The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) filed its annual year-end report to Congress at the start of 2019. The 22-page report summarized nationwide trends in health information exchange in 2018, including the adoption of EHRs and other technologies that support electronic access to patient information. The most interesting takeaway has to do with the ever-elusive healthcare interoperability.
According to the report, HHS said it heard from stakeholders about several barriers to interoperable access to health information remain, including technical, financial, trust and business practice barriers. “These barriers impede the movement of health information to where it is needed across the care continuum,” the report said. “In addition, burden arising from quality reporting, documentation, administrative, and billing requirements that prescribe how health IT systems are designed also hamper the innovative usability of health IT.”
To better understand these barriers, HHS said it conducted multiple outreach efforts to engage the clinical community and health IT stakeholders to better understand these barriers. Based on these takeaways, HHS said it plans to support, through its policies, and that the health IT community as a whole can take to accelerate progress: Focus on improving interoperability and upgrading technical capabilities of health IT, so patients can securely access, aggregate, and move their health information using their smartphones (or other devices) and healthcare providers can easily send, receive, and analyze patient data; increase transparency in data sharing practices and strengthen technical capabilities of health IT so payers can access population-level clinical data to promote economic transparency and operational efficiency to lower the cost of care and administrative costs; and prioritize improving health IT and reducing documentation burden, time inefficiencies, and hassle for health care providers, so they can focus on their patients rather than their computers.
Additionally, HHS said it plans to leverage the 21st Century Cures Act to enhance innovation and promote access and use of electronic health information. The Cures Act includes provisions that can: promote the development and use of upgraded health IT capabilities; establish transparent expectations for data sharing, including through open application programming interfaces (APIs); and improve the health IT end user experience, including by reducing administrative burden.
“Patients, healthcare providers, and payers with appropriate access to health information can use modern computing solutions (e.g., machine learning and artificial intelligence) to benefit from the data,” HHS said in its report. “Improved interoperability can strengthen market competition, result in greater quality, safety and value for patients, payers, and the healthcare system generally, and enable patients, healthcare providers, and payers to experience the promised benefits of health IT.”
Interoperability barriers include:
Technical barriers: These limit interoperability through—for example—a lack of standards development, data quality, and patient and health care provider data matching. Addressing these technical barriers by coordinating to establish the technological foundation for standardizing electronic health information and by promoting exchange of that information can considerably remove these barriers.
Financial barriers: These relate to the costs of developing, implementing, and optimizing health IT to meet frequently changing requirements of health care programs. The cost to adjust health IT to meet these requirements can impact innovation and the timeliness of technical upgrades. Specific barriers include the lack of sufficient incentives for sharing information between health care providers, the need for enhanced business models for secondary uses of data, and the current business models for health systems or health care providers that do not adequately focus on improving data quality.
Trust barriers: Legal and business incentives to keep data from moving present challenges. Health information networks and their participants often treat individuals’ electronic health information as an asset that can be restricted to obtain or maintain competitive advantage.
Elsewhere, the Center for Medical Interoperability, located in Nashville, Tenn., is an organization that is working to promote plug-and-play interoperability. The center’s members include LifePoint Hospitals, Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, Hospital Corporation of America, Cedars-Sinai Health System, Hennepin Healthcare System, Ascension Health, Community Health Systems, Scripps Health, and UNC Health Care System.
Its mission is “to achieve plug-and-play interoperability by unifying healthcare organizations to compel change, building a lab to solve shared technical challenges, and pioneering innovative research and development.” The center stressed that the “lack of plug-and-play interoperability can compromise patient safety, impact care quality and outcomes, contribute to clinician fatigue and waste billions of dollars a year.”
More interoperability barriers identified
In a separate study, “Variation in Interoperability Among U.S. Non-federal Acute Care Hospitals in 2017,” showed additional difficulty integrating information into the EHR was the most common reason reported by hospitals for not using health information received electronically from sources outside their health system. Lack of timely information, unusable formats and difficulty finding specific, relevant information also made the list, according to the 2017 American Hospital Association (AHA) Annual Survey, Information Technology Supplement.
