Fifteen years ago, if you entered an emergency room a thousand miles from home, the ER doctors would not have had access to potentially lifesaving information in your medical records, such as your allergies or a list of drugs you were taking. Only 10% of US hospitals had electronic health record (EHR) systems, and health record requests were typically sent in paper form by mail or fax machine. Then the federal government stepped in, providing billions of dollars in EHR incentives to help hospitals get online.
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“Today, 96% of hospitals and 85% of ambulatory providers [and] physician offices use EHRs,” says Micky Tripathi, national coordinator for health IT at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) under the US Department of Health and Human Services.
ONC has created standards for EHR systems, provided certifications for compliant EHR products that qualify for incentives, and created standards for sharing EHR system data sets. Until recently, however, the data in those systems has largely remained in silos, with limited accessibility.
That’s been changing with the rise of regional, national, and vendor-driven health information exchange networks. About 70% of all hospitals and ambulatory providers are sharing records electronically over national interoperability networks, says Tripathi, but have fallen short of providing complete access to patient data from all providers. The planned rollout later this year of government-certified Qualified Health Information Networks (QHINs), which Tripathi says will function as a “network of networks” for sharing health data nationwide, should help push participation levels higher.
However, the scope of what nationwide health information exchange networks offer today is largely limited to treatment, and data is limited to basic information, such as demographics, medication lists, problems and allergies, recent labs, and most recent visit summaries. While radiology reports may be included, images are not. Also, information is shared in document form rather than as discrete data elements, which limits the granularity of data requests. And participation in data exchanges remains optional for all stakeholders, including healthcare providers, payers, and patients.
While many hospitals are connected to nationwide health information exchange networks today, about 30% still don’t participate in nationwide data-sharing networks, “probably due to technical limitations of their EHR systems, lack of staff expertise or capacity, lack of resources to connect, and so on,” says Tripathi.
Many of those are smaller providers, says Paul Wilder, executive director at CommonWell Health Alliance, one of the QHIN candidates. “When it comes to smaller practices, we have a lot of work to do,” he says.
Also, patients and payers (health insurers, Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and so on) can’t directly access information on most exchanges today. Payers tend to use many point-to-point connections, he says.
Technology issues aren’t the only barrier. The culture in hospitals and other healthcare providers, and a preference for existing workflows, have slowed both the adoption and use of information sharing networks.
EHR systems crack open: Rise of the exchanges
A flurry of activity in the last few years has set the stage for nationwide provider access to clinical patient health data at any time, anywhere in the United States. “Much progress has been made in the last five years, says John Halamka, president, Mayo Clinic Platform.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) implemented the interoperability rule in 2020, removing barriers that prevented patients from accessing their health information. As part of its 21st Century Cures Act: Interoperability, Information Blocking, and the ONC Health IT Certification Program Final Rule, ONC also issued version 1 of the US Core Data for Interoperability (USCDI) standards, to which vendors must comply to be certified by the ONC. (Healthcare providers qualify for incentives only when they purchase certified EHR systems.)
Then, in 2021, the information blocking rule went into effect, requiring EHR system vendors, providers, and other parties to share data specified in USCDI v1. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) “defined where organizations can exchange information without having to get consent from the patient,” ONC’s Tripathi says. “You were permitted to share information with other parties involved in treatment, payment, and operations, but not obligated to do so. Now, in areas where providers, EHR vendors, and health information networks are permitted to share information, they are required to do so.” And in 2022 the rule was expanded to include data beyond that specified in the USCDI.
In 2022 ONC also published the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA), a 21st Century Cures Act requirement to “establish a universal floor for interoperability across the country,” along with the Qualified Health Information Network Technical Framework, which set in motion the process for existing health information networks to apply for designation as QHINs under TEFCA.
Healthcare providers can choose to work through any one of the QHINs to access clinical patient data for treatment purposes. (Version 1 of TEFCA, released in January 2022, authorizes six exchange purposes — Treatment, Payment, Health Care Operations, Individual Access Services, Public Health, and Government Benefits Determination.)
Cultural and workflow barriers persist
“While most hospitals are connected today, a lot of people in those hospitals don’t know that, and the workflows haven’t been solidified,” says Wilder at CommonWell.
Yale New Haven Health is connected to the Connie exchange, as well as CommonWell, Care Everywhere, and a few smaller, proprietary vendor repositories. Remote patient EHR data is accessible, but it’s still up to clinicians to access it, says Stump. And while most clinicians access some part of a remote record 80% of the time, “there are other areas at the other end of the spectrum, where the outside record is accessed far less often. It only happens there 20% of the time,” she says. “We still have work to do in optimally utilizing external data when available.”
While Stump is still investigating the reasons why some clinicians aren’t making full use of data exchanges, changing established culture and workflows may be part of the challenge. “Many providers don’t even know that there’s a button they can press,” says Wilder. “The technology is in place, but they don’t know it’s there.”
Tripathi calls this the “last mile” issue. “Front-line staff need to move away from their instinct, which is to use paper and fax,” he says.
It’s also possible that some clinicians simply haven’t gotten into the habit of checking, Stump says. “But I’m also hearing from clinicians that the format of the data doesn’t always make it easy for a physician, in the moment, to get at the salient points. Clinicians say they feel that the continuity of care document [the CCD, which contains the patient’s clinical information summary] is cluttered and doesn’t always have what they believe are the most relevant pieces of information.”
Today, that document includes several sections containing basic information on such things as advance directives, alerts, encounters, family history, functional status, immunizations, medical equipment, medications, payers, plan of care, problems, procedures, purpose, results, social history, and vital signs, according to the DHS.
Additionally, it will take some time before clinicians trust the baseline patient data that comes in through the exchanges. “There’s no trust that the data is complete,” says Wilder. “The 20% that might be missing might be the most important, so they often request both electronic and paper records,” especially for critical areas of practice, such as cardiology.