There is a grand vision out there in the world of health information technology. It goes something like this.
One day, sometime in the future, every time I encounter the health care system, the details of that encounter will be recorded on a computer. This includes everything a health care provider writes (er… types) about me in their electronic health record system (EHR), every laboratory, x-ray or other diagnostic test result, every prescription ever given to me and information from the pharmacy on whether I got it filled and refilled. All of these computers will be connected through RHIOs (regional health information organizations) and all the RHIOs will be connected in some manner to the National Health Information Network (NHIN). The end result will be that anywhere in the country that I seek health care, with my permission, my treating provider will be able to search this network, find all the information stored about me, have this information consolidated and organized into a useful format and then use this information to help plan my treatment. The promise is that this will have dramatic effects on the quality of care I receive and the overall cost of medical care in this country will decrease.
This vision is driving an enormous national effort to set standards for how these computers will “talk” to one another, to establish rules for the privacy and security of the information and to figure out the path to bring this dream into reality.
The vision is grand and I am sure will be realized some day. But there is a problem. There is a problem in focusing our efforts on connectivity, interoperability and exchange of information when the vast majority of that information is not electronic today. There is a problem in investing in a technology and an idea on a national scale without a substantial portfolio of regional and statewide efforts to build upon. But most importantly, we are overlooking many, less expensive and better proven methods of improving the quality and safety of medical care in the
Health information technology in the hands of health care providers has great potential to improve quality, improve safety and improve communication with patients. With limited funds available for technology development, we should be spending the vast majority of our IT resources now in supporting the implementation of health information technology (HIT) rather than the future vision of widespread health information exchange (HIE).
It is estimated that the increased hospital costs alone of preventable adverse drug events affecting inpatients are about $2 billion for the nation as a whole. The table below is referenced in the IOM report To Err is Human and seeks to create a taxonomy of medical errors. This is useful in examining which, if any of these errors would be alleviated by health information exchange. Conclusion: very few of them would be affected beneficially. Which of them would be improved by health information technology implemented in the provider sites? Almost all of them.
HIT before HIE
Here are just some of the reasons why we should put our resources into HIT, before HIE
- Electronic access to an individual’s health information from another provider’s EHR system will not address the major ways in which they are likely to be injured by the health care system
- Almost all documented quality improvements and safety enhancements through health information technology have come from the use of HIT systems within an organization
- There are no operational studies which demonstrate a reduction in health care costs through health information exchange – the often quoted models are based on dozens of unproven assumptions
- With the low prevalence of electronic health records and no mandate for providers to make this transition, many providers will continue to have records that are not plugged into a data exchange. The result is that not everyone who wants or needs their record in the NHIN will have it there if their provider is not connected.
- With incomplete information, much of the information contained in the NHIN (or another data exchange model) will be incomplete and will not reflect the patient’s current status
- There is no way for a treating provider to validate the quality of the information provided by other treating entities. Without validation it is possible that inaccurate information is passed from one source to another without critical examination of its validity.
- Duplication of some studies – x-rays over time, serial lab tests and others – may in fact be optimal medical care. Assumptions have been made that this duplication is expensive and will be largely eliminated when all information is available on the NHIN.
- Doctors who make money by doing tests may perform duplicate tests even if prior information is available, questioning the validity, timeliness or quality of prior testing.
- Pharmacy data retrieved will tell providers what was prescribed, maybe even tell what was filled at a pharmacy, but cannot tell what medications the patient had stopped by another provider or whether the patient is actually taking the medication. It also won’t tell if the patient has started using old medications around their house or meds from a family member or friend. Nothing substitutes for reviewing a patient’s medications and having them bring the ones they are taking for review by the treating provider.
- Current technology cannot provide absolute privacy and security and people need to be convinced that when their privacy and security risks are balanced against the potential benefits of having their health information on the NHIN, that the latter is seen to be dominant. There is survey data to indicate that many patients will voluntarily agree to release their information to their local data exchange and thus, become part of the NHIN. There is reasonable evidence however that patients will not want to have any information about them shared without having access to that information themselves. (“Nothing about me, without me”)
- There are no studies that have looked at the errors that might arise during the decades that it may take for this ultimate vision to be realized – during which time information on patients opting in to the data exchange will be largely incomplete, and thus inaccurate
- While some estimates have been made of the costs that will be added to each clinical encounter through maintaining, querying and contributing to the NHIN there are no proven business models for sustaining these costs going forward. Health care costs in this country are already higher than anywhere else in the world and we have not yet dealt with the costs of health information technology and health information exchange.
Getting to widespread adoption of HIT and then HIE
Problems notwithstanding, the ultimate vision of the NHIN is the right one. The path we have set to achieve it is wrong. We are funding HIE projects for implementation when there are not standards in place for how privacy and security will be managed. Current certification (by CCHIT) of EHRs does not require that interoperability standards have been met. We are funding a weed
First Order Priorities
- The vast majority of development resources at this time should be directed to health information technology (HIT) implementation in all locations and a timeline should be set for providers to be required to have installed a fully functional EHR that meets the certification requirements of CCHIT (the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology)
- Priority funding should be given to demonstrations of improvements in quality and safety using HIT within hospital and ambulatory care systems with rapid dissemination of models that work
- A certification program like the one being developed by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) should be implemented immediately to set the goals for HIT adoption and use. This certification should be used to establish a fee enhancement that all insurers (public and private) would pay and which could be used by providers to support improved quality of care
Second Order Priorities
- CCHIT criteria should include requirements for a patient portal so that patients are able to have access to all of their health care information. This is an important precursor for the implementation of full information exchange. People need to know what information is in their electronic health files, have the opportunity to validate this information and feel secure that the information is secure
- Priority should be given for connectivity of EHRs to a public health syndromic surveillance system. With fears about an influenza pandemic raising year by year, such connectivity could provide life-saving early warning enabling an increased lead time for dispensing immunizations and anti-viral medications.
- Standards for interoperability must be developed and vendors should all be required to adopt these to become CCHIT certified
Third Order Priorities
- Once a national framework has been developed for privacy, security and interoperability standards and appropriate legislation is in place the NHIN should be implemented through the vendor community. Each vendor would serve as a node in the NHIN, implementing the privacy, security and interoperability standards and linking their users into the national framework. This would completely alleviate the RHIO madness that we are in and the costs of connectivity would be borne by the provider community to be reimbursed through national requirements for private insurers to pay for connectivity. Hopefully, when HIT is completely implemented and the NHIN is a reality, the overall cost savings in reduced hospitalization, reduced medical errors and increased patient safety should offset the costs of the technology and may stabilize or even reduce health care costs overall.