Kansas City, MO-based electronic health record (EHR) company Cerner is now a business unit within Oracle, the Austin, TX-based software behemoth. Oracle, which already sells some software to insurers, hospitals, and public health departments, called Cerner the company’s “anchor asset”, and hopes to use it to expand its healthcare presence. Oracle co-founder and board chair Larry Ellison unveiled lofty plans to create a national health records database, but he didn’t detail how the company would get access to health records from non-Cerner systems, as interoperability standards haven’t been fully implemented.
The Gist: In addition to the challenge of entering the complex EHR and healthcare data market, Oracle now faces the challenge of rebuilding Cerner’s growth, and its clients’ confidence. Cerner lags Epic in terms of hospital market share: Epic holds about a third of the US hospital market, compared to Cerner’s 24 percent. Epic gained an additional 74 hospitals last year, compared to Cerner’s five.
Anecdotally, we know of several long-term Cerner health system clients who are either in the middle of, or planning for, a transition to Epic, which is seen by health system leaders as the superior EMR option. (In the words of one executive, “No CEO ever got fired for choosing Epic.”) If a stronger Cerner product emerges as a result of the acquisition, it could help to stem this tide.
Oracle’s chairman Larry Ellison outlined a bold vision Thursday for the database giant to use the combined tech power of Oracle and Cerner to make access to medical records more seamless.
Days after closing its $28.3 billion acquisition of electronic health record company Cerner, Ellison said Oracle plans to build a national health record database that would pull data from thousands of hospital-centric EHRs.
In a virtual briefing Thursday, Ellison highlighted many long-standing problems with interoperability in healthcare. “Your electronic health data is scattered across a dozen or separate databases. One for every provider you’ve ever visited. This patient data fragmentation and EHR fragmentation causes tremendous problems,” he said.
“We’re going to solve this problem by putting a unified national health records database on top of all of these thousands of separate hospital databases. So we’re building a system where the health records all American citizens’ health records not only exist at the hospital level but also are in a unified national health records database.”
The concept of the national health records database, which would hold anonymized data, Ellison said, is to help doctors and clinicians have faster access to patient records when providing care. Anonymized health data in that national database could also be used to build artificial intelligence models to help diagnose diseases such as cancer.
“Better information is the key to transforming healthcare,” he said. “Better information will allow doctors to deliver better patient outcomes. Better information will allow public health officials to develop much better public health policy and it will fundamentally lower healthcare costs overall.”
Oracle also plans to modernize Cerner’s Millennium EHR platform with updated features such as voice interface, more telehealth capabilities and disease-specific AI models, Ellison said.
He highlighted a partnership between health tech company Ronin, a clinical decision support solution, and MD Anderson to create a disease-specific AI model that monitors cancer patients as they work through their treatments.
“The people at Oracle are not going to be developing these AI models. But our platform, Cerner Millennium, is an open system and allows medical professionals at MD Anderson, who are experts in treating cancer, to add these AI modules to help other doctors treat cancer patients,” Ellison said.
The purchase of Cerner, which marks Oracle’s biggest acquisition, gives the database giant a stronger foothold in healthcare. Ellison said the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) and HR software already is widely used in healthcare.
But the company will face the same long-standing barriers to sharing health data that have stymied other interoperability efforts. There also could be pushback from the industry to any effort by a tech giant to build a nationalized health database.
In March 2020, the federal government released rules laying the groundwork to give patients easier access to their digital health records through their smartphones. The regulation, which went into effect in April 2021, requires health IT vendors, providers and health information exchanges to enable patients to access and download their health records with third-party apps. Under the rule, providers can’t inhibit the access, exchange or use of health information unless the data fall within eight exceptions.
Interoperability experts point out there are already efforts underway to create a more unified database of health records, such Cerner competitor Epic’s Cosmos, which is a de-identified patient database combining the company’s EHR data of over 122 million patients.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair is backing Ellison’s vision for building a unified health database. Blair, who leads the nonprofit Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, partners with Oracle to use its cloud technology to tackle health issues.
Speaking at the virtual event, Blair said a unified health records system will “empower citizens and provide clinicians and other care providers with immediate access to their health history and treatment without chasing it down from disparate sources.”
David Feinberg, M.D., who took the reins as Cerner CEO just four months before the acquisition was announced in December, said he was excited about the potential for Oracle and Cerner to advance data sharing.
“We’re bringing world-class technology coupled with a deep and long history of understanding how healthcare works. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that,” said Feinberg, now president and CEO of Oracle Cerner.
