Friday, March 9, 2018

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month – Get Screened
Not Everyone Has This Opportunity

Rebecca Ann S. Bliss
March 9, 2018

Before I got diagnosed with cancer, when I heard the word C-A-N-C-E-R, I kind of thought they were all the same. I mean, I had heard of breast cancer (besides the fact that my mom had a battle with it, one would have to be living under a rock not to have ever heard of BREAST CANCER); I had heard of throat cancer, Michael Douglas had a bout with it, plus all the commercials that tell you not to smoke point to throat cancer; and of course I heard of Leukemia and some of the other cancers, but I never appreciated the many, many, DIFFERENT types of cancers that exist. And, even if you have for example, breast cancer, did you know that there are different types? Yes that is right, there are carcinomas. sarcomas, phyllodes, Paget disease, and angiosarcomas. Then, there are different types of receptors that determine what fuels the growth of the cancer, how to treat it, and your prognosis. I won’t bore you with anymore medical language or details, the point is, we live in a world where I can literally go to the American Cancer Society’s website and count 75 different categories of cancer. That is a lot of cancer.

Some organizations have done an amazing job of fundraising and creating awareness about cancer—such as Susan G. Komen- 
I bet you know this logo to the right and what type of cancer it represents. Right? Again it sheds light on breast cancer. While, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer--with an estimated 266,120 cases this year, it is the 4th cause of cancer deaths. Lung cancer is actually the number one leading causes of cancer deaths—with an estimated 154, 050 number of deaths to take place this year. Number two on the list is… drum roll please… colorectal cancer—with an estimated 50,630 number of deaths to take place this year (American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2018). Pat yourself on the back if you knew that, because I didn’t. (P.S. only about 1,200 people in the USA are diagnosed with my cancer a year, but I will talk about that in April when it is Head and Cancer Awareness Month).

This month is Colorectal Cancer Awareness month, which is why I started researching colorectal cancer. In doing research, I learned that while colorectal cancer is the number two leading cause of cancer deaths, it is also one of only a few cancers that can be prevented through screening! It CAN BE PREVENTED through screenings! Did you know that no one really knows how to prevent my cancer or how I got it? As of now, no one can really tell me if there was anything I could have done differently. I didn’t and don’t smoke, I wasn’t and am not a heavy drinker, and I was in the best shape of my life. I had symptoms for three or more years. Year one and two: Pain in my jaw and limited movement—diagnosed as TMJ… nope it was a tumor growing in my jaw. Year three: Sinus problems—diagnosed as a polyp by two ENTs… nope it was a tumor taking over my maxillary sinus. And, finally, right before my diagnosis: a lump on the roof of my mouth—seen by a dentist and a doctor—who thought nothing of it. I promise I am making a point that is not about me. The point is for at least three years my tumor continued to grow because it is so rare doctors didn’t know to look for anything. But, doctors do now how to look for colorectal cancer! So, why wouldn’t you get screened?!

In doing my research, I found that many people would have avoided getting colorectal cancer just by this screening. And, after getting screened once if there are no signs of a problem, you do not have to get screened again for a decade! It is like sending in your paperwork for a jury summons. It is annoying, and when you are busy you do not want to take the time to just fill out the paper, put a stamp on it and walk a few feet to the mailbox. Or maybe you do not want to take the time to boot up the computer and go online to fill out the questionnaire. However, for most people, they never get called in and then they do not get summoned again for something like 10 years. So, just take the time now. Get SCREENED, it could SAVE your life.

Quickly, here is what you need to know (I AM NOT A DOCTOR, so you should definitely refer to your doctor for further information):
Are experiencing symptoms
Talk to your doctor immediately
Have a family history of colon cancer or polyps
Get screened at age 40 or 10 years before the age of the youngest case in your immediate family (mother, father, sister, brother)
Are African American
Get screened at age 45
Have a genetic link to colon cancer such as Lynch Syndrome, FAP, etc.
Talk to your doctor and get screened before age 50
Have a personal history of cancer
Talk to your doctor about getting screened before age 50
Have ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease
Talk to your doctor about getting screened before age 50
Are 50 years old and don’t fit into any of the above categories
Get screened!
Colorectal Cancer Alliance
Information about screenings: Click Here

If you are a patient of Community Health Center of The North Country, talk to your doctor about colorectal screenings at your next visit. Whether you are currently a patient or not, you can call one of our health centers to ask about getting screened. Free screenings may be available for eligible patients. Click Here to learn more. 

