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Readers Write: Interoperability and Standards Will Be Areas of Focus Through Year End

October 9, 2017 Readers Write 4 Comments

Interoperability and Standards Will Be Areas of Focus Through Year End
By Michael Burger


Michael Burger is practice lead, EHRs and EDI, for Point-of-Care Partners of Coral Springs, FL.

While there are many uncertainties in healthcare, interoperability and standards will undoubtedly be areas of focus through the end of 2017. To that end, the government and industry will continue to refine existing standards and address interoperability challenges. This involves activities by the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) and ongoing efforts by standards development organizations (SDOs) and electronic health record (EHR) vendors.

Despite potential severe budget cuts, ONC says it is committed to interoperability and standards as main areas of emphasis. For example, ONC is putting the finishing touches on its Proposed Interoperability Standards Measurement Framework, the final document for which will be issued this fall. It also is accepting comments through November 20 for the Interoperability Standards Advisory, which is a stakeholder-informed catalog of the standards and implementation specifications that can be used to meet interoperability needs in healthcare. The newly created Health Information Technology Advisory Committee will also be influential with regard to standards and interoperability. Its recommendations to ONC doubtless will be translated into rulemaking and policy.

The next few months also should see continued progress by SDOs in refining standards for interoperability with a focus on practical use cases by EHR vendors.

One example is FHIR (Fast Health Interoperability Resources), which is one of the newest standards from Health Level 7 (HL7). Vendors are beginning to embrace the most recent iteration of the standard for various clinical use cases and FHIR is being used to extract relevant clinical data from EHRs.

Also, the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs (NCPDP) is refining the SCRIPT standard to facilitate the transition to electronic prescribing of specialty medications. Today, specialty prescribing is largely a manual process that isn’t easily adapted to existing electronic prescribing workflows. An NCPDP task group is looking at ways in which new data elements could be added to the SCRIPT standard to handle enrollment for specialty medications, which accompanies the prior authorization that is required for nearly all such medications. The goal is to enable enrollment and electronic prior authorization (ePA) for specialty medications. Changes to the standard will enhance the ePA functionality, which EHR vendors have already built for non-specialty medications.

There are still obstacles that must be overcome to move health IT interoperability down the field. Three come to mind:

  • Lack of a national patient identifier. One of the biggest interoperability challenges is the lack of a national patient identifier. While industry solutions are being developed, they are one-offs that are not totally standards based. True interoperability cannot be achieved unless this problem is solved.
  • Changes in business models. There is much talk around data-blocking by EHRs, but this is not so much a technology challenge as a business one. The competitive nature of healthcare delivery is primarily what prohibits the exchange of clinical information, as competitors don’t want to make it easy for patients to seek care outside of their networks. When there is demand among customers to connect systems, software vendors respond by building and selling connectivity solutions. The most successful of these solutions rely on standards that have been created and vetted through SDOs.
  • Variations in standards implementation. Other interoperability challenges are created by variations in how standards are used in application program interfaces (APIs) with EHRs. Sometimes these APIs rely on technology that is not standardized, thus adding to the complexity and inconsistency in how data are exchanged among EHR platforms. The goal of using standards to achieve interoperability can only be met when standards are interpreted, implemented, and used consistently.

These are but some of the opportunities and challenges we see in the waning months of 2017 when it comes to standards and interoperability. These issues are not going away anytime soon and will continue to occupy stakeholders’ attention in 2018.

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Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. In response to your statement: “Lack of a national patient identifier. One of the biggest interoperability challenges is the lack of a national patient identifier. While industry solutions are being developed, they are one-offs that are not totally standards based. True interoperability cannot be achieved unless this problem is solved.”

    Good News! There is a recognized standards based identification design and it has been around for many years. The healthcare sector has simply been either reluctant to adopt or uneducated about this fact. The NIST 800-63 special publication provides an identity standard written by the federal sector but applicable to any sector that wishes to use it. This standard provides details on how to properly perform identity proofing and the types of authenticators (aka “tokens”) that provide the highest degree of security.

    COTS options are available on the market today.

    • The NIST specification you reference seems to be about identifying users, not about positively identifying subjects of care…

  2. Not quite…NIST 800 63 proposes a voluntary opt-in/out program. Given our recent experience with Equifax, Yahoo, et al. I doubt many people would be jumping at the chance to opt-in.

  3. Thanks, all, for your thoughtful comments. I don’t think that we suffer from a lack of standards. What we do lack is consensus around a particular standard and a mandate to use it. For all we know, the vendors I thought about could well be using NIST 800 63!

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