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The Santa Barbara RHIO: An Impressive Post-Mortem

Posted Oct 30 2008 11:50am

One of the more interesting recent concepts in the healthcare IT world is that of the “RHIO”: a Regional Health Information Organization. The idea is that – while we’ll never overcome the legal and privacy concerns to create a single national electronic healthcare record (at least not in my lifetime) – we might be able to create one within a region.

In 1997, my friend David Brailer (an extraordinarily smart guy who later became the U.S. government’s IT Czar and now runs a $700 million healthcare investment company) pitched the idea of using his company at the time, CareSciences, to build a RHIO in Santa Barbara, California, that sun-kissed village of mansions, wineries, and Botox about an hour north of LA. It seemed a great test case – a community with hospitals and clinics that played well together; small enough to get it done (only 3 main hospitals in the region) but big enough to put the concept through its paces.

The California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) [truth in advertising: I’ve done several projects funded by CHCF, and its president, Mark Smith, was my residency classmate and is a good pal] infused more than $10 million into the effort, recognizing that the business case for a RHIO was too meager for one to rise up out of the primordial healthcare swamp. After innumerable starts and stops, missteps, political trials and tribulations, changes in corporate ownership, and various other forms of mishigas, the RHIO finally went flat-line last year (it had been agonal for a couple of years). The verdict: the business case to sustain it just wasn’t there; the Foundation’s money may have even “polluted” the process by giving all the players a free ride, with no skin in the game.

Why is this important? First of all, RHIOs were the cool kid in the class – the much-ballyhooed solution to the IT gaps caused by healthcare silos, and a cornerstone of the federal effort to wire American healthcare. Sure, Kaiser Permanente and the VA could move clinical data from a hospital to a nearby (within-system) clinic or ER; RHIOs would solve this knotty problem for the rest of us.

Second, a very thoughtful post-mortem on the Santa Barbara meltdown was recently published by – get this – the California HealthCare Foundation. That’s right, the very same foundation that burned through $10 mil commissioned a study – publicly released and even hosted on its own website – that is, in essence, a root cause analysis of its own failed initiative. This is an extraordinary impressive example of “learning from one’s mistakes” – part of a general trend by foundations of looking for lessons from both their successes and blunders. It (along with a series of related articles published in the journal Health Affairs, including one by Brailer and another by Marc Overhage, who directs a more successful RHIO in Indiana) makes fascinating, albeit depressing, reading.

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