SAN FRANCISCO — Well, we totally blew it on that whole electronic health record thing.

According to Athenahealth’s Dan Haley and Surescripts’ Seth Joseph, speaking onstage today at our HealthBeat 2014 conference, the U.S. government has set such a low bar for the technology that despite the wide adoption of electronic health records (EHRs), these new systems still can’t communicate with each other.

Athenahealth is a provider of EHR tools and health practice management tools, while Surescripts connects the various parts of the health industry including pharmacies, providers, benefit managers, and health information exchanges.

EHR adoption has risen dramatically in the past few years, thanks to the Hitech Law and government incentives for doctors and hospitals to trade in their old, paper records in favor of digital ones. In 2009, just 12 percent of hospitals used EHRs; in 2013 that had risen to 59 percent, according to a recent report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

When it comes to EHRs, two huge buzzwords are “interoperability” and “interoperation,” the former referring to the capability to communicate with other systems and software, and the latter meaning “normalizing the sharing of information across platforms,” as Haley said.

“We’re spending million of dollars getting doctors to adopt systems that don’t communicate,” said Haley.

Joseph added that while he’s seen a huge push to get doctors and medical facilities to adopt EHR tech, these just do basic functions and don’t work with other systems. It would be like if smartphones could only call or send messages to other phones of the same exact model: We’d all spend a lot of money and own “fancy smartphones,” but we wouldn’t be any more equipped to communicate with anyone and everyone around.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government isn’t setting high standards for the industry, according to Haley and Joseph, and they both agreed that the government needs to stop defining success as simply getting doctors online — doctors need to have tools with capabilities that go far beyond just putting data on the Internet.

But what’s even more important, the two say, is for regulatory reform on the sharing of health care information.

“The fundamental … impediment to information sharing in health care [is that] sharing information is a felony. In health care, if you have a piece of info that I want, and I pay you for it, it’s a ‘kickback,'” Haley said.

We’re seeing two layers here. First, although privacy concerns are definitely important and should remain a priority, we need to find a way to open up the sharing of health information, which is the entire point of building tech tools that facilitate it. Second, financial transactions for health data shouldn’t be as taboo. If privacy is respected and allowing for business models built on the sharing health information incentivizes great companies to emerge and contribute, then so be it.

The government does permit for information sharing within a health organization, but that still means that such sharing is happening in small pockets around the larger ecosystem.

That still sounds like like a lack of universal communication.


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