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SAN FRANCISCO — The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) CTO Bryan Sivak sees protecting the country against the next Ebola crisis as a “perfect use case” for an interconnected system of the country’s electronic health records (EHR).

The current Ebola crisis (most doctors would agree) is being overplayed by the news media. Sivak says Ebola is “fairly easily containable, once you know where the outbreak is.”

Sivak said Ebola has, however, allowed the federal government to look at the public health response and examine the parts that could have worked better.

But the next threat might be far worse than Ebola, many public health experts have said. It could be a new strain of Asian Bird Flu, for which we have no effective vaccine.

So a fast early warning system might be hugely helpful in containing an outbreak.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the CDC could be immediately alerted if a patient showed up at a clinic somewhere with a temperature of 104 degrees, and who had recently traveled to West Africa?” Sivak told VentureBeat after his appearance at VentureBeat’s HealthBeat conference Tuesday.

Sivak points out that the CDC already requires that clinics and hospitals report serious communicable-disease patients to their state health authorities, who then may report the information to the CDC.

But that system is not automated and not immediate, and parts of the reporting process aren’t even digital.

To be sure, one of the key issues on Sivak’s plate at the HHS is the interoperability of patient records systems. Part of the meaningful use language in the HITECH Act dictates that health providers will not only convert paper charts to electronic health records, but also be able to share EHR data in meaningful ways within 10 years.

This, of course, is a tough road for both health providers and regulators. As Sivak points out, Congress wrote the law dictating health data sharing, but it’s part of the HHS’s job to write the details about how it will actually be done on the ground.

Sivak says the key to getting providers moving on data sharing is providing a compelling use case. Effectively responding to a public health threat like Ebola may be that use case.

Will a serious threat to our nation’s health and security be what it takes to finally get health providers and their EHR vendor partners to finally share data with each other?

Maybe. But it’s more likely that it will be new reimbursement models, which pay providers up front to keep a given patient population healthy, that will bring about the change. Providers will be much better able to manage the health of populations if they have a complete health record of the people in those populations — regardless of where they have received care.

For instance, as Venrock partner Bob Kocher points out, physicians who are now operating as “accountable care organizations” are demanding that the hospitals to which they refer patients share the data those patients generate once admitted.

This, it’s thought, will help the doctor keep the patient healthy after they’re out of the hospital and perhaps prevent another admission in the future. It is the accountable care organizations (ACO) that have to pay for the hospital visit, after all.

That “use case” might be the force that inspires data sharing between the patient records systems of (in some cases competing) clinics and hospitals in the near term.

But, when you think about it, the two use cases are the same. Protecting the nation from the next Ebola is a form of “population care,” too.

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