Prioritizing outcomes in healthcare is long overdue and now within reach following Oracle’s acquisition of Cerner. To achieve more seamless, coordinated care, technology must play a greater role in reframing solutions for health and well-being around the world.
Combining Cerner’s clinical capabilities with Oracle’s enterprise platform, analytics, and automation expertise will change health and wellness in a way that simply hasn’t been possible before. We’ll provide secure and reliable solutions that deliver health insights and experiences to dramatically change how health is managed by patients, providers, and payors. The industry has never been riper for change.
Designing for people
Healthcare is innately personal; however, the industry often loses sight of the human side of health as delivering and understanding care has become increasingly disconnected and complex. Research reveals that doctors spend nearly twice as much time on administrative work as they do engaging with patients. If we replaced clinicians’ time spent performing administrative tasks with patient interactions, imagine how dramatically we could improve quality of care. Technology-induced administrative burden contributes to burnout, which has, in part, resulted in a workforce shortage and overshadowed the true benefits of healthcare technology. Clinicians didn’t enter medicine to spend half of their time conducting routine tasks and completing required documentation; they chose their profession to practice at the top of their license. We’re working to make this a reality, providing a toolset that supports clinical decision making and prioritizes the user experience.
For care delivery organizations, we’ll develop new cloud-enabled capabilities allowing providers to access the information they need, where and when they need it, on an interface that is easy to use. This will significantly reduce the time and effort required to find a patient’s information, even if the information is scattered across different providers or care settings. We’ll help people access and manage their own health information from wherever they are, so that they have a stronger voice in their care and can conduct more meaningful conversations with their providers. When successful, these improvements ultimately increase the value of healthcare and have the additional benefit of contributing data to population health insights.
Collaborative, interoperable care
In a complex and inefficient healthcare industry, interoperability is critical; but, it hasn’t been widely adopted between organizations. From the patient perspective, data silos limit patients’ empowerment and involvement in their health and well-being. It is vitally important that medical records are portable. Regardless of where someone receives care, their records should be accessible and unified. From a clinical perspective, interoperability ensures clinicians can properly review a patient’s entire medical history within their workflow and provide appropriate, contextual treatment.
A recent survey shows a staggering 97% of healthcare executives have called for increased healthcare data interoperability, the lack of which inhibits digital transformation and innovation within organizations and throughout the broader industry. Oracle is committed to open APIs to ensure any authorized user can consume health data and insights. We know a closed system will not create connectivity and unification across the many existing players and systems. Creating more solutions without an open ecosystem commitment would only contribute to the problems we see today with fractured and siloed systems.
Oracle will harness the power of data to create a collaborative ecosystem where people, patients, providers, and payors can securely access clinical, operational, and financial data on the cloud. These efforts will break down data silos and provide open systems that talk to—and connect with—one another to generate actionable, scalable, and global insights previously unavailable. Industry fragmentation impacts both patients and providers, but Oracle has the power to aggregate data into a single source of truth to achieve better outcomes.
Improved efficiency across the system
While enhanced clinical systems will improve experiences bedside and lead to better public health outcomes, back-office operations must also be improved to drive true efficiency, reduce costs, and make the business of healthcare more predictable. Oracle’s Fusion application suite can create this bridge between the bedside and the back-office, enhancing employee experience (better retention, less administration), streamlining the supply chain (reduced shrinkage, better inventory management), and giving the executive a better understanding of the issues impacting their business (greater predictability and cost control).
Secure healthcare data
Unfortunately, we know that retail, finance, and health data are the most targeted in security breaches. Patient privacy and the security of health data, when left unaddressed, threaten what the information of health exchange is solely meant to protect: patient safety. It’s time to raise health data security to an unprecedented level of investment and focus.
Oracle is an industry leader in securely storing, processing, and analyzing large volumes of cloud-based data. We’ll continue to apply the same security-obsessed focus to healthcare as we do to all industries, allowing people, patients, providers, and payors to safely access insights that improve care and advance decision-making. Oracle has been trusted with some of the world’s most sensitive and regulated data for more than 44 years. For the financial services industry specifically, Oracle already serves customers in more than 140 countries and manages risk for 24 of the world’s 28 systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs).
Meeting the moment
While we already knew this industry was ready for change, the pandemic amplified and accelerated the world’s readiness to see that change. We aim to meet this moment leveraging the technology and expertise that have revolutionized other industries, as well as applying new innovations to transform these systems of record into systems of intelligence.
Combining our existing healthcare industry solutions—from clinical trials to health insurance payor solutions to public health analysis systems—with our acquisition of Cerner, we believe Oracle has a uniquely positioned opportunity to offer new solutions to a broken healthcare system. We plan to support the entire lifecycle of healthcare, going beyond traditional health IT to integrate our infrastructure, platform, and applications capabilities for a more fully connected operational, administrative, and clinical system.
