Live life to the Max

Yesterday I bumped into Emeritus Professor Max Kamien at #GP16Perth, the annual conference for Australia’s GPs. It is always a pleasure to meet Max, who is a phenomenon in West Australia and beyond. Many general practitioners, including me, have at some time during their career been taught, tutored or assessed by him.

Max is also a traveller, writer and story-teller. We spoke about his passion for writing, advice to new fellows and his latest book Barcoo Rot, Sperm That Untie a Knot and Other Medical Tales from The Back o’Bourke and Beyond – a collection of hilarious and amazing stories about general practice, which was published late last year.

Blowflies and witchery grubs

Barcoo-rotHis long career as a medical writer started when he was a medical student: “I put a blowfly in a nitric acid bottle in the chemistry laboratory and was given two months of lunchtime detention washing chemistry retorts. My supervisors were Vincent Serventy, who wrote books about fauna and flora and Douglas Stuart, a larrikin writer of West Australiana. They introduced me to the joys of witchetty grubs and writing.”

“I was also the editor of ‘The Reflex’, the WA medical students magazine. The Medical School registrar burned it. It is now a valuable collectors item. One article pointed out that most of the Nazi medical experimenters were academics. It is still quoted in the world literature, which is not bad for a student publication.”

Book reviews

His book has received positive reviews. Charles Guest wrote in the MJA: ‘There is (self-deprecating) humour frequently but always compassion and instruction.” Robert Reid said in Medicus: “Professor Kamien has written an enjoyable, funny, insightful and yes, valuable book (…) with hardly an issue of life or medicine that is not examined or on which Prof Kamien doesn’t have a view.”

Max recommends two stories in particular: “Bill Reid; From inequity to virtue, which is about getting to know your feared adversaries, and the other is: Let me die like a dog. This is about my miserable failure as the long-time GP of a Catholic lady who got Motor Neurone Disease and, totally paralysed, lingered on for 10 years.”

“My book makes great Christmas presents for doctors, nurses and medical students. I have had only two negative comments. A colleague said he felt short-changed since he had read some of the stories before in Australian Doctor magazine. And some people who like to bend a two page book into a one page one have managed to split the spine.”

Lastly Max’s advice to new fellows is short but sweet: “Follow the last three paragraphs of the RACGP Oath of Fellowship.”

For the record, you might want to consider the whole oath.

Max is happy to provide his book to doctors attending #GP16Perth this week; he can sometimes be found in the exhibition hall. Make sure you get a copy if you haven’t already.

RACGP Oath of Fellowship
RACGP Oath of Fellowship

7 simple strategies to avoid eHealth fiascos

In healthcare we’re often confronted with poor quality software. Bugs and security issues are common, and the design is usually not intuitive. I spoke to Frank (not his real name), an insider in the health IT industry. Frank gives us an interesting look behind the scene and seven strategies for developing or implementing new software.

“Any industry can be a target for poor software,” says Frank, “but healthcare certainly has its fair share. Believe it or not, medical software is unregulated. Medical software that runs on a computer, mobile phone or tablet does not fit the definition of a medical device in section 41BD of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, as they were not intended by the manufacturer to be used for therapeutic purposes.”

“How many software developers have clinical employees? Do these employees have input into design or are they there to sell the dream?

“There is a serious gap between software design and the real-world application. Often software developers do not fully understand what is actually required by the healthcare industry to support the services that they provide.”

“Far too often, developers over-promise and under-deliver. What software can do often does not live up the expectations of the customer. How many software developers have clinical employees? Do these employees have input into design or are they there to sell the dream?”

Causes of poor quality

Some argue that developers should test their product better before it can be used in patient care. Is this an issue?

Frank: “Quality must be incorporated into the entire software development life cycle, from inception through implementation and this is not always happening.”

“A lot of the actual coding occurs overseas, in countries like India, where the employment costs are much lower. Code may be written cheaply and quickly overseas but it isn’t necessarily quality code.”

“Testing is often an after thought and done quickly due to time constraints

“Testing is often an afterthought and done quickly due to time constraints. The most crucial functionality usually gets tested but bugs can still slip though.”

“On the other hand, sometimes the client is not specific about their requirements. This could be a result of not engaging the organisation to understand what requirements need to be met. How often are clinical and other front line staff asked what they need before software arrives?”

