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Sharing health data gets easier, but also presents new challenges

Sharing health data has never been easier thanks, in part, to EHR vendors and nonprofit organizations like CommonWell Health Alliance. But now there's a new problem: too much data.

BOSTON -- Healthcare data is beginning to flow, thanks to the healthcare community answering the call from patients and federal regulators for greater access to data.

Adam Landman, CIO at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said opportunities to exchange healthcare data are growing at such a substantial rate, providers now have multiple avenues from which to pull patient records from other systems, and are being inundated with health data.  

At the 2019 Redox Healthcare Interoperability Summit, Landman credited two major changes in healthcare for the advances in sharing health data: EHR vendors embracing the demand from federal regulators and their customers for better data sharing within their own networks, and organizations like CommonWell Health Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on interoperability in healthcare, are making it easier to share data with health systems using different EHRs.

"We've been working on health information exchange for 15 to 20 years," Landman said. "Within the last couple of years, with the EHR vendors really working together and organizations like CommonWell, we are actually starting to see health information exchange."

Sharing health data

EHR vendors have opened the door to greater data sharing within their own products, which has greatly contributed to interoperability, Landman said. He cited EHR vendor Epic's Care Everywhere health information exchange platform as an example.

The platform enables a provider to share patient data with Epic systems outside of their healthcare organization -- and, in some cases, with non-Epic EHRs and other healthcare entities.

A group of panelists spoke about healthcare data sharing at the 2019 Redox Healthcare Interoperability Summit in Boston.
A group of panelists, including Brigham and Women's Hospital CIO Adam Landman, spoke about data sharing in healthcare at the 2019 Redox Healthcare Interoperability Summit in Boston.

"You can see all of the other Epic institutions that a patient has seen and request the records and quickly see them," Landman said. "That has been revolutionary."

Organizations like CommonWell take sharing health data a step further, Landman said. The organization makes healthcare data from different systems available on a vendor-neutral network to patients and providers. When a healthcare organization, EHR vendor or data exchange vendor joins the CommonWell network, they're able to share patient health data with each other, regardless of what EHR they use. Current members of CommonWell include EHR vendors Cerner, Meditech and Athenahealth.

Jitin Asnaani, executive director at CommonWell and a panelist at the summit, said the change in incentive models for sharing health data and federal regulation have been effective tools in making data flow. EHR vendors are seeing more value in sharing health data rather than keeping it locked down, he said.

We're seeing this bigger push from the population that is used to having that data.
Paige GoodhewProduct marketing, Redox

"The only way they do well -- the only way their customers do well and the only way their customers value them -- is to be participants and good stewards of the data flow so they can get exchange to happen in ways that create more valuable services and technologies on top of the EHR," Asnaani said.

One of the reasons EHR vendors are moving toward greater interoperability is because patients are asking for it, said Paige Goodhew, a panelist and a member of product marketing at healthcare data sharing company Redox, the host of the summit.

"As patients and as individuals, we have gotten so much more used to having access to whatever data we want," she said. "We're seeing this bigger push from the population that is used to having that data and health systems are trying to grapple with, 'How do we make sure that we can give it to them when they want it, but that we're doing it in a safe way and we're not giving it to any bad actors that individuals might not realize are bad actors.'"  

Startups accessing healthcare data

Landman said the increase in healthcare data sharing is also leading to a new challenge: too much data. Landman said as providers receive more health data on patients, better tools are needed to present a summarized view of a patient's health.

Landman tasked summit attendees, which included a mix of healthcare organizations and startups, to build tools that not only access that data, but that use technology like artificial intelligence to gather and summarize data for providers.

"That's the next generation, now that we're starting to see data flowing," Landman said. Landman then issued a warning: Connecting with a healthcare organization and using a product to streamline healthcare data, or access data with a product like an API, can be extremely complex.

Startups that want to work with patient data need to be prepared to deal with health data security and privacy regulations as well as any technical challenges that come up, Landman said.

From his perspective, Landman said startups that understand HIPAA and what data organizations can and can't share, as well as have realistic goals for product integration and what it may cost, have a better shot of working with a healthcare organization.

"A lot of startups come in and pitch every day that they have the magic answer and can integrate in a week," Landman said. "To me, that displays a lack of understanding of the complexities in healthcare: technical, policy, contracting and privacy."

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