Health information exchange will link healthcare organizations across western Pennsylvania, providing cloud access to patient data and cutting costs by reducing redundancy of lab and imaging tests.

Nicole Lewis, Contributor

February 21, 2012

5 Min Read

Health IT On Display: HIMSS12 Preview

Health IT On Display: HIMSS12 Preview


Health IT On Display: HIMSS12 Preview (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Highmark Inc., one of the largest Blue health plans in the nation, announced Monday that it has signed an agreement that calls for Verizon Enterprise Solutions to deploy and manage the technology infrastructure for Highmark's health information exchange (HIE), which will soon link healthcare organizations across western Pennsylvania.

The Pittsburgh, Pa.-based company, which has approximately 4.7 million members, is the first health insurer to sign on to the Verizon Health Information Exchange, an interoperable cloud-based health IT platform that consolidates patient clinical data from disparate providers and translates the information into a standardized format for secure access over the Web.

The announcement coincided with the first day of the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference and exhibition in Las Vegas, where the discussion surrounding the development of health information exchanges is at the top of the health IT industry's agenda.

[ For more background on recent HIE achievements, see Health Information Exchanges Cross Interoperability Milestone. ]

Officials say the Verizon platform will offer doctors, nurses, and other clinicians affiliated with Highmark a way to access patient data using identity-access-management controls to provide security for sensitive patient information. The Highmark HIE will give clinicians easy access to patient data at the point of care, and will reduce redundancy of lab and imaging tests which officials say will cut costs.

The news follows a recent announcement by the Indiana Health Information Exchange, Inc (IHIE) that it has turned to AT&T to help it build a statewide health information exchange. "Verizon is taking a more aggressive approach to the healthcare space and this announcement helps telecom companies cement themselves as companies that can provide networks and data security to the healthcare industry," Zachary Bujnoch, senior industry analyst covering telehealth at Frost & Sullivan, told InformationWeek Healthcare. "They are not feeling around as much anymore, they are committing themselves to the healthcare industry with real resources and real projects."

As the amount of patient data increases, and with cloud computing still seen by many in the healthcare industry as a data security concern, healthcare stakeholders must come together to solve the problems that are emerging, Gerard Grundler, managing principal, health care, Verizon Connected Healthcare Solutions, said. Verizon will seek to work with healthcare organizations as they comb through patient data in an effort to decide what bits of information will be uploaded into the cloud, he said.

"Everybody needs to have access to particular components of a patient's medical record, but not necessarily all of it in order to be able to provide accurate, swift, expeditious and cost effective care," Grundler told InformationWeek Healthcare. "What that means is that the architecture that Verizon provides in a cloud in concert with our data security and identity access capabilities allows us to aggregate and collect data and only make it visible to those that have correct access to it."

Grundler said Verizon will be operating a very complex, hybrid environment and that as the country moves farther down the path of establishing accountable care and business continuity in healthcare, other aspects of care such as population health management and the continuum of care for those with chronic diseases will increase the value that Verizon brings to healthcare as it organizes and provides data to those that need it.

"This is a multilayer security challenge that requires multiple consent. Highmark has an opportunity to expose the data to many different layers from providers, to payers, and you need all of those components together to really fix what's wrong with healthcare today and to create the transformational environment and platforms that are needed for these communities in the future," he said.

According to Augusta Kairys, Highmark's vice president, provider technology and strategic partnerships, the HIE will be designed in such a way that health organizations will ultimately be responsible for their data. She also said that Highmark will be using the cloud environment for access to record locator services and master patient indexes that facilitate the exchange of patient data.

"The data will be under the control of the health organizations. The actual healthcare data itself will live in a singular environment for each organization that we've integrated with," Kairys said. "There will be some centralized services in the cloud that go out to the edges of that cloud and pull the appropriate data back in from each of those individual data stores. It's not as though there's a large bucket of clinical data that is all being mixed together in the cloud."

Highmark officials noted that the Verizon agreement will advance Highmark's strategy to become an integrated health delivery system especially as it plans to merge with West Penn Allegheny Health System, which is a physician-led healthcare organization that is based in Pittsburgh, Pa., and comprised of five hospitals.

"We are morphing into an integrated delivery and financing system," Mike Fiaschetti, Highmark's senior vice president, provider services and strategy, said. "We are on the verge of acquiring the West Penn Alleghany System and that will be the hub of our system, so having information from independent providers and information flowing back and forth between our systems and theirs through our HIE is going to be critical."

Healthcare providers must collect all sorts of performance data to meet emerging standards. The new Pay For Performance issue of InformationWeek Healthcare delves into the huge task ahead. Also in this issue: Why personal health records have flopped. (Free registration required.)

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