By Jerry Rankin, strategy director of healthcare interoperability, Infor.
The unrelenting if unpredictable movement of continental plates builds new mountain ranges and reshapes continents, but for the most part, we do not notice their progress. Such a shift has come to healthcare.
This spring two US Federal agencies, ONC and CMS, announced complimentary Final Rules, signaling tectonic movement in healthcare interoperability. These rules are very consequential for the industry, but while no one can claim that they went unnoticed, the industry has been understandably instead fixated on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the federal agencies involved have pushed the implementation timelines back by roughly six months.
The Final Rules
On May 1, 2020, the ONC published a Final Rule implementing provisions of the 2016 21st Century Cures Act. Known in the industry as the “Information Blocking and Health IT Certification” Final Rule, the Provider and EHR focused rule requires developers of Certified Health Information Technology (e.g. EHRs) to make standard APIs available for the delivery of individual and population records, as well as defines the data set and transaction standards of the APIs to be United States Core Data Set for interoperability (USCDI) and FHIR, respectively.
In a parallel action, the CMS issued a ruling implementing provisions of the Cures Act, known as the “Interoperability and Patient Access Rule,” leveraging “Conditions of Participation” in Federal Health programs. The finalized rule requires payers to provide a Patient Access API which gives patients access to certain health data including personal data.
These rules represent an important federal nudge to the industry to move in the next few years to implement and adopt standard, digital friendly APIs for the exchange of key patient information, eliminate policies and practices of health IT vendors, providers and other data holders that constrain the free flow of healthcare data, and, importantly, bring payers and consumers into the interoperability discussion, enabling data to flow across the healthcare ecosystem.
These rules are just the tip of the iceberg, though. The industry has been hard at work for years developing the FHIR API standard, and there are abundant examples of voluntary industry led collaborations working to improve and streamline healthcare leveraging FHIR. For example, the HL7 Da Vinci Project sponsors collaboration among payers, providers and HIT vendors working to define standards-based implementations to improve some of the more costly workflows in the industry. In addition to adoption by traditional HIT vendors, even IT “gorillas” are adopting FHIR. We recently saw this with the launch of Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare which extensively leverages FHIR APIs and data standards.
What to expect for payers and providers?
Payers and providers and their health IT vendors have a great deal of work to do on a tight timeline to meet the requirements put in place and to simply keep up with the pace of change in the industry. Given the massive investment in and footprint of legacy systems, there is a vast amount of work to do to connect systems and data to the emerging FHIR API ecosystem.
In a public health report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the state of the U.S. public health technology was likened to “puttering along the data superhighway in our Model T Ford.”
While the healthcare industry has talked about improving data interoperability with the noble goal of breaking down data silos to better coordinate care and turn data into information, the business of healthcare resisted meaningful change. The status quo that traps data in its silos helped to serve the interests of big, incumbent vendors by locking provider customers into their proprietary tech stacks. In turn, some providers believed they too could protect against patient leakage by holding medical data captive.
Data interoperability is stuck in the past
Even though patients have had, since 1996, a right to access their own information under HIPAA, the healthcare system made it really, really hard to obtain that data. Life Image recently conducted a survey of 1,300 patients and found that 40% of patients had to go to their provider’s office in person to submit requests for medical records. Additionally, 40% received those medical records on a CD, a 1980s technology that is obsolete in the modern consumer world.
In all other industries except healthcare, data requests, collection, storage and exchange are commonplace, and available at your fingertips at any hour and any day of the week. While patient satisfaction and convenience seemed to be worthwhile healthcare goals, they weren’t enough to drive significant, wholesale change and conversion from protectionism, managing resources to optimize the physician rather than the patient, or stubbornly persistent operational practices using CDs.
Nothing happens until something happens
The federal government recognized this inertia and promulgated a lengthy set of interoperability rules in March 2020. Just days later, the force and fury of COVID-19 started hitting the U.S. and created a public health emergency that exposed the significant operational risks and clinical dangers created by the lack of interoperability. Frictionless data sharing was no longer an existential threat. All of a sudden, the hazards became tangible.
The paradox is that COVID-19 has manifested the critical need for exactly what the new federal rules require: advancement of interoperability and digital online access to clinical data and imaging, at scale, for care coordination and infection control. Now more than ever, healthcare needs to be able to digitize, visualize, virtualize, and curate all types of medical data at scale including diagnostic and pathology information without physical exchange. No more CDs, no more faxes, no more film or slides.