The PCEHR 

Talking about client requirements: Let’s look at the Australian national E-health records database, the PCEHR. The Government wants to use the data and eventually save money (even though so far they have wasted millions of dollars on the project). Consumers want full control of the data, and doctors need a reliable, safe, secure and easy-to-use tool. Is it possible to develop a national product that ticks all these boxes?

Frank: “Highly unlikely. There are too many competing interests and egos with those that have been involved. In the early days, NEHTA was an interesting organisation to observe. It was obvious that they didn’t understand the complexity of system interoperability or consumer expectations on how information is to be shared and stored.”

“Fear, uncertainty, and doubt also play a part in the slow uptake of the PCEHR

“The reality is that software used in healthcare is effectively a closed shop, and it’s difficult for different systems to be integrated. Once you’ve bought a solution from one vendor, it’s incredibly difficult – but not impossible – to walk away from it.”

“Also in recent years, there has been a seismic shift in patient expectations overseas and we’re starting to see the rise of patient advocates and patient hackers. These are savvy people who aren’t going to sit back and be a passenger in their personal health journey.”

“Fear, uncertainty, and doubt play a part in the slow uptake of the PCEHR. Some providers don’t want patients to be able to access reports on the PCEHR, others are concerned that patients may choose to make some information not sharable or viewable which may compromise care. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.”

7 tips to avoid fiascos

I asked Frank what doctors, healthcare managers and business owners can do to avoid disappointments. Here’s his list of 7 tips:

  1. Be as clear as possible about your expectations and needs. Make sure you discuss the features you’re looking for and categorise them: absolutely essential, must have, good to have, nice to have, can live without. Ask how many features the software developer can provide in your first 3 categories.
  2. Make sure that the software vendor understands your requirements. Get them to provide their understanding in writing so that you can see that they’ve understood.
  3. Does the organisation hold certification for both ISO 9001 (Quality Management Systems) and ISO 27001 (Information Security Management) across all business units?
  4. Find out where the software is being developed and supported from.
  5. What is the quality like? Is it secure?
  6. Don’t pay anything to a software developer before you are sure what you’ve been given is fit for purpose and what you asked for.
  7. What contingencies are in place if the software fails to deliver as promised?

Software glitches: Are you keeping your head cool?

Healthcare around the world is plagued by software problems. To give just a few examples:

Issues with the Obamacare website caused user frustration, but also security breaches. Personal information was disseminated over the internet, affecting millions of people.

Closer to home, the Australian PCEHR has difficulties getting off the ground because of concerns at various levels. Major security problems with the Australian MyGov website – which also gives access to our eHealth records – were exposed by a researcher who was able to hack into the secure part of the website.

Queensland Health has an unfortunate track record of software problems, most recently with Metavision, an intensive care software package that created medication errors.

Why is the healthcare industry prone to these software debacles?

I caught up with Australian health IT experts to get some answers. In this post I’m talking to Sydney professor Enrico Coiera, who has extensive experience in the field of health informatics and bioinformatics. He’s got interesting things to say about eHealth, the PCEHR, and Telstra’s plans to enter the healthcare market.

What’s the cause of e-health fiascos?

Professor Enrico Coiera
Professor Enrico Coiera: “I think we will be seeing that government gets out-of-the-way in e-health, while still protecting the rights of citizens via law.” Image: Twitter

Coiera: “Today in Australia there is still, inexplicably, no governance system for e-health safety. No one is looking at your GP desktop system to make sure patients will not be harmed through its use.”

“Yet, look at what has been achieved in the airline industry, and then compare their safety governance processes to those that we have in healthcare IT. A functional and effective governance system needs a rapid reporting arm, and a rapid response arm.”

“If something goes wrong it must be reported, and rapidly communicated back to all other users who might be experiencing the same issue, and then quickly repaired.”

“The other thing is of course that while we are fiddling and doing nothing, clinical software is getting more complex, with more functions and more opportunities for failure, and as a result, patient harm.”

“In the past, software failures weren’t always seen as a patient safety issue. IT glitches were regarded as annoying, perhaps time-wasting.”