Your Symptoms Diary


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Day I Replaced My Office Chair With A Stability Ball

Rebecca Ann S. Bliss
Dec. 6, 2017

In my first blog I spoke a little about my cancer. I am going to fast forward now to today- a time without my cancer (although the affects will linger forever). I moved to Ogdensburg in March of this year, after wrapping up a trip to Quebec with my husband. I don’t eat beef or pork—I just stick to chicken, veggies and fish. I would like to say this if for health reasons but it is not. I just like pigs, cows, sheep, goats and so forth too much to eat them.

Anyway during my trip to Quebec, I threw that out the window. After 3 years of barely touching red meat, I ate any in site. Beef with breakfast? Sure. Pork for lunch? Sure. You get the picture. I was only in Quebec for five days, but by the time I left, I weighed four pounds more—almost a pound a day. I cannot blame it only on the meat, I ate dessert with every course, even one night for dinner.  I took full advantage of my vacation. Luckily, after a few weeks being back home, I lost a couple of those pounds. I could still get on the scale and occasionally see a number I liked.

When I was sick with cancer, I could eat whatever I wanted and for the past two years, I could also get away with eating almost whatever I wanted because I was healing, and my doctors wanted me to put on weight. However, over the last couple of months I have been getting on the scale and seeing a stable four pound gain-- depending on the day. I kept telling myself I weighed more because I ate more than usual that day or I had not yet digested my food… However, today I put on pants that were loose on me before I was diagnosed with cancer and they fit. So, now I have no more excuses about what I see on the scale, because the pants, unfortunately, are more telling. I have officially gained four pounds. Now four or five pounds might not sound like much, but I am barely 5’1, so trust me, I feel the difference and so do my pants.

Right now, I am writing this blog while sitting on the Stability Ball. I’ve only been sitting on it for about 45 minutes, but I can actually feel my ab muscles working. I can even feel the muscles in my thighs working. Apparently, I am working on strengthening my core and my posture. We will see… So here is my challenge, and I am holding myself accountable to you. For the next five work days, I am going to swap my office chair out for the Stability Ball for at least two hours each day. I will update you next week with my findings.  In the meantime, visit the following website to learn more about using a Stability Ball at work

Have you ever used one at work? Let me know.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Why Thinking “This Will Never Happen to Me”
is the Wrong Way to Plan for Your Future 

Rebecca Bliss
Nov. 27, 2017
The summer I turned 28, I was interning at a nonprofit organization to fulfill a requirement of my graduate studies. I had developed a close relationship with the director of the organization, so when she lost someone close to her in an accident, it really rattled me. We had many upsets in our community over the last few years, and of course these were always disheartening, but this time I felt different. I started thinking about death from a practical standpoint. Yes, it upset me to think about how my family would feel if I died, but I also thought about the financial burden; apparently funerals are expensive. I became aware of the importance of a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy. Suddenly, I felt the need to put my house in order. I realized that anything could happen to me, and I wanted to be ready.  So at the age of 28, I took out a life insurance policy.

If you do not have a life insurance policy, let me explain a little about the process. Your premium is basically based on your age and health. You are asked several questions about your health, your blood pressure is taken, and your blood is tested for any concerning conditions. Basically, the insurance company wants to know how likely it is you are going to die tomorrow, or, within a short period of time anyway.  I was considered young and in very good health. I was a nonsmoker, exercised regularly, ate healthy foods, watched my weight, etc. Therefore, I had a very reasonable premium.

Let’s fast forward three years. It is 2015 and I am 31 years old. I am happy, really happy, and in the best shape of my life. I feel like I can conquer the world. And then, one of those things that everyone believes will never happen to them, happens to me. I get diagnosed with a rare head and neck cancer called Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma. It is so rare most doctors have never even heard of it (I will save this story for another time). So, at the age of 31, I put my career on hold and moved home with my parents.

Remembering the importance of having a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, I signed, what at the time felt like my independence, over to my dad. I understand why people wait to do this, or never do it at all.  You may think you have plenty of time to do these things. You may also not want to think about dying or giving someone else power over your financial and health decisions, but let me tell you, after going through this myself, this is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself.

After I had surgery to remove my tumor, part of the reconstruction failed—leaving it extremely tiring to speak, and my speech difficult to understand. So, when my health insurance kept denying coverage of the treatment I needed, with Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney, my dad could help me fight it. He helped me call the insurance company almost every other day to check on the status of my appeals. He ordered medications and health supplies when I was too sick to do it myself. He spoke to doctors when I was too tired. My dad was my voice when I couldn’t be. But that is not all.

Because my dad was my Power of Attorney, when I was too sick to go to the bank, he did it for me. When my mom took me to Philadelphia for 6 weeks for treatment, and I did not have access to my mail to pay my bills, or when I was too sick to care about them, my dad signed his name to my checks and paid them. When there were issues with a medical bill, my dad called and spoke to the hospital on my behalf. My dad eliminated many of my worries so that I could focus on getting better.

