No, The Market Can’t Solve Health Data Interoperability Problems

I seldom disagree with John Halamka, whose commentary on HIT generally strikes me as measured, sensible and well-grounded. But this time, Dr. Halamka, I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Dr. Halamka, chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and co-chair of the ONC’s Health IT Standards Committee, recently told Healthcare IT News that it’s time for ONC and other federal regulators to stop trying to regulate health data interoperability into existence.

“It’s time to return the agenda to the private sector in the clinician’s guide vendors reduce the products and services they want,” Halamka said. “We’re on the cusp of real breakthroughs in EHR usability and interoperability based on the new incentives for outcomes suggested by MACRA and MIPS. {T}he worst thing we could do it this time is to co-opt the private sector agenda more prescriptive regulations but EHR functionality, usability and quality measurement.”

Government regs could backfire

Don’t get me wrong — I certainly appreciate the sentiment. Government regulation of a dynamic goal like interoperability could certainly backfire spectacularly, if for no other reason than that technology evolves far more quickly than policy. Regulations could easily set approaches to interoperability in stone that become outmoded far too quickly.

Not only that, I sympathize with Halamka’s desire to let independent clinical organizations come together to figure out what their priorities are for health data sharing. Even if regulators hire the best, most insightful clinicians on the planet, they still won’t have quite the same perspective as those still working on the front lines every day. Hospitals and medical professionals are in a much better position to identify what data should be shared, how it should be shared and most importantly what they can accomplish with this data.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking what the “private sector agenda” that Halamka cites is, actually. Is he referring to the goals of health IT vendors? Hospitals? Medical practices? Health plans? The dozens of standards and interoperability organization that exist, ranging from HL7 and FHIR to the CommonWell Health Alliance? CHIME? HIMSS? HIEs? To me, it looks like the private sector agenda is to avoid having one. At best, we might achieve the United Nations version of unity as an industry, but like that body it would be interesting but toothless.

Patients ready to snap

After many years of thought, I have come to believe that healthcare interoperability is far too important to leave to the undisciplined forces of the market. As things stand, patients like me are deeply affected by the inefficiencies and mistakes bred by the healthcare industry’ lack of interoperability — and we’re getting pretty tired of it. And readers, I guarantee that anyone who taps the healthcare system as frequently as I do feels the same way. We are on the verge of rebellion. Every time someone tells me they can’t get my records from a sister facility, we’re ready to snap.

So do I believe that government regulation is a wonderful thing? Certainly not. But after watching the HIT industry for about 20 years on health data sharing, I think it’s time for some central body to impose order on this chaos. And in such a fractured market as ours, no voluntary organization is going to have the clout to do so.

Sure, I’d love to think that providers could pressure vendors into coming up with solutions to this problem, but if they haven’t been able to do so yet, after spending a small nation’s GNP on EMRs, I doubt it’s going to happen. Rather than fighting it, let’s work together with the government and regulatory agencies to create a minimal data interoperability set everyone can live with. Any other way leads to madness.

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.