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A Federal Demo Offers Clues on Metadata Tagging for Secure Data-Sharing

September 26, 2012
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A recent HHS/VA demonstration project demonstrates the use of metatadata tagging

I was fascinated to read the September 17 joint announcement from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)  and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that those two federal departments had successfully demonstrated the successful use of metadata tagging in the exchange of patient health data.
As HHS’s press release on that date noted, the HHS/VA demonstration “showed how sensitive information can be tagged so that when it is sent to another provider with the patient’s permission, the receiving provider will know that they need to obtain the patient’s authorization to further disclose the information with others.” The release quoted Joy Pritts, the chief privacy officer in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), as saying that “This project helps demonstrate that with proper standards in place, existing privacy laws and policies can be implemented appropriately in an electronic environment.”

As the HHS press release noted, this demonstration was developed as part of the Data Segmentation for Privacy (DS4P) Initiative, created in response to the work of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and supported by the ONC.

There are so many implications in this work for the healthcare system, but one is immediately clear: that it is quite feasible to implement communication systems that support privacy-ensuring processes of health information exchange. As part of the demonstration, the Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration (SAMHSA) securely exchanged a mock patient’s substance abuse treatment records, tagged with metadata, to the VA’s EHR system. The metadata triggered information about the protected status of that data.

There are many steps that all types of healthcare organizations (hospitals, medical groups, integrated health systems, health plans, public health departments and agencies, and other organizations) will need to take to replicate and build on these processes. But demos like this offer tantalizing clues to everyone as to some of the potential paths that healthcare leaders might take, as they move forward into the new, ever-more-data-driven, era of healthcare. Clearly, we will need to create processes like these for a variety of use cases going forward; it’s good to know that there are leaders at the federal level who are already working on solutions that others might replicate.