Two weeks ago, I finally completed the long, enduring process of buying my first home in Hoboken, N.J. The journey, from start to finish, took months to complete, the money put into it was substantial, and the paperwork and effort to try to make sure that everything went smoothly (Does it ever when it comes to real estate?) was rigorous, to put it kindly.
One of the strangest parts about this process, from a personal standpoint, is that I won’t be living in the home! Instead, I see it as an investment opportunity that I hope will pay off in the long run. Will it? It’s hard to say as of right now—the real estate market will dictate how it works out for me in the future, and it might be years and years down the road until I know if it was a savvy move or not.
The quick lesson here: sometimes in life, it takes a really long time to see tangible results for the efforts that we have put in. This couldn’t be more accurate when it comes to health information exchanges (HIE). The investment that our country has put into developing and maintaining HIE platforms has been gigantic, in the form of half a billion dollars, yet many naysayers believe that the return on that investment might never come.
To date, it’s been pretty hard to argue with them. Interestingly enough, I actually blogged about this very issue back in December, referencing a study from the Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization RAND Corporation which found that due to the lack of evaluation on HIEs in the U.S., simply put, it has been too difficult to determine if they have been successful or not. It’s too early to judge them, the researchers of that report found. “There are likely other health information exchange organizations in the country that are being used, and some may be having an impact. But, if they exist, they haven't been evaluated,” Robert Rudin, lead author of the study and an associate policy researcher at RAND, said at the time.
Recently, I read another review on HIEs, one that had similar conclusions to the RAND study in terms of early evaluation, although this study had a more optimistic outlook. This latest report, “The benefits of health information exchange platforms: Measuring the returns on a half a billion dollar investment,” from Niam Yaraghi, a fellow in the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, studied the effects of accessing patient information through an HIE platform on the number of the laboratory tests and radiology examinations performed in two emergency departments in Western New York in 2014, via the region’s HIE, HEALTHeLINK. While Yaraghi readily admits that true HIE benefits won’t be realized until more providers join HIE platforms, and subsequently share data, he sees that there is significant potential.
Yaraghi’s analysis looked at two groups of patients in the ED, one group whose care involved querying HEALTHeLINK’s database of clinically relevant information from a patient’s medical history, and the other group whose care did not involve an HIE query. The study revealed that querying the HIE’s database is associated with significant utilization reduction in ED settings. In the first ED setting, querying the database is associated with respectively, a 25 percent and 26 percent reduction in the estimated number of laboratory tests and radiology examinations. In the second ED setting, querying the HIE’s database is associated with a 47 percent reduction in the estimated number of radiology examinations.
In his conclusion, Yaraghi writes, “The efforts by Congress, patient advocacy groups, and most importantly the shift towards value-based payments promise complete interoperability in the near future. After more than a decade of concerted national efforts, we are now on the verge of realizing the returns on our investments on health IT. HIE platforms have the potential to leverage the national investments on interoperability and radically improve the efficiency of healthcare services.”
Comparatively speaking, the aforementioned RAND study found no evidence showing whether or not health information exchanges are on track as a potential solution to the problem of fragmented healthcare. “It is pretty well established that the U.S. healthcare system is highly fragmented,” RAND’s Rubin said. “Lots of studies over the years, including some recent studies, have shown that a typical patient visits doctors in many different practices. Frequently the doctors don't have the patient's previous medical information. There is no sign of that problem getting better, and in fact it may get worse if medicine continues to become more specialized.”
Indeed, as Yaraghi notes, getting providers on board and increasing the volume of data available on the HIE platform will be the key moving forward. “A RHIO (regional health information organization) without data is an expensive yet empty glass of water,” he writes. “At the beginning, RHIOs could help physicians have a better understanding of the patients’ condition as much as an empty glass could help them quench their thirst.” Undoubtedly, as HIE organizations look to get providers more involved and willing to share data, the providers themselves are looking for more out of the HIEs. A recent report from NORC at the University of Chicago, funded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), found that providers highlight the potential for HIE to ease access to actionable data that integrates data from across the care continuum and provides clinicians with information at the point of care to improve care delivery and care coordination.
At the end of the day, it’s all about value, as with most things in life. If the general public values my condo in Hoboken, and I get renters to pay me to live there, I’m almost certainly going to see a return on my investment. Similarly, if physicians across the U.S. see value in HIEs, the federal government will eventually see a return on their investment as well, in the form of lower healthcare costs and better patient outcomes. As Yaraghi writes, “This is the first study in which access to an HIE platform was provided to all of the patients in a treatment group, while the care of the others in the control group did not include querying an HIE platform.” I hope that this research serves a stepping stone for more research in this area—and down the road, a return on our enormous expenditure into health information exchanges.