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Jonathan Bush, other HIT Leaders Dive into Healthcare’s Interoperability Problem at World Health Care Congress

May 1, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Bush said at the annual conference in D.C. that cloud-based EHRs, rather than “pre-Internet systems,” will be the future

A panel of three leaders in the health IT space, including outspoken athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush, discussed the current interoperability landscape and what new strategies will help shape the future of healthcare connectivity.

Bush was joined in the keynote panel—part of this year’s World Health Care Congress, held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.—by Steven J. Corwin, M.D., president and CEO of NewYork-Presbyterian (NYP, New York City) and Craig Samitt, M.D., executive vice president and chief clinical officer, Anthem, Inc. The session was moderated by Dan Diamond, health policy reporter at Politico.

When asked about what the industry is doing well and where they are failing, Drs. Corwin and Samitt had rather pessimistic tones, with Corwin noting that the current electronic health records (EHRs) at NYP, which actually only account for some 40 percent of the organization’s data, are fragmented and not interoperable. “The promise of interoperability is something that has been over-promised,” Corwin said. “The idea was that that various EHRs could be perfectly compatible, but that has not been [the case]. For us, it gets down to having a single EHR, taking [out] the expense of putting them together over a multi-layered system, and then reducing the number of exchanges and linkages we need to have. At this point, our linkage exchange looks like spaghetti wires,” adding that in NYP’s interface engine there are currently 6,000 interfaces, though the goal is to cut that number down to 3,000. “We just can’t toggle back and forth between systems,” he said.

Similarly, Samitt noted that the issue isn’t a technology one, but rather one of willingness and incentives. The Anthem senior executive said he is “highly critical of our industry since other industries have figured it out.” He added, “When there's a will, there's a way. I think there is a way for interoperability but less of a will. Information should be a common good as it relates to population health and better care at a lower cost, but we do not treat it that way.” He went on to talk about data ownership, noting, “Payers probably have the most complete data set but it's not timely. Doctors have the most acute data but it’s not complete. And patients have most relevant data, but it's not actionable.”

The panelists were then asked who’s to blame for these data sharing issues, a question that usually elicits varying responses from those pointing fingers at vendors to others assigning fault to providers and policymakers. From the payer perspective, Samitt said that claims information is only a subset of the data, and that it’s challenging to get providers to share data, though he also admitted that payers are not so willing themselves. “None of us should own the information; it should be a common good. Let's keep the information safe and pool it so we can have a true longitudinal patient record,” Samitt said.

From the vendor vantage point, Bush—who two years ago famously tweeted at Judy Faulkner, CEO and founder of Epic Systems, that he would pay the user fee for Epic if the giant EHR vendor would join the CommonWell Health Alliance, an interoperability initiative of which athenahealth is a part of—agreed that the incentives to share healthcare data are not rewarding enough for stakeholders. “For my entire career, no one has wanted to exchange information,” Bush said. “The government has made it largely illegal for providers to get paid by digitally flowing information upstream. And [the feds] do not let just any provider see Medicare data,” adding that his company went through the laborious process of filling out applications and hiring lawyers so that they could get access to this CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) data, only to get denied. “Historically,” Bush said, “Hospitals have said that they are the only place that data can flow so that they keep referral volume and preserve their institution.”

However, things are beginning to change, Bush continued, noting dedication from new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, M.D. to reverse things. “We are [seeing] a willingness on the part of forward-thinking healthcare systems to win by being open. Last year, the 21st Century Cures Act [was passed] and that makes it illegal to block data,” he said.

Bush also called out Epic, Cerner and Meditech, which he refers to as “pre-Internet companies” for now being more open to interconnectivity, proving that there are signs of change in regards to stakeholders’ willingness. "Payers are also giving us claims data they didn't use to give us, and that gives us information on patients that we can pull together that we weren't able to before," he said.

Chiming in on the topic of data blocking, Corwin said that hospitals hoarding data is a fair criticism. “People believe that data can be monetized in healthcare, and that’s particularly true with well-curated genetic information,” he said. “I'm less enamored with that idea; I think that the data [belongs] to the patients, not to the providers. But there are those [providers] out there who do think there's a market advantage. I'm a big believer in not monetizing data unless it improves patient outcomes,” he said.

Bush further said that athenahealth is building a master patient index (MPI) and also a calendar product that would help doctors on athenaNet get more patient appointments. He referred to EDI and HL7 as standards that will “die since they are pre-Internet.” Bush said it was these outdated companies that advocated as part of HITECH (the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act) to eliminate interoperability as a requirement for meaningful use.

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