Q: What do you get when you pair an organization with advanced networking expertise with one that is knowledgeable about the transmission of medical information?
A: No one knows, but the leaders of Internet2 and the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) were intrigued enough by the potential that they formed a partnership to investigate.
Internet2, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a consortium of more than 200 universities that develops technologies for high-speed data transfer. HIMSS is a membership organization focused on the optimal use of healthcare IT. In August, the two nonprofit groups formed a collaboration that will set up four working groups around the topics of identity management, privacy and security, biomedical education and telehealth.
"The only healthcare expertise employed by Internet2 is on the other end of the phone with you," says Michael McGill, manager of health sciences for Internet2, explaining the project. Similarly, the advanced networking capability of healthcare organizations like HIMSS is "basically nonexistent," he says. "So this is a natural coming together to find common interest and to work on projects that neither can carry out individually."
Since 1999, Internet2 researchers have been working on network solutions to bypass the commercial Internet in order to cope with the enormous packets of data that academic researchers send. Besides the extra bandwidth available, McGill says the healthcare field may also benefit from middleware technologies Internet2 developers have created to handle authentication issues.
"Authenticating physicians in a region is a real challenge," McGill says. "On a national scale, the challenge is mind-boggling." For instance, he says, snowbirds from New York go into an emergency room in Florida. How can it be verified that the Florida physician seeking their records is who he says he is? The Internet2 technologies may provide some answers, he says.
From HIMSS' perspective, the collaboration brings researchers and clinicians closer. "Internet2 brings the academic community, while HIMSS brings the applied flow of health information in a clinical setting," says Carla Smith, the society's executive vice president. "The question is, can we apply this powerful networking technology to create solutions for fundamental healthcare problems?"
McGill and Smith say that although their effort is addressing some of the same issues as the national health information network (NHIN), their work is intended to mesh. "We have been in touch with the NHIN contractors and with the Office of the National Coordinator (of Health Information Technology), and we are staying in close communication," Smith says.
The partnership, according to Edward Shortliffe, M.D., chair of the department of biomedical informatics at New York's Columbia University Medical Center, may signal that Internet2 is evolving much like the original Internet did — from an academic resource to a commercial one. "It would be interesting if they could come up with new applications that leverage strengths of Internet2 other than just bandwidth," he says, citing new ways of tackling security issues.
HIMSS and Internet2 will evaluate the partnership's progress next summer and decide whether or not to continue. "The four working groups must deliver some sort of tangible outcome that is measurable within a year," Smith says. "Does healthcare need this type of advanced networking solution? We don't know. The goal of this collaboration is to find out."
David Raths is a contributing writer based in Philadelphia.