Because I named my dad as my Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, he could be my advocate when I couldn’t. And, remember that life insurance policy I took out? It was good that I did it when I did. Since I was in great health at the time I enrolled, my premium continues to remain low. If I tried to take out life insurance now, I probably would either be denied or unable to afford it. 

Unfortunately, we cannot live our lives thinking "this will never happen to me". 
The truth is, we cannot control our future or what happens to us, but we can be prepared.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

More Public Health $$ Will Save $$ -- and Lives

Programs on obesity, smoking, and cancer could bend the healthcare cost curve

Prevention is the key to shrinking our nation's exploding healthcare costs said panelists at a briefing hosted by the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC), a nonprofit focused on health system reform, at the House of Representatives on Thursday.
But public health is "chronically underfunded," said Richard Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America's Health (TFAH), a nonprofit focused on disease prevention and community health, based here.
The U.S. currently spends about $35 billion on public health and prevention, including federal, state and local costs, which is about $20 billion short of what's needed, according to a joint study between TFAH and the New York Academy of Medicine, released in 2013.
At the briefing, health experts spoke of three ways to bend the healthcare spending curve: tackling obesity, increasing cancer screening and cutting tobacco use.
All of the panelists support the Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health Fund, which would invest $15 billion in community health projects over the next decade. Under the House of Representatives' 2016 Budget Resolution, the fund could be abolished, according to the Health Affairs Blog.

"F as in Fat"

More than 23 million American children are obese or overweight, said Hamburg, citing a 2013 obesity report card, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future," authored by TFAH and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And obesity rates for children and teens have more than tripled since 1980.
This surge in weight gain has sent obesity-related diseases soaring. By 2030, an estimated 6 million Americans will have type 2 diabetes, more than 5 million people will have coronary heart disease and another 400,000 will have obesity-related cancers. The cost burden of such diseases will jump to at least $48 billion annually, with another $390-$580 billion in lost productivity, noted the TFAH report.
By 2030, nearly every other person (44% of individuals) in every state will be obese.
But Hamburg offered a crumb of hope. If each state lowered the average body mass index of its population (BMI) by 5%, millions of Americans would avoid serious illness, such as diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and obesity-related cancers. And the nation would save billions in healthcare costs.
Take Connecticut. If average BMI were reduced by 5% across the state by 2030, it would save $7.4 billion. But such dramatic shifts require significant behavior change, which is difficult to achieve.
A report from the American Journal of Public Health published July 15 found that, over nearly a decade, fewer than 15% of obese individuals managed to shed 5% of their body weight and keep it off without surgery.

Tobacco, still a threat
"Tobacco today, even with the progress we've made since 1964 [when the Surgeon General released a report linking tobacco to health risks], it's the leading cause of preventable death," said Dave Dobbins, JD, CEO of Legacy, an organization dedicated to public education around tobacco use, citing the 50th anniversary report from the Surgeon General.
Around 500,000 people die prematurely each year from tobacco. Another 16 million people suffer from tobacco-related diseases each year, he said.
"These are misery-inducing, cost-inducing, chronic and long lead [diseases] such as asthma, emphysema, and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder]," Dobbins added.
But there's reason to be hopeful, according to Dobbins, who cited the following:
  • In 2014, the adult smoking rate fell a percentage point to 17.8%
  • A 10% hike in the cost of cigarettes led to a 6%-7% reduction in the number of kids who smoke
  • A public education campaign called The Truth appeared to stop 450,000 children and teens from picking up the habit, while garnering estimated savings of $1.9 to $5.4 billion in 2 years
Despite the proof that these interventions are working, state governments, in particular, have been short-sighted, Dobbins said.
"Almost none of the money states derive from [tobacco-related] settlement revenues and from taxes goes back into prevention. It goes into roads and prisons and Medicaid," he continued.
Proper investment and a forward-thinking perspective would create huge cost-savings.
Non-regulated, non-taxed products like e-cigarettes, little cigars, and hookahs present a new problem for anti-tobacco advocates.
The tobacco industry has so far successfully lobbied Congress to continue to allow these products to be marketed to kids, Dobbins said, making investments in public education even more critical.

