Clinical Decision Support: Is Watson up to it?

Are you a Jeopardy fan? If you are, I am sure you know that in January of 2011, IBM’s supercomputer, Watson beat two of Jeopardy’s all time money winners, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Watson is an Artificial Intelligence that can understand questions posed to it in natural ‘human’ language.

WellPoint, a BlueCross collaboration, is the largest provider of health benefits in the country. Their plan is to utilize Watson to sift through their patient databases to make diagnosis and treatment recommendations to WellPoint physicians.

This idea is not at all far-fetched and certainly a reasonable way for IBM to make some money off their huge research and development investment in Watson. They have also purchased some other companies that position them well for movement into the medical sphere.

Over the last four years, IBM has spent more than $7.8 billion to acquire database analytics specialists Cognos and SPSS, both formerly public, as well as data warehouse company Netezza, along with other private companies. In the first half of 2011, IBM spending on research and development exceeded $3.15 billion.
—International Business Times, 9/19/2011

What WellPoint is proposing to do is a starting point for a task all EMR’s will ultimately need access to and participation in. In order to meet the requirements for ARRA stimulus funds, eligible providers will need to utilize their EMR’s to help them make clinical decisions.

Clinical Decision Support (CDS) is a process whereby the physician gets notices and alerts from their software to assist them in making clinical choices that are based on data and evidence rather than memory and intuition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hopes to see public health organizations utilizing population data and statistics to guide their choices. They believe this will be one of the most impactful effects EMRs can offer the public health. The Office of the National Coordinator for Healthcare IT (ONC) wants to see individual physicians using Clinical Decision Support to advise their patients. Clearly, WellPoint plans for this level of intervention: physicians will have access to the data Watson can provide to assist them in making diagnoses and recommending treatments.

We talked in this blog about some of the potential benefits of CDS back in 2009. Since then, research on the benefits of supported clinical decision making has continued. A Google Scholar search of ‘decision support emr’ results in 16,800 hits. There have also been noted some shortcomings, most notably a phenomenon called ‘alert fatigue‘, wherein a provider gets so many alerts and notices that they stop attending to them or turn them off altogether. Obviously, we have lots to learn about how to present information to healthcare providers so they can use it most effectively for the benefit of their patients. WellPoint has decided to dive right in!

What do you think about being diagnosed by a computer? Will it be more effective or less so? What is the relevance of CDS for behavioral health?

Please share your thoughts below.


Data Safety, Consent to Release, and EMRs

According to a June 14, 2011 report by Government Health IT News, consumers’ confidence in the safety of their data in electronic health records (EHRs) is a prerequisite to the successful adoption of electronic means of recording and sharing health records. So says Dixie Baker, chair of advisory Health IT Standards Committee’s privacy and security workgroup and senior vice president and chief technology officer for health solutions for SAIC. Feeling assured that their information is safe and secure and going only where it is supposed to go will allow the public to support their health care providers in moving to electronic medical records (EMRs).

In fact, Government Health IT News reported on June 24 that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) plans to contract with a vendor “to explore and evaluate methods to electronically obtain and record from patients their informed consent about sharing their health data.” The solicitation focuses heavily on the matter of educating patients about disclosure and consent for release of information.

In substance abuse and behavioral health settings, requirements beyond those encoded by HIPAA and HITECH are mandated in federal and state laws. 42 CFR Part 2 applies to any provider or provider organization holding itself out as a provider of alcohol or drug abuse treatment and to federally assisted alcohol or drug abuse programs. Special “handling” of the record is required, especially when it comes to re-release of the information obtained. It is not acceptable for a provider to receive information from an alcohol abuse program, incorporate it into their EMR and then release it on to other providers of the patient, without the specific consent of the patient.

The legal complexities are immense. Members of the Software and Technology Vendors Association (SATVA) who work with these issues all the time, have been wrestling with the kind of consent that could be used to disclose records and appropriately specify the degree to which such disclosure is authorized by the patient. Anasazi Software has shared a memorandum of understanding about privacy and security issues related to health information exchange (HIE) in California drafted at their expense. California and some other states have even more restrictive laws than 42 CFR Part 2.

The conclusions in this document lead SATVA members Anasazi Software, Valley Hope Association, and Sequest Technologies to work together to develop and demonstrate to SAMHSA a solution for managing automated electronic health information disclosure. The standardized consent for health information disclosure that they developed could go a long way toward assuring consumer control of their record, at least as that record is represented by the Continuity of Care Document (CCD).

This kind of cooperative effort is one of many reasons of why we at Synergistic Office Solutions are proud to be members of SATVA.

Psychologists and EMR: Movement forward

Last week I attended a continuing education workshop for psychologists at my local chapter of the Florida Psychological Association. Psychological Records: Basic Requirements and the (Forced?) Choice of EMRs was presented by Robert J. Porter, Ph.D., president of the Tampa Bay chapter and treasurer of Florida Psychological Association. Dr. Porter’s presentation was attended by about 30 psychologists and other mental health providers. The last FPA workshop on EMRs that I attended was over 10 years ago, and it was given by me. There were about five psychologists present at that workshop.

