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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.

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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.

He continued, saying these pre-Internet companies “claim to be interoperable but never will be. They need to go,” he attested. Bush added, “Cloud companies can easily be interoperable. HITECH got everyone onto systems that they're now stuck with, and the Internet was shut out of HITECH. You have 60 medical specialties and [the idea is that] any EHR will be the right one for all 60?  That is absurd. How many apps on your iPhone were written by Apple? Four of them. So [we won’t reach] interoperability until we get rid of these servers.”

Bush went on, “That means we need to invite our competition onto the platforms and be like [Jeff] Bezos [founder of Amazon]. “We must accommodate a new generation and we have to move to the Internet in healthcare. This cannot be a questionable proposition in healthcare in 2017. The new cloud-based EHR companies are coming onto our platform; the nightmare Steven [Corwin] is experiencing connecting different old systems is becoming a thing of the past, slowly.”

Samitt agreed with Bush on how the future might look, arguing that it’s not going to be about EHR-to-EHR connectivity going forward, but rather capturing data elements in the cloud to manage population health. “EHRs connecting won’t be as relevant in the future,” he said. “Data inputted is less crucial than data outputted. So the pooling of information and the analytics will be crucial, not which EHR you are on,” he said.

To close the discussion, the panelists were asked about when healthcare connectedness will no longer be an issue. Bush estimated it would take some five years. On the other end of the spectrum, Corwin predicted that interoperability will be superseded by disruptors such as telehealth, artificial intelligence and machine learning. “Interoperability won't be solved in the short-run. Patients will demand their own data. And connecting people via regional HIEs won't happen. I’m very pessimistic about the [prospects] of true interoperability. Samitt was more optimistic, predicting that real interoperability can be achieved in 10 years. He noted that much of it comes down to payment reform as well, pointing out that nearly 60 percent of Anthem’s payments are now tied to value. “Connectivity is not just data connectivity, but we also need to achieve alignment with the patient at the center,” he said.


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CommonWell Officials: Carequality Connection Now “Generally Available” for Members

November 16, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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CommonWell’s executive director said this latest step “breaks down another interoperability barrier”

Connection capabilities to the Carequality framework, by members of the CommonWell Health Alliance, are now “generally available,” according to officials who made an announcement today.

CommonWell, a trade association providing a vendor-neutral platform and interoperability services for its members, announced in August that it had started a limited roll-out of live bidirectional data sharing with an initial set of CommonWell members and providers and other Carequality Interoperability Framework adopters. This marked a key step in a collaborative effort to increase health IT connectivity across the country by enabling CommonWell subscribers to engage in health data exchange through directed queries with Carequality-enabled providers, and vice versa.

In just the first two weeks of a few CommonWell-enabled providers being connected, Jitin Asnaani, CommonWell Health Alliance executive director, said there were more than 4,000 documents bilaterally exchanged with Carequality-enabled providers.

Since then, by leveraging the technological infrastructure built by CommonWell service provider Change Healthcare, members Cerner and Greenway Health successfully completed a focused rollout of the connection with a handful of their provider clients, who have been exchanging data daily with Carequality-enabled providers, officials stated today.

Now, since the connection went live in July, officials noted  that CommonWell-enabled providers have bilaterally exchanged more than 200,000 documents with Carequality-enabled providers locally and nationwide.

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“We are proud to break down yet another barrier to interoperability by making this much-anticipated connection available to our members and their clients,” Asnaani said in a statement today. “This increased connectivity will serve to empower providers with access to patient health data critical to their healthcare decision-making.”

In December 2016, CommonWell and Carequality, an initiative of The Sequoia Project, announced connectivity and collaboration efforts with the aim of providing additional health data sharing options for stakeholders. Officials said that the immediate focus of the work between Carequality and CommonWell would be on extending providers’ ability to request and retrieve medical records electronically from other providers. In the past two years, teams at both organizations have been working to establish that connectivity.

Together, CommonWell members and Carequality participants represent more than 90 percent of the acute EHR market and nearly 60 percent of the ambulatory EHR market. More than 15,000 hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare organizations have been actively deployed under the Carequality framework or CommonWell network.

Carequality is a national-level, consensus-built, common interoperability framework to enable exchange between and among health data sharing networks. It brings together electronic health record (EHR) vendors, record locator service (RLS) providers and other types of existing networks from the private sector and government, to determine technical and policy agreements to enable data to flow between and among networks and platforms.

CommonWell Health Alliance operates a health data sharing network that enables interoperability using a suite of services aiming to simplify cross-vendor nationwide data exchange. Services include patient ID management, advanced record location, and query/retrieve broker services, allowing a single query to retrieve multiple records for a patient from member systems.

