Rebuilding the Tower of Babel – A CEO’s Perspective on Health Information Exchanges

Defining a Health Information Exchange

The United States is facing the largest shortage of healthcare practitioners in our country’s history which is compounded by an ever increasing geriatric population. In 2005 there existed one geriatrician for every 5,000 US residents over 65 and only nine of the 145 medical schools trained geriatricians. By 2020 the industry is estimated to be short 200,000 physicians and over a million nurses. Never, in the history of US healthcare, has so much been demanded with so few personnel. Because of this shortage combined with the geriatric population increase, the medical community has to find a way to provide timely, accurate information to those who need it in a uniform fashion. Imagine if flight controllers spoke the native language of their country instead of the current international flight language, English. This example captures the urgency and critical nature of our need for standardized communication in healthcare. A healthy information exchange can help improve safety, reduce length of hospital stays, cut down on medication errors, reduce redundancies in lab testing or procedures and make the health system faster, leaner and more productive. The aging US population along with those impacted by chronic disease like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma will need to see more specialists who will have to find a way to communicate with primary care providers effectively and efficiently.

This efficiency can only be attained by standardizing the manner in which the communication takes place. Healthbridge, a Cincinnati based HIE and one of the largest community based networks, was able to reduce their potential disease outbreaks from 5 to 8 days down to 48 hours with a regional health information exchange. Regarding standardization, one author noted, “Interoperability without standards is like language without grammar. In both cases communication can be achieved but the process is cumbersome and often ineffective.”

United States retailers transitioned over twenty years ago in order to automate inventory, sales, accounting controls which all improve efficiency and effectiveness. While uncomfortable to think of patients as inventory, perhaps this has been part of the reason for the lack of transition in the primary care setting to automation of patient records and data. Imagine a Mom & Pop hardware store on any square in mid America packed with inventory on shelves, ordering duplicate widgets based on lack of information regarding current inventory. Visualize any Home Depot or Lowes and you get a glimpse of how automation has changed the retail sector in terms of scalability and efficiency. Perhaps the “art of medicine” is a barrier to more productive, efficient and smarter medicine. Standards in information exchange have existed since 1989, but recent interfaces have evolved more rapidly thanks to increases in standardization of regional and state health information exchanges.

History of Health Information Exchanges

Major urban centers in Canada and Australia were the first to successfully implement HIE’s. The success of these early networks was linked to an integration with primary care EHR systems already in place. Health Level 7 (HL7) represents the first health language standardization system in the United States, beginning with a meeting at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. HL7 has been successful in replacing antiquated interactions like faxing, mail and direct provider communication, which often represent duplication and inefficiency. Process interoperability increases human understanding across networks health systems to integrate and communicate. Standardization will ultimately impact how effective that communication functions in the same way that grammar standards foster better communication. The United States National Health Information Network (NHIN) sets the standards that foster this delivery of communication between health networks. HL7 is now on it’s third version which was published in 2004. The goals of HL7 are to increase interoperability, develop coherent standards, educate the industry on standardization and collaborate with other sanctioning bodies like ANSI and ISO who are also concerned with process improvement.

In the United States one of the earliest HIE’s started in Portland Maine. HealthInfoNet is a public-private partnership and is believed to be the largest statewide HIE. The goals of the network are to improve patient safety, enhance the quality of clinical care, increase efficiency, reduce service duplication, identify public threats more quickly and expand patient record access. The four founding groups the Maine Health Access Foundation, Maine CDC, The Maine Quality Forum and Maine Health Information Center (Onpoint Health Data) began their efforts in 2004.

In Tennessee Regional Health Information Organizations (RHIO’s) initiated in Memphis and the Tri Cities region. Carespark, a 501(3)c, in the Tri Cities region was considered a direct project where clinicians interact directly with each other using Carespark’s HL7 compliant system as an intermediary to translate the data bi-directionally. Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics also played a crucial role in the early stages of building this network. In the delta the midsouth eHealth Alliance is a RHIO connecting Memphis hospitals like Baptist Memorial (5 sites), Methodist Systems, Lebonheur Healthcare, Memphis Children’s Clinic, St. Francis Health System, St Jude, The Regional Medical Center and UT Medical. These regional networks allow practitioners to share medical records, lab values medicines and other reports in a more efficient manner.

