Push for Interoperability Grows with a Series of Recent Announcements


Push for Interoperability Grows with a Series of Recent Announcements


Last week, healthcare information technology junkies from across the nation landed in Las Vegas for the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) convention. While many big announcements were made to the large audience, probably most far reaching was the pledge announced by many of the industry’s vendors, providers and professional organizations to band together and push for interoperability. The announcement was made by HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. This follows other recent announcements made by the federal government and agencies on the topic of interoperability.

The 17 vendors involved -- including Allscripts, Athenahealth, Cerner Corp., Epic Systems Corp. -- provide EHR and other IT systems to 90% of U.S. hospitals. Provider participants include Ascension Health, Geisinger Health System, HCA, Intermountain Healthcare and Kaiser Permanente. The professional organizations include the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and American Health Information Management Association.

With the goal of making it easier for patients to use the information in their EHRs, the participants agreed to three things:

  1. Help patients more easily access their electronic health information and transfer it to any other provider or data user. A patient should trust his or her data can be moved where they want, when they want, she said.
  2. Help providers share individuals' health information among themselves and with their patients whenever permitted by federal privacy laws and to not block electronic health information.
  3. Implement “federally recognized, national interoperability standards and practices and adopt best practices, including those related to privacy and security.” Those policies include the use of standardized apps "to make it easier for consumers to access their data,” Burwell said.

HHS will check back in the fall to see how the companies are working toward the goal.

In a separate statement last Wednesday, Andy Slavitt, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Acting Administrator, and Karen DeSalvo, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and Acting Assistant Secretary for Health, announced an initiative to bring interoperable technology to a broader group of healthcare providers. They are particularly targeting long-term care, behavioral health providers, substance abuse treatment centers, and other providers that have been slower to adopt technology. This announcement will help bridge an information-sharing gap in Medicaid by permitting states to request the 90 percent enhanced matching funds from CMS to connect a broader variety of Medicaid providers to a health information exchange. 

In addition to last week’s announcements, President Obama in February asked the healthcare industry to start sharing more data as part of the effort to find successful individualized therapies based on genetic information.

And, in late December, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at HHS released its newest iteration of an “advisory” on interoperability standards as “a single resource for those looking for federally recognized, national interoperability standards and guidance.”

These recent announcements indicate a shift in strategies for achieving interoperability. The federal government has been following its usual playbook of encouraging adoption through a mix of incentives, penalties, and regulations. While that approach has led to widespread implementation of electronic health records, which are the keystone for an interoperable healthcare information system, a blunt, top-down regulatory approach has proven to be akin to using a jackhammer to dig a garden.

The federal government appears to have realized that the next phase of work toward interoperability would be better achieved by having all of the gardeners sit down together with their seeds and hand trowels and collectively figure out the best way to plant the garden. 

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