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HIMSS16: Get on the health data interoperability train, or be left behind

HIMSS16: Get on the health data interoperability train, or be left behind

At this year’s Health Information Management Systems Society’s (HIMSS) annual conference, health data interoperability is in the air, building on the watershed HIMSS of 2013 – when CEOs of five EHR vendors joined together on stage to form the CommonWell Health Alliance, a major step forward in cross-vendor health data interoperability.

This year, federal officials are pressing vendors and healthcare providers harder than ever to make patient data liquid – flowing from health system to health system regardless of data system vendor – and set aside competitive issues to make it happen.

At least that’s how it’s been drawn up on paper: Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell (pictured above) delivered the opening keynote, announcing that major health IT vendors and providers had signed pledges to make data liquidity happen, naming all the names here.

The heads of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, Andy Slavitt and Karen DeSalvo, M.D., will hold a town hall meeting tonight to explain more specifics.

It starts with a national patient identifier

The holy grail of health data liquidity is the national patient identifier, which by law the federal government is prohibited from even researching feasibility, let alone implementing. Many ideas are floating around the market to solve the patient-ID problem, which boils down to your specialist’s electronic medical record can’t know for sure you’re the same person that the primary care provider or hospital sent for an appointment. That problem becomes especially onerous when you have a common name such as John Smith, Jane Jones or Maria Gonzalez – and there might be multiple people with the same name in the system.

Some experts believe that an existing government identifier, such as the Medicare/Medicaid record number, could be standardized across the whole U.S. population. Others say that one vendor, such as Epic Systems Corp.’s patient ID number, should be standardized across all vendors’ electronic medical records. Still others back ideas such as the CommonWell Health Alliance’s efforts or Healtheway’s Sequoia Project as the initiative to win out. The most patient-friendly health IT vendors champion interoperability in whatever form it comes, participating in multiple cross-vendor initiatives.

The College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) has another idea. Its National Patient ID Challenge gathered steam at the group’s annual pre-HIMSS forum. These healthcare chief information officers – think HIMSS “superusers” – hoped CHIME’s $1 million prize may inspire a healthcare stakeholder to solve the patient ID problem once and for all.

We sat down with Healthcare Informatics Editor-In-Chief Mark Hagland – who wrote a detailed recap of the morning CHIME sessions – to get his take on what he thinks will happen. U.S. healthcare is so incredibly diverse and fragmented, it’s almost impossible to handicap which ID idea will eventually win out, Hagland believes. He thinks it’s possible that there will be a convergence of all the different efforts to solve this vexing technical problem, instead of one clear winner.

“The devil will be in the details of what this looks like, and how it is to be adopted,” Hagland said of the eventual CHIME ID challenge winner. “It’s a technical issue, but it’s all in how it’s adopted and persuading enough people to say, ‘Yeah, we will do this.’”

It ends with political maneuvering

Attending the CHIME forum and observing the machinations of U.S. health IT policy working its way down to the healthcare providers was Canadian Shafique Shamji, EVP and CIO of The Ottawa (ON) Hospital. He said Canada has its own patient ID issues, but they are much less complicated because of the government’s single-payer health system. Implementing a U.S. national patient ID could come down to politics – with reward behind it.

“What [CHIME] is talking about is altruism,” Shamji said. “National initiatives start with altruism, but then you’ve got to put some money behind it. And you’ve got to incent people to do it.”

That sentiment was echoed by HIMSS president and CEO H. Stephen Lieber, who said that whatever national patient ID concept ends up getting adopted throughout the U.S. healthcare system will come down to politics.

“The issue is as much political as it is technical,” Lieber said. “You can be successful on the technical side, but you haven’t solved the political issue around the feelings of privacy – and that’s purely a political question. It has nothing to do with whether it’s a good idea or not.”

The takeaway

Whatever national patient ID eventually wins out, it’s clear that HHS, CMS and ONC are under pressure to solve health data interoperability, with Congress calling administration officials, healthcare providers and vendors into hearings and asking pointed questions about, as they term it, health “data blocking.”

For vendors and health systems, this HIMSS is different. It’s an opportunity to show, not tell, your patients and competitors that you understand the challenges with interoperability and that you’re part of the solution, not the problem. Clearly, CMS and ONC will be moving forward to incentivize freer flow of health data, and commercial payers will likely follow.

Those who don’t join in on data liquidity efforts will lose out on opportunities to improve patient care, receive lower reimbursements against already razor-thin margins, and eventually lose patients to more forward-thinking healthcare providers. Health IT vendors will have to prove they’re moving their provider customers in this directions, too, or they also will be left behind.

If you would like to have a bigger voice in this or any healthcare IT conversation, MSLGROUP can help. Please contact Doug Russell at or 781-684-0770.

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