Seventeen US communities have been designated as Beacon Communities across the United States based on their development of HIE’s. These communities’ health focus varies based on the patient population and prevalence of chronic disease states i.e. cvd, diabetes, asthma. The communities focus on specific and measurable improvements in quality, safety and efficiency due to health information exchange improvements. The closest geographical Beacon community to Tennessee, in Byhalia, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, was granted a $100,000 grant by the department of Health and Human Services in September 2011.

A healthcare model for Nashville to emulate is located in Indianapolis, IN based on geographic proximity, city size and population demographics. Four Beacon awards have been granted to communities in and around Indianapolis, Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, Indiana Health Centers Inc, Raphael Health Center and Shalom Health Care Center Inc. In addition, Indiana Health Information Technology Inc has received over 23 million dollars in grants through the State HIE Cooperative Agreement and 2011 HIE Challenge Grant Supplement programs through the federal government. These awards were based on the following criteria:1) Achieving health goals through health information exchange 2) Improving long term and post acute care transitions 3) Consumer mediated information exchange 4) Enabling enhanced query for patient care 5) Fostering distributed population-level analytics.

Regulatory Aspects of Health Information Exchanges and Healthcare Reform

The department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the regulatory agency that oversees health concerns for all Americans. The HHS is divided into ten regions and Tennessee is part of Region IV headquartered out of Atlanta. The Regional Director, Anton J. Gunn is the first African American elected to serve as regional director and brings a wealth of experience to his role based on his public service specifically regarding underserved healthcare patients and health information exchanges. This experience will serve him well as he encounters societal and demographic challenges for underserved and chronically ill patients throughout the southeast area.

The National Health Information Network (NHIN) is a division of HHS that guides the standards of exchange and governs regulatory aspects of health reform. The NHIN collaboration includes departments like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), social security administration, Beacon communities and state HIE’s (ONC).11 The Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Exchange (ONC) has awarded $16 million in additional grants to encourage innovation at the state level. Innovation at the state level will ultimately lead to better patient care through reductions in replicated tests, bridges to care programs for chronic patients leading to continuity and finally timely public health alerts through agencies like the CDC based on this information.12 The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act is funded by dollars from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. HITECH’s goals are to invest dollars in community, regional and state health information exchanges to build effective networks which are connected nationally. Beacon communities and the Statewide Health Information Exchange Cooperative Agreement were initiated through HITECH and ARRA. To date 56 states have received grant awards through these programs totaling 548 million dollars.

History of Health Information Partnership TN (HIPTN)

In Tennessee the Health Information Exchange has been slower to progress than places like Maine and Indiana based in part on the diversity of our state. The delta has a vastly different patient population and health network than that of middle Tennessee, which differs from eastern Tennessee’s Appalachian region. In August of 2009 the first steps were taken to build a statewide HIE consisting of a non-profit named HIP TN. A board was established at this time with an operations council formed in December. HIP TN’s first initiatives involved connecting the work through Carespark in northeast Tennessee’s s tri-cities region to the Midsouth ehealth Alliance in Memphis. State officials estimated a cost of over 200 million dollars from 2010-2015. The venture involves stakeholders from medical, technical, legal and business backgrounds. The governor in 2010, Phil Bredesen, provided 15 million to match federal funds in addition to issuing an Executive Order establishing the office of eHealth initiatives with oversight by the Office of Administration and Finance and sixteen board members. By March 2010 four workgroups were established to focus on areas like technology, clinical, privacy and security and sustainability.