Stopping Cancer
Christopher Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, a nonprofit nonpartisan advocacy group based here, said 1,600 people a day and nearly 590,000 people a year die of cancer.
Survival rates have grown by 20% since the early 1990s, said Hansen. That said, the population of adults over 65 is expected to double in 15 years and cancer is mainly a disease of older adults.
"Prevention is the cure," Hansen stressed.
In addition to not smoking and keeping a healthy weight, doctor-recommended screenings could eliminate more than half of cancer deaths in the country, he said.
But investment in such screenings are inadequate, Hansen said.
Approximately 4.5 million women who are eligible for cervical cancer screening following the enactment of the Affordable Care Act won't get screened, because either states haven't funded the screening programs, or the federal government hasn't supported them, he said.
"It's probably the stupidest thing I can imagine in the world of healthcare: not to invest in screenings when you're going to wind up paying for the treatment," Hansen said.
While colorectal cancer deaths dropped 30% in the last decade, it remains the second leading cause of death among cancer patients, Hansen said, and one of the most preventable.
Beyond screening, Hansen highlighted another concern: reimbursement. When a doctor finds a positive result in a colorectal cancer screening, private insurers will pay to remove cancerous polyps. Medicare will not.
The added costs to Medicare to remove polyps is about $42 million, whereas the cost of colorectal cancer treatment is closer to $7 or $8 billion, he said. Congress is currently reviewing a bill that would fix this problem, he said.
"That's not a tough call," Hansen said. "It would save Medicare a lot of money, it would save a lot of lives and it would save a lot of suffering."

Via Medpage Today

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Community Health Centers Lead The Way In "Clinical Decision Support" Roll-Out

Since Hippocrates first brandished a pair of bronze forceps, care providers have aimed for quality. It's always been the goal to deliver safe and effective care to best extent possible.

But there's always room to improve. And nowadays, with the shift from volume to value finally taking hold, moving toward better clinical care is no longer optional.

This past fall, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services announced it will invest $840 million over four years to help 150,000 clinicians improve patient outcomes, reduce unneeded tests and avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations. One of the central pillars of its Transforming Clinical Practice Initiative is to help providers regularly use electronic health records to examine data on quality and efficiency.
A few months later, in January of this year, HHS upped the ante – making an 'historic' announcement of ambitious new timelines toward value-based care. Furthering its embrace of alternative reimbursement models such as accountable care organizations and bundled payments, HHS set a goal of tying 85 percent of all traditional Medicare payments to quality or value by 2016.

"We believe these goals can drive transformative change, help us manage and track progress, and create accountability for measurable improvement," said HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell.
HippocratesThe clock is ticking on clinical quality improvement. If hospitals and practices want to be paid in the years to come, it's incumbent on them to show they're delivering better care.
"Provider organizations are under this increasing imperative to move the needle on high-priority targets as we shift from volume to value," says Jerry Osheroff, MD, a former chief clinical informatics officer and the founder of TMIT Consulting, which seeks to help providers, vendors and other stakeholders improve processes and outcomes.

"What does 'value' mean? It means taking care of chronic disease, taking care of acute disease, not causing unnecessary harm," he says. "There's now measures associated with all these things, and performance on those measures is driving reimbursement. Having care delivery be efficient and effective is no longer a nice-to-do, which it's been for many decades. It's now a gotta-do."
Osheroff is also editor-in-chief of HIMSS' award-winning guidebooks on clinical decision support. And CDS, he says, is a crucial component in helping providers get to where they need to go with their quality improvement projects.
But a proper understanding of what CDS is (hint: it's not about EHR alerts) and how to approach it (people come first!) is essential.

Help wanted

In his just-published HIMSS book on clinical informatics, Ken Ong, MD, chief medical informatics officer of New York Hospital Queens, illustrates just how important CDS tools and processes are to modern practice.
To take just one example: The number of medical journal articles has quadrupled from 200,000 in 1970 to more than 800,000 in 2010, Ong points out: "With the current number of articles published annually in medical literature, a recent medical school graduate who reads two articles every day would be 1,225 years behind at the end of the first year."

Indeed, "if a physician followed all the recommendations from national clinical care guidelines for preventive services and chronic disease management and added the time needed to answer phone calls, write prescriptions, read laboratory and radiology results and perform other tasks for a typical patient panel of 2,500, he or she would need 21.7 hours per day," he writes. "Information overload coupled with a paucity of time suggest the value of CDS and greater team-based care."
Clinical decision support tools are myriad and varied.

Ken Ong, MD"The most frequently cited example of CDS is a drug-allergy interaction alert to a physician at time of order entry," Ong writes. "Drug-drug, drug-allergy and drug-food interaction alerts are indeed prototypical examples of CDS, but there are other tools in the CDS toolbox. Each CDS intervention can have a different use case, target audience and fit in a particular point in the clinical workflow."
The book offers a long list of examples: alerts and reminders; clinical guidelines; clinician patient assessment forms; data flow sheets; documentation templates; infobuttons; order facilitators (order sets, order consequents, order modifiers); patient data reports and dashboards; protocol/pathway support; task assistants; tracking and management systems.

But the optimal approach to clinical decision support should not be focused primarily – or even secondarily – on technology.
"This work is about people, processes and technology – in that order," says Gregory Paulson, deputy director of programs and operations at Trenton Health Team.

