Marcia Frellick

March 01, 2016

LAS VEGAS — The nation's largest health systems, covering patients in 46 states, have made public commitments to make data work better for patients and providers, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced here at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society 2016 Conference.

"More than a dozen leading professional associations and stakeholder groups have also made this pledge," as have vendors who provide 90% of hospital electronic health records in the United States, Secretary Burwell explained during the opening keynote.

A complete list of entities that have made the commitment is available at healthIT.gov.

All have agreed to use standardized application programming interfaces so that "user-friendly resources, like mobile apps, can quickly come to market and be compatible with varied sources of electronic health information," she said.

And they have agreed not to block information and to allow data to move without barriers. For example, electronic health record vendors will no longer charge a fee to pull data when a provider wants to share information, and perceived legal restrictions surrounding the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act will be removed.

The participating groups have also agreed to speak the same language by implementing federally recognized interoperability standards, policies, guidance, and practices, Secretary Burwell said.

 
A patient should have the comfort of knowing that his or her doctor and specialists can share information with one another to provide better care.
 

The bottom line is that "doctors should share individuals' health information with other providers whenever permitted by law. A patient should have the comfort of knowing that his or her doctor and specialists can share information with one another to provide better care," she explained.

The interoperability of electronic health records is an administration priority, said David Szabo, JD, a partner at Locke Lord LLP in Boston, where he is cochair of its healthcare practice.

"This is a clear signal that HHS continues to be concerned about the issues identified by the Office of the National Coordinator in its report to Congress on information blocking," he told Medscape Medical News. "This should be taken as a clear warning to technology vendors and providers that HHS will use the legal tools at its disposal to take action against those who block the flow of health information without reasonable justification."

 
In 6 short years, we've tripled the adoption of electronic health records.
 

"In 6 short years, we've tripled the adoption of electronic health records. Today, three-quarters of physicians and nearly every hospital uses electronic health records, meaning that there is a digital-care footprint for almost everyone in our country," Secretary Burwell reported.

But there is much more work to be done in mining the value of this information, she added.

"Data moving should be private and secure. People should easily be able to securely access their electronic health information and send it to any desired location," she pointed out.

She also called for more transparency from existing programs, such as the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Health IT Certification Program, to ensure that products do what they say they do and that people know what they are purchasing.

The progress on interoperability, especially in light of the move toward value-based care, is good news, said Mark Crockett, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Advocate Healthcare in Chicago, and chief executive officer of Verge Health, a software company in Charleston, South Carolina.

"The requirement to do great, coordinated care across a whole group of patients makes the interoperability of systems an absolute must, he told Medscape Medical News. "It can't happen without the kind of commitment that is described by HHS, so I believe this announcement could represent significant progress," he explained.

Misinformation about the cost and difficulty of having systems communicate "hampers innovation in any industry, not just in healthcare," Dr Crockett said. The increased vigilance by HHS will help ensure that patients won't have to be worried about whether "data blocking" has some bearing on their care, he added.

Mr Szabo has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr Crockett is chief executive officer of Verge Health.

Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) 2016 Conference. Presented February 29, 2016.

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