Not just data – advanced data
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness with corresponding impacts to the heart, liver, kidney and other organs. People with underlying health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease and cardiovascular disease appear to be at higher risk for hospitalization and death. Out of the 122,653 U.S. COVID-19 cases reported to CDC, only 5.8% of patients had data available pertaining to underlying health conditions or potential risk factors.
Advanced data such as imaging data are critical to diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and post-care monitoring. The typical structured data found in an electronic health record (EHR) or claims data are easier to access but have limited clinical value. With chronic or complex conditions, advanced data such as medical imaging, pathology and genomics are critical components of the longitudinal patient record that must be easily accessed and shared. However, imaging data has historically been among the most technically challenging to exchange.
While the industry has made some gains in imaging interoperability between large tertiary hospitals and their primary referral sites, patient sharing of digital images online is dismally small.
By Mike Sutten, chief technology officer, and Dr. David Nace, chief medical officer, Innovaccer.
Burdensome documentation and gaps in care have been long-standing challenges in the healthcare industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified those challenges on a global level, creating a situation in which people have been hesitant to seek care for other medical concerns. As such, healthcare providers are losing revenue, employees are losing their jobs, and those remaining in the workforce are subject to burnout.
In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many healthcare providers proactively reduced or stopped in-person visits for non-COVID-19 medical needs, ranging from the routine care of a sore throat to treatment of chronic conditions, cancer, and even mental health services.
Additionally, nearly one-third of American adults reported delaying or avoiding medical visits over concerns for possible exposure to the virus, according to an American College of Emergency Physicians and Morning Consult poll. More than half reported worrying about access to their primary care physician or being turned away from the hospital.
As a result, healthcare spending decreased by 18% in the first quarter of 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Surprisingly, some 1.4 million healthcare workers lost their jobs in April, a sharp increase from the 42,000 reported in March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The global pandemic amplifies the day-to-day challenges of identifying gaps in care, the increased documentation required to track them, and the difficulties associated with determining their effects and responding with appropriate interventions.
The impact of this virus looms over the backdrop of a healthcare environment in which the American Hospital Association (AHA) makes the point is rapidly evolving from a fee-for-service system into a value-based delivery system. As healthcare providers and payers transition to collaborative digital care delivery models, this movement highlights the greater need for a data infrastructure that supports value-based care with sharper and more transparent insights into population health.
Healthcare interoperability and enhanced information sharing continued to improve healthcare quality, safety and cost for U.S. patients and providers, according to the Surescripts 2019 National Progress Report. The nationwide health information network processed 19.15 billion secure transactions in 2019, while connecting 1.78 million healthcare professionals and organizations with actionable patient data for 95% of the U.S. population.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting patients and providers across the globe, a trusted nationwide health information network has never been more critical,” said Tom Skelton, chief executive officer of Surescripts. “In 2019, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others across the Surescripts Network Alliance made remarkable progress transforming interactions with patients and driving significant improvements in care quality, safety and costs.”
In 2019, healthcare professionals saw the benefits of leveraging actionable patient information to enhance the prescribing process with greater automation, improved workflows, and increased price transparency. For example:
In 2019, prescriber enablement for e-prescribing reached 79%, with 1.79 billion e-prescriptions filled, bringing the rate of e-prescribing to 80% of all prescriptions.
The number of e-prescriptions filled for controlled substances reached 134.2 million, representing 38% of controlled substance prescriptions—up 12% from the year prior, with 49% of prescribers enabled for the technology.
The volume of real-time benefit checks at the point of care increased by 336% with more than 250,000 prescribers using the service (a 233% increase).
Electronic prior authorizations increased by 132%, driven by a 58% increase in provider adoption of the tool.
Further, clinicians accessed actionable patient insights to obtain a more complete picture of their patients’ care histories and make more informed care decisions. For example:
Surescripts delivered 2.18 billion medication histories, a 19% increase, while use of Medication History for Populations increased nearly 200%.
Record Locator & Exchange delivered 333.8 million links to clinical document locations and 143.2 million documents listing where patients had previously received care. Nearly 136,000 clinicians used the service—a 28% increase in 2019.
In 2019, more than 648,000 individuals and organizations sent 37.7 million Clinical Direct Messages (a nearly 20% increase from 2018).
In the midst of this significant progress, Surescripts maintained network-wide uptime of approximately 99.999%, maintained HITRUST CSF Certified status for privacy, security and risk management practices, improved the networkwide Quality Index Score for e-prescription accuracy by 10%, and helped migrate most of the network to the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs’ (NCPDP) new e-prescribing standard (SCRIPT Standard Version 2017071).