We are fully committed to the partnerships that will be instrumental to this journey. The technology and the world are ready for transformation. This is just the beginning.
President-elect Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda: building on the ACA, value-based care, and bringing down drug prices.
In many ways, Joe Biden is promising a return to the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare:
Building on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through incremental expansions in government-subsidized coverage
Continuing CMS’ progress toward value-based care
Bringing down drug prices
Supporting modernization of the FDA
Bolder ideas, such as developing a public option, resolving “surprise billing,” allowing for negotiation of drug prices by Medicare, handing power to a third party to help set prices for some life sciences products, and raising the corporate tax rate, could be more challenging to achieve without overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Biden is likely to mount an intensified federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisting the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce large quantities of tests and personal protective equipment as well as supporting ongoing deregulation around telehealth. The Biden administration also will likely return to global partnerships and groups such as the World Health Organization, especially in the area of vaccine development, production and distribution.
What can health industry executives expect from Biden’s healthcare proposals?
Broadly, healthcare executives can expect an administration with an expansionary agenda, looking to patch gaps in coverage for Americans, scrutinize proposed healthcare mergers and acquisitions more aggressively and use more of the government’s power to address the pandemic. Executives also can expect, in the event the ACA is struck down, moves by the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers to develop a replacement. Healthcare executives should scenario plan for this unlikely yet potentially highly disruptive event, and plan for an administration marked by more certainty and continuity with the Obama years.
All healthcare organizations should prepare for the possibility that millions more Americans could gain insurance under Biden. His proposals, if enacted, would mean coverage for 97% of Americans, according to his campaign website. This could mean millions of new ACA customers for payers selling plans on the exchanges, millions of new Medicaid beneficiaries for managed care organizations, millions of newly insured patients for providers, and millions of covered customers for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. The surge in insured consumers could mirror the swift uptake in the years following the passage of the ACA.
Biden’s plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic
Biden is expected to draw on his experience from H1N1 and the Ebola outbreaks to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a more active role for the federal government, which many Americans support. These actions could shore up the nation’s response in which the federal government largely served in a support role to local, state and private efforts.
Three notable exceptions have been the substantial federal funding for development of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Congress’ aid packages and the rapid deregulatory actions taken by the FDA and CMS to clear a path for medical products to be enlisted for the pandemic and for providers, in particular, to be able to respond to it.
Implications of Biden’s 2020 health agenda on healthcare payers, providers and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies
The US health system has been slowly transforming for years into a New Health Economy that is more consumer-oriented, digital, virtual, open to new players from outside the industry and focused on wellness and prevention. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends. Once the dust from the election settles, companies that have invested in capabilities for growth and are moving forcefully toward the New Health Economy stand to gain disproportionately.
Shortages of clinicians and foreign medical students may continue to be an issue for a while
The Trump administration made limiting the flow of immigrants to the US a priority. The associated policy changes have the potential to exacerbate shortages of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers, including medical students. These consequences have been aggravated by the pandemic, which dramatically curtailed travel into the US.
Healthcare organizations, especially rural ones heavily dependent on foreign-born employees, may find themselves competing fiercely for workers, paying higher salaries and having to rethink the structure of their workforces.
Providers should consider reengineering primary care teams to reflect the patients’ health status and preferences, along with the realities of the workforce on the ground and new opportunities in remote care.
Focus on modernizing the supply chain
Biden and lawmakers from both parties have been raising questions about life sciences’ supply chains. This focus has only intensified because of the pandemic and resulting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and other medical products.
Investment in advanced analytics and cybersecurity could allow manufacturers to avoid disruptive stockouts and shortages, and deliver on the promise of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time in the right place.
Drug pricing needs a long-term strategy
Presidents and lawmakers have been talking about drug prices for decades; few truly meaningful actions have been implemented. Biden has made drug pricing reform a priority.
Drug manufacturers may need to start looking past the next quarter to create a new pricing strategy that maximizes access in local markets through the use of data and analytics to engage in more value-based pricing arrangements.
New financing models may help patients get access to drugs, such as subscription models that provide unlimited access to a therapy at a flat rate.
Companies that prepare now to establish performance metrics and data analytics tools to track patient outcomes will be well prepared to offer payers more sustainable payment models, such as mortgage or payment over time contracts, avoiding the sticker shock that comes with these treatments and improving uptake at launch.
