PA Pushes Direct Messaging For Health Data Exchanges

Pennsylvania eHealth Collaborative launches grant program that encourages doctors to use secure emails instead of paper and fax to share patient information.
8 Health Information Exchanges Lead The Way
8 Health Information Exchanges Lead The Way
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The Pennsylvania eHealth Collaborative has launched a grant program that encourages healthcare providers to use direct messaging to electronically exchange health information over the Internet. The program takes particular aim at providers who lack the resources or technical capacity to purchase advanced technology.

Direct messaging is based on the Direct Project program, begun two years ago to specify a secure, scalable, standards-based way for healthcare participants to send authenticated, encrypted health information directly to known, trusted recipients over the Internet. Overseen by The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, this one-way exchange allows any licensed, certified, or regulated healthcare provider to share patient information.

Healthcare providers have until Aug. 15 to apply for free direct messaging services through an approved health information service provider (HISP). The PA eHealth Collaborative will pay HISPs $250 for each healthcare provider they register to exchange data using direct messaging.

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According to PA eHealth Collaborative officials, as many as 8,000 providers could potentially take advantage of the program. This includes hospitals and health systems, community clinics, doctors and other licensed providers, and pharmacies and independent laboratories.

Robert Torres, Health Information Technology Coordinator for the state, said in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare that many physician offices, nursing homes, and labs still rely on fax machines and the mail to send health information to other healthcare providers.

"If you're a health organization that relies completely on paper you can scan the documents, attach a secure direct message through email over the Internet, and at least start sending information that way versus faxing or putting the patient records in the mail," Torres said.

He also noted that the point-to-point exchange of patient information will benefit providers that already have EHRs because they can select data from their EHRs and incorporate that data in a direct message to hospitals, a specialty practice, or a nursing home.

Facilities can use direct messaging to transmit patient care records, referrals, discharge summaries, and other clinical documents.

Torres said that although they gather information from health organizations across the state, many healthcare executives that already have EHRs complain they are having a difficult time exchanging patient data with health partners that still conduct their clinical workflow using paper records. Torres said he hopes that providers using health information technology and those that don't will join the program. In order to send information through direct messaging, both the sender and recipient must be direct subscribers.

"We are hopeful that at the end of the year, if you have engaged in the exchange of health information with your partners, you will realize the benefits of doing it and see some efficiencies in your work flow that hopefully translates into cost savings," Torres said.

According to Torres, his program is a first step for health providers that lack resources and health IT skills. "One day electronic health information exchange will be the norm, but it will take a while and Direct offers that interim step to get providers there," he said.

By signing up for the program, providers also can meet Meaningful Use Stage 1 requirements that help them qualify for federal incentive payments.

The grant uses $2 million taken from the $17.1 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Pennsylvania was awarded to help establish a health information exchange.

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