Compiled by Neil Versel, Contributing Writer
While health providers praise the ONC’s interoperability vision, they’re demanding increased standardization and an accelerated roadmap to achieve the Triple Aim.
Interoperability was supposed to be a centerpiece of Stage 2 of the Meaningful Use (MU) EHR incentive program, but hospitals and physicians practices nationwide are finding out just how hard it is to achieve that goal. Through the end of August, a mere 25 hospitals and 1,277 eligible professionals had attested to Stage 2 on the Medicare side of the program, according to CMS.
A KLAS Enterprises report, released in October, found that although 82 percent of the 220 providers interviewed thought that they were at least “moderately successful” with interoperability, a mere 6 percent said they were at an “advanced” level. And just 20 percent were “optimistic” about health IT vendors’ efforts to collaborate on interoperability.
In the same week, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology submitted its annual report to Congress, highlighting some of the problems. “Electronic health information is not yet sufficiently standardized to allow seamless interoperability, as it is still inconsistently expressed through technical and medical vocabulary, structure, and format, thereby limiting the potential uses of the information to improve health and care,” the report said.
Days later, ONC released an update of its proposed 10-year roadmap to interoperability, a document that will be finalized in 2015. Like the earlier draft, this version put interoperability front and center on the office’s three-year agenda, while harnessing this information to improve care and lower cost was part of the sixyear plan. This effectively pushes a main goal of Stage 2 into the third stage of MU, which will not start before 2017, and suggests that the bulk of the nation’s healthcare providers won’t achieve the “Triple Aim” until after the incentive money is gone.
Building Interoperability Around APIs
ONC’s Health IT Policy Committee and Health IT Standards Committee also approved recommendations from a task force of an independent scientific advisory group known as JASON (not an acronym, but a reference to a character in Greek mythology) to build interoperability around application programming interfaces (APIs). Together, the moves have gotten mixed reviews.
“Credit to ONC for the vision,” said Russell Branzell, CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). “We just need to find a way to do it faster than a 10-year plan.”
Branzell wondered how hospitals are supposed to balance the longer-term vision for interoperability with an MU timeline that penalizes noncompliant providers starting in 2015. “There still are some pieces fundamentally missing,” Branzell said.
He believes there should be “clearly enforceable standards” for patient matching, as well as “specific data standards that are enforceable down to the nomenclature number.” Not having standards — standards that are kept current — adds to the complexity of health information exchange by offering too many choices that are not always compatible with each other, according to Branzell.
The CHIME chief continued, calling patient matching “the cornerstone of not only effective patient exchange but also patient safety.” He would like at least a standardized patient matching requirement, if not a national patient identifier; a national ID has been politically taboo since at least 1998, even though the original 1996 HIPAA statute called for one.
Branzell praised the API strategy, while also indicating he was a proponent of the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard for data exchange, something created by Health Level 7 International. (Branzell is a member of the HL7 advisory board.)
The API idea is proving popular at the policy level. At a Washington, D.C. healthcare conference put on by U.S. News & World Report in October, Micky Tripathi, founding president and CEO of the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative; Jennifer Covich Bordenick, CEO of eHealth Initiative; and Steven Posnack, director of ONC’s Office of Standards and Technology, all spoke in favor of greater availability of APIs in healthcare. After all, it has become common for facilitating interoperability in so many other industries.
“Kendall Square [in Cambridge, MA] and Silicon Valley are laughing at us,” said Tripathi.
Tripathi mentioned other interoperability vehicles, including secure messaging following Direct Project protocols, point-to-point query and retrieve — usually by organizations using the same EHR vendor — and record aggregation with data normalization. Central repositories, he said, “are the dinosaurs that are going to go away.”
Later, at the same event, then-National Health IT Coordinator Dr. Karen DeSalvo, said that EHRs would have limited impact on the quality of care in the absence of greater interoperability.
In the real world of healthcare, providers are getting creative, though some still want more clarity from Washington or from the health IT industry. Gulfport (MS) Memorial Hospital replaced its legacy EHR with a Cerner system that went live in June. Three months later, CIO Gene Thomas said that his most difficult task was migrating data to Cerner.
“This could have been avoided if all vendors had been told to adhere to the same formats,” Thomas said. “The lack of standards in healthcare is a problem.”
Addressing HIE Via Common Vendor Platforms Memorial Health System in Springfield, IL approached interoperability in what CIO Dr. David Graham called a “reverse way,” with private practices bringing data to the organization’s primary care group. Like so many other providers, Memorial is building a health information exchange among nearby organizations that have a common vendor, in this case, Allscripts Healthcare Solutions.
Memorial has been rolling out the Allscripts TouchWorks EHR at its own clinics this year and is installing an Allscripts interoperability platform called FollowMyHealth. The precursor of FollowMyHealth, called Jardogs, was incubated at the Springfield Clinic, a partner of Memorial Health System, prior to Allscripts acquiring the technology in early 2013.