The difference in attendance speaks to multiple issues. First, Dr. Porter is an excellent presenter who talked broadly about EMRs. His years as a researcher and university professor combined with recent years in private practice give him great credibility. Secondly, the EMR landscape has changed hugely in the past decade with government requirements to migrate patient records to an EMR a distinct possibility.

The psychologists who are my age peers who used an EMR  loved computers and liked doing all their work there. Most of our age-mates would never have considered keeping records that could not be locked up in a file cabinet behind their locked office door. The younger psychologists who are now replacing us in the private practice community are not only willing to consider keeping their records electronically. . . they are willing to keep them online using a Software as a Service (SaaS) type product. The move from needing to hold the patient record in my hot little hands to allowing it to float out there in the cloud is a sea change.

While Dr. Porter presented a great deal of information in the two hours he spoke, there were several items I thought you might find interesting.

  1. The American Psychological Association published Record Keeping Guidelines in the December 2007 issue of the American Psychologist. If you are a psychologist and you keep records, you should read them. If you keep behavioral health records but are not a psychologist, you might take a look at them. Such Guidelines frequently become part of the standard of care in a professional community.
  2. The APA Guidelines recommend disclosure to the patient of your record keeping procedures, including the limitations of confidentiality of the records. Those limitations of confidentiality lead to a likely need to maintain a separate  record of care for each person you treat, including for each individual member of a family or couple. (Guideline 4)
  3. Ofer Zur, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in California, offers extensive information about and continuing education on record keeping and many other aspects of behavioral health practice. [Retrieved 4/19/2011 from]
  4. Dr. Zur points out that a treatment plan usually includes problems or symptoms, a diagnosis, goals of treatment, interventions to be used to achieve the goals, and the rationale for use of those interventions.


I would add a quick note about the possibility of a requirement to keep records of psychological care in an EMR. At present, the only behavioral health providers who are Eligible Providers (EP) for ARRA funding to purchase an EMR are psychiatrists and nurse practitioners. Psychologists, social workers, mental health counselors and addiction professionals do not qualify, nor do psychiatric hospitals. While this may change, there is currenly no way for most mental health providers to obtain stimulus funds. At the same time, there is no requirement for them to move to an EMR, nor will they be penalized for not doing so (psychiatrists and nurse practitioners may be subjected to Medicare withholds). Fortunately, most of the products aimed at the private mental health practitioner are relatively inexpensive and can easily be obtained without resorting to government funding or a second mortgage on your house.

While an electronic medical record can be a powerful way to significantly increase the quality of the records maintained by you and your organization, you must know what you are required to maintain in the record. . . by the governmental jurisdictions and the professional guidelines to which you are subject.

How does your organization determine what goes in the client’s record? Who is responsible for those records? Are you using an EMR, a paper record, or some hybrid system?

Please share your thoughts on records in the Comments below.

Your Health Information: Where do you want it?

My extreme concern about data protection and privacy have made me wonder how effective the drive to electronic medical records (EMRs) will be, particularly in the behavioral health arena. My clearest recollections from the first day of my psychology internship at a community mental health center are all of the instructions related to protecting patient privacy. As a mental health software vendor, I have continued to have this strong drive to protect the data of any patient. Finally, HIPAA and HITECH have caught up with the concerns of those of us trained to put patient privacy protection ahead of most other concerns.

The rush to EMRs that can share information with one another (interoperability) has as its goal diminished costs and increased quality of health care. The need to keep that information secure and private is usually dealt with almost as a side issue. I have often heard statements like these: “Why, of course the data will be protected. Why are you so worried about keeping data private? Sharing it with other providers is much more important than privacy. Some compromises will need to be made . . . ”

The American Medical Association, in their discussion of patient confidentiality, briefly indicate their concerns about EMRs.

Electronic health information systems allow increased access and tranmission [sic] to health data.  Physicians in integrated delivery systems or networks now have access to the confidential information of all the patients within their system or network. Confidential information also is disseminated through clinical repositories and shared databases. Sharing this information allows patients to be treated more efficiently and safely. The challenge for physicians is to utilize this technology, while honoring and respecting patient confidentiality.

Sharing confidential information among treating professionals is only one aspect of this issue. Now we must consider to the issue of sharing the electronic data with the patient.  

According to John Fully on nextgov, patients want access to the information stored in the electronic records about them maintained by their physicians. 93% of patients have rarely or never asked their physicians for electronic copies of their data, but 70% say it is very important to them that doctors and hospitals provide those electronic records. 60% of patients and over half of physicians say sharing information from EMRs with patients will be a crucial measure of how successful health care reform and provision of stimulus dollars has been.

