This starts a mini-series blog, a “Symphony in Two or Three movements.” Movement 1 will discuss what is happening as the information starts to flow “liquidly” as it should, among providers and patients and public health in the healthcare system. Movement 2 will discuss what I think providers will need to avoid drowning when the liquid turns into a flood.
There are now government incentives to exchange information, due to the ARRA HITECH legislation as well as the emergence of accountable care organizations (ACOs). Some advocate high degrees of structured data and vocabularies from the outset. Others say that the most important thing is first to achieve “health information liquidity” – simply get the information to flow freely without much standardization of content – and later to evolve towards higher degrees of interoperability and structure. Right now as I type these words, ONC Chief Technology Officer Todd Park is espousing health data liquidity on ONC’s webcast! CMS will open the incentive money faucet, as providers open their EHRs’ faucets to exchange information.
Up till now, providers receive some health information through manual methods such as patients carrying their paper records or images on CD, or referring providers sending paper mail or FAX. But most of it isn’t in electronic format that they can use in their EHR. And most providers have little or no opportunity to “find” information on their patients if it’s not delivered to them. The bad news is that they’re missing a holistic view of the patient and may waste time searching or repeating questions or tests. The “good news” (not really good) is that they probably aren’t overwhelmed by, nor obligated to discover, all the patient’s previous records.
But now the faucet is opening and the “liquid” is starting to flow. In order for the data to be understood at both ends of an exchange, standards are needed. Many have already been defined and just need to be adopted. ONC has recognized standards in data format (e.g., CCD or CCR format for patient summaries, and HL7 2.5.1 lab result messages for public health) and clinical vocabularies. Partners Healthcare has done encouraging work testing the adequacy of standards (e.g., CCD, RxNorm) to communicate structured codified medication lists among different systems. ONC didn’t select standards for physical transport of the data, but has now recognized the need there, so they’re sponsoring the Direct Project for simple push of data among known recipients (e.g., referrals and discharges) using a secure e-mail protocol (SMTP with S/MIME). Its goal is to be simple, ubiquitous, and accepted as e-mail is today, and a step above current manual methods. But the Direct Project Overview explains how Direct doesn’t to handle every scenario, such as “pulling” data for an emergency visit. There are already standard specifications for patient lookup and record locator services (e.g., IHE PIX and XDS) when querying a Health Information Exchange registry and repository. The ONC-sponsored Nationwide Health Information Network Exchange and Connect projects also leverage IHE. While the Direct Project and IHE both use established standards, there’s still much room to grow in their adoption in the healthcare domain.
Let’s assume that over the next two years that Direct and IHE both thrive: then what will people do with the information that flows to them? As I speak with clinicians, very few care about the formats and transport protocols, but they want the right information at the right time to help them make better decisions to help their patients. They have to use, to consume (or “drink” to preserve the liquid analogy) what they receive. But as the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.” Who wants to drink from a fire hose? What happens when the electronic information arriving at the clinician’s fingertips, or available through an HIE, is no longer a trickle but becomes a flood? Ah, rather than ending up with a “drinking problem” I prefer to see it as an opportunity for innovation. More about that in Movement 2 of this blog post.