As COVID-19 closes in the on U.S., the need for longitudinal health data and interoperability have never been greater. Providers need access to the full picture of every patient they treat, and epidemiologists need to consolidate data from multiple sources to track the spread of the disease and determine where more aggressive containment strategies need to be employed.
For many organizations already overwhelmed, fragmented systems lead to an infrastructure bottleneck, resulting in degraded data quality, gaps in care coordination, medical errors and burdensome workflows. Lack of comprehensive medical data impairs a provider’s ability to know how many people have the virus, the geographical location of confirmed cases, and the effectiveness of treatment.
Even as capacity restrictions force organizations to work without barriers—via drive-thru screenings, make-shift tents or by way of telehealth—real-time access to data can help streamline care management, whether fast tracking admissions or empowering patients at home through online portals.
Here are just five ways data interoperability plays a pivotal role in addressing the epidemic:
Coordination of Care: COVID-19 provides a sobering reminder of just how dire an integrated, scalable and interoperable healthcare infrastructure is. Coordination among first responders, public health officials, labs, acute and post-acute facilities will be critical to efficiently deal with the explosion of cases. Insurers will also be a key player of the care coordination team as to not slow down or hold up prior authorizations and patient discharges. Access to information about hospitalizations and test results among healthcare participants will be vital for enhanced continuity of care across settings and transitions. Real-time data afforded by interoperability bypasses the need for phone calls and faxes, which create delays and information inaccuracies.
Patient Identification: A complete view of one’s medical history can be a matter of life or death in the face of COVID-19. Bringing disparate medical records together into a cohesive story enables those on the frontlines insight into an individual’s pre-existing medical conditions, medications, allergies, etc. to make the most informed decisions under insurmountable circumstances. Patient demographics and data standardization play a huge role. Accurate patient identification ensures data about an individual is correctly linked, updated and shared, for improved clinical decision-making and enhanced care quality and safety. As health officials look to track and predict the spread of the virus. A complete view of the patient population can only be done with a firm understanding of the patient’s identity, and the key relationships the patient has to their next of kin and to their providers of care.
On Mar. 9, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized “two transformative rules that will give patients unprecedented safe, secure access to their health data.” Issued by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Final Rules implement interoperability and patient access provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act and support President Trump’s MyHealthEData initiative.
In its release announcing the Final Rules, HHS noted that together “these final rules mark the most extensive healthcare data sharing policies the federal government has implemented, requiring both public and private entities to share health information between patients and other parties while keeping that information private and secure, a top priority for the Administration.”
Cures Act Final Rule implements the interoperability provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, passed by Congress in 2016 to promote patient control over their own health information while still allowing providers to choose the IT tools that let them provide the best care for patients without excessive costs or technical barriers.
Specific to patient matching, the Cures Act Final Rule adopts as standard the first version of the United States Core Data for Interoperability (USCDI v1), making its use a requirement as part of the new application programming interface (API) certification criterion.
According to ONC, adoption of the USCDI standard “supports improved patient matching through the exchange of USCDI and its patient demographic data elements.” The Final Rule integrates additional data elements to the patient demographics data class to improve patient matching:
Phone Number Type
“Any improvement strategy must include data standardization and promote a more consistent, comprehensive collection of patient data at all entry points,” said Karen Proffitt, MHIIM, RHIA, CHP, vice president of industry relations and chief privacy officer, Just Associates. “The Final Rule requirement for adoption of USCDI standards, including historical data and more relevant data elements such as phone number and email address, represents a significant step toward improving interoperability and minimizing MPI errors overall.”
Interoperability and Patient Access Final Rule gives patients access to their health information when they most need it, in a way they can best use it. It is focused on driving interoperability and patient access to health information by leveraging CMS’s regulatory authority over Medicare Advantage, Medicaid, CHIP, QHP issuers and FFEs to free patient data.
Specific to patient matching, which was one of two requests for information included within the proposed rule, CMS noted that while “accurate patient identity management is critical to successfully delivering the right care to the correct patients,” patient matching challenges are beyond the scope of the current rule. However, the comments provided will be taken into consideration for potential future rulemaking.
“As a healthcare community, we must recognize the critical role improved data capture and MPI data quality play in enabling patients to have more comprehensive access to their health information by ensuring complete and accurate data is available for viewing or transmitting,” said Proffitt.
She adds, “any process to incorporate patient verification of data along the way could be very beneficial.”
At the AHIMA19: Health Data and Information Conference, leaders in health information management (HIM) shared innovations in healthcare and addressed issues affecting patient access to their health records including the privacy, accuracy and interoperability of that information.