One potential method for sharing those electronic records is the Personal Health Record (PHR). After all, having an electronic copy of the physician’s record but having no way to store or to access it will not be a very beneficial state. As a result, provider organizations, payers, and even Medicare have begun to connect EMRs, claim histories, and PHRs as an effective way of tracking your health.

Even so, patients are hesitant.

. . . while the products use some of the same technology that banks use to secure financial data, some patients remain wary of putting health information online. Only about 4% of the online population uses Internet-based PHRs, according to Elizabeth W. Boehm, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Many people don’t see the need, Ms. Boehm says, while others are nervous about putting confidential health information online.

That figure is telling. It is not that only 4% of patients use a PHR . . . only 4% of the online pupulation uses one . . . only 4% of the people who use the Internet all the time utilize an online PHR.

I have registered for the PHR used by my insurer. The Privacy policy says all the right things. I have entered some information into it, but I am still hesitant to put everything there. The conventional wisdom is that these programs are secure. I’ll give you an example of why I am slow to completely adopt.

About 18 months ago, I noticed that one of my mother’s physician claims was rejected by her Medicare supplemental plan. When I looked at the EOB more carefully, I noticed that it had been filed on my insurance plan rather than on my mother’s Medicare supplement plan. Since we both have the same insurer, I telephoned, explained what had obviously happened and was assured that it would be corrected. When I checked my PHR today prior to writing this blog, I found that claim still sitting in my record.

I have never been a patient of the physician who filed the claim, so I know he did not file the claim with my insurance information. I am thirty years younger than my mother and my first name does not come close to hers. But the same last name and address resulted in this confusion that has not yet been corrected. I cannot help but wonder what other two bits of information might result in the confusion of something important in my file and that of some stranger. Since this payer automatically adds claim information to the PHR, their system now sees me as the patient of a cardiologist . . . something I have not yet become. I wonder what other data confusions I have in store.

What is your take on PHRs? How do you see them affecting the behavioral health community? Please enter your comments below.

OpenNotes Project: Where does mental health fit in?

On Monday of this week, Seth asked me if I had a topic for my current blog. As I had none at hand, he pointed me to last week’s episode of the podcast/NPR show, Science Friday. Seth is a regular subscriber to this series and I listen when I find the time. That effort is always rewarded by fascinating discussions of current science issues. For the science professional, wanna-be-scientist or interested layperson, this show is a ready source of truly valuable information.

On Friday, July 30, 2010 the discussion topic was a medical records project called OpenNotes. With the advent of electronic medical records (EMRs) and patient portals into the medical records system, it is only reasonable to begin to consider the nature of the records that physicians keep on their patients. The OpenNotes project is an attempt to allow some 25,000 patients direct access to what 100 participating primary care physicians write in their notes after seeing them.

The project will study the experiences of both the physicians and patients, the impact on work flow of such note taking/sharing, the possible increase in communications between patient and physician, and the reactions of both sets of participants to their experiences. The details of the study are published in an Annals of Internal Medicine article, Open Notes: Doctors and Patients Signing On.

The Science Friday discussion included concerns about sharing sensitive information with the patient and the ability of the patient to understand and process the information included in the note. It has especially been argued that the mental health patient might be too fragile to be exposed to the psychotherapist’s or the psychiatrist’s true evaluation of their status as stated in the progress note.

On the other hand, Concurrent (Collaborative) Documentation has been touted by some community behavioral health specialists as an essential tool for increasing both quality and efficiency of client interactions while simultaneously increasing client buy-in to the treatment plan. The New York State Office of Mental Health writes:

It has been suggested that Concurrent Collaborative Progress Notes were the ‘way to go’. What about uninterrupted direct face to face contact as the best way to achieve high rates of engagement and retention in our clinics?

Concurrent documentation does not require the clinician to take notes during a session or to detach themselves from the recipient. Rather it is advised that at the end of the session, a brief review of the session takes place and the recipient and clinician collaboratively record the progress note. This process supports the delivery of person centered services and often provides the clinician with important feedback about the recipient’s perspective and information obtained from the session.

The process of creating this record concurrent with the meeting and collaboratively with the client is the epitome of an open record. While the OpenNotes project does not go quite this far, it certainly opens the door in this direction. Since the patient owns the record, it seems only fair that they should have easy access to that record and even participate in its creation.

My background as a Feminist Therapist has long given me a strong leaning in this direction. In the view of Feminist Therapy, the treating professional is a consultant having special expertise who is hired by the client to assist them in solving their “problem”. This is certainly also the case in the medical office. The physician has expertise the patient is seeking in their efforts to treat illness and to live healthier lives. This collaborative relationship is more a meeting of equals working together for the patient’s benefit than a dictation of treatment by an authority-figure intent on successful treatment and risk management.

What do you think about opening progress notes to your patients and consumers of service? How would that change the work done by the provider of services? How do you imagine it would change the experience of the consumer?

Please share your comments below.