The Practical Consumer vs. The Illogical Deb Peel

So it’s time for a little rant about everyone’s favorite privacy advocate, and the way she gets treated in the press—including by people who should know better (yes, I mean you, Inga at HERTalk, even though I am your favorite booth babe). I won’t overdo my previous statements about the illogical inconsistencies of Peel’s positions, and more to the point the utter one-sidedness of the utility of only caring about privacy breeches and nothing else. But it is time to remind everyone who’s rational and who’s the fruit loop.

Three different articles in recent days brought this up. Xconomy (the TechCrunch of Boston) had a long article about new “ich bin keine blogger” and modern linguist Jonathan Bush (CEO, athenahealth). In a good article, mostly about how athenahealth was spending more money on marketing and therefore making lower profits, Ryan McBride had a throwaway para at the end about a new athenahealth (still-under-wraps-and-likely-to-stay-there-for-a-while) product called athenacommunity. Here’s the offending para (and note that McBride annoys the athena PR gods by using a capital A when the name is lowercase!):

Athena might be able to halve the amount that physicians pay to use its EHR if they participate in what is now a nascent effort at the company called "AthenaCommunity." Athena's EHR customers who opt to share their patients' data with other providers would pay a discounted rate to use Athena's health record software. Athena would be able to make money with the patient data by charging, say, a hospital a small fee to access a patient's insurance and medical information from Athena's network. For a hospital's part, this might be cheaper than paying its own staff to gather a patient's information through standard intake procedures. Hallock, Athena's spokesman, says the community is in development and is slated to launch later this year

Inga at HERTalk spied an opportunity to get Deb Peel some rant time. And based on that one snippet Peel went off:

This is an ABSOLUTE nightmare—it TOTALLY violates medical ethics and the patients’ rights to privacy — not to speak of Americans’ well-known constitutional rights to privacy. Physicians who go along with that could well violate state licensing laws which often require adherence to the AMA’s principles of Medical Ethics, as well as violate many state laws that REQUIRE informed consent for disclosures of many kinds of information, from genetic tests, to mental health information, to STDs, to addiction treatment information. athena and all the many vendors who coerce doctors to disclose patient health information without consent will have NO liability. Who do you think the patients will sue for violating their privacy? Their doctor, of course, who chose to use an illegal, unethical EHR system. athena will not pay for this massive privacy disaster —their doctor/users will.

Now the reader who hasn’t been overdoing the amphetamines might have read the Xconomy article as suggesting that athenahealth was going to be providing a service creating interoperability between a doctor and a hospital on a different EMR system. Err…isn’t the government spending $34 billion because it thinks interoperability will, just perhaps, improve efficiency, care quality and consumer happiness? Wouldn’t per chance it be better for a patient if, for example, the lab result that their doctor had seen was already there when they went to the local hospital and saw a different doctor? Wouldn’t it be easier for them not to have to fill out the clipboard and have their paper insurance card photocopied yet again? Errr…isn’t that what’s already happens in either integrated systems like Kaiser Permanente or communities with decent data sharing already in places like Indiana and Utah? Isn’t it possible that athenahealth is just trying to imitate that in communities where it has a decent footprint? What exactly does that have to do with violating medical ethics? And aren’t the guys at athena—who apparently know a lawyer or two—smart enough to make sure that data prevented by law from being shared without prior consent won’t be shared?

But apparently that screed of illogical bullshit from Peel is ok because she’s a “guru” according to Inga. It actually gets worse with Peel penning a longer piece later all about how athenahealth is going to be selling the most intimate of patients’ medical secrets to blackmailers and perverts. Luckily HISTalk published a counterpoint immediately after it by Truth Seeker basically stating the obvious—that this is about local information exchange to improve efficiency and patient outcomes. But it doesn’t really excuse Tim & Inga for letting Peel spout off. And for that matter, it doesn’t excuse Microsoft for cowtowing to her when they launched Healthvault.

Of course athenahealth then had to make poor Derek Hedges (SVP for Product Strategy) publish a worthy (and slightly dull) piece explaining the blindingly obvious about what their new service is doing:

….designed to simplify clinical data exchange between physicians and other health care participants in a way that empowers primary care physicians to truly care for their patients by ensuring that appropriate clinical and administrative data is routed to downstream trading partners without undue effort on the part of their staff.  As a service organization, athenahealth will take on the majority of work (e.g., compilation of key insurance and demographic data, including pre-authorizations) related to generating and processing a clean order.

So they’re going to transfer the clean information over to either the physician or hospital that gets the referred patient (and BTW follow up with the patient to make sure they went and had the referred appointment) and then report this all back to the primary care doc. This will save money and improve the care process all round, and athenahealth will get a cut from the hospital—some of which they’ll use to make their service to their doctor client cheaper.

Funnily enough the real proof of how this helps a patient, despite Peel’s squeals, came in a Steve Lohr NYTimes article in which Jonathan Bush, this time speaking English, had a minor go at the Falcon-toting princes in DC who are giving his company and many of its rivals $34 billions in stimulus money. (Despite Bush’s cracks about the stimulus program, he’s basically OK that it’s being given out for use, not hardware—but he still calls it cash-for-clunkers!). But the article is pretty ho-hum.

The comments,  though, are fascinating:

Comment 1 is from Betty C in CA channeling Deb Peel and seems to be unaware of HIPAA or other laws on the books.

What about privacy. For a few bucks, an internet vendor will sell someone your credit report, today. Tomorrow, they will be selling your medical information for the same price.
Comment 3 from BrentMike in CA also channeling Deb Peel is factually wrong or at least soon will be. He apparently had missed the Times’ extensive coverage of the recent health care debate:
Electronic Health Care Records enable Heathcare (SIC) Insurers to better discriminate against people with expensive conditions. And the fear of this happening is quite well-founded, by the way. That's why most people are dead-set against this.

And then we come to comment 4 from (gasp) a patient who actually has used an EMR:

…I do find as a member of Kaiser Permanente in Northern California that electronic management of all aspects of health care (including appointments, test results, email to and from health providers, and so forth) saves patients an enormous amount of wear and tear. <SNIP> …it induces culture shock when one of my PPO-subscribing friends complains about how long it took to get test results, how many calls had to made to a provider, or how many visits were made to answer one question. If the feds could get it right, they might discover a big increase in happy consumers of health care.

And there you have it. Do we want happy patients who experience the benefits of good information use? If so we have to figure out some way of moving data between those 80% of providers who are not in Kaiser, Group Health or Mayo. athenacommunity may be one way of doing it.

Or do we just want to let Deb Peel shoot her mouth off.

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