ONC tells Congress: Interoperability must be a priority

In its annual report to Congress, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT touts widespread EHR usage and an increase in health information exchange. But the agency says there's still work do be done to make true interoperability a success.
By Jessica Davis
02:22 PM

National Coordinator for Health IT Vindell Washington, MD

The crucial foundation of the U.S. healthcare system and its patients rests upon interoperability and the ability of providers to make the transition to efficient flow of electronic health information.

So said the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information in its annual report to congress, asserting the need for interoperability to further the goals set forth in ambitious projects such as the Precision Medicine Initiative.

With nearly all of hospitals (96 percent) and 78 percent of physician offices now using certified electronic health record technology, it's no longer enough to merely adopt these tools, according to ONC. The healthcare industry needs to fully utilize the EHR and other health IT tools to improve patient care and outcomes.

"The impact of the dramatic increase in health IT adoption since passage of the HITECH Act goes beyond digitizing paper health records," the authors wrote. "The rapid adoption of health IT has facilitated increased use of functionalities that have real-world clinical impacts."

To increase interoperability, ONC is focusing on three priorities:

  • The creation and promotion of common standards for seamless data exchange, especially through the use of open application programming interfaces.
  • An overhaul of delivery systems to improve interoperability and the way CMS pays for care to reward quality.
  • A culture change with regard to access to information, helping combat data blocking, educating individuals on their rights to access information and reminding providers they're legally allowed to exchange healthcare information when it comes to treatment.

One major step, according to officials, is HL7's FHIR standard to promote and integrate electronic health information exchange. The spec allows providers to transmit patient data to the consumer or an app chosen by the patient.

While ONC found that more providers are exchanging information than in the past, there is still much work to be done.

"Despite progress on standards and economic incentives, many health IT developers, healthcare providers and hospitals still choose not to share electronic health information for a variety of reasons," the report's authors said.

"To achieve the seamless and secure flow of electronic health information, public and private sector efforts must foster culture change around access to information – including combating information blocking – in addition to addressing technical and economic factors," they added.

More specifically, officials said common standards are necessary for successful interoperability, as are innovations at the community level. So too is the elimination of information blocking. ONC is targeting these providers and exploring avenues to fix the problem.

Further, as providers shift toward value-based care, ONC and the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services are collaborating to help state Medicaid agencies have a unified approach for all data systems and programs.

"In the years to come, HHS will continue to work with federal partners, the private sector and Congress to make electronic health information accessible when and where it matters most, to bolster care delivery and coordination, improve the health of individuals and communities, reduce disparities, fuel research and innovation and spur advancements in scientific discovery," according to ONC.

Twitter: @JessieFDavis
Email the writer: jessica.davis@himssmedia.com

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