Pharmaceutical and life sciences companies will likely have to continue to offer tools for consumers like co-pay calculators and use the contracting process where possible to minimize out-of-pocket costs, which can improve adherence rates and health outcomes.
View interoperability as an opportunity to embrace, not a threat to avoid or ignore
While the pandemic delayed many of the federal interoperability rule deadlines, payers and providers should use the extra time to plan strategically for an interoperable future.
Payers should review business partnerships in this new regulatory environment.
Digital health companies and new entrants may help organizations take advantage of the opportunities that achieving interoperability may present.
Companies should consider the legal risks and take steps to protect their reputations and relationships with customers by thinking through issues of consent and data privacy.
Health organizations should review their policies and consider whether they offer protections for customers under the new processes and what data security risks may emerge. They should also consider whether business associate agreements are due in more situations.
Plan for revitalized ACA exchanges and a booming Medicare Advantage market
The pandemic has thrown millions out of work, generating many new customers for ACA plans just as the incoming Biden administration plans to enrich subsidies, making more generous plans within reach of more Americans.
Payers in this market should consider how and where to expand their membership and appeal to those newly eligible for Medicare. Payers not in this market should consider partnerships or acquisitions as a quick way to enter the market, with the creation of a new Medicare Advantage plan as a slower but possibly less capital-intensive entry into this market.
Payers and health systems should use this opportunity to design more tailored plan options and consumer experiences to enhance margins and improve health outcomes.
Payers with cash from deferred care and low utilization due to the pandemic could turn to vertical integration with providers as a means of investing that cash in a manner that helps struggling providers in the short term while positioning payers to improve care and reduce its cost in the long term.
Under the Trump administration, the FDA has approved historic numbers of generic drugs, with the aim of making more affordable pharmaceuticals available to consumers. Despite increased FDA generics approvals, generics dispensed remain high but flat, according to HRI analysis of FDA data.
Pharmaceutical company stocks, on average, have climbed under the Trump administration, with a few notable dips due to presidential speeches criticizing the industry and the pandemic.
Providers have faced some revenue cuts, particularly in the 340B program, and many entered the pandemic in a relatively weak liquidity position. The pandemic has led to layoffs, pay cuts and even closures. HRI expects consolidation as the pandemic continues to curb the flow of patients seeking care in emergency departments, orthopedic surgeons’ offices, dermatology suites and more.
Lawmakers and politicians often use bold language, and propose bold solutions to problems, but the government and the industry itself resists sudden, dramatic change, even in the face of sudden, dramatic events such as a global pandemic. One notable exception to this would be a decision by the US Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, an event that would generate a great deal of uncertainty and disruption for Americans, the US health industry and employers.
The biggest problem with electronic syndromic surveillance reporting isn’t that hospitals lack the capacity to send data — it’s that public health agencies lack the ability to receive it, according to a new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.
More than four in 10 U.S. hospitals say their local, state and federal public health agencies are unable to receive data electronically, reflecting a decade-long investment in health IT infrastructure on the private sector side without a concomitant investment from its federal partners, researchers found.
Hospitals in regions forecast to be some of the hardest hit from COVID-19 were more likely to say public health agencies were unable to receive health data electronically, implying areas of highest need were some of the least prepared to mount a coordinated, data-driven response going into the pandemic.
Effective pandemic response requires real-time, accurate data sharing between providers and public health agencies, allowing the government to track outbreaks and allocate resources as needed.
A lack of nationwide, interoperable reporting infrastructure has been one of the major criticisms of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, which has infected almost 1.7 million and killed 99,000 people in the U.S. as of Wednesday.
CMS requires hospitals be able to electronically send and receive health information, including lab results and syndromic surveillance data, to and from public health agencies like their state’s department of health. For more than a decade, providers have funneled significant resources into their IT infrastructure due to a slurry of federal incentive programs, though EHR implementation remains piecemeal across the U.S. due to cost and other barriers.
The JAMIA study, one of the first looking at the state of health data reporting, analyzed 2018 American Hospital Association data to identify hospital-reported barriers to surveillance data reporting, and Harvard Global Health Institute data on the coronavirus pandemic’s projected impact on hospital capacity at the hospital referral region (HRR) level. Researchers assumed a 40% population infection rate over 12 months.
The group found 31 high-need HRRs, those in the top quartile of projected beds needed for COVID-19 patients, with more than half of the hospitals in the region saying the relevant public health agency couldn’t electronically receive data.
That suggests areas more likely to be overwhelmed by the pandemic had some of the least interoperable data-sharing capabilities going into it, hamstringing outbreak response.
