By Scott E. Rupp, publisher, Electronic Health Reporter.
The healthcare technology world is ablaze, on FHIR. New proposed standards for interoperability are being established to allow health systems the ability to share information and facilitate patient access to data. Specifically, in large part through a structure known as FHIR.
This “FHIR” the market is speaking of is Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, an interoperability standard for electronic exchange of healthcare information. FHIR was developed by Health Level Seven International (HL7), a not-for-profit that develops and provides frameworks and standards for the sharing, integration and retrieval of clinical health data and other electronic health information.
FHIR emerged in 2014 as a draft standard for trial use to enable health IT developers to more quickly and easily build applications for EHRs and to exchange and retrieve data faster from applications. FHIR soon received support from EHR vendors like Epic, Cerner and AthenaHealth. Shortly thereafter, the Argonaut Project emerged to move FHIR forward, and in February 2017, FHIR became a full data exchange standard.
FHIR is interoperability
FHIR is built on the concept of interoperability and modular components that can be assembled into working systems to try to resolve clinical, administrative and infrastructural problems in healthcare.
FHIR provides software development resources and tools for administrative concepts, such as patients, providers, organizations and devices, as well as a variety of clinical concepts including problems, medications, diagnostics, care plans and financial issues, among others. FHIR is designed specifically for the web and provides resources and foundations based on XML, JSON, HTTP, Atom and OAuth structures.
FHIR can be used in mobile phone applications, cloud communications, EHR-based data sharing and among institutional healthcare providers.
According to HL7, FHIR aims to simplify implementation without sacrificing information integrity. FHIR “leverages existing logical and theoretical models to provide a consistent, easy to implement and rigorous mechanism for exchanging data between healthcare applications. FHIR has built-in mechanisms for traceability to the HL7 RIM and other important content models. This ensures alignment to HL7’s previously defined patterns and best practices without requiring the implementer to have intimate knowledge of the RIM or any HL7 v3 derivations.”
Health sector buy-in
The healthcare sector has clearly bought into FHIR, primarily because of interoperability challenges.
“Sharing data between different health systems has required significant investment of IT resources on one-off projects,” said Nilesh Chandra, healthcare expert at PA Consulting. “As the needs for data sharing have increased, hospital IT departments have been swamped with demand for all of this custom integration.
“FHIR and similar standards are an attempt at standardizing data integration, to make it easier to connect EHR systems and easily extract or upload data into them, based on reusable IT components,” added Chandra. “That said, FHIR is an important step in the right direction, but is not the panacea for all health IT integration issues.”
FHIR uses a set of commonly used medical ideas termed as “resources.” The resources are used across many different types of companies and organizations, but can all mean the same thing. An example would be blood pressure readings, or an MRI scan. Those resources are held in EHRs, smartphones, health information exchange databases and so on. FHIR also allows for the mining of those elements since they are tagged in a similar way in the FHIR standard.
“The complex part is done by individual systems that don’t have the same operating system,” said Jason Reed, PharmD blog founder. “Because they can pull that tag then they pull it and exchange it with other entities. They only show the tag and not the other code or structures they had to use to get to that tag.”
While consolidated clinical document architecture allows a group of healthcare items to be sent together, this is essentially like sending an electronic PDF, Reed said. Other systems that have different operating systems can’t break that down unless they use the same operating system.
All of this is a culmination of the fact that digital health data can improve outcomes and lower costs, but the reality has been something less than ideal. For example, during the economic stimulus in 2009, systems were designed before modern web standards for storing and exchanging data were ubiquitous. The industry was caught in the middle of a technical revolution and spent its cash before the best new practices were available, said Nick Hatt, senior developer at Redox.
Guest post by Nilesh Chandra and Nick Mathisen, healthcare experts at PA Consulting.
Healthcare as an industry is undergoing rapid, fundamental changes brought about by reform. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 turned the incentive system upside down for healthcare providers, moving them from fee-for-service payments to Accountable Care Models. Providers who previously made money by separately charging for each procedure and bore little financial risk for patient health, now get paid a single bundled amount for providing care for a group of people, with incentives to reduce the total cost of care and share in those savings. Taking a cue from Medicare and Medicaid, private health insurers are increasingly adopting similar payment models.