Among the explanations health systems provided for rarely or never using patient health information received electronically from providers or sources outside their health system:
Difficult to integrate information in EHR: 55 percent (percentage of hospitals citing this reason)
Information not always available when needed (e.g. timely): 47 percent
Information not presented in a useful format: 31 percent
Information that is specific and relevant is hard to find: 20 percent
Information available and integrated into the EHR but not part of clinicians’ workflow: 16 percent
Hospitals, when asked to explain their primary inability to send information though an electronic exchange, pointed to: Difficulty locating providers’ addresses. The combined reasons, ranked in order regardless of hospital classification (small, rural, CAH or national) include:
Difficult to find providers’ addresses
Exchange partners’ EHR system lacks capability to receive data
Exchange partners we would like to send data to do not have an EHR or other electronic system to receive data
Many recipients of care summaries report that the information is not useful
Cumbersome workflow to send the information from our EHR system
The complexity of state and federal privacy and security regulations makes it difficult for us to determine whether it is permissible to electronically exchange patient health information
Lack the technical capability to electronically send patient health information to outside providers or other sources
The report also details other barriers related to exchanging patient health information, citing the 2017 AHA survey:
Greater challenges exchanging data across different vendor platforms
Paying additional costs to exchange with organizations outside our system
[Need to] develop customized interfaces in order to electronically exchange health information
“Policies aimed at addressing these barriers will be particularly important for improving interoperable exchange in health care,” the report concluded. “The 2015 Edition of the health IT certification criteria includes updated technical requirements that allow for innovation to occur around application programming interfaces (APIs) and interoperability-focused standards such that data are accessible and can be more easily exchanged. The 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 further builds upon this work to improve data sharing by calling for the development of open APIs and a Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement. These efforts, along with many others, should further improvements in interoperability.”
What healthcare leaders are saying about interoperability
While HHS said it conducted outreach efforts to engage health IT stakeholders to better understand these barriers, we did too. To further understand what’s currently going on with healthcare interoperability, read the following perspectives from some of the industry’s leaders. If there’s something more that you think must be done to improve healthcare interoperability, let us know:
The cornucopia that is the annual HIMSS conference and tradeshow – healthcare technology’s biggest event – is behind us, but what’s left in the wake is wonderful, inspiring even, if not a bit overwhelming. The reactions to this year’s event have been overwhelmingly positive. Interoperability in the form of data sharing and a ban on patient health information blocking by CMS (through proposed rules released the first day of HIMSS) set the tone.
This was followed by CMS administrator Seema Verma taking a strong tone in all of her presentations at HIMSS, with the media and during her keynote speech. The federal body made it clear that data generated from patient care is, unequivocally, their data. While these themes heavily influenced the show, there were other takeaways.
There are many other diverse opinions about what came out at HIMSS19 and the themes that will affect healthcare in the year ahead. For some additional perspective, I turned to healthcare’s thought leaders; people who are a lot smarter than I. Their responses follow. That said, did we miss anything in the following?
Dr. Geeta Nayyar, Femwell Group Health and TopLine MD
After spending a week surrounded by some of the most intellectual and innovative minds globally in healthcare at HIMSS19, I’m even more confident that the shift toward patient engagement mass adoption is well underway and ON FHIR. The new CMS/ONC proposed law around interoperability and penalties for “information blocking,” are both touchdowns for the quarterback, which remains to be patient engagement. The robust discussions during the pre-conference HIMSS patient engagement program, reflected a move to a consumer-centric approach evidenced by the presence of Amazon, Google and Microsoft at the show. The keynote by Premier’s CEO Susan Devore shared a consumer-centered, provider led vision, “with data flowing seamlessly and being analyzed and effectively leveraged to guide decision making at the point of care.” Collaboration in healthcare is the key to everyone’s success. I was inspired to see her and so many women coming together to support each other in HIT, as Dr. Mom remains the healthcare decision maker in the households, we are all ultimately trying to reach.
Andrew Schall, Modernizing Medicine
Physician burnout continues to be a hot topic coming out of HIMSS19 and many feel that EHR platforms may be a part of the burnout epidemic. There were several sessions that focused on user-centered design at HIMSS this year including one that focused on the iterative approach to software development and user experience. First, I think that the industry is recognizing that one-size-fits doesn’t work for EHRs. Additionally, I believe that improvements will come in large part from the greater involvement of practicing physicians in designing specialty-specific EHR workflows and interfaces. A combination of powerful technology like AI and augmented intelligence, as well as well-designed EHR solutions with an intuitive user interface and user experience, will help ease the physician burden and automate time-consuming and administrative tasks like coding and billing – ultimately reducing burnout.
