Will Big EMR Vendors Use Healthcare Standards As A Weapon?

Posted on October 9, 2012 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.

Standards are a tricky thing. Some times, they bring a technical niche to its senses and promote innovation, and others, they’re well-intentioned academic efforts which gain no ground.  From what I’ve seen over the years, the difference between which standards gain acceptance and which end up in trash bin of history has more to do with politics than technical merit.

But what the EMR industry did neither? From the mind of my crafty colleague John, here’s a scenario to consider.  What if rather than going with an industry-wide standard for interoperability, the big EMR vendors agreed on a standard they’d share and more or less shut out the smaller players?

Yeah, I already hear you asking: “Wouldn’t that be an antitrust violation?”  While I am not and probably never will be a lawyer, my guess is if a bunch of big vendors deliberately, obviously shut the smaller players out, it would be. But standards are so slippery that I bet it’d be a while before anyone outside of our industry saw something funny going on.

Besides, the government is doing everything in its power to get EMR vendors to help providers achieve interoperability. Right now ONC is not getting much cooperation — in fact, I’d characterize the big vendors’ stance as ‘passive aggressive’ at best.  So if Epic, Cerner, Siemens, MEDITECH and their brethren found a way to make their products work together, they might get a gold star rather then an FTC/DoJ slap on the wrist.

Besides, it would be in the interests of the bigger firms to include a few smaller players in their interoperability effort, the ones in the big boys’ sweet spots, and then “oops,” the smaller companies would get acquired and the knowledge would stay home.

Right now, as far as I can tell, it’s Epic versus the rest of the world, and that rest of the EMR world is not minded to play nicely with anyone else either. But if John can imagine a big-EMR-company standards-based coup d’etat happening, rest assured they have as well.

John’s Comment: Since Anne mentions this as my idea, I thought I’d weight in a little bit on the subject. While it’s possible that the big EHR vendors could adopt a different standard and shut out the small EHR vendors, I don’t think that’s likely. Instead of adopting a different standard, I could see the large EHR vendors basically prioritizing the interfaces with the small EHR vendors into oblivion.

In fact, in many ways the big EHR vendors could use the standard as a shield for what they’re doing. They’ll say that they can interface with any EHR vendor because they’re using the widely adopted standard. However, it’s one thing to have the technical capability to exchange healthcare information and a very different thing to actually create the trust relationship between EHR vendors to make the data sharing possible.

Think about it from a large EHR vendor perspective. Why do they want to be bothered with interoperability with 600+ EHR vendors? That’s a lot of work and is something that could actually hurt their business more than it helps.

My hope is that I’m completely wrong with this, but I’ve already seen the large EHR vendors getting together to make data sharing possible. The question is whether they’re sincerely doing this out of a desire to connect as many health records as quickly as possible or whether it is good strategy. My gut feeling is that it’s probably both. It just works out that the first is better to say in public and the second is just a nice result of doing the first.