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Expert Forum: Healthcare leaders say the next phase of connectivity is a transition from data collection to information curation

By Chris Hayhurst | June 14, 2022

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While technology connectivity in healthcare is improving, the future holds immense promise.

That was the message from three industry leaders who spoke with athenahealth in a series of recent interviews surrounding the value of technology-enabled connections.

At an orthopedic practice in Chicago, for example, artificial intelligence helps with prior authorizations by searching for keywords in patients’ policy documents and by prompting clinicians to add covered services. But this same organization is struggling when it comes to collecting patients’ clinical data and records across multiple providers. Those challenges are common, other athenahealth research finds. A recent Physician Sentiment Survey finds that getting information within the EHR and integrated apps is easier, while getting information from other EHRs is frequently challenging.

Across the athenahealth network and beyond, practices are leveraging innovative connections that streamline processes, improve patient care, and help them get paid for their work — but they also see technology as a double-edged sword that can contribute to physician burnout.

Dr. Allen Gee is a neurologist; owner of Frontier NeuroHealth, a practice with three locations in northern Wyoming; and founder of Wyoming Health Innovation Living Lab, a proof of concept hub providing expert evaluation and operationalization of neurohealth technology.

Tracey Stern is the manager of ambulatory informatics at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, New Jersey.

And Elizabeth Bauske is a physical therapist and clinical information systems manager at Chicago-area Barrington Orthopedic Associates.

In conversation with these experts, we learned that real connectivity must go beyond moving information between systems and funneling it into the patient record. They believe that ideally, the way we use information should transition from collection to curation in order to turn data into insights.

What’s your definition of connectivity?

For Gee, connectivity entails “pulling data from disparate sources and making it relevant to the patient and the continuum of care.” The healthcare industry has made “great progress” when it comes to how technology can capture data from digital devices, he notes. “The piece that’s missing is what comes next: turning data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into performance.”

Bauske agrees, saying the clinicians at Barrington Orthopedic Associates are thankful for the data made available through connectivity, but they’d love to have a way to filter and curate it first to ensure that it’s applicable to their specialty. “Sometimes, it’s too much data, especially with patient record-sharing. In ortho, we may not need the record from urology. It would be a lot better if we could narrow things down,” she said.

Stern also frames the concept in terms of healthcare technologies “connecting all the dots of clinical care so each provider has what they need.” On the other hand, she says, when it comes to connectivity challenges, she likes to think of it from the perspective of a patient.

“You expect that when you go to your physician, they know everything about you,” Stern said. “Unfortunately, they usually don’t because the technology isn’t there yet.”

She and other clinicians are trying to provide holistic patient care, and are as eager for these dots to be connected as patients are. Such measures are all essential to make value-based care viable, and sustainable.

Which connectivity solutions are helping your practice?

Bauske says her practice uses APIs to connect its EHR to other applications. The process “doesn’t require a lot of manpower,” she explained, “and it’s typically a seamless connection.”

Barrington Orthopedic Associates relies on one API, for example, to connect to a third-party scheduling system, while another API links to athenahealth’s Marketplace partner ClinicalBox, which handles pre-certifications and eligibility checks. “It uses AI to look at the CPT codes in the patient’s medical policy, and then it automatically matches those codes to the physician’s notes in their medical record,” Bauske said. Since the practice started using the tool, they’ve reduced the need for time-consuming prior-authorization reviews, and that’s meant faster care for patients, she says.

At Shore Medical Center, Stern says they’re especially happy with their patient portal, which has improved the overall patient experience. “For those patients who use it, it’s typically for messaging providers or to look at their lab reports,” she explains. “They like the fact that they can access their health information without having to come into the office.”

Where do you see connectivity heading in the future?

All three healthcare experts say customer-facing apps in retail and other industries are shaping consumer expectations for connectivity in healthcare. Pressure is building for clinicians to be accessible to patients beyond the scope of normal clinic hours, they note, and that’s created a developing market for tools that facilitate communication and engagement.

“There’s a lot we can learn from other industries,” Bauske said. “They’ve figured out how to connect with their customers, so how can we do the same with our patients?” It’s worth noting that increased access to patient-provider conversation tools can also increase clinician workload.

One possibility for increasing patient-provider communication without overloading clinicians, Gee said, is to better leverage wearable devices and software solutions designed to send out automated behavioral reminders. These tools allow providers to connect with patients without necessarily increasing their clinical workloads, he explains. “It’s a way to give patients medical knowledge and wisdom so they can do more for themselves.”

Overall, the interviewees concur with the 66 percent of providers in a recent athenahealth poll who said that technology is essential to the healthcare profession. But also like those clinicians, they feel that many of the tools they’ve deployed thus far just drive them toward information overload. They depend on connectivity—want more of it, in fact—but they’d prefer it be something closer to what might be described as experiential interoperability.

“Our job as healthcare providers is to make the best medical decisions,” Gee said. “If connectivity can help with that, that’s all we really need it to do.”

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