The annual meeting for the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), AHIMA19, also highlighted inspiring stories of perseverance, empowerment and shared details of AHIMA’s global leadership.
Patient advocate Doug Lindsay shared his gripping story of transitioning from a wheelchair to walking again; Alexandra Mugge, deputy chief health informatics officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), outlined the benefits of interoperability and patient access; healthcare innovators pitched their ideas to a panel of experts for a $5,000 prize; and exhibitors and industry speakers shared their spectrum of knowledge with attendees gathered from across the globe.
Nearly three thousand HIM professionals gathered for the annual conference in September, held at Chicago’s historic McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America.
Information and Inspiration
Speakers addressed clinical documentation, data ownership, patient access to their medical records, interoperability and cybersecurity. These presentations provided important insights and updates on technology to help HIM professionals continue leading the industry in improving healthcare and changing lives.
Mugge told the crowd that interoperability and greater access to medical data is integral to improving healthcare outcomes for payers, patients, and providers.
“We believe electronic data exchange is the future of healthcare, and interoperability is the foundation of value-based care,” Mugge said. “Patients should know that the way they interact with the healthcare industry is changing. Patients are no longer passive participants in their care, they now have the ability to be empowered consumers of the healthcare industry through access to data that puts them in the driver’s seat to make the best and most informed decision about their health.”
Mugge assured attendees that privacy and security safeguards would remain in place as HIM professionals help shape the landscape of interoperability.
Lindsay found his own way to improve his health, seemingly against all odds. He was bedridden and home-bound for 11 years because of a debilitating illness that forced him to drop out of college at 21 years old.
Although Lindsay’s body was limited, his mind was strong and he was determined to walk again, and to live again.
That determination led Lindsay to create a surgery for what he learned was bilateral adrenal medullary hyperplasia. He then assembled a team of experts to perform the surgery, which eventually led to his recovery.
Any patient matching improvement strategy must look beyond technology and emphasize the people and processes that play a critical, yet often overlooked, role in ensuring data integrity. That was the message Just Associates, Inc., shared with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) in response to requests for information on patient matching in conjunction with proposed rules to advance interoperability.
In its letter to the ONC, Just Associates noted that while it supports the focus on interoperability and usability and agrees with the importance of accurate patient matching, it does not believe that the concept of a “technology alone” solution is realistic. Any improvement strategy must also include data standardization and promote a more consistent, comprehensive collection of patient data at all entry points.
“Every technology has its flaws when it comes to patient matching and the importance of training staff, developing and maintaining comprehensive data governance policies, ensuring executive support for data governance and vigilant efforts on measuring and reporting data quality are critical. We cannot ignore the ‘people and process’ aspects to obtaining high levels data quality,” the letter stated.
Just Associates also provided feedback to the ONC on the importance of consistently defined and used format constraints and identified key issues that must be addressed to accurately measure algorithm performance. The suggestion was also made to align with the Children’s Hospital Association’s temporary demographic conventions for newborns to address the unique challenges with pediatric matching.
In its letter to CMS, Just Associates concurred with the suggestion that more standardized data elements be used across all appropriate programs to immediately enhance matching rates, noting that “data collection standards and their consistent application by health plans, providers and exchange organizations are critical for matching accuracy.
“Equally important,” the letter continued, “is the development of data definitions for these elements to ensure common understanding of exactly what data is being collected and in what format.”
Other advice offered by Just Associates in response to CMS suggestions included avoiding mandating the use of specific matching algorithms, data sources or software solutions, a move that would likely be premature and overly prescriptive. The firm also stated its support for implementation of a CMS-wide identifier, noting its potential to enhance accuracy and assist in duplicate record reconciliation verification processes.
By Susan DeCathelineau, vice president of global healthcare sales and services, Hyland Healthcare.
Healthcare interoperability continues to be a critical topic facing healthcare technology leaders. There’s no question that achieving true healthcare interoperability is key to moving the industry forward by enabling the type of information exchange that can streamline workflows, inform clinical decision making and enable precision medicine.
However, much of the current interoperability discussion is focused on ensuring core systems, i.e. Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) are compatible with one another. Yet there is one issue that is largely overlooked: the crucial role of integrating structured data with unstructured patient information.
For example, EMRs are designed to capture and manage structured patient data, and they do that job well. That is to say, they capture content using controlled vocabulary rather than narrative text. But the lack of structured data and standardization in the healthcare industry today creates major issues when sharing EMR content within and across healthcare organizations.
