by CIO Staff

Commission Calls For Health Information Standard

Nov 02, 20053 mins

A federal commission charged with devising a strategy to make health care information more broadly accessible to providers and consumers wants the U.S. government to develop a nationwide patient authentication standard to enable the secure exchange of electronic health information.

The Commission on Systemic Interoperability, established through the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, also called for financial incentives for health care providers and the elimination of regulations that could slow the adoption of interoperable electronic health records (EHR).

In total, the commission’s report, which was released to the Senate and House of Representatives last week, spells out 14 recommendations that focus on three major areas: adoption issues, interoperability of health care data and secure connectivity between networks.

The report highlights the challenges involved in implementing a connected system of instantly accessible health records, said Robert Seliger, chair of the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society’s (HIMSS) steering committee on Integration and Interoperability. “In the last several years, there’s been quite a movement in the health care industry to make patient information more easily available” to providers and to patients themselves, Seliger said.

But security and privacy concerns, cost issues and a relative lack of interoperability standards in the health care IT sector have proved to be major stumbling blocks, said Seliger, who is the CEO of Sentillion Inc., an Andover, Mass.-based vendor of identity management technologies.

The commission’s recommendations are designed to overcome such issues, said commission Chairman Scott Wallace, who is also president of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology.

Currently, for instance, there’s no way of reliably linking patients to their data — making it a challenge to build a connected health system, he said. Creating a patient authentication standard would enable better identification of patients and their data in whatever connected system is ultimately put in place, he said. The authentication standard, he said, could be similar to Social Security numbers.

A patchwork of state privacy laws now in place also poses a challenge, Wallace said. That’s why the commission called for a federal privacy standard based on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

“On the adoption side, we focused on the need for financial incentives” for health care providers, Wallace said. “In the IT context, we want providers to make these investments, but the benefits don’t go only to the providers.”

In fact, since consumers and insurance companies are more likely to benefit from a connected health system than providers are, “there’s no great incentive for the adoption of IT [to enable EHR] in health care” by smaller and midsize providers, he said.

The commission has also recommended product certification, interoperable data standards and standard product identifiers and vocabulary as a way of ensuring that health care data is accessible whenever and wherever needed. “Everyone has their own standards in health care, so compliance means nothing” until there are more standards for interoperability, Wallace said.

The Commission on Systemic Interoperability, whose charter ended yesterday, is not the only group that has been asked to come up with recommendations on how to make health records digital and interoperable while also ensuring privacy and security of those records.

In September, Secretary of the Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt announced the creation of the American Health Information Community. The 17-member group has up to five years to come up with its own recommendations for the Health and Human Services department.

By Jaikumar Vijayan, Computerworld