Community spirit

Trenton Health Team is a somewhat unique partnership among the two hospitals of Trenton, N.J. – St. Francis Medical Center and Capital Health – and the Henry J. Austin Health Center (the city's only federally qualified health center) and the Trenton Health Department.
Trenton Health has five main strategic initiatives, says Paulson: expand access to primary care by supporting the FQHC and other area clinics; provide community-based care coordination; engage members of the community in their health and wellness; utilize data to improve the population and become a successful Medicaid ACO under New Jersey's ACO demonstration project.
It's "a bit of a unique ACO model, in that it's a geographic distribution – we're responsible for those who reside in our geography regardless of where they receive care," he says. "It's a bit of a forced population health model."

Toward those lofty goals, Trenton Health Team has been working since summer 2014 – with help from a $415,000 state grant and Osheroff's consultancy – to develop a clinical decision support system to improve blood pressure and diabetes control for patients in its community.
The goal is to improve care processes at healthcare institutions across Trenton, deploying targeted CDS tools to make meaningful improvements in those chronic and all-too-common conditions.
"This initiative aims to combine the power of data, clinical intervention and the coordination of community providers to improve patient health," said N.J. Department of Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd, in a statement when the grant was first announced.
Her emphasis on providers is key. Over the past five year or so, CDS has become synonymous in too many minds with EHR-based alerts, says Paulson. Post-HITECH act, many providers are irritated or fatigued by these IT interruptions, often to the detriment of quality care as they ignore the prompts in droves.

"I think one of the big errors of meaningful use and the adoption of health IT to date has been the focus on technology, without looking at the processes that were implemented and the people working with those processes," he says.

By making CDS a key measure of meaningful use, "CMS and ONC went a long way toward reinforcing a completely wrong and counterproductive notion in the Stage 1 rules," said Osheroff in another interview earlier this year.

It's not an interruptive, computer-based intervention, he said. It's "a process for enhancing health-related decisions and actions with clinical knowledge and patient information to improve health and healthcare delivery."

The feds have since changed their tune on clinical decision support, he concedes, most notably by emphasizing and spreading the word about the so-called "CDS Five Rights" – clinical interventions that provide:
the right information (evidence-based guidance, response to clinical need);
to the right people (entire care team – including the patient);
through the right channels (e.g., EHR, mobile device, patient portal);
in the right formats (e.g., order sets, flow-sheets, dashboards, patient lists);
at the right times (for key decision or action).
Gregory PaulsonUnprocessed

Embracing that team-based approach to data has already started to pay dividends in Trenton, says Paulson.
One of the key strategies THT has followed is to make a "simple worksheet that analyzes the clinical workflow to see a normal patient: what happens out in the community, what happens before a visit, what happens in a morning huddle, what happens in rooming the patient, what happens in a provider encounter, what happens in follow-up," he says.

"When we first were looking at doing this work, we didn't quite understand what the work would be like," he admits. "It seemed so simple and rudimentary that we didn't see how anything of value could come from it. But the things we uncovered are just remarkable."

We hear all the time about "process improvement, Lean Six Sigma and all these things," says Paulson. "But actually going into a clinic and asking people, 'OK, what happens now? Then what happens? Then what happens?' Walking through that process you'll get amazing results."

To take just one example: "We have a clinic in one of our hospitals whose patients are 60 percent Spanish speaking," he says. "They'd spent all this money on this great automated phone call system to remind people about appointments. They realized only through doing this analysis that it functions only in English. Somebody just missed this step and nobody realized it."

For those keeping score at home: People & Process 1, Technology 0.

"It's great if you have this registry that shows your out-of-control diabetics," says Paulson. "But if your method of remind people to come in for an appointment isn't being use effectively, the technology doesn't matter."

But while technology may be tertiary to clinical decision support, it's still a critical piece. And if quality improvement is truly going to take hold, the EHRs need to improve too.
Too often, "when someone things of a clinical decision support system, they think of a pop-up alert: something that, in the middle of what you're doing, gives you a piece of information that the technology thinks is important and wants you to do something to fix," says Paulson.
That breeds antagonism toward CDS, rather than an earnest embrace.

"To me, it's the equivalent of going online to shop on a website and pay your bill and getting these pop-up adds, he says. "If you're shopping on Amazon and you do it frequently, obviously you know where to click. You're familiar with that website you know how to interface with it in a way that is seamless. So if I then institute a pop-up alert – one that interrupts your process when you're not expecting it and you don't want to stop – you're not going o want to shop at Amazon."

