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Health Information Exchanges

HIEs: Beyond controversy

How health information exchanges are connecting the healthcare space. By Colin Barry


efore they were associated with an ambitious healthcare reform agenda that sparked an enduring political controversy, health information exchanges (HIEs) were something much simpler and yet very powerful, an idea whose time had come. Technology has utterly transformed the way businesses communicate and manage documentation, enabling instan- taneous sharing of company and customer data across time zones, operating units and organizations. Technology has changed the practice of medicine profoundly on the direct patient-care side, with millions benefiting from less-invasive procedures made possible by developments such as computer- guided imaging and treatment methods.

But on the administrative side, healthcare entities have often lagged behind their counterparts in other industries when it comes to taking advantage of powerful new com- munication and collaboration tools. Privacy concerns are a major factor: Special regulations outlining the handling and sharing of information are in place to protect sensitive medical data, and with good reason. Still, regulation and the need to safeguard data haven’t stopped other industries from capital- izing on technological advances in communication and data sharing: The banking industry, for example, has successfully adopted many data-exchange and transaction technologies. But despite the sometimes halting pace of change, wide- spread adoption of technology tools to manage medical data is occurring, and the outlines of a truly connected healthcare space are emerging, empowered in part by federal grants and initiatives to jumpstart both public and private HIE develop- ment. HIEs are gaining traction in all 50 states, paving the way for healthcare professionals to improve patient care by sharing vital health information quickly, securely and easily across multiple regions and healthcare systems. The reason the HIE initiative enjoys broad-based support is clear: Easy access to healthcare information improves outcomes and reduces costs.

HIE benefits garner broad support

This is why HIEs have remained relatively uncontroversial despite the political firestorm surrounding other healthcare

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reform initiatives, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was subject to U.S. Supreme Court review this year and partially upheld. When medical teams coordinate patient care, outcomes improve and costs are reduced. Doctors who have access to their patients’ entire medical histories in elec- tronic form are less prone to make errors or order duplicate tests and procedures. And access to their patients’ full medical histories allows physicians, allied healthcare professionals and other stakeholders to take all information into account when developing care plans.

In addition to improved outcomes, patients can also ben- efit from the move to electronic medical records (EMRs), since it will remove the burden of transporting paper records between healthcare provider offices as they receive care from primary and specialist physicians, clinics and hospitals. Busi- nesses that sponsor their employees’ healthcare coverage and the local, state and federal agencies that administer a variety of publicly funded healthcare benefits stand to benefit from a connected healthcare ecosystem as well, since coordinated care has the potential to significantly lower costs. Spurred by the promise of these benefits, states are now setting up HIE networks to enable authorized clinicians to send and share information and link seamlessly to the Nation- wide Health Information Network (NwHIN) for interstate data exchange.

HIE implementation and adoption is still in the early stages, but even in the preliminary phase, it’s possible to draw lessons from HIE development and launch experiences and to identify key HIE success factors, including security, robust management capabilities and standards-based interoperability. A well-designed HIE enables secure clinical data exchange between public and private sector organizations and serves as a gateway to the NwHIN.

Implementing an HIE The Commonwealth of Virginia has launched its HIE: ConnectVirginia. The effort is funded under a contract ad- ministered by the Virginia Department of Health. MEDfx, a leader in the connected healthcare space, is a subcontractor to Community Health Alliance Inc., a Virginia-based nonprofit


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