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No, The Market Can’t Solve Health Data Interoperability Problems

Posted on July 6, 2016 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 FierceHealthcare.com 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.

I seldom disagree with John Halamka, whose commentary on HIT generally strikes me as measured, sensible and well-grounded. But this time, Dr. Halamka, I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Dr. Halamka, chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and co-chair of the ONC’s Health IT Standards Committee, recently told Healthcare IT News that it’s time for ONC and other federal regulators to stop trying to regulate health data interoperability into existence.

“It’s time to return the agenda to the private sector in the clinician’s guide vendors reduce the products and services they want,” Halamka said. “We’re on the cusp of real breakthroughs in EHR usability and interoperability based on the new incentives for outcomes suggested by MACRA and MIPS. {T}he worst thing we could do it this time is to co-opt the private sector agenda more prescriptive regulations but EHR functionality, usability and quality measurement.”

Government regs could backfire

Don’t get me wrong — I certainly appreciate the sentiment. Government regulation of a dynamic goal like interoperability could certainly backfire spectacularly, if for no other reason than that technology evolves far more quickly than policy. Regulations could easily set approaches to interoperability in stone that become outmoded far too quickly.

Not only that, I sympathize with Halamka’s desire to let independent clinical organizations come together to figure out what their priorities are for health data sharing. Even if regulators hire the best, most insightful clinicians on the planet, they still won’t have quite the same perspective as those still working on the front lines every day. Hospitals and medical professionals are in a much better position to identify what data should be shared, how it should be shared and most importantly what they can accomplish with this data.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking what the “private sector agenda” that Halamka cites is, actually. Is he referring to the goals of health IT vendors? Hospitals? Medical practices? Health plans? The dozens of standards and interoperability organization that exist, ranging from HL7 and FHIR to the CommonWell Health Alliance? CHIME? HIMSS? HIEs? To me, it looks like the private sector agenda is to avoid having one. At best, we might achieve the United Nations version of unity as an industry, but like that body it would be interesting but toothless.

Patients ready to snap

After many years of thought, I have come to believe that healthcare interoperability is far too important to leave to the undisciplined forces of the market. As things stand, patients like me are deeply affected by the inefficiencies and mistakes bred by the healthcare industry’ lack of interoperability — and we’re getting pretty tired of it. And readers, I guarantee that anyone who taps the healthcare system as frequently as I do feels the same way. We are on the verge of rebellion. Every time someone tells me they can’t get my records from a sister facility, we’re ready to snap.

So do I believe that government regulation is a wonderful thing? Certainly not. But after watching the HIT industry for about 20 years on health data sharing, I think it’s time for some central body to impose order on this chaos. And in such a fractured market as ours, no voluntary organization is going to have the clout to do so.

Sure, I’d love to think that providers could pressure vendors into coming up with solutions to this problem, but if they haven’t been able to do so yet, after spending a small nation’s GNP on EMRs, I doubt it’s going to happen. Rather than fighting it, let’s work together with the government and regulatory agencies to create a minimal data interoperability set everyone can live with. Any other way leads to madness.

Providers Still Have Hope For HIEs

Posted on July 10, 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 FierceHealthcare.com 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.

Sometimes, interoperability alone doesn’t cut it.  Increasingly, providers are expecting HIEs to go beyond linking up different organizations to delivering “actionable” data, according to a new report from NORC at the University of Chicago. The intriguing follow-on to the researchers’ conclusions is that HIEs aren’t obsolete, though their obsolescence seemed all but certain in the past.

The study, which was written up by Healthcare Informatics, conducted a series of site visits and 37 discussions with providers in Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont, Utah and Wyoming. The researchers, who conducted their study in early 2014, hoped to understand how providers looked at HIEs generally and their state HIE program specifically. (The research was funded by ONC.)

One major lesson for the health IT types reading this article is that providers want data sharing models to reflect new care realities.  With Meaningful Use requirements and changes in payment models bearing down on providers, and triggering changes in how care is delivered, health IT-enabled data exchange needs to support new models of care.

According to the study, providers are intent on having HIEs deliver admission, discharge, and transfer alerts, interstate data exchange and data services that assist in coordinating care. While I don’t have comprehensive HIE services research to hand, maybe you do, readers. Are HIEs typically meeting these criteria? I doubt it, though I could be wrong.

That being said, providers seem to be willing to pay for HIE services if the vendor can meet their more stringent criteria.  While this may be tough to swallow for existing HIE technology sellers, it’s good news for the HIE model generally, as getting providers to pay for any form of community data exchange has been somewhat difficult historically.

Some of the biggest challenges in managing HIE connectivity identified by the study include getting good support from both HIE and EMR vendors, as well as a lack of internal staff qualified to manage data exchange, competing priorities and problems managing multiple funding streams. But vendors can work to overcome at least some of these problems.

As I noted previously, hospitals in particular have had many beliefs which have discouraged them from participating in HIEs. As one HIE leader quoted in my previous post noted, many have assumed that HIE connection costs would be in the same range as EMR adoption expenses; they’re been afraid that HIEs would not put strong enough data security in place to meet HIPAA obligations; and they assumed that HIE participation wasn’t that important.

Today, given the growing importance of sophisticated data management has come to the forefront, and most providers know that they need to have the big picture widespread data sharing can provide. Without the comprehensive data set cutting across the patient care environment — something few organizations are integrated enough to develop on their own — they’re unlikely to mount a successful population health management initiative or control costs sufficiently. So it’s interesting to see providers see a future for HIEs.