Researchers found the most common barrier to data-sharing nationwide, reported by 41% of hospitals, was that public health agencies didn’t have the capacity to receive data electronically.
The next most common, reported by 32% of hospitals, was interface-related issues, such as costs or implementation complexity; followed by difficulty extracting data from the EHR (14% of hospitals reporting), different data standards (also 14%), hospitals lacking the capacity to send data (8%) and hospitals being unsure what public health agencies to send the data to (3%).
Researchers also found significant state variance in hospitals saying public health agencies couldn’t receive needed data electronically, running the gamut from 83% of hospitals saying so in Hawaii and Rhode Island to 40% in New Jersey and Virginia to none in Delaware.
Geographic variation is likely due to different funding priorities in different places, as some agencies may only be able to receive specific data elements or interface with a select number of EHRs. This spotty IT implementation results in a patchwork picture of disease progression across the U.S., though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to automate the COVID-19 reporting process.
The study does have some significant limitations. It’s a relatively one-sided portrayal of the issue, as researchers did not have access to data or survey results from public health agencies. And, since AHA survey results were from two years ago, the EHR landscape could have shifted since 2018.
However, researchers called upon policymakers to build up public health agencies’ IT capabilities, especially as states begin to reopen despite an increasingly likely resurgence of the virus in the fall.
“Policymakers should prioritize investment in public health IT infrastructure along with broader health system information technology for both long-term COVID-19 monitoring as well as future pandemic preparedness,” authors A Jay Holmgren, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School; Nate Apathy, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University’s Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health; and Julia Adler-Milstein, a professor at University of San Francisco Department of Medicine, wrote.
HHS released its much-anticipated final rules on EHR interoperability, ruling against “information blocking” tactics by EHR vendors and giving patients more control over their medical records.
The new rule will be applied over the next two years and will make patient records downloadable to smartphones using consumer apps. Overall, members of the healthcare industry applaud these efforts to make patient information more accessible to improve healthcare delivery. However, there are privacy concerns around how patient data can be used once downloaded to third-party consumer apps that weren’t addressed in the final rule.
Here is a brief list of a few potential winners and losers of the new rule.
Patients. Patients now have more control over their medical records and will be able to access them through third-party apps for free, which will make it easier for them to take their medical records to new providers outside of their previous provider’s system. As a result, they will have more choice in where they go for healthcare.
Hospitals and physicians. The lengthy process of trying to convert a patient’s medical records will be unnecessary. Patients will no longer need to have their medical records faxed between healthcare facilities in different networks and the rule will streamline workflow around gathering patient data to provide the best possible care. Hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid will also be able to send electronic notifications to other facilities or providers when a patient is admitted, transferred or discharged under its new “Coordination of Participation” rule.
App developers and health IT startups. App developers that allow patients to store their health data and medical information will have access to that data, a virtual gold mine. The federal privacy protections limiting how providers and insurers share medical records do not apply when patients transfer data to consumer apps, according to the New York Times.
Apple and Microsoft. Healthcare providers will be required to send medical data in a format that is compatible on third-party apps including Apple Health Records. Microsoft is also working to sell technology in the health sector, and the new rule will make it easier, according to CNBC.
Patients. While the rule has many benefits to patients, there is also potential for disaster. Patients who download their medical information on consumer apps may find their information shared or sold. There could also be additional security issues if those apps are hacked. Finally, some patients may become confused by their medical records and notes if the information isn’t stated clearly, causing further anxiety around their care.
Hospitals and clinics. Patient leakage may become more common if it’s easier for patients to take their medical records with them. Healthcare organizations will also need to prepare for an influx of patient data and have strong governance procedures in place as they partner with payers and other organizations to incorporate clinical data with patient-gathered data and potentially social determinants of health data.
EHR vendors. EHR companies must now adopt application programming interfaces so their systems can communicate with third-party apps. EHR companies have two years to comply and face up to $1 million per violation for engaging in “information blocking.” The new focus on interoperability may also pave the way for competitors to gain market share over the two most dominant players, Epic and Cerner.
Epic. Epic was a notable opponent to the HHS interoperability rules, citing patient privacy concerns. If forced to collaborate with other companies, Epic could potentially lose its edge over competitors, according to an op-ed written by former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson in the Wisconsin State Journal. He contended Epic would have to “give its trade secrets away to venture capitalists, Big Tech, Silicon Valley interests and overseas competitors for little or no compensation.” Epic is also the most dominant EHR, holding 28 percent of the acute care hospital market, which could be threatened by greater interoperability. However, in response to the final rule’s release, Epic issued a statement saying that it would focus on “standards-based scope for meaningful interoperability.”