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HHS Launches Health Information Exchange Pilots

Minnesota and Rhode Island are the first states to send encrypted patient data over the Internet using Direct Project standards.

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The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) announced Wednesday that providers and public health agencies in Minnesota and Rhode Island have begun exchanging encrypted personal health information (PHI) over the Internet as part of the Direct Project.

The Direct Project is an open government initiative that develops specifications for a secure, scalable, standards-based way to establish universal health addressing and transport for participants (including providers, laboratories, hospitals, pharmacies, and patients) to send encrypted health information directly to known recipients over the Internet.

"There are at least two things that we have to accomplish in our overall goal of modernizing the health information system in the United States. The first is to get information into electronic form. The next thing we have to do is to get that information moving. The Direct Project is a critical tool for that movement," David Blumenthal, national coordinator for health IT, said at a press briefing on Wednesday.

Blumenthal also said the two pilot demonstrations -- which will soon be followed by similar projects in New York, Connecticut, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, and California -- mark an important milestone in ONC's journey to achieving a secure health information exchange (HIE) system which will provide physicians and other clinicians with added support as they work toward meeting stage 1 meaningful use requirements. Offering the Direct Project's online capabilities to clinicians "means that healthcare providers large and small will have an early option for electronic exchange of information supporting their most basic and frequently needed uses," Blumenthal said.

Since mid-January, Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), Minnesota's premier level 1 adult and pediatric trauma center, has been successfully sending immunization records to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

"This demonstrates the success that is possible through public-private collaborations," James Golden, Minnesota's state health IT coordinator, said in a statement. "This is an important milestone for Minnesota and a key step toward the seamless electronic movement of information to improve care and public health."

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