By May of 2010 data sharing agreements were in place and a production pilot for the statewide HIE was initiated in June 2011 along with a Request for Proposal (RFP) which was sent out to over forty vendors. In July 2010 a fifth workgroup,the consumer advisory group, was added and in September 2010 Tennessee was notified that they were one of the first states to have their plans approved after a release of Program Information Notice (PIN). Over fifty stakeholders came together to evaluate the vendor demonstrations and a contract was signed with the chosen vendor Axolotl on September 30th, 2010. At that time a production goal of July 15th, 2011 was agreed upon and in January 2011 Keith Cox was hired as HIP TN’s CEO. Keith brings twenty six years of tenure in healthcare IT to the collaborative. His previous endeavors include Microsoft, Bellsouth and several entrepreneurial efforts. HIP TN’s mission is to improve access to health information through a statewide collaborative process and provide the infrastructure for security in that exchange. The vision for HIP TN is to be recognized as a state and national leader who support measurable improvements in clinical quality and efficiency to patients, providers and payors with secure HIE. Robert S. Gordon, the board chair for HIPTN states the vision well, “We share the view that while technology is a critical tool, the primary focus is not technology itself, but improving health”. HIP TN is a non profit, 501(c)3, that is solely reliant on state government funding. It is a combination of centralized and decentralized architecture. The key vendors are Axolotl, which acts as the umbrella network, ICA for Memphis and Nashville, with CGI as the vendor in northeast Tennessee.15 Future HIP TN goals include a gateway to the National Health Institute planned for late 2011 and a clinician index in early 2012. Carespark, one of the original regional health exchange networks voted to cease operations on July 11, 2011 based on lack of financial support for it’s new infrastructure. The data sharing agreements included 38 health organizations, nine communities and 250 volunteers.16 Carespark’s closure clarifies the need to build a network that is not solely reliant on public grants to fund it’s efforts, which we will discuss in the final section of this paper.

Current Status of Healthcare Information Exchange and HIPTN

Ten grants were awarded in 2011 by the HIE challenge grant supplement. These included initiatives in eight states and serve as communities we can look to for guidance as HIP TN evolves. As previously mentioned one of the most awarded communities lies less than five hours away in Indianapolis, IN. Based on the similarities in our health communities, patient populations and demographics, Indianapolis would provide an excellent mentor for Nashville and the hospital systems who serve patients in TN. The Indiana Health Information Exchange has been recognized nationally for it’s Docs for Docs program and the manner in which collaboration has taken place since it’s conception in 2004. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of HHS commented, “The Central Indiana Beacon Community has a level of collaboration and the ability to organize quality efforts in an effective manner from its history of building long standing relationships. We are thrilled to be working with a community that is far ahead in the use of health information to bring positive change to patient care.” Beacon communities that could act as guides for our community include the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County and the Indiana Health Centers based on their recent awards of $100,000 each by HHS.

A local model of excellence in practice EMR conversion is Old Harding Pediatric Associates (OHPA) which has two clinics and fourteen physicians who handle a patient population of 23,000 and over 72,000 patient encounters per year. OHPA’s conversion to electronic records in early 2000 occurred as a result of the pursuit of excellence in patient care and the desire to use technology in a way that benefitted their patient population. OHPA established a cross functional work team to improve their practices in the areas of facilities, personnel, communication, technology and external influences. Noteworthy was chosen as the EMR vendor based on user friendliness and the similarity to a standard patient chart with tabs for files. The software was customized to the pediatric environment complete with patient growth charts. Windows was used as the operating system based on provider familiarity. Within four days OHPA had 100% compliance and use of their EMR system.

The Future of HIP TN and HIE in Tennessee

Tennessee has received close to twelve million dollars in grant money from The State Health Information Exchange Cooperative Agreement Program.20 Regional Health Information Organizations (RHIO) need to be full scalable to allow hospitals to grow their systems without compromising integrity as they grow.21and the systems located in Nashville will play an integral role in this nationwide scaling with companies like HCA, CHS, Iasis, Lifepoint and Vanguard. The HIE will act as a data repository for all patients information that can be accessed from anywhere and contains a full history of the patients medical record, lab tests, physician network and medicine list. To entice providers to enroll in the statewide HIE tangible value to their practice has to be shown with better safer care. In a 2011 HIMSS editor’s report Richard Lang states that instead of a top down approach “A more practical idea may be for states to support local community HIE development first. Once established, these local networks can feed regional HIE’s and then connect to a central HIE/data repository backbone. States should use a portion of the stimulus funds to support local HIE development.”22 Mr. Lang also believes the primary care physician has to be the foundation for the entire system since they are the main point of contact for the patient.

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