Really good health IT isn't necessarily smarter about how it does it's thing, it's better at how it works with its clinical users, Paulson suggests. And he's seen proof of that as Trenton has recently had two clinical sites do EHR rollouts since the citywide CDS project launched.

"They were starting with their EHR adoption having just completed a detailed analysis of their clinical processes," he says.

"They were able to look at the training and say, 'Wait a minute, when I'm caring for diabetes, these are the kinds of things I need to do. How will this tool help me do that, and before we start rolling it out, can we make some slight adjustments to how it interacts with me so I get the right in at the right time in the care process in the right format?'"

Technological advance

A year ago this month, ONC launched the EHR Innovations for Improving Hypertension Challenge as part of Million Hearts, the ongoing nationwide project led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help practices better use EHRs and CDS to reduce high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, preventing a million heart attacks and strokes by 2017.
"There are many healthcare providers who employ clinical decision support tools like standardized treatment approaches or protocols to control hypertension among their patients," said National Coordinator Karen DeSalvo, MD, in a statement announcing the EHR initiative. "This challenge helps us find the best examples of those efforts and scale them up."

Left unspoken in that declaration is that some deployments of CDS-enabled quality improvement are still less than ideal.
Hilary Wall is senior health scientist and Million Hearts science lead at CDC. She says she's sympathetic to physicians who chafe at disruptive CDS tools. But she also sees the immense potential for better care when those tools are deployed the right way.
"I'm not a clinician; I'm an epidemiologist by training," says Wall. For her, using computers to marshal data toward better outcomes is a "no-brainer."
That said, she is also keenly aware that she's "never had to integrate (technology) into a clinical workflow, where I've got patients coming in and seeing different staff in a healthcare setting."
Wall understands why alert fatigue and overridden order sets occur across healthcare. But she hopes to see better workflows and more open minds prevail, because she's seen the good that can result from smart CDS.

"I've seen two sides of the coin," she says. "One, I've seen a push for using clinical decision support tools for quality improvement, presented to clinicians and getting pushback: 'It's too much, we can't do it on top of everything else we're having to do.' Clinicians are being tasked with doing a lot of different things at the same time."

At the same time, says Wall, "I've also seen the flip side of that coin, where we've got pockets of clinicians using CDS to its fullest potential in a way that's streamlined for the clinical staff that's using those tools and in a way that really benefits their clinical practice. Once that learning curve is overcome, health systems are really reaping tremendous benefits."

Still, she admits she's "surprised more people haven't been open to embracing clinical decision support, and the different features EHRs have to offer."
At the same time, says Wall, "I know that technology and change are hard. When a healthcare system gets an out-of-the-box EHR and turns it on for their clinical staff, oftentimes the clinicians have not weighed in on what features they're using or what alerts are popping up in their faces. And they either ignore them or turn them off. And I don't blame them."

Simply put: "Getting buy in from the clinical staff is really, really important," says Wall. "CDS tools are most successful when they focus on what we know for sure in the evidence. That's how they make clinicians' lives simpler. They take the evidence-based interventions and they make it automatic. They prompt you. That leaves more time for the staff to use their clinical judgments for the places where the evidence is softer."
Successful practices, she says, "have focused in on those very high-evidence-based strategies so that it doesn't feel like cookbook medicine for their clinical staff."
Meanwhile, like Paulson, Wall points to the acute need for EHR design improvement.
"This is something we need to explore more, but anecdotally what I've heard is that there are too many clinical decision support tools embedded in EHRs," she says. "And not all but many vendors have a canned set. They automatically put them in, they automatically turn them on. They are an annoyance to the clinical staff. There's got to be a way for some of these vendors to work more closely with their clients to tailor which CDS tools are turned on."

Golden Valley Health Centers, based in Merced, Calif., is another provider that's using electronically-produced registries generated from its electronic health record to identify and reach out to potentially undiagnosed hypertension patients, as part of NACHC's Hiding in Plain Sight Million Hearts Project. Pictured: Physician Assistant Christopher Barrett and Karina Farias, one the Medical Assistants on his care team.Government assistance

In the past few weeks, the federal government has published some very useful resources for health providers looking to amp up their quality improvement initiatives and better treat chronic conditions.

First, CDC published "The Hypertension Control Change Package for Clinicians" as part of Million Hearts. Compiling concepts, ideas and evidence-based tools and resources, the package means to offer resources to clinicians looking for specific changes related to management of hypertensive patients.
Such "change ideas" are able to be "rapidly tested on a small scale to determine whether they result in improvements in the local environment," according to CDC.

