The Irony Of Healthcare Standards

This post was originally featured on EMRandHIPAA.

Healthcare delivery should be standardized. Medicine is, after all, primarily a science. Providers must diagnose and treat patients. Clinicians must form hypotheses, test hypotheses, and act. As providers obtain new information, they must adjust their thesis and repeat the cycle until patients are treated. Although there is an art to patient interaction, the medical process itself is scientific.

Science is based on repeatable, nullable hypotheses. Diagnostics and treatments are too.

And yet, it’s widely known that healthcare delivery is anything but standardized. Even basic pre-operative checklists vary dramatically across locations. Although some of this variation can be accounted for by physical constraints and capital limits, most of the aberrations can be attributed to management and culture. Checklists and protocols attempt to standardize care, but even the protocols themselves are widely debated within and between organizations.

It’s also widely known that most innovations take the better part of two decades to roll out through the US healthcare system. For an industry that should be at the cutting edge, this is painful to acknowledge.

There’s a famous saying that vendors represent their clients. It should be no surprise that major health IT vendors are slow to innovate and respond. Providers are used to slow changes, and have come to expect that of their vendors. Since providers often cannot absorb change that quickly, vendors become complacent, the pace of innovation slows, and innovations slowly disperse.

In the same light, health IT vendors are equally unstandardized. In fact, health IT vendors are so unstandardized that there’s an entire industry dedicated to trying to standardize data after-the-fact. The lack of standards is pathetic. A few examples:

Claims – Because insurance companies want to reject claims, they have never agreed on a real standard for claims. As such, an entire industry has emerged – clearing houses – to help providers mold claims for each insurance company. In an ideal world, clearing houses would have no reason to exist; all claim submissions, eligibility checks, and EOBs should be driven through standards that everyone adheres to.

HL7 – It’s commonly cited that every HL7 integration is just that: a single HL7 integration. Although HL7 integrations share the same general format, they accommodate such a vast array of variety and choice that every integration must be supported by developers on both sides of the interaction.

As a technologist, the lack of interoperability is insulting. Every computer on this planet – Windows, Mac, iOs, Android, and other flavors of Linux – communicate via the TCP/IP and HTTP protocols. Even Microsoft, Apple, and Google play nicely within enterprises. But because of the horribly skewed incentives within healthcare, none of the vendors want their customers to interact with other vendors, even though cooperation is vital.

Perhaps the most ironic observation is that technology is widely considered to be hyper-competitive. Despite hyper-competition, the tech giants have coalesced around a common set of standards for communication and interoperability. Yet health IT vendors, who operate within a vertical that prides itself on its scientific foundations, fail to communicate at the most basic levels.