Hospitals and health systems are making progress in sharing health information, with 93 percent making records available to patients online, but collaboration across many private and public sector entities, including technology vendors and policymakers, is necessary to achieve comprehensive interoperability, according to a new report from national hospital associations.
The report reviews the current state of interoperability, which show promises but is still a patchwork system, as well as outlines current challenges and provides an agenda for steps to take to improve interoperability among health IT systems. The report was compiled by seven national hospital associations—America’s Essential Hospitals, American Hospital Association (AHA), Association of American Medical Colleges, Catholic Health Association of the United States, Children’s Hospital Association, Federation of American Hospitals and the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare.
“We see interoperability in action all around us. Mobile phones can call each other regardless of make, model, or operating system. The hospital field has made good headway, but it’s time to complete the job. We are united in calling for a truly interoperable system that allows all providers and patients to benefit from shared health records and data, leading to fully informed care decisions,” AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement.
“For the best care today, it’s the data stupid. Quality care depends on having the right information at the right time, so our patient’s records need to be available in the hospital or wherever our patients receive care. Hospitals are joining together to support improving interoperability because it is the key to assuring the best for our patients,” Federation of American Hospitals President and CEO Chip Kahn said in a prepared statement.
The report highlights that hospitals and health systems are making progress in sharing health information, with 93 percent making records available to patients online, up from 27 percent in 2012. What’s more, 88 percent of hospitals are sharing records with ambulatory care providers outside their system, up from 37 percent in 2012. And, 87 percent of hospitals enable patients to download information from their health record, up from 16 percent in 2012.
“We are inching closer to, but still short of, the ideal of seamless interoperability. In health care, this refers to the capacity to send and receive a patient’s health information from multiple sources between different systems and locations with its integrity intact,” the report authors wrote. “The information communicated must be useful to the receiving care provider, patients and families, and result in the care decisions that are best for them. Today, interoperability is a partially-achieved aim, working well in some but not all settings.”
The report authors note that the key to leveraging health data’s full potential for improving patient care is the establishment of a framework for compatible technical and linguistic (semantic) standards adopted by all parties that “lead us to a generic, vendor-neutral data exchange platform.” “We currently lack universally agreed upon ways of sharing and using information — “rules-of-the-road” that make possible the uncorrupted transfer of patient data between differing (and often proprietary) health record systems,” the report authors wrote.
Looking at progress made to date, hospitals and health systems have invest hundreds of billions over the past decade in electronic health records (EHRs) and other IT systems that record, store and transfer patient data securely among medical professionals. In 2017 alone, hospitals and health systems invested $62 billion in these IT systems.
According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), the vast majority of hospitals use multiple mechanisms to share health information, and more than half must use four or more. Furthermore, most hospitals devote significant resources to manually matching patient records, since we do not have a national patient identifier, the report states.
And, according to 2010 AHA survey data, only 16 percent of hospitals had a basic EHR system in place. By 2017, 97 percent of surveyed hospitals had adopted a certified EHR system.
What’s more, hospitals and health systems have made efforts to link via health information exchanges (HIEs), however, the report notes while HIEs do deliver on some of the promises of interoperability, the exchangeable data is often limited to a regional or statewide scale. “In addition, some HIEs cannot reliably carry out full data exchange within a health system among different source technologies, or data
exchange across health systems including ambulatory or post-acute settings,” the report authors wrote. Also, HIEs may not enable individual patients to access their data.
The report authors also outline the ongoing barriers to comprehensive interoperability. According to an AHA analysis on barriers to health data exchange and interoperability, 63 percent of respondents cited the lack of capable technology as the biggest barrier. That survey also identified difficulties matching or identifying the correct patient between systems also as additional costs to send or receive data with care settings and organizations outside their system as significant interoperability barriers as well.
“Barriers to interoperability must be addressed in order to support the level of electronic sharing of health information needed to provide the best care, engage people in their health, succeed in new models of care, and improve public health. Doing so requires collaboration across many private and public sector entities, including hospitals and health systems, technology companies, payers, consumers, and federal and state governments,” the report authors wrote.
The report also outlines “pathways” to advance interoperability with a particular focus around privacy, security, standards and infrastructure as well as industry stakeholders committing to share best practices and lessons learned.
Among the report’s recommendations, new standards are needed to overcome the significant gaps making communication difficult between systems. “For example, APIs (application programming interfaces), including those based on the FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) standard, allow for more nimble approaches to accessing needed data. Health care will benefit most from use of standard, secure, non-proprietary APIs that minimize the added costs associated with proprietary solutions and gatekeeping. API access should support both patient access to information from providers and other stakeholders, and the use of trusted third-party tools to support clinical care,” the report authors wrote.
“While we have made much progress, at present, we have the incomplete outline of a national data-sharing system in place, one that lacks the agreed upon rules of the road, conformance, technical standards and standardized implementations to ensure that all HIE platforms can communicate correctly with each other,” the report authors concluded.
The report authors note that true interoperability that advances improved health care and outcomes is within reach with effective federal policies and key stakeholders doing their part. The report calls on health systems to use their procurement power to drive vendors toward compatibility in systems design and lend a voice to the development process.
EHR and IT vendors, in turn, should commit to more field testing and consistent use of standards, the report authors wrote, and avoid pricing models that create a “toll” for information sharing. Vendors also should offer alternatives to expensive, labor-intensive workarounds that drain providers’ time and energy.