Second, ONC published an online guide to electronically facilitated clinical quality improvement, or eCQI.
"Health IT enables more rapid feedback on measurement as well as real-time improvement support tools such as workflow-integrated clinical decision support," according to ONC. "It transforms the basic quality cycle into an upward spiral of performance and outcome improvement for providers, patients, and the health system overall as learning grows through sharing analyzing and using data better."
As part of the resource, ONC offers a substantial series of resources for planning and implementing improved care processes. Among its advice for those at the beginning of their QI journey:
Cultivate a shared commitment within your team to improving care delivery and results, including fully leveraging Health IT capabilities. Successful QI efforts deliver a 'win-win-win' for patients and their care teams, as well as broader organizational goals.

Identify and address barriers to collaboration on effective process improvement among all concerned, including providers, care delivery and quality staff, partners (e.g., health IT vendors), and patients.
Layer the approach and tools below onto your QI methodology.

Track record of quality

One group of providers that's often well ahead of the game with regard to CDS-enabled quality improvement is community health centers. Both the resources and accountability that come from being federally-funded mean most have an innovative ethos of IT-enabled improvement that could offer some useful lessons for other providers.
"Ninety-six percent of health centers are using electronic health records, which is ahead of the curve compared to other types of healthcare organizations; they're definitely leading the charge in that way," says Meg Meador is director of clinical integration and education at National Association of Community Health Centers.

"And they've definitely been using CDS for a while now," she says. "Most of them use things like templates and order sets. They use clinical reminders that prompt providers for needed preventative care. They use embedded guidelines – visual cues like highlighting an elevated blood pressure red. These are things that a lot of them have adopted."

"Community health centers have a track record of quality improvement," says Shane Hickey, senior advisor for health IT strategy at NACHC.

Initially launched as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War of Poverty, over the course of five decades CHCs "have really learned to think outside the box and be open to innovation and change," says Amy Simmons, NACHC's communications director.
"That kind of approach has been their hallmark. They are built by the community, from the bottom up, that makes them effective in their approach. They understand the population they serve. They have always been results-driven because they have been of the community and by the community.
"They've also always had to be accountable," says Simmons. "This is a program that relies on federal support, so accountability and transparency and results have always been important."
As a quality improvement professional, Meador specializes in rapid-cycle change approaches to workflow and information systems, putting population health data and IT to work improving quality and driving better outcomes. (Part of her work is serving as lead on a Million Hearts project focused on undiagnosed hypertension, "Hiding in Plain Sight.")

Certain health centers "are really coming up with some innovative ways to use clinical decision support proactively: getting in front of the analytics piece so they can use CDS for pre-visit planning, so they know in advance which patients they need to outreach to, they know of those patients who already have appointments what tests they might need," says Meador. "The shift is happening – from more of a passive approach to CDS to a much more proactive approach, which is really needed in this environment."
One unique aspect of community health centers is that most – more than 70 percent – belong to Health Center Controlled Networks: groups of safety net providers who compare notes on improving quality and access and reducing costs. That "create opportunity for economies of scale – particularly in purchasing of health IT or IT services," says Meador.
Health centers are part of HCCNs thanks to the fact that they use the same EHR products – enabling them to come up with best-practice workflows on that specific technology.
"There's a collaborative spirit that pulls everybody up," says Meador.

Getting results

NACHC shared with Healthcare IT News some specific success stories from its membership – providers who have recognized substantial improvements thanks to smarter use of CDS tools.
Among them, Peninsula Community Health Services, based in Kitsap County, Washington, which was able to boost its blood pressure control rate to 84 percent after integrating clinical pharmacists into its care team. (The Million Hearts target is 70 percent).
Simmons also cites Finger Lakes Community Health, Hudson River Healthcare, and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Health Center – three health centers affiliated with the Health Center Network of New York – who have notched "some big wins using data and clinical decision support tools to drive improvement."
Together, they were able to achieve a 21 percent increase in hypertension control and a 19 percent decrease in undiagnosed high blood pressure since September 2013, thanks to algorithms that can detect potential cases.

The health centers developed electronic registries that helped inform outreach efforts, finding success by embedding a hypertension treatment protocol into their workflows, putting a laser focus on improved accuracy in blood pressure recording (by querying EHR data for rounded systolic/diastolic numbest) and "honing in on those care teams who need training on precise EHR documentation methods."
Going forward, NACHC is expanding its decision support and QI initiatives. "We're piloting a new CDS approach, more centralized, called CDS-as-a-service," says Hickey, where "the EHR pulls down evidence-based guidelines from the CDC in an automated fashion."

Another project is focused on "social determinants of health," he says, working with four different HCCNs and their member centers to develop a standardized patient risk assessment tool that focuses on the factors "beyond medical acuity," such as income and education level.
"All of our heath centers are building templates in their EHRs to capture this data in a structured way," says Hickey, with "all of the teams operating from the same question and answer sets. Once we have a prototype, we can spread it."