Following the August announcement of the limited bi-directional data sharing capabilities, Micky Tripathi, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative said, “This is the ‘golden spike’ moment, connecting the two big railroads, like when AT&T and Verizon finally got connected. This is building that bridge.” Tripathi, who also directly observes and participates in conversations with Carequality and CommonWell, added, “It will take a while for all of the production sites and different vendors to get up and running. That will probably take a couple of years. But you have to have the bridge to connect them to begin.”

One key element in this progression is that currently, EHR giant Epic is not a member of CommonWell, despite other major EHR vendors pushing Epic in that direction. “Because sharing among Epic customers is already universal, when CommonWell connects to Carequality, the entire Epic base will become available, creating instant value for most areas of the country,” a recent KLAS report on interoperability stated.

Interestingly, Tripathi noted in August that once there is “general availability” of the data sharing services for all Carequality and CommonWell members, the competition factor will become less important. “It makes both networks more valuable,” Tripathi said at the time.

It appears as if that “general availability” time has now come. “Thanks to the CommonWell-Carequality connection, our patients can have access to their medical records regardless of the EHR a health care facility uses,” said David Callecod, president and CEO of Lafayette General Health, a Cerner client located in Lafayette, La. “When data is made readily available, providers can make diagnostic and treatment decisions more quickly, and patients can recover sooner. Better data means better communication with our patients and providers, better care and better outcomes. This is a very powerful tool!”

Officials also noted that with the connection officially in production, additional CommonWell members, including Brightree, Evident and MEDITECH, are in the process of subscribing to the connection and taking it live with their provider clients.


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Tripathi will also discuss the future of data exchange, advancements of standards such as FHIR, the reality of information blocking challenges, and more in this latest Healthcare Informatics webinar, which gives a high-level view on the many market forces that impacting nationwide interoperability.

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Epic Lowers App Orchard Program Fees, Introduces New Low-Cost Tier

November 1, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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Verona, Wis.-based Epic plans to lower program fees for health IT developers participating in its App Orchard program, and will launch a new entry-level program tier, called Nursery.

Epic announced the App Orchard updates at its App Orchard conference last week at its Verona headquarters, according to reporting from Politico published Oct. 26.

In an email statement, Brett Gann, App Orchard director, confirmed the company is reducing and simplifying the costs associated with participating in the app developer program. The three tiers of the program will see program fee reductions ranging from 33 to 80 percent as part of the update, Gann said.

Epic launched its App Orchard in 2017 as an online marketplace for third-party developers with 13 applications.

To date, more than 350 companies in the healthcare industry participate in Epic’s app developer program, where they have access to hundreds of application programming interfaces (APIs), documentation, testing tools, individual technical support, training, conferences, and integration with the Epic community, Gann said,

Gann also said the program updates announced last week at the annual App Orchard Conference in Verona will “engage a broader community of developers and increase access to APIs through simplified and reduced costs.”

The updates will help drive healthcare innovation as interested developers have the opportunity to build on top of Epic’s health record platform, using emerging industry standards such as FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), Gann said.

Epic also announced a new program tier, Nursery, that will enable early-stage startups to enroll in the app developer program to access Epic’s public API documentation, tutorials, and sandboxes. Early-stage startups also will have access to FHIR, SMART on FHIR, and CDS Hooks, Gann said.

Enrolling in the Nursery program tier will cost participants $100 per year, Gann said, and when a company is prepared to go to market with its product, it may graduate to one of the other three tiers.

Nursery members will have access to Epic’s FHIR sandboxes, classroom and online learning opportunities, and the ability to engage with the online community of Epic, health system, and vendor developers and experts.

In addition to the program fee reductions, as part of the update, Epic will offer new program benefits to participants in the other three tiers, such as additional training opportunities, developer events, support services, sandboxes, and program accounts.

Gann also said Epic has simplified the pricing model for API-based integrations, eliminating the minimum fees, and reducing the cap. “It’s our expectation these updates will be a price reduction for nearly all program members,” he said.

Some developers, particularly smaller developers, have complained in the past that the fees to participate in the vendor app store are too steep.

Earlier this year, Politico reported the experiences of Rick Freeman, CEO of Interopion. Freeman told Politico that a family planning questionnaire app he developed for HHS’s Office of Population Health could have cost him up to $750,000 to run on Epic or Cerner for a year.

As reported by Politico in its October 26 report, in response to the program updates, Freeman said he is “very happy with the changes.”

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