The challenges today
Doctors and nurses who had the responsibility to help sick people get better, are now expected to keep people healthy. Hospital administrators who were measured on financial metrics like bed utilization are now expected to keep people out of hospitals. Traditional healthcare involved dealing with sick people who came in to hospitals and clinics. Tomorrow, healthcare will be about proactively engaging with healthy people and encouraging them to adopt behaviors that keep them healthy. This will involve outreach and engagement in entirely new ways that the modern healthcare industry has not done before.
The future of healthcare
The future of healthcare is outside the boundaries of what our modern healthcare industry knows how to do.
Think about it. Many industries are facing disruptive innovation where the future of the industry is completely different from what has been the norm. For example, the PC industry with the rapid shift to tablets, or retail with the increasing move to online channels. However, both of those industries have always been subject to rapid innovation and players have learned to evolve rapidly. The transformation in healthcare is more profound because it is larger in scale and it has a much greater impact on people’s lives.
So what does the future of healthcare involve and how can technology help? There are three key elements that the healthcare industry has to learn to be more efficient and proactive:
Caring for the chronically sick more efficiently with wearables
The rate of diabetes, heart conditions, obesity and other chronic conditions are projected to continually rise. The chronically ill consume a large proportion of healthcare, therefore any efficiency gained in providing care for them translates into significant savings in the overall health system. A recent study from Robert Wood Johnson University hospital found that 80 percent of all heart-attacks could have been prevented by simple changes in lifestyle. Changes in lifestyle will have a similar positive impact on other chronic conditions as well.
As someone passionate about patient engagement and using health IT and other technologies to improve care, I continue hear a great deal about how solutions can actually benefit population health. Even at the most recent HIMSS conference, “patient engagement” as a term clearly has become one of this year’s biggest buzz phrases.
Conference sessions were dedicated to the topic, vendors marketed their services to solving some of the issues associated with it and seemingly everyone in attendance had an opinion for what needs to be done or at least has some strategies for bringing more patients — or their data — directly into the care sphere.
Problem is, from my perspective, that, unfortunately, too much is still being said about population health and not nearly enough about individual health. In theory, I understand why this must be, but in practicality, I don’t understand the seemingly lack of attention individuals are receiving. Obviously, if population health outcomes improve then that must logically mean individual health outcomes are improving.
And while I understand that not everyone or every need can possibly be addressed, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to fill those needs. The current conversations about improved population health remind me of a common business/life solution when addressing a major problem: How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Likewise, it would seem the same approach could be taken to achieve improve population health outcomes: One individual patient at a time.
That said, I asked some folks within the health IT community how technology affects individual patient outcomes. Though some of the ideas here are still high level, perhaps they are a step in the right direction. Here are some of the responses I received:
What are the real-world benefits of electronic health records, for example, to a specific individual? To answer that question, let’s take a look at a fictional person we’ll call “Bill.” Bill is quite elderly and has a variety of age-related illnesses. He lives in Ohio, and decides spend the winter with his daughter in Florida.
Bill’s daughter, Susan, arranges for her father to be seen by a local specialist during his stay. Susan tries to get a voluminous paper file transferred from Ohio to the new doctor in Florida, but there are delays: phone messages are missed, handwriting is misread, and no one has time to copy and mail 100 pages of medical records.
In the end, Susan is unable to get her father’s records transferred in time for the appointment with the new physician. As a result, an unnecessary test is performed, and a drug is prescribed that had caused an allergic reaction in the past.
In the future, EHRs will enable the Florida clinic to have electronic access to the same records available in Ohio. Already, Medicare and some commercial carriers have websites that list physician visits, patient complaints, diagnoses made, lab/diagnostic tests performed, and drugs prescribed. Eventually, such websites may include a full medical profile, including doctor’s notes, lab results, x-ray images and more.