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New CommonWell Chief Speaks Out: Interoperability Progress, Epic, and More

April 3, 2015
by Gabriel Perna
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Two years can fly by fast.

CommonWell Health Alliance, an industry trade group made up of many of the largest electronic health record (EHR) systems vendors, was born at HIMSS 2013 in New Orleans. As HIMSS 2015 approaches, this year in Chicago, the group, like any two-year-old, can signify that it’s growing.

This past week, the Alliance added MEDITECH and a few other companies to the fray. A few weeks before that, a few members of the group announced it was making CommonWell service agreements an option for all of their clients. This means its patient matching and other services can be rolled out to an even wider audience than the initial pilot phase. As of today, it has seven geographies, more than 20 providers, and more than 26,000 patients connected.

It hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine though. The group, and a few of its more prominent members, have engaged in a noisy battle with Epic Systems (Verona, Wisc.), a large EHR vendor that has decided to not join. The two sides have engaged in a war of words since CommonWell was born at HIMSS 2013 and that hasn’t slowed down. Most recently, during a Congressional hearing, Epic made it appear as if CommonWell was trying to sell data.

Diving into all this fray of excitement is Jitin Asnaani, who was named first executive director of CommonWell a week ago. Asnaani, who has a background in public and private interoperability efforts, comes to CommonWell from athenahealth (Watertown, Mass.), where he headed up product innovation and interoperability. Before that, he was involved with technical standards development at the Office of National Coordinator (ONC), product management at a health IT startup and strategy consulting at Deloitte.

Asnaani recently spoke with Healthcare Informatics Senior Editor Gabriel Perna about his new role, what direction he will take CommonWell in, and of course, Epic. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Congrats on the new position, you obviously have the background in both public and private interoperability enterprises. Why do you think having experience in both is essential for heading up CommonWell?

It’s essential because what we’re trying to do in CommonWell is build on the collective experience of our stakeholders, of the industry, of the nation to break down barriers of health information exchange. Government is an important stakeholder in that equation as are providers, patients, and the private sector. That’s why the diverse background appealed to the board as they were looking at potential candidates.

What are some of your first directives as executive director of CommonWell?

My priority is very clear. There has been a lot of interoperability activity and talk over the last several years and the proof needs to be in the pudding. We need building working infrastructures that can be deployed nationally so that interoperability is not a concept. It’s something that’s needs to happen in the real world. That’s my number one priority. [Figuring out] how we encourage our Alliance members to deploy and how do we encourage other folks to join us in building out services into our community.

Obviously you have been involved with CommonWell before in your position with athenahealth, how will you look at the organization differently now that you’re involved from an internal position?

That’s a good question. In some ways, there is no change at all. athenahealth is one of the original founding members of the Alliance because it resonated well with their philosophy of openness and removing that barrier to HIE that is exposed by data silos. Now that I work for CommonWell, I can translate that philosophy directly. I have the opportunity to work with stakeholders across the community without having necessarily a different title that I use during the day. I can now have 100 percent neutral conversations across the stakeholder base, across the various participants that are part of the Alliance.

What are some of the inroads you guys have made in the national patient identifier efforts?

The number one problem that we’re trying to solve is that when a provider wants information about a patient, or if a patient wants information about themselves….there is no good way for them to get it.

If you are planning care physician and want information about a patient, you have to ask the patient where they have been and then call and connect somehow with that provider. That’s a process ripe with gaps, errors, and opportunities for missed information. We’re solving that problem technically, how do you get those locations where a patient has been and make it easy for a patient to verify which record is his or hers and then you know their information. And it’s a patient-centered view. It’s a three dimensional view.

You’ve been doing some pilots on this?