Over the decade or so I’ve been writing about HIEs, critics have predicted their death countless times – and with good reason. Though their supporters have never backed down, it’s increasingly clear that the model has many flaws, some of them quite possibly fatal.
One is the lack of a sustainable business model. Countless publicly-funded HIEs, jumpstarted by state or federal grants, have stumbled badly and closed their doors when the funding dried up. As it turns out, it’s quite difficult to get hospitals to pay for such services. Whether this is due to fears of sharing data with the competition or a simple reluctance to pay for something new, hospitals haven’t moved much on this issue.
Another reason HIEs aren’t likely to stay alive is that none can offer true interoperability, which diminishes the benefits they offer. Admittedly, some groups won’t concede this issue. For example, I was intrigued to see that DirectTrust, a collaborative embracing 145 health IT and provider organizations, is working to provide interoperability via Direct message protocols. But Direct messaging and true bilateral health information exchange are two different things. (I know, I’m a spoilsport.)
Yet another reason why HIEs have continued to struggle is due to variations in state privacy rules, which add another layer of complexity to managing HIEs. Simply complying with HIPAA can be challenging; adding state requirements to the mix can be a big headache. State laws vary as to when providers can disclose PHI, to whom it can be disclosed and for what purpose, and building an HIE that meets these requirements is a big deal.
Still, given that MACRA demands the industry achieve “widespread interoperability” by 2018, we have to have something in place that might work. One model, proposed by Dr. Donald Voltz, is to turn to a middleware solution. This approach, Voltz notes, has worked in industries like banking and retail, which have solved their data interoperability problems (at least to a greater degree than healthcare).
Voltz isn’t proposing that healthcare organizations rely on building middleware that connects directly to their proprietary EMR, but rather, that they build an independent solution. The idea isn’t incredibly popular yet — just 16% of hospital systems reported that they were considering middleware, according to Black Book – but the idea is gaining popularity, Voltz suggests. And given that hospitals face continued challenges in integrating new inputs, like mobile app and medical device data, next-generation middleware may be a good solution.
Other possible HIE alternatives include health record banks and clearinghouses. These have the advantage of being centralized, connected to yet independent of providers and relatively flexible. There are some substantial obstacles to substituting either for an HIE, such as getting consumers to consistently upload their records to the record banks. Still, it’s likely that neither would be as costly nor as resource-intensive as building EMR-specific interoperability.
That being said, none of these approaches are a pushbutton solution to data exchange problems. To foster health data sharing will take significant time and effort, and the transition to implementing any of these models won’t be easy. But if the existing HIE model is collapsing (and I contend this is the case) hospitals will need to do something. If you think the models I’ve listed don’t work, what do you suggest?