“It’s only in the last decade that we’ve realised that unsafe IT makes for unsafe care. And now that we know that e-health is a patient safety issue, people are not putting up with it anymore. They do want to know that their clinical systems are safe.”

Man vs machine

I often wonder if software solutions are tested thoroughly enough before they are introduced in the clinical setting, but according to professor Coiera I’m underestimating human factors as a cause for errors:

“I’m not sure that improving software testing is the only challenge with e-health safety. Having said that, in Australia there are no requirements on testing for clinical systems, so we don’t know whether or not even this basic requirement is being met by software vendors.”

“My biggest criticism of the e-health industry is that their software is often not very innovative.

“Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a safe system: While about 50% of e-health incidents are primarily technical in origin, the other 50% of incidents are caused by a human factors, for example someone selecting the wrong medication or medication dose from a drop down menu.”

“This means that to have a safe system, both our software needs to be built to appropriate standard, but also that clinicians must be trained to be safe users of the technology. Implementations of software in clinical settings also need to be carried out with an eye to risk reduction.”

“My biggest criticism of the e-health industry is that their software is often not very innovative, and not designed with human factors in mind. It is hard to comprehend how unusable some clinical systems are, with too many clicks to achieve even simple tasks, and user interfaces simply adding in new functions and becoming complex over time, rather than focusing on clarity and simplicity in design.”

“This lack of innovation is probably a function of the size of the e-health market, and the ability of vendors to lock in customers by making it hard to move from their system to others. Innovation comes from true competition, as well as customers who reward innovation.”

How do we fix the PCEHR?

Many people are calling for a rethink of the PCEHR, saying that a massive data repository is not the answer.

Coiera: “There has never been a strong case to develop a centralised national record. The main issue with the PCEHR design is that its explicit clinical purpose has never been clear.”

“GPs should have access to hospital patient data, but that can happen by logging on directly to the hospital system.

“There are actually many compelling reasons to move data around the system, using more interoperable records and networks. GPs for example should have access to hospital patient data, but that can happen by logging on directly to the hospital system, not looking at some extract of the data in a central repository.”

“Wasn’t that the whole point of the Internet, for goodness sake? Data needs to be fluid, it should move around.”

Big business vs big government

Frustrated with the government’s PCEHR, some are hoping big business will solve the problems. Telstra has announced plans to get involved in telemedicine and e-health. The question is whether this will be an improvement, as Telstra has had its fair share of software malfunctions – including at least one security breach affecting one million BigPond customers. But Coiera is positive:

“We should welcome big companies, it’s good for us. The government’s job is to protect privacy and security through regulation and law. The government should stick to what it’s good at, and leave software development to industry. Government is used to being in charge and driving change top down, whereas businesses are usually better at listening to the client.”

“I think we will be seeing that government gets out-of-the-way in e-health, while still protecting the rights of citizens via law. With the arrival of industry should come competition and innovation. The companies that listen best to what we want as clinicians and consumers will win.”

How one GP gives his patients access to their electronic health records

The start of Doctor Amir Hannan’s career was a rocky one. In 2000 he took over the surgery from convicted murderer Doctor Harold Shipman. On their first day, Amir and his colleague found that Shipman’s children had removed all furniture, phones and computers from the practice. Equipment had to be borrowed from other surgeries.

The practice has long since been turned around into a thriving GP clinic with a strong focus on eHealth; for the past 7 years patients have had online access to their electronic health records.

Around the world there are several projects going that allow patients to get access to their records, and Amir Hannan is one of the trail blazers.

Mobile screenshot
Dr Amir Hannan: “You can do all these things via smart phone, tablet or PC.” Image: supplied

He did his medical training at Manchester University and then trained as a General Practitioner in the north-west of England. I got in contact with him after he posted a comment on my blog post about OpenNotes, and he was kind enough to talk to me about his amazing pioneer work.

Empowering patients

Amir is passionate about the project: “I am motivated by the desire to do the very best for patients and staff by bringing out the best in all of them. Empowering them, empowers me. When they benefit, I get an immense sense of achievement. It becomes infectious and helps me to overcome any challenges I may face.”

The practice administration and clinical system he uses in his practice is called EMIS, widely used by GPs in the UK. Amir: “EMIS also provides a secure online facility for patients, called ‘Patient Access’, which allows patient access from a range of internet devices.”

