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HIMSS13: Long Walks, Tiring Repetition and Meaningful Use News

by Dan Haley, SVP and General Counsel

While walking the mile-long (literally) HIMSS main exhibit hall two weeks ago in New Orleans, I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that our industry is running out of words. Booth after booth, company after company, virtually everyone’s catchy slogan is a variant of someone else’s catchy slogan. Everybody is enabling something or empowering someone. Put it this way: If an attendee took a sip of beer at each appearance of the word “innovation,” he or she would be unconscious on the floor barely a quarter of the way through the hall.

If 2013 is indeed to be the year of the long-awaited HIT consolidation wave, it might be triggered by nothing more than the fact that our marketing consultants have exhausted their warehouse of available verbs.

At the athenahealth booth, I was relieved to see our long-time company slogan: "There is a better way." In a mile-long sea of sameness, that unique simplicity was refreshing—all the more so given the strikingly convincing evidence we received this week for its veracity.

Our 2012 Meaningful Use Results
Today we formally announced that, for the 2012 Stage 1 Year 1 Medicare Meaningful Use (MU) program, an astounding 96% of athenahealth’s participating providers successfully attested. We don’t know yet how that compares specifically to the rest of our industry, but allow me to put the figure in perspective: in 2011, for Stage 1 of Medicare Meaningful Use, roughly 85% of our participating providers attested, compared to an industry average in the low 40% range.

Another telling point of reference: Last month the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported that a stunningly low 12% of eligible Medicare providers nationwide have successfully attested to Meaningful Use (find the details here). 12%!

Shortly thereafter, a counterpart of mine at one of athenahealth’s major competitors helpfully pointed out that the NEJM article only took into account attestations through May 2012. Figures through December 2012, he wrote, support an attestation rate nationally of roughly 22% of eligible Medicare providers. He typed this as if it were a good thing!

So I asked our internal big brains: Is that comparable to our athenahealth statistic? When we talk about our Medicare providers who have successfully attested, are we talking apples to apples with the national measurement? Well, I’m obliged to provide an emphatic caveat: we don’t actually track that particular metric since the true measure of our success is the attestation rate of our providers who actually participate (that’s the 96% rate above). So those big brains did some napkin calculations to come up with comparable numbers. And the figure we put up next to that 12% (or 22%) national rate is… greater than 70%.

There really is, it seems, a better way.

A Stage 3 Slowdown
In related news from HIMSS, acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), Marilyn Tavenner, announced that CMS will not be issuing a Meaningful Use Stage 3 final rule in 2013, as originally scheduled. Instead, they will convene a stakeholder summit in May to discuss how learning from Stage 2 should inform the eventual Stage 3 rule.

As always, we at athenahealth chafe at any deceleration in the slow national struggle for the health care system to catch up with the rest of the information economy. Contrary to many of our competitors, who insist the government is pushing too fast for standards that are too high, we believe our own results demonstrate, beyond a doubt, not only that current standards are achievable, but also that the pace of change is entirely appropriate. If, and only if, the technology providers choose to "meaningfully use" belong here in the 21st century.

As long as the government keeps subsidizing the use of technology that belongs in a museum, we will continue to see the kind of disappointing attestation rates that the NEJM featured two weeks back. Perversely, those very numbers are then used to support the proposition that the entire health care system needs to slow down and wait for HIT vendors to catch up to the modern world.

No number of flashy exhibition hall booths and catchy slogans will solve that problem. But taking a look at precisely how flexible, cloud-based services are achieving such strikingly different—and better—results is a good start.

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