Common cause for interoperability

Alliance of six top EHR companies makes a splash
By Mike Miliard
12:00 AM
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In March, six vendors announced an unprecedented collaboration aimed at moving the needle on interoperability.

Joining forces to launch CommonWell Health Alliance were executives from Cerner, McKesson, Allscripts, athenahealth, Greenway and RelayHealth. They touted what they say is a first-of-its-kind organization: a collaboration of rival vendors, uniting to enable care integration and data liquidity. 

At a press conference March 4 at HIMSS13, McKesson chairman and CEO John Hammergren said the independent, not-for-profit organization represents an "industry-led approach" to one of the thorniest problems in health IT. 

Since then several other vendors have signed up to join the alliance with the original six.

Hammergren said it was "one we hope everyone will join with us on."

Notorious for her absence was Judith Faulkner, CEO of Epic, one of the most successful EHR companies in the country. She said she was not invited.

With an eye toward improving the quality and lowering costs, the CommonWell Health Alliance seeks to ease access to data across systems and settings, in compliance with patient authorization.

"One of the key challenges we face is not just automated healthcare but connected and together care," said Hammergren. "Data liquidity is necessary to make it happen."

As the alliance works toward a national infrastructure with common platforms and policies, these technology firms – and any others who want to join them – will work toward nationwide interoperability, executives said.

It's time for vendors, even as they continue to compete in the marketplace, to break down their data silos, said Neal Patterson, co-founder, chairman, CEO and president of Cerner. "Our government is not going to deal with this problem," he said.

For his part, athenahealth CEO and Chairman Jonathan Bush said the CommonWell mission is right in line with his own company's raison d'être: "a national health information backbone that allows healthcare to work as it should."

Since "you can't build an information backbone that only exists in your corner of the word," he said, a project like this simply makes sense.

"There is a tremendous amount of electronic information," said Greenway president and CEO Tee Green. "But there is very little liquid information."
It's past time, said Bush, to "get the ball rolling" on data exchange across disparate technologies.

Toward that end, the alliance's national infrastructure – which officials say would pilot within the next year – will be built with several core capabilities to drive integration among systems and settings.

These include cross-entity patient linking services to help providers match patients as they transfer across care facilities; access management tools to help with HIPAA-compliant sharing authorizations; and patient record locator and directed query services, which will help providers deliver patient encounter histories and, with authorization, share patient data across episodes of care.

"We're competitors," said Patterson. "We're going to go back home and compete." But, he added, "we're here because of a common value system."

"This is a first step, hopefully, of a mass-adoption of this strategy," said Hammergren.