not certain) that the data can be captured, queried, and transmitted.

    Recall that I said our method of measuring quality is flawed.  Why is it flawed?  Because all of our focus is on quality measures rather than quality improvement, and improvement is a product of measurement and decision support.  Let’s parse this statement, beginning with the difference between measures and measurement.  A measure is an explicit logical statement about care delivery and its alignment with a very specific expectation.  For example, there is some evidence that individuals with diabetes will live longer if their blood sugar is well controlled, so there is a quality measure for this:  IF (individual has diabetes) AND (blood sugar is well controlled) THEN (quality measure satisfied).  Each of the logical expressions can be defined explicitly.  This measure can then be applied to thousands of care providers and their “scores” on the quality of care they presumably offer can be compared.  But what if blood sugar control isn’t so important?  What if there becomes a better way to measure individuals’ optimal health?  Measuring care quality with a list of measures is like having a speedometer in your car that measures 10, 15,25, 37 and 55 miles-per-hour and nothing in between.  It’s a set of measures -hard-coded into the system rather than measurement:  a fluid, adaptable system that enables us to see how we are doing and therefore enabling us to adjust our work dynamically if necessary.   How do we adjust?  With clinical decision support (CDS)!  As you will read in the chapter I wrote for Eta Berner’s just-published book on CDS, the federal government has done a great deal of work to enhance CDS capability in health IT systems, and to align it with quality measurement.  We’re not there yet – but we are well on the way.  Keep this on the front burner, and the path to the triple aim will be shorter and much less bumpy.

  4. As my friend Jerry Osheroff always says – focus on the most important things:  TMIT.  Are we helping improve the health of people?  That’s most important.  Don’t lose sight of it.  Karen DeSalvo taught me many things – but the one I’ve internalized the most was something that she taught me very early in her time at HHS:  we need shift our conversation from how to improve “health care” to how we improve health.