All told, we're at a pivotal moment for clinical decision support and QI initiatives. Thanks to a burgeoning awareness about its potential, an increasing effort toward education and an ever-expanding arsenal of toolkits, guidebooks and worksheets – from CMS, ONC, HIMSS and others – there's an impressive and evolving armamentarium providers can draw upon as they work to tackle the most vexing chronic conditions.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Community Health Centers Brace for More Uninsured


The nation's 1,200 federally qualified community health centers would be hit hard by a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month eliminating premium subsidies for federal exchange-plan enrollees.

Such a ruling would have a major effect on the clinics, which are required by law to serve all patients for free or on a sliding-scale basis. They then would have to provide far more uncompensated care, clinic leaders say. Given the shortage of primary-care physicians, community health centers have been key primary-care providers for Americans who have received expanded private and Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“The vast preponderance of people with exchange coverage who are getting care at health centers are low income, below 200% of the federal poverty level,” said Dan Hawkins, policy director for the National Association of Community Health Centers. “If they lose that subsidy, they lose the ability to afford their coverage.”

If the court strikes down the subsidies in the King v. Burwell case, it's estimated that 6.4 million Americans would lose subsidies. It's expected that many of those people would drop coverage because it would become unaffordable. Hawkins estimated that community health centers nationally are serving nearly 1 million patients covered by plans purchased through the federal exchanges.

The clinics' loss of revenue from privately insured patients would come on top of a decline in state funding for the centers over the past few years. According to the NACHC, annual health center funding per uninsured patient was $344 in 2012, compared with a per-patient cost of $687.

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With the subsidies gone, the centers “could draw a line and say they simply don't have the resources to serve any more people,” Hawkins said. “But if these are current patients who have simply lost their coverage, the center is going to have to figure out a way to serve them.”

A sudden spike in uninsured patients could force many clinics to cut back or delay healthcare services. “From a financial standpoint it could be devastating to us,” said Kay Crane, CEO of Piedmont Access to Health Services, a community health center in south central Virginia.

Founded in 2001, Piedmont has grown with the help of federal grants, expanding into dental and behavioral healthcare. It also offers pharmacy services, HIV counseling and pediatric care, with plans to offer OB-GYN services. Unlike many other community health centers, Piedmont sees a substantial share of privately insured patients, who account for nearly a third of its patient-care revenue.

Crane said a large portion of those privately insured patients receive ACA premium subsidies, and that a court ruling ending those subsidies could cut overall revenue by up to 30%. The effect would be exacerbated by the fact that Virginia is one of 21 states that have not expanded Medicaid for low-income adults. The resulting revenue loss would crimp her clinic's plans to expand services, she said.

More broadly, a ruling striking down the subsidies would set back many years of efforts by presidents and congressional leaders of both parties to expand healthcare access to low-income Americans through community health centers. For example, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), an ardent Obamacare foe, recently visited a St. Louis community health center that has expanded through ACA funding. “I think (CHCs) are a great example of how you meet the needs of a community that otherwise would not have their needs met nearly as effectively,” Blunt told St. Louis Public Radio.

The number of CHCs has grown from 730 in 2000 to about 1,300; those centers operate more than 9,000 sites throughout the country. The sharp expansion over the past five years was made possible by federal grants under the ACA. The centers served more than 21 million patients in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Of those patients, 14% were covered by private insurance, 41% by Medicaid, and 35% were uninsured.

The increase in privately insured patients seen at community health centers as a result of Obamacare has given the clinics greater financial capacity to serve the uninsured, experts say. “If 100% of their people came in without coverage, they probably would have to do something else because they could never maintain that,” said Judy Solomon, vice president for health policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Dr. Stephen McKernan, CEO of Lone Star Family Health Center in Conroe, Texas, said his center is used to serving a high percentage of people without insurance. “We took care of the people before they had insurance, so it would not affect us that negatively if the patients went back to being uninsured,” he said.

On the other hand, his patients would suffer. “This lawsuit would punish the people who are buying insurance with a subsidy who have very little means to get healthcare insurance otherwise,” he said.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Do We Need More Regulation

Medicaid Plans Get New Quality and Performance Measures

CMS announced a proposal Tuesday to "modernize the Medicaid managed care regulations," which haven't been revised in a decade.

"The proposed rule would align the rules governing Medicaid managed care with those of other major sources of coverage, including coverage through Qualified Health Plans and Medicare Advantage plans," according to a CMS statement.

Most managed care plans offer health benefits and other services through contracts between state agencies and managed care organizations (MCOs). States set up and supervise their own managed care programs within the boundaries of federal requirements spelled out in Medicaid law and additional regulations. They also receive a fixed monthly payment for each enrolled Medicaid beneficiary.