The Case For Dumping EMR Interoperability Goals

Posted on December 22, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

The new year is upon us, and maybe we should consider some new approaches, or even throw out accepted wisdom. Why not consider some major pain points and reconsider how we’re handling them?

In that spirit, my question is this: Should we give up on the idea that EMR vendors will ever allow their data will be interoperable? While this conclusion isn’t exactly a no-brainer, many of us have certainly toyed with the idea. So let’s take ‘er out for a spin.

One major consideration is that EMR vendors have some very compelling reasons for keeping things as they are. Perhaps most notably, interoperability would mean that providers wouldn’t be trapped in deals with a single vendor, as they could just shift the data over to a new platform if the need arose. If I sold EMRs I’d fight tooth and nail to prevent my product from being dumped too easily.

As if that weren’t enough of a disincentive, EMR vendors would need to spend big bucks to achieve interoperability, with no direct reward in sight. Somehow, I doubt that they’re ever going to make such an investment to win some “nice guy” award from the industry.

And even if they could somehow achieve interoperability without breaking a sweat, we’ve got to contend with inertia. Making changes on that scale takes a great deal of effort, and EMR vendors have very little reason to do so.

Maybe the federal government could achieve interoperability through some kind of epic power play, like refusing to issue Medicare reimbursement to providers whose EMRs didn’t meet some ONC interoperability standard.

But even that kind of brute force wouldn’t solve the interoperability problem with one stroke. Such an approach would come with a raft of serious concerns. What interoperability standard would ONC use, and how long would it take to choose? Then, how long would vendors have to meet the standard?  How long would providers have to decommission their existing EMR — and let’s not forget, quite possibly interlocking HIT systems — and where would they get the money for the new/upgraded systems?

Not only that, it would it cost billions of dollars, without a doubt, to make this transition. It could take a decade before the transition was complete. A lot can happen to derail such an initiative over that amount of time, and market forces could render the premises of such an effort obsolete.

On top of that, any effort which encouraged providers to dump their existing EMR platform would greatly diminish, if not erase, the value of the billions of dollars invested in Meaningful Use incentives. A lot of effort has gone into workflow and interface designs that support MU compliance, and starting from scratch on a new platform would NOT be a walk in the park.  So meeting MU goals might be possible over time, but could fall by the wayside for the short term.

All told, it seems that we may be chasing our tails trying to push through interoperability. In theory it sounds good, but when you look at the details it seems unlikely to happen. That being said, the need to share patient data isn’t going to go away, so what alternatives might work? I’ll follow up with some additional thoughts.