EMRs are not built to natively ingest the plethora of unstructured information that exists on a patient. This unstructured content includes things like diagnostic medical images, clinical documents and notes, visible light images and more. According to many industry estimates, as much as 75 percent of the information that exists on a patient lives outside of core applications like EHRs. Instead, this unstructured content is scattered in a multitude of legacy data silos.
Manage your unstructured clinical content
A recent whitepaper by Signify Research illustrates just how pervasive ineffective management of unstructured content is in today’s health systems, and just how vital this effort is to interoperability initiatives. In the paper, author Steve Holloway explains how the growth of healthcare networks resulting from merger and consolidation activity is driving the need for true interoperability. These ever-larger healthcare enterprises are increasing demand for incoming and outgoing information exchange between a diverse ecosystem of providers, patients and payers.
He continues to say that EMRs and health information exchanges have had “limited success in addressing the myriad of nuanced applications and unstructured content outside of core administrative patient records and financial billing processes.”
Holloway proposes that support for multi-disciplinary care and robust, multi-node interoperability will never be achieved without a more holistic approach to integrating structured and unstructured data.
Make the connection, see your whole patient
Providing a “holistic approach” to integrating structured and unstructured healthcare content is a core focus at Hyland Healthcare. Experience has shown that providing a suite of connected healthcare solutions allows healthcare providers to harness the unstructured content in every corner of their enterprise — whether it be a diagnostic medical image, clinical document, video file or audio recording — and link it to the core clinical or business applications they use every day. Addressing unstructured content needs is made possible by combining both a full suite of content services and enterprise imaging tools.
In short, healthcare providers – and by extension the entire healthcare enterprise – work best when it is possible to see your whole patient. By enhancing the EHR or other core clinical application with unstructured content that currently resides in disparate data silos, provider organizations can complete the patient picture. This delivers a truly comprehensive medical information repository at the fingertips of key healthcare stakeholders.
We live in a world where medical errors are the third leading cause of death behind cancer and cardiac disease, leading to more than 200,000 preventable deaths every year. We have an aging population growing at an unprecedented rate: 8.5 percent of people worldwide (617 million) are aged 65 and over, and this percentage is projected to jump to nearly 17 percent (1.6 billion) by 2050, leading to an anticipated physician shortage of more than 50,000 by 2025.
On top of all of this, healthcare costs are projected to increase to over 25 percent of GDP in the United States by 2025. The convergence of these events is pushing the entire industry to begin leveraging technology more than it has in the past.
Many of these challenges can be remedied by leveraging industrial IoT (IIoT) technology that’s been proven to solve similar challenges in other industries. Could an interoperable, connected healthcare platform that applies the principles of an IIoT connectivity architecture to share data throughout the healthcare system be the cure for our ailing healthcare system?
West Health, now the Center for Medical Interoperability, seems to think so. In 2013 they published a report showing how an interoperable, connected healthcare system could provide nearly $30 billion in industry savings while improving patient outcomes in the process. These connected healthcare platforms provide the foundation for innovation that is needed to make a meaningful data-driven change in healthcare. It’s these platforms that open the door to application developers everywhere to create modality-specific applications using artificial intelligence and machine learning.
So what exactly is a connected health platform and how does it provide a foundation for transformational change in healthcare? First, a connected health platform consists of hardware (gateways and servers) and embedded software components that are designed to take all of the data from any medical device (clinical or remote) and convert the data in a single usable format that gives providers access to a complete data set.
This connected platform will provide a variety of user interfaces, analytics and clinical applications to help users throughout the healthcare ecosystem distill value from this newly-gathered data. The applications range from the early detection of sepsis, to predicting cardiac arrest, to providing business analytics like bed and device utilization.
The connected health platform will become the center of an ecosystem for further application development, similar to that of an online app store — but with built-in medical-grade safety and security. The connected health platform must ensure data security and patient privacy by aligning to guidance provided by the FDA on cybersecurity, and meeting the standards defined by HIPAA.
However, these connected health platforms are only as effective as the data they capture, which is determined by the connectivity frameworks they are built upon. Many of the currently deployed platforms are not platforms at all, but a collection of disparate systems that provide silos of individual device data. These legacy systems have been built using internally-developed, proprietary, message-based communication technology.
As the first step towards the development of a connected health platform, modern web services-based communication has been deployed on top of the legacy technology to begin integrating all of the disparate data streams via onsite data centers or the cloud. Although this is a step in the right direction, these platforms are far from complete. Because of legacy communications infrastructure they are built upon, they are only able to aggregate a portion of the data making these systems a poor fit for true near-patient, real-time clinical decision support – the key to efficiently providing improved patient outcomes.