Why Not “Meaningful Interoperability” For EMR Vendors?

At this point, arguably, Meaningful Use has done virtually all of the work that it was designed to do. But as we all know, vendors are behind the curve. If they aren’t forced to guarantee interoperability — or at least meet a standard that satisfies most interconnectivity demands — they’re simply not going to bother.

While there’s obviously a certification process in place for EMR vendors which requires them to meet certain standards, interoperability seemingly didn’t make the cut. And while there’s many ways vendors could have shown they’re on board, none have done anything that really unifies the industry.

PR-driven efforts like the CommonWell Alliance don’t impress me much, as I’m skeptical that they’ll get anywhere. And the only example I can think of where a vendor  is doing something to improve interoperability, Epic’s Care Everywhere, is intended only to connect between Epic implementations. It’s not exactly an efficient solution.

A case in point: One of own my Epic-based providers logged on to Care Everywhere a couple of weeks ago to request my chart from another institution, but as of yet, no chart has arrived. That’s not exactly an effective way to coordinate care! (Of course, Epic in particular only recently dropped its fees for clinical data sharing, which weren’t exactly care coordination-friendly either.)

Increasingly, I’ve begun to think that the next stage of EMR maturation will come from some kind of “Meaningful Interoperability” incentive paid to vendors who really go the extra mile. Yes, this is iffy financially, but I believe it has to be done. As time and experience have shown, EMR vendors have approximately zero compelling reasons to foster universal interoperability, and perhaps a zillion to keep their systems closed.

Of course, the problem with rewarding interoperability is to decide which standards would be the accepted ones. Mandating interoperability would also force regulators to decide whether variations from the core standard were acceptable, and how to define what “acceptable” interoperability was. None of this is trivial.

The feds would also have to decide how to phase in vendor interoperability requirements, a process which would have to run on its own tracks, as provider Meaningful Use concerns itself with entirely different issues. And while ONC might be the first choice that comes to mind in supervising this process, it’s possible a separate entity would be better given the differences in what needs to be accomplished here.

I realize that some readers might believe that I’m dreaming if I believe this will ever happen. After all, given the many billions spent coaxing (or hammering) providers to comply with Meaningful Use, the Congress may prefer to lean on the stick rather than the carrot. Also, vendors aren’t dependent on CMS, whose involvement made it important for providers to get on board. And it may seem more sensible to rejigger certification programs — but if that worked they’d have done it already.

But regardless of how it goes down, the federal government is likely to take action at some point on this issue. The ongoing lack of interoperability between EMRs has become a sore spot with at least some members of Congress, for good reasons. After all, the lack of free and easy sharing of clinical data has arguably limited the return on the $30B spent on Meaningful Use. But throwing the book at vendors isn’t going to cut it, in my view. As reluctant as Congressional leaders may be to throw more money at the problem, it may be the only way to convince recalcitrant EMR vendors to invest significant development resources in creating interoperable systems.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

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