The two-year war against COVID-19 and its variants has highlighted the critical importance of health data. Collected and delivered largely by health information exchanges (HIEs) around the country, health data has helped hospitals, government agencies and other stakeholders track the geography and demographics of the pandemic and vaccination status.
Unfortunately, some of the health data gaps throughout the pandemic also revealed where systemwide holes need to be filled. Though nearly 9 in 10 office-based physicians have adopted electronic health records—fueled in large part by a $35 billion investment from the 2009 HITECH program—many health systems still cannot readily share records with other health systems. With our existing technology, there are no good reasons to "silo" this information—especially when data connections hold so much promise in improving healthcare quality, preventing medical errors, reducing healthcare costs and promoting patient-centered care.
Though the industry as a whole has met—and even exceeded—the objectives set by the Office of the National Coordinator for Information Technology in 2004, there's still much work to be done. That's why we call on health leaders to invest more effort and resources into interoperability and the secure and seamless transfer of health data.
Interoperability is vital to future success
Simply put, the more provider organizations and other entities that share health data, the better. To realize the long-sought vision of comprehensive interoperability, healthcare leaders should follow the lead of federal agencies.
Last year, ONC nudged the healthcare industry in the right direction by releasing a 10-year vision to achieve a truly interoperable health information technology infrastructure with an emphasis on value-based care. ONC encourages all stakeholders to increase interoperability and functionality as needed, strive for a baseline to best meet users' needs, support payment and delivery reforms, implement simplified solutions and protect privacy and security at all aspects of interoperability.
How HIEs 'walk the talk'
While federal policies are providing strong incentives for healthcare providers to jump on the interoperability bandwagon, more health IT organizations are exploring ways to share knowledge and processes while benefiting from greater efficiencies.
Over the past five years, more than 10 HIEs have consolidated through multiple pathways; including mergers, joint ventures and shared-services agreements. Much of this consolidation is occurring in states with multiple HIE players. As healthcare observers know, this is consistent with the broader consolidation within the industry as community hospitals become part of local health systems and those systems join regional and national systems.
Examples of HIE consolidation and collaboration can be found in Indiana (Indiana Health Information Exchange and Michiana Health Information Network), Nebraska and Iowa (CyncHealth and CyncHealth Iowa) and in Maryland, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Alaska (CRISP Shared Services). Additionally, BeyondHIE was recently formed as a joint venture between the Utah Health Information Network (UHIN), Idaho Health Data Exchange, Comagine Health and a health IT vendor. In the West, Colorado-based CORHIO and Arizona-based Health Current came together in 2021 under the regional umbrella organization Contexture.
Recently, the Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative (SHIEC) joined forces with the Network for Regional Healthcare Improvement (NRHI) to form Civitas Networks for Health, an organization that intends to strengthen the existing data and interoperability infrastructure. Civitas represents over 100 regional and statewide organizations in 45 states.
How consolidation benefits health and care
Just as health IT organizations benefit from collaboration, interoperability will help the healthcare industry move in a positive direction by breaking down the aforementioned silos of health data—ultimately giving patients, providers and communities a better longitudinal view of multiple health factors to improve health and wellness.
This trend also reinforces the role of not-for-profit, multistakeholder organizations serving as community data trustees through the secure sharing and management of health data HIEs have tremendous potential in bridging the divide between the public and private sectors that provide different types of healthcare services—including testing, admission discharge and transfer data, lab results and radiology images. Sharing health data also holds much promise in helping communities identify and analyze the social determinants of health—factors that directly and indirectly influence outcomes.
Because privacy and security are absolutely critical in the transfer of health data, HIEs share a common commitment to ensure that their processes meet key regulations and industry-defined requirements. To that point, a number of HIEs have obtained HITRUST certification status to manage risks and prevent security breaches.
Like other essential utilities such as water and electricity, the data that HIEs provide plays a vital role in the lives of individuals. With continued collaboration, innovation and public and private support, interoperability in health data will demonstrate a lifesaving value proposition beyond the walls of healthcare facilities.
As we have learned, when it comes to healthcare, pandemics don't recognize borders, and neither should data.