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Sharing Electronic Medical Records Still Too Hard

Epic CEO Judy Faulkner and other health execs aren't thrilled with the state of EHR interoperability. What are today's big barriers?

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The average patient can't fathom why the sharing of electronic medical records is so hard. But those inside healthcare aren't thrilled either with the state of electronic record interoperability, as several smart discussions at this week's Digital Healthcare Conference in Madison, Wis., showed.

"If we're this far into this implementation across the country, and we still have this level of discordance, shame on us," said Dr. Frank Byrne, president of Wisconsin's St. Mary's Hospital. "How did we get here and how do we get out? Because we've created barriers."

Epic CEO and founder Judy Faulkner highlighted some of the obstacles to data sharing, from patients wanting to control such sharing, to difficulty training clinicians, to the many technical challenges. While data-definition standards in theory should make sharing easier, "the standards are only describing a very, very small subset of the data that's really there," Faulkner said.

[ Mobile EHR apps are set to take off. Read EHR Makers Answer Doctors' Calls For Mobile Apps. ]

Here are a few of the broad questions about interoperability discussed at the DHC 2013 event, with input drawn from several speakers and sessions. What's missing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Q: Shouldn't data standards allow easier sharing across vendor systems?

Faulkner sounded a skeptical chord about today's standards solving interoperability. There are about 110,00 data elements in the electronic health record, she said, and existing data-definition standards don't come close to capturing the full scope of what's in electronic records. What's more, Faulkner said she is a bit worried about standards as a double-edged sword -- standards might improve communications, but limit innovation and new ideas. "That has to be always balanced as well," she said.

A more hopeful view of standards came from Jamie Ferguson, VP of health IT strategy and policy for Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's largest managed healthcare groups. Ferguson said standards are "perfectly good" for standardizing close to two thirds of the needed records. But he said EHRs generally aren't implemented well based on the standards.

Byrne said that as a practical matter, interoperability is working locally for St. Mary's and neighboring health system around Madison because many use Epic EHRs, making data compatibility easier. Direct Epic-to-Epic data exchanges will be most common, he said, but it's also exploring and supporting other exchange-based options. Byrne, Faulkner and Ferguson shared a panel discussing interoperability.

Q: Why isn't there an API culture in healthcare?

Big software platforms in other industries use application programming interfaces (APIs) to allow integration and development of add-on applications by third-party software makers. APIs have fueled the boom in mobile app development.

Although mobile app development has picked up in healthcare, it would benefit from more extensive APIs for medical record data, said Judy Murphy, deputy coordinator of programs and policy for the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health IT, in a separate presentation at DHC 2013. "Many, many of the electronic health records are still proprietary and closed, they don't publish APIs, they don't allow app developers to access their information," Murphy said. "And that's part of what we're trying to change." She cited open government data efforts such as Medicare's and Medicaid's that have led to new mobile apps, such as iBlueButton.

Faulkner emphasized the openness Epic does allow: Epic releases its source code to customers, and will train providers' developers on the system and all the ways they can pull out data for their use. "What we don't do is release that to other vendors," she said.

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/6/2013 | 4:16:47 PM
re: Sharing Electronic Medical Records Still Too Hard
wow .. it seems the technology will take over everything susu kambing
User Rank: Apprentice
7/20/2013 | 3:44:18 AM
re: Sharing Electronic Medical Records Still Too Hard
I'll add to your list of barriers for interoperability all day long, if you'd please show us just one clear path to smooth, reliable interoperability (within budget.)
Out of over 600 EHRs certified in 2011 for ambulatory clinics, less than 18 of them now certify for basic standards of interoperability. The reality is those disparate systems were not developed to work together in the first place. Therefore, any efforts for "interoperability" can only be a temporary fix. (Ie. "make-do" or "work-around")
Problematic, temporary fixes do not work in medicine.

At some point we'll have to give up the "jury-rigging" of current EHRs to adopt a more viable solution. A solution which is thoroughly planned & professionally developed from scratch. Essentially, it'd be what Epic has provided to the large hospitals, but for ambulatory medicine.
User Rank: Strategist
8/20/2013 | 12:03:29 AM
re: Sharing Electronic Medical Records Still Too Hard
Open source code projects rarely set up standards, then require participants to swear an oath of to follow them. On the contrary, they have many parties submitting code from various viewpoints and a founder of the project, or a trusted inner circle of committers, deciding which ones conform to the goal of the project and enhance it without interfering with already-established operations. It's a benevolent dictator model, and while the analogy is imperfect, I wish some force -- the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Processing? -- would impose it on all medical record formats.
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