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"Mind the Gap": Why ONC's Patient-Matching Initiative Matters

September 19, 2013
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What the ONC’s collaboration with industry associations means for healthcare system advancement more generally

It was great to speak last week with Russ Branzell, president and CEO of the Ann-Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), regarding the announcement by the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) on Sep. 11 that the agency was launching a patient matching initiative, and CHIME’s applauding ONC for its move.

Asked whether he thought that the announcement on the part of ONC that the agency was plunging into the fraught area of patient matching, and whether that meant that ONC leadership had recognized the challenges inherent in that area, for providers, Branzell told me, “I think they are. I think they understand that there are certain linchpins in this process that can accelerate the adoption of HIT, as well as the benefits of that HIT adoption that we’ve all been looking for. And,” he added, I think this  really does mark a major recognition in an area that up until recently, really today, that was considered off-limits.”

As Russ further told me, patient matching “is a cornerstone item in our being able to advance in our overall healthcare initiative,” speaking of what we at HCI call the new healthcare—the broad range of internal healthcare reform-related initiatives, including value-based purchasing, avoidable readmissions reduction, accountable care organization and bundled-payment contract development, patient-centered medical home and population health development, and every other new healthcare-type venture possible. In other words, one key for federal authorities is to eliminate the obstacles—large and small—along the road, as we all work together to develop the new healthcare.

All this reminds me of something that anyone who has ever ridden the London Underground—affectionately referred to as “The Tube”—will know about. On underground platforms, there are signs painted that urge passengers to “Mind the Gap!” between the train and the platform. The patient matching challenge reminds me of that “Mind the Gap” warning—one can be moving forward with confidence, and then quickly fall down and hurt oneself if one isn’t looking at both the big picture and the surface below one’s feet.

As Lee Stevens, policy director for the State HIE Program at ONC, wrote, in the blog announcing the new project, “This new project will focus on two specific objectives related to patient matching: identifying the common attributes that achieve high positive match rates across disaparate systems. The attributes may include common fields such as name, date of birth, address, sex, cell phone number and new criteria such as emergency contact and insurer”; and, “defining the processes and best practices that are most effective to support high positive patient matching rates utilizing these attributes.”

As Stevens further noted, “As part of the new Patient Matching Initiative, environmental scans and widespread literature reviews will be conducted to inform the next steps in the project.”

I have to agree with Russ Branzell’s perception here: this is a case in which federal authorities realize how important it is to help healthcare IT leaders as they work to fulfill the requirements of meaningful use and move forward to help facilitate many aspects of federal healthcare reform.

What’s more, as CHIME was very involved in the discussions leading up to the creation and announcement of this ONC initiative, the situation overall speaks to a win-win dynamic  in which professional associations in healthcare can work optimally with federal agencies like the ONC to move everyone forward together. And while some of the collaborations that need to take place are “big,” even those that are relatively “small” are quite important. And identifying the gaps between what needs to happen and what conditions are prerequisite to make those things happen, is always important.

In that regard, I am sincerely hoping that the dynamic of cooperation that Farzad Mostashari, M.D. has helped to cultivate during this tenure at ONC, will continue, and even strengthen further, under his successor. Because whenever federal authorities and industry leaders can sit down together and set priorities and move forward on necessary initiatives to facilitate the shift towards the new healthcare, it benefits us all, most especially patients, families, and communities nationwide.