But putting EHRs in place is only the beginning of the story, and too often a lack of interoperability means that those systems operate in siloes, amounting to little more than a digitized version of paper records, Bryan Sivak, the CTO of HHS, said at last week's conference.
Humans Offer the Greatest Challenge
The health IT advocates who fanned out across Capitol Hill were not asking for specific legislation to address the interoperability issue. Rather, they were lobbying members of Congress to use their oversight authority to encourage the development and implementation of consistent definitions and technical standards to ensure interoperable systems, particularly as HHS rolls out the next phase of its meaningful use program, the EHR eligibility criteria for Medicare and Medicaid discounts.
More than 900 systems have already received certification in the first stage of meaningful use, but Loonsk warns that the interoperability challenges, already evident in the market, will be only further complicated as HHS moves ahead with stage two.
"The importance of being able to connect with them, communicate with all of those, puts a real fine point on the needs of interoperability, and there's a lot out ahead of us in that regard," he said. "To do all that, we need a common language. We need a common language of standards. We need a common language of support tools that support interoperability as well."
Skeptics of the standards movement have noted that the health IT sector does not suffer from a lack of standards — indeed, it is inundated by them. So how, then, would adding more standards help simplify what is already a forbiddingly complex market?
"In many respects that's true, but what there is not a lot of is the specific guidance —geek term: implementation guidance — that defines exactly how to use those standards and how to use them well," Loonsk said.
"The other aspect of this is that that guidance is really needed early in the process," he added. "So it's not needed the day before a regulation goes into effect. It's needed well out in front of the process when software is being developed so that the developers can build it into their products and use those standards, use that implementation guidance to make their systems compliant."
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