While progress has been made in the adoption of health IT across the U.S. healthcare industry, significant interoperability hurdles remain, including technical, financial and trust barriers, according to a report from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).
Currently, the potential value of health information captured in certified health IT is often limited by a lack of accessibility across systems and across different end users, the ONC report stated.
The annual report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and ONC to Congress highlights nationwide health IT infrastructure progress and the use of health data to improve healthcare delivery throughout the U.S.
The report, “2018 Report to Congress: Annual Update on the Adoption of a Nationwide System for the Electronic Use and Exchange of Health Information,” also reflects progress on the implementaions of the Federal Health IT Strategic Plan 2015-202 and the Connecting Health and Care for the Nation: A Shared Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap.
In the report, ONC notes that most hospitals and health care providers have a digital footprint. As of 2015, 96 percent of non-federal acute care hospitals and 78 percent of office-based physicians adopted certified health IT. The increase in health IT adoption means most Americans receiving health care services now have their health data recorded electronically.
However, hurdles to progress still remain. For example, ONC notes that many certified health IT products lack capabilities that allow for greater innovation in how health information can be securely accessed and easily shared with appropriate members of the care team. “Such innovation is more common in other industries. Also, lack of transparent expectations for data sharing and burdensome experiences for health care providers limit the return on investment for health care providers and the value patients are able to gain from using certified health IT,” the report authors wrote.
While health information is increasingly recorded in a digital format, rather than paper, this information is not always accessible across systems and by all end users—such as patients, health care providers and payers, the report authors note. Patients often lack access to their own health information, healthcare providers often lack access to patient data at the point of care, particularly when multiple healthcare providers maintain different pieces of data, own different systems or use health IT solutions purchased form different developers, and payers often lack access to clinical data on groups of covered individuals to assess the value of services provided by their customers.
Currently, patients electronically access their health information through patient portals that prevent them from easily pulling from multiple sources or health care providers. Patient access to their electronic health information also requires repeated use of logins and manual data updates, according to the report. For healthcare providers and payers, interoperable access and exchange of health records is focused on accessing one record at a time. “Without the capability to access multiple records across a population of patients, healthcare providers and payers will not benefit from the value of using modern computing solutions—such as machine learning and artificial intelligence—to inform care decisions and identify trends,” the report authors wrote.
Looking at the future state, the report authors contend that certified health IT includes important upgrades to support interoperability and improve user experience. Noting ONC’s most recent 2015 edition of certification criteria and standards, these upgraded capabilities will show as hospitals and healthcare provider practices upgrade their technology to the 2015 edition, the report authors state.
“As HHS implements the provisions in the Cures Act, we look forward to continued engagement between government and industry on health IT matters and on the role health IT can play to increase competition in healthcare markets,” the report authors wrote, noting that one particular focus will be open APIs (application programming interfaces). The use of open APIs will support patients’ ability to have more access to information electronically through, for example, smartphones and mobile applications, and will allow payers to receive necessary and appropriate information on a group of members without having to access one record at a time.
Healthcare industry stakeholders have indicated that many barriers to interoperable access to health information remain, including technical, financial, trust and business practice barriers. “In addition, burden arising from quality reporting, documentation, administrative, and billing requirements that prescribe how health IT systems are designed also hamper the innovative usability of health IT,” the report authors wrote.
The report also outlines actions that HHS is taking to address these issues. Federal agencies, states, and industry have taken steps to address technical, trust, and financial challenges to interoperable health information access, exchange, and use for patients, health care providers, and payers (including insurers). HHS aims to build on these successes through the ONC Health IT Certification Program, HHS rulemaking, health IT innovation projects, and health IT coordination, the report authors wrote.
In accordance with the Cures Act, HHS is actively leading and coordinating a number of key programs and projects, including “continued work to deter and penalize poor business practices that lead to information blocking,” for example.
The report also calls out HHS’ efforts to develop a Trusted Exchange Framework and a Common Agreement (TEFCA) to support enabling trusted health information exchange. “Additional actions to meet statutory requirements within the Cures Act including supporting patient access to personal health information, reducing clinician burden, and engaging health and health IT stakeholders to promote market-based solutions,” the report authors wrote.
Moving forward, collaboration and innovation are critical to the continued progress on the nationwide health IT infrastructure. To that end, the HHS report authors recommend that the agency, and the health IT community overall, focus on a number of key steps to accelerate progress. Namely, health IT stakeholders should focus on improving interoperability and upgrading technical capabilities of health IT, so patients can securely access, aggregate and move their health information using their smartphones, or other devices, and healthcare providers can easily send, receive and analyze patient data.
The health IT community also should focus on increasing transparency in data sharing practices and strengthen technical capabilities of health IT, so payers can access population-level clinical data to promote economic transparency and operational efficiency, which helps to lower the cost of care and administrative costs, the report authors note.
Health IT developers and industry stakeholders also needs to prioritize improving health IT and reducing documentation burden, time inefficiencies and hassle for healthcare providers so clinicians and physicians can focus on their patients rather than their computers.