What are the benefits?

Amir says the system offers many advantages:

“Benefits include a more open relationship with patients, which enables patients to feel more in control. They can book appointments online, order prescriptions online, update their contact details and access the full records if they wish. This helps patients to read what the doctor or nurse has said, see test results or letters as soon as they arrive back in the practice, check for any errors or missing data and help with completing medical and insurance forms.”

“It improves the relationship between patient and clinician, leading to a partnership of trust.

“Information buttons provide links to trusted information so that patients do not have to do a Google search. You can do all these things via smart phone, tablet or PC.”

“It improves the relationship between patient and clinician, leading to a partnership of trust. Patients use it intelligently saving their time and doctors’ time to make the system safer and more efficient.”

“Patients can send secure messages electronically, write into the surgery on paper and their comments can be added to the record or they can complete an Instant Medical History which we have recently introduced. We do not encourage email as it is not a secure means of communication and our replies could be seen by other family members which may compromise the patient’s right to confidentiality.”

“We need to do further studies to prove patients accessing their records and, most importantly, understanding them, do in fact enjoy better outcomes such as improved blood pressure control, diabetes care or reduced time off work. Anecdotally patients seem to have better compliance of treatment and we have many testimonials from patients describing their positive experiences. Such evidence may become available as more patients sign up.”

What are the risks?

Amir feels his patients are more in control of their health and care and, at least anecdotally, there seem to be some benefits. But are there any downsides?

“We take security and privacy very seriously. The software requires patients to register using their pin numbers for the service and then use passwords to get access to their records. This seems acceptable to the patients. We have not had any data breaches to date. We offer advice for patients to help them understand these issues better.”

“Very few patients ring the surgery because they do not understand something and we have not been sued for anything as a result of giving patients access to their records. In fact we are still waiting for our first complaint and that’s after offering the service for over 7 years. Currently over 2650 patients, 23% of our registered patient population, have access to their records. Records sharing is safe and does not increase litigation.”

“Every encounter afterwards can lead to patients learning more about their symptoms and how they can do more for themselves.

“It does take some time for patients to sign up for online services, and we do have an explicit consent process. Patients are asked to get their pin numbers from the receptionist, look at some of the support material which explains what records access is, and then complete an online questionnaire which confirms their understanding of the issues. Their request then has to be processed which takes about 10 minutes per patient.”

“It is a journey of discovery for patient and clinician so that every encounter afterwards can lead to patients learning more about their symptoms and how they can do more for themselves. Paradoxically, this seems to lead to a reduction in anxiety because patients, carers and family can check what has been said, see that the practice has done what it agreed to do, gain a better understanding of their health and improve their health literacy – patients worry less as a result.”

Amir’s practice offers the service for free to patients, although there is no funding in the UK to support practices to engage with their patients online. Amir: “Our implementation using the practice-based web portal has required the practice to provide its own resources. The current strategy locally has been for the market to drive innovation, which has failed completely. Funding will need to be made available to encourage innovation and enable stretched practices to invest in such tools to gain maximum benefit and to scale this.”

Tips

The UK Royal College of General Practitioners has published a guide titled Enabling patients to access electronic medical records. A guide for health professionals. Amir recommends this to anyone who is interested in setting up a similar system.

“My hope is that one day all people in the world will be able to do this. This is the future of healthcare and it is happening now! See how others are doing it, such as in the UK: PatientView or in America: Kaiser Permanente and OpenNotes.”

“I use my twitter account to share experiences with others.

“It is not easy and it takes time, resources and effort. Build links with others and collaborate with them to share experience and knowledge. Build a practice-based web portal such as ours, which helps to engage with patients and provides a mechanism of informing, signposting, engaging and empowering patients and their carers. Engage on twitter and social media – there is a great deal of interest. I use my twitter account to share experiences with others.”

“Listen to your patients and staff. Work with them and develop a strategy and a plan. Most importantly get on and do it. Don’t procrastinate or worry about what might happen – instead think about the opportunities and consequences of enabling patients to access their records and understand them.”

“My practice manager Wendy Smallwood and the patient chairs of our patient participation groups Ingrid Brindle and Eleanor Simmons are stars!”

Follow Dr Amir Hannan on Twitter.