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Health IT Interoperability Is Common Thread at ONC Annual Meeting

A common theme of Thursday's plenary sessions at the ONC 2018 annual meeting was health IT interoperability.

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Source: Thinkstock

By Fred Donovan

- A common theme of Thursday's plenary sessions at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) 2018 annual meeting was health IT interoperability.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar kicked off the meeting, being held in Washington, DC, with a pre-recorded video in which he stressed his interest in promoting health IT interoperability.

“I have identified health IT as one of the key elements for value-based transformation. We will succeed at building an interoperable health IT system, and we will ensure that patients have access to and control over their data,” Azar said.

Azar stressed that HHS is not going to dictate the road to reach interoperable health IT. Rather, it is up to the private sector to develop innovations to achieve interoperable health IT.

ONC Deputy National Coordinator for Operations Lisa Lewis told attendees that it is critical for regulators and the private sector “to work through the complicated infrastructure of policy, technology, and business drivers that can make it hard for us to achieve interoperability. With the public and private sectors working together, we can figure out interoperability for the American people. It is our responsibility to do so.”

READ MORE: APIs, Modern Infrastructure Fuel Health IT Interoperability

Lewis noted that the ONC released this week its draft Strategy on Reducing Burden Relating to the Use of Health IT and EHRs, which is designed to reduce administrative and regulatory burdens that can make health IT infrastructure, such as electronic health records (EHR), cumbersome to use. ONC is seeking public feedback on the draft strategy.

In addition, Lewis related that ONC has released the first version of its Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement and is working on the second version. The framework is intended to bridge the gap between provider and patient information systems and enable interoperability across disparate health information networks.

ONC is also developing a notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM) related to information blocking, application programming interfaces “without special effort,” and conditions for health IT certification. The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing the NPRM, which should be available for public comment “soon,” Lewis said.

Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan said that “it is impossible to move to a future health system … without a truly interoperable health IT system. We are focusing our EHR incentives on interoperability.”

Hargan stressed that patients need to be able to access their health records. When they move to a new provider, they should be able to bring their medical records with them.

READ MORE: Value-Based Care Needs Purposeful Health IT Interoperability

“As we continue to progress on health IT, we are going to continue a focus on provider burden and on making sure that overall health IT really is making it easier for doctors to help their patients. This has to remain a focus of our work,” Hargan said.  

“We don’t want to micro-manage how the private sector can help us accomplish our goals. When we set out specific goals, whether it is overhauling outdated rules or requiring interoperability, it’s because we take these goals seriously, and we follow through on them to the best of our capacity,” he added.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN),  chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, spoke with CMS Deputy Administrator and Director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Adam Boehler during the meeting about the senator’s work on the 21st Century Cures Act, oversight of its implementation, and health IT policy in general.

“Interoperability is the elephant in the room. It’s a tough thing to solve,” Alexander said. He related that the Center for Medical Interoperability, located in Nashville, brings together public and private hospitals from across the country with $200 billion in annual health IT buying power. The center is working toward a common health IT platform for data and devices.

Some of the center’s members include LifePoint Hospitals, Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, Hospital Corporation of America, Cedars-Sinai Health System, Hennepin Healthcare System, Ascension Health, Community Health Systems, Scripps Health, and UNC Health Care System.

READ MORE: ONC Blockchain Winners Target Health IT Interoperability

Members are looking to leverage their buying power to encourage IT suppliers to sell products that work with their common platform, Alexander explained.

The center estimated that more than $30 billion annually can be saved in healthcare costs by widespread adoption of interoperable medical devices.

The center’s mission is “to achieve plug-and-play interoperability by unifying healthcare organizations to compel change, building a lab to solve shared technical challenges, and pioneering innovative research and development.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), a member of the Senate HELP Committee, spoke with National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Don Rucker about her work on the 21st Century Cures Act.

“Interoperability became one of the key issues that I worked a lot on” in putting together the legislation, Baldwin related.

“I wanted to make sure that the committee and the Congress as a whole weren’t going to pick winners and losers but instead harness the work being done already, enabling greater interoperability between networks and vendors,” she said.

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