Electronic Health Care Network Formed: The Beginnings of a Real Nationwide Health Information Network?

Five major pioneering users of electronic health records announced yesterday the formation of the Care Connectivity Consortium which aims to determine how to practically exchange electronic health record (EHR) information among large, different healthcare organizations. The five - Geisinger Health System of Pennsylvania, Group Health Cooperative of Washington State, Intermountain Healthcare of Utah, Kaiser Permanente of California and the Mayo Clinic of Minnesota - represent both healthcare providers as well as health insurers. 

Once their electronic health record exchange network is put together, some 11 to 12 million patients that the Consortium members collectively cover will be able to (if they want) allow the doctors and other healthcare workers inside the Consortium's hospitals, clinics, etc., to exchange their medical records (in limited form) beginning sometime next year. 

Exchanging EHR information should be a bit easier than in the general case, given that Kaiser, Geisinger Health System, and the Group Health Cooperative each use EHR systems that are based on Epic Systems software, while Intermountain Healthcare and the Mayo Clinic have EHR systems they designed using mainly GE Healthcare software.

"Seamless access" to all the Consortium electronic medical records - the nirvana of a nationwide health information network (NHIN) system - will no doubt take quite a while longer.

All of this assumes, of course, that the standards for allowing the exchange of electronic health records from heterogeneous EHR systems can be worked out, along with the many non-trivial issues involving patient privacy and security. The Consortium states it will be utilizing government "standards-based health information technology to share data about patients electronically"; what this means in practice remains to be seen.

The press release on the formation of the Consortium also states that:

"The goal of the consortium is to demonstrate better and safer care with better data availability. Patients will benefit. If a patient from one system gets sick far from home and must receive health care in another system - or if any system sends patients to another - doctors and nurses at each of the consortium systems will be able to easily and quickly access invaluable information about the patient's medications, allergies, and health conditions, allowing them to provide the right kind of treatment at the right time and avoid unintended consequences like adverse medication interactions."

The Consortium has taken pains not only in its press release but also in media interviews to say that their effort is not about reducing health care costs per se, which well-designed EHR systems with well-trained healthcare workers have proven to do, but really is focused on the improvement of patient care.

It is also not aimed at creating a new healthcare business alliance, this blog at the New York Times reports. George Halvorson, chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, when asked about the business potential of the Consortium, "insisted" says the Times that:

"This [effort] is totally focused on care."

Time will tell whether patient care actually will trump cost and potential profit considerations. I would like to think so, but I personally am not betting on it.

My skepticism aside, it is nice to see these organizations stepping up to figure out how to exchange electronic health records in a large-scale manner. The lessons learned, which they say will be shared with the wider healthcare community, will be very useful, I think.

It will also be interesting to see how other EHR vendors react to the news, and whether they will try to encourage their big healthcare users to try to join the Consortium. I can see EHR companies like Meditech, Cerner, McKesson and Siemens feeling a bit left out.

In somewhat related news, the US Department of Defense and the US Department of Veterans Affairs have "agreed to create a joint common platform for their departments’ electronic medical records,"  this DoD press release states.

The press release says that "the new system will include both administrative and medical information from the day recruits enter military service, throughout their military careers, and after they retire or leave the military."

Not being able to exchange medical information between the DoD and the VA has been a Congressional bone of contention for quite some time.

An implementation plan for the new common platform is due to be completed by May.

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