Those of us who have spent years arguing in favor of standards based health information exchange (HIE) have just had a few good months. The federal government has asked IT vendors and providers what it can do to advance health information sharing across organizations. This has drawn new attention to “interoperable” health IT systems and the quality and economy of care delivered to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
In late March, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) awarded cooperative agreement grants to two non-profit trade groups working to certify and credential electronic health records (EHRs) and health exchange service providers whose products are capable of secure data sharing — that is, of “talking to one another.” (Disclosure: I am the President and CEO of one of these alliances, DirectTrust.) The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.
My sense, though, is that most people still don’t have a firm grasp on the issues. They remain uncertain or confused about what interoperable health information exchange really means to providers and patients, how it can be achieved, the barriers that remain to be overcome, and who is making the decisions about these matters. So this seems like a good time for both an update and a refresher of sorts on the nature of health information exchange, and to explain why this is not a good time to reduce spending on health IT in America.
Let’s start with what is probably the most important thing to understand: we are very, very close to national deployment of a relatively simple standard, known as Direct, that enables secure Internet transport of health information between people, organizations, and software. Direct exchange permits users of any EHR to send and receive messages and files from any users ofany other EHRs, regardless of operating system or vendor. In fact, Direct facilitates secure messaging, with attachments, to and from anyone with Internet access. It makes EHRs interoperable with one another, but also facilitates secure communication with providers and patients using Internet devices of almost any kind.