Shane Whitlatch, FairWarning
HIMSS 2019 showcased the ongoing digital transformation to make healthcare responsive to patients across a continuum of care. Enabling patients to be able to access, use and own their personal health data, while ensuring privacy and security was the central takeaway of this year’s HIMSS. Notable, critical moves to support this goal included: the Department of Health and Human Services announced proposed rules to enhance interoperability and data access with payor data; ongoing security and privacy efforts to ensure appropriate patient access to their data while mitigating emerging risks from items including medical devices to nation-state attackers; and artificial intelligence and machine learning initiatives to effectively manage the tsunami of data in healthcare while promoting optimal healthcare.
Tripp Peake, LRVHealth
The best part of HIMSS this year was we seemed to get away from a single buzzword. Healthcare is hard, there’s no silver bullet. The Precision Medicine Summit got into the weeds about how to really roll out a program in a provider system. The AI companies stopped talking about AI for AI sake and were more focused on ROI. Everyone seemed more balanced about VBC: yes, inevitable, but also gradual. Consumerism was probably as close to a central theme as existed. And I continue to be excited about the energy, creativity, and commitment of the entrepreneurs in this market.
Don Woodlock, InterSystems
Anytime you bring 43,000 healthcare professionals together in one location, you will never have a shortage of opinions on the future of the industry. We are at the cusp of a revolution in healthcare, driven by technological advancements. Some key trends we saw at HIMSS19 were, no surprise, around artificial intelligence, where people are trying to enhance predictive risk scoring and improve patient engagement. Additionally, there were profound announcements around mandating application programming interface (APIs) to improve the flow of healthcare data across the ecosystem. As interoperability becomes liquid, it will become the critical component of every healthcare system, driving the industry to new heights.
Paddy Padmanabhan, Damo Consulting
On day one of the conference, the HHS sucked the oxygen out of the room by dropping a proposed 800-page rule on data and interoperability. The rule aims to aggressively expand interoperability by making it mandatory for providers and health plans participating in government programs such as Medicare Advantage, CHIP and others to make patient data available to patients as a condition for business. CMS head Seema Verma and ONC Chief Don Rucker drove the message home repeatedly during the conference. Indeed, Seema Verma declared it an epic misunderstanding that patient data can belong to anyone other than the patient. A somewhat sobering counterpoint was voiced by Epic Systems CEO Judy Faulkner in a media interview where she suggested that interoperability challenges go well beyond data sharing by EHR vendors. Regardless of where it may fall, interoperability will continue to dominate healthcare IT agenda for some time to come. Related issues around new and emerging data sources, especially social determinants of health, will gain prominence in the coming months.
Erin Benson, LexisNexis Health Care
The proposed rule on interoperability of health information influenced most conversations at HIMSS. In the context of cybersecurity, the rule served as a reminder that it’s just as important to let “good guys” in quickly and seamlessly as it is to prevent unauthorized access. We want to enable value-based care and give patients the ability to manage their own health by having access to their records. We also want to keep costs low and efficiency high by enabling interoperability and giving partners, vendors and employees necessary access to systems. Therefore, a cybersecurity strategy needs to strike a balance between user engagement and data security.
Mike Morgan, Updox
The power of consumerism is really impacting healthcare and the need for patient engagement is alive and well. Providers across the board must look at new technologies and ways to redefine patient engagement to better communicate with patients and partners but do it via channels that are easy for staff and customers to use. New applications, such as telehealth and secure text messaging, have changed how healthcare communicates and consumers are demanding that immediate, convenient engagement.
Vince Vickers, KPMG
HIMSS19 seemed to have the most decision makers at the conference in five-plus years when a lot of healthcare organizations were still looking at implementing electronic health records. We might be ready for another wave of healthcare IT investment after healthcare organizations digested those investments made in electronic health records. The key is now around optimizing EHRs – interoperability, improving ease of use, enhancing analytics — or dedicating resources to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to make themselves more efficient in the back office. We’re also seeing healthcare organizations position themselves to be more consumer-oriented, partly to address new entries from some of the tech companies, such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and a multitude of others, that wanted to make a big splash at HIMSS.