Another partner, the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, also is transitioning to TouchWorks for ambulatory clinics, Graham said. “We are competing practices using the same database and the same instance of TouchWorks,” he said.
Memorial also collaborates with a federally qualified health center (FQHC). When that safety-net facility refers patients to the Springfield Clinic or the SIU School of Medicine, information from a NextGen Healthcare Information Systems EHR flows into a common portal that care managers can access to reach out to high-risk patients, Graham said.
“The other benefit of it is that then you can put that data in front of the physician,” Graham said.
It’s not full interoperability, but it’s a start.
Adding Mobility To The Interoperability Equation
A much larger healthcare system, San Francisco-based Dignity Health, has made interoperability a major component of a massive IT program. Dignity Health, formerly known as Catholic Healthcare West, was the launch customer for AirStrip One, a product from San Antonio-based AirStrip Technologies that delivers data from EHRs, patient monitors, and medical devices to clinicians on their mobile phones and tablets. Dignity also made an unspecified investment in AirStrip in August.
“We’re fairly early with AirStrip One,” said Dr. Davin Lundquist, Dignity’s CMIO for population health. In the fourth quarter of 2014, the multistate health system was implementing the product in the Central Coast region of California. “In parallel with this, we are exploring care management, video visits, and other ways to engage patients,” Lundquist said. “You need to come at it from lots of angles.”
AirStrip OB, an obstetrics module, is in nearly every one of Dignity Health’s hospitals, and the health system also has begun using AirStrip’s cardiology product. “What we are envisioning is that we will get AirStrip in the hands of all of our physicians,” said Lundquist, a family physician in Camarillo, CA, who practices about one day a week. He expects to have secure clinician messaging within the apps as well.
There are a lot of physicians to reach. Dignity Health has approximately 1,200 employed physicians and 2,000 to 3,000 “clinically integrated” aligned physicians among its total medical staff of more than 10,000, according to Lundquist. “Our health system, like many others, relies on independent physicians to support our work,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dignity is about two-thirds of the way through migrating its hospitals to a Cerner EHR from an older system. Dignity Health Medical Foundation in California and several practices in the Phoenix area all run an Allscripts EHR, though Lundquist said there is “some variability” among those Allscripts installations.
Dignity has built a private health information exchange on the MobileMD platform, technology that Siemens bought in 2011 and now is in the process of selling to Cerner as part of the latter’s $1.3 billion acquisition of Siemens’ health IT business. More than 7,000 physicians across all of Dignity’s markets are connected, according to Lundquist. “In most cases, that allows them to access hospital information,” he said.
However, most of the data flow is one-way, though some employed physicians do have bidirectional exchange with Dignity Health hospitals. According to Lundquist, this is more a legal issue than a technical one. “Who owns it? Does it become part of the [patient’s] legal record? Do you become an HIO?” he wonders.
Dignity Health’s system connects with many national, standard HIE connections and exchanges data with the UC-Davis Medical Center and, according to Lundquist, is exploring a relationship with UC-San Francisco. He expects Dignity to participate in some fashion in California’s statewide HIE known as the California Integrated Data Exchange, or Cal INDEX.
Physicians seem to welcome the efforts, as long as HIE fits workflow and makes practitioners more efficient. “I haven’t seen any resistance from physicians when we give them data,” Lundquist said.
Eventually, he would like to push alerts to clinicians to encourage early interventions with high-risk patients. “There needs to be a benefit to the doctor and the patient for them to do something outside their traditional workflow,” Lundquist said.
“Obviously, it’s important to integrate as much clinical data as possible,” said Lundquist, who reports to both the CIO and to physician integration team leaders. That is easier with employed doctors than with independent physicians, who have all sorts of EHRs at various levels of implementation and sophistication. “Some small vendors don’t even have strong CCD outputs yet,” Lundquist said, referring to the Continuity of Care Document format required in Meaningful Use Stage 1. (Stage 2 replaces CCD with an HL7 standard called the Consolidated Clinical Document Architecture.)
The Best Is Yet To Come
Stage 1, which about 90 percent of hospitals and 70 percent of individual clinicians in the U.S. have met, was about getting EHRs in place. With that in mind, CHIME’s Branzell is optimistic. “We have a lot of exchange going on in a lot of places that wasn’t there 4 to 5 years ago,” he said.
“We’re building a house. We’ve got a beautiful foundation now,” Branzell said. “But you can’t live in a foundation.” Right now, the nation’s healthcare organizations are “just starting to put up the walls,” he added.
“Huge gains in efficiency and safety were not supposed to come until post-Stage 3,” Branzell said. That will be in about 2020, or the sixth year of ONC’s new 10-year vision. “It’s not all doom and gloom,” Branzell said.
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