The secure, appropriate, and efficient sharing of electronic health information is the foundation of an interoperable learning health system—one that uses information and technology to deliver better care, spend health dollars more wisely, and advance the health of everyone.
Today we delivered a new Report to Congress on Health Information Blocking that examines allegations that some health care providers and health IT developers are engaging in “information blocking”—a practice that frustrates this national information sharing goal.
Health information blocking occurs when persons or entities knowingly and unreasonably interfere with the exchange or use of electronic health information. Our report examines the known extent of information blocking, provides criteria for identifying and distinguishing it from other barriers to interoperability, and describes steps the federal government and the private sector can take to deter this conduct.
This report is important and comes at a crucial time in the evolution of our nation’s health IT infrastructure. We recently released the Federal Health IT Strategic Plan 2015 – 2020 and the Draft Shared Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap. These documents describe challenges to achieving an interoperable learning health system and chart a course towards unlocking electronic health information so that it flows where and when it matters most for individual consumers, health care providers, and the public health community.
While most people support these goals, some individual participants in the health care and health IT industries have strong incentives to exercise control over electronic health information in ways that unreasonably interfere with its exchange and use, including for patient care.
Over the last year, ONC has received many complaints of information blocking. We are becoming increasingly concerned about these practices, which devalue taxpayer investments in health IT and are fundamentally incompatible with efforts to transform the nation’s health system.
The full extent of the information blocking problem is difficult to assess, primarily because health IT developers impose contractual restrictions that prohibit customers from reporting or even discussing costs, restrictions, and other relevant details. Still, from the evidence available, it is readily apparent that some providers and developers are engaging in information blocking. And for reasons discussed in our report, this behavior may become more prevalent as technology and the need to exchange electronic health information continue to evolve and mature.
There are several actions ONC and other federal agencies can take to address certain aspects of the information blocking problem. These actions are outlined in our report and include:
- Proposing new certification requirements that strengthen surveillance of certified health IT capabilities “in the field.”
- Proposing new transparency obligations for certified health IT developers that require disclosure of restrictions, limitations, and additional types of costs associated with certified health IT capabilities.
- Specifying a nationwide governance framework for health information exchange that establishes clear principles about business, technical, and organizational practices related to interoperability and information sharing.
- Working with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to coordinate health care payment incentives and leverage other market drivers to reward interoperability and exchange and discourage information blocking.
- Helping federal and state law enforcement agencies identify and effectively investigate information blocking in cases where such conduct may violate existing federal or state laws.
- Working in concert with the HHS Office for Civil Rights to improve stakeholder understanding of the HIPAA Privacy and Security standards related to information sharing.
While these actions are important, they do not provide a comprehensive solution to the information blocking problem. Indeed, the most definitive finding of our report is that most information blocking is beyond the current reach of ONC or any other federal agency to effectively detect, investigate, and address. Moreover, the ability of innovators and the private sector to overcome this problem is limited by a lack of transparency and other distortions in current health IT markets.
For these and other reasons discussed in our report, addressing information blocking in a comprehensive manner will require overcoming significant gaps in current knowledge, programs, and authorities. We believe that in addition to the actions above, there are several avenues open to Congress to address information blocking and ensure continued progress towards the nation’s health IT and health care goals.
Information blocking is certainly not the only impediment to an interoperable learning health system. But based on the findings in our report, it is a serious problem—and one that is not being effectively addressed. ONC looks forward to working with Congress, industry, and the health IT community to properly address this problem and ensure continued progress towards achieving the goals of an interoperable learning health system.
Karen DeSalvo, MD leads the Office of the National Coordinator for HIT. Jodi Daniel serves as director of the Office of Policy.