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Does Federal Health Data Warehouse Pose Privacy Risk?

Posted on June 23, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Not too long ago, few consumers were aware of the threat data thieves posed to their privacy, and far fewer had even an inkling of how vulnerable many large commercial databases would turn out to be.

But as consumer health data has gone digital — and average people have become more aware of the extent to which data breaches can affect their lives — they’ve grown more worried, and for good reason. As a series of spectacular data breaches within health plans has illustrated, both their medical and personal data might be at risk, with potentially devastating consequences if that data gets into the wrong hands.

Considering that these concerns are not only common, but pretty valid, federal authorities who have collected information on millions of HealthCare.gov insurance customers need to be sure that they’re above reproach. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

According to an Associated Press story, the administration is storing all of the HealthCare.gov data in a perpetual central repository known as MIDAS. MIDAS data includes a lot of sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and financial accounts.  If stolen, this data could provide a springboard for countless case of identity or even medical identity theft, both of which have emerged as perhaps the iconic crimes of 21st century life.

Both the immensity of the database and a failure to plan for destruction of old records are raising the hackles of privacy advocates. They definitely aren’t comfortable with the ten-year storage period recommended by the National Archives.

An Obama Administration rep told the AP that MIDAS meets or exceeds federal security and privacy standards, by which I assume he largely meant HIPAA regs. But it’s reasonable to wonder how long the federal government can protect its massive data store, particularly if commercial entities like Anthem — who arguably have more to lose — can’t protect their beneficiaries’ data from break-ins. True, MIDAS is also operated by a private concern, government technology contractor CACI, but the workflow has to impacted by the fact that CMS owns the data.

Meanwhile, growing privacy breach questions are driven by reasonable concerns, especially those outlined by the GAO, which noted last year that MIDAS went live without an in-depth assessment of privacy risks posed by the system.

Another key point made by the AP report (which did a very good job on this topic, by the way, somewhat to my surprise) is that MIDAS’ mission has evolved from a facility for running analytics on the data to a central clearinghouse for data sharing between CMS and health insurance companies and state Medicaid organizations. And we all know that with mission creep can come feature creep; with feature creep comes greater and greater potential for security holes that are passed over and left to be found by intruders.

Now, private healthcare organizations will still be managing the bulk of consumer medical data for the near future. And they have many vulnerabilities that are left unpatched, as recent events have emphasized. But in the near term, it seems like a good idea to hold the federal government’s feet to the fire. The last thing we need is a giant loss of consumer confidence generated by a giant government data exposure.

Phase 2 HIPAA Audits Kick Off With Random Surveys

Posted on June 9, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Ideally, the only reason you would know about the following is due to scribes such as myself — but for the record, the HHS Office for Civil Rights has sent out a bunch of pre-audit screening surveys to covered entities. Once it gets responses, it will do a Phase 2 audit not only of covered entities but also business associates, so things should get heated.

While these take the form of Meaningful Use audits, covering incentives paid from January 1, 2011 through June 30, 2014, it’s really more about checking how well you protect ePHI.

This effort is a drive to be sure that providers and BAs are complying with the HIPAA privacy, security and breach notification requirements. Apparently OCR found, during Phase 1 pilot audits in 2011 and 2012, that there was “pervasive non-compliance” with regs designed to safeguard protected health information, the National Law Review reports.

However, these audits aren’t targeting the “bad guys.” Selection for the audits is random, according to HHS Office of the Inspector General.

So if you get one of the dreaded pre-screening letters, how should you respond? According a thoughtful blog post by Maryanne Lambert for CureMD, auditors will be focused on the following areas:

  • Risk Assessment audits and reports
  • EHR security plan
  • Organizational chart
  • Network diagram
  • EHR web sites and patient portals
  • Policies and procedures
  • System inventory
  • Tools to perform vulnerability scans
  • Central log and event reports
  • EHR system users list
  • Contractors supporting the EHR and network perimeter devices.

According to Lambert, the feds will want to talk to the person primarily responsible for each of these areas, a process which could quickly devolve into a disaster if those people aren’t prepared. She recommends that if you’re selected for an audit, you run through a mock audit ahead of time to make sure these staff members can answer questions about how well policies and processed are followed.

Not that anyone would take the presence of HHS on their premises lightly, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a stumble in one corner of your operation could have widespread consequences. Lambert notes that in addition to defending your security precautions, you have to make sure that all parts of your organization are in line:

Be mindful while planning for this audit as deficiencies identified for one physician in a physician group or one hospital within a multi-hospital system, may apply to the other physicians and hospitals using the same EHR system and/or implementing meaningful use in the same way.  Thus, the incentive payments at risk in this audit may be greater than the payments to the particular provider being audited.

But as she points out, there is one possible benefit to being audited. If you prepare well, it might save you not only trouble with HHS but possibly lawsuits for breaches of information. Hey, everything has some kind of silver lining, right?

Breaking Bad And HIT: Some Thoughts for Healthcare

Posted on June 2, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Recently, I’ve been re-watching the blockbuster TV series hit “Breaking Bad” courtesy of Netflix. For those who haven’t seen it, the show traces the descent of a seemingly honest plain-Joe suburbanite from high school chemistry teacher to murderous king of a multi-state crystal meth business, all kicked off by his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

As the show clearly intends, it has me musing once again on how an educated guy with a family and a previously crime-free life can compromise everything that once mattered to him and ultimately, destroy nearly everything he loves.

And that, given that I write for this audience, had me thinking just as deeply what turns ordinary healthcare workers into cybercriminals who ruthlessly exploit people’s privacy and put their financial survival at risk by selling the data under their control.

Sure, some of data stealing is done by black-hat hackers who crack healthcare networks and mine them for data at the behest of organized crime groups. But then there’s the surprises. Like the show’s central character, Walter White, some healthcare cybercriminals seem to come out of the blue, relative “nobodies” with no history as gangsters or thieves who suddenly find a way to rationalize stealing data.

I’d bet that if you dug into the histories of those healthcare employees who “break bad” you’d find that they have a few of the following characteristics in common:

*  Feeling underappreciated:  Like Walter White, whose lowly chemistry-teacher job was far below his abilities, data-stealing employees may feel that their talents aren’t appreciated and that they’ll never “make it” via a legitimate path.

* Having a palatable excuse:  Breaking Bad’s dying anti-hero was able to rationalize his behavior by telling himself that he was doing what he did to protect his family’s future well-being. Rogue employees who sell data to the highest bidder may believe that they’re committing a victimless crime, or that they deserve the extra income to make up for a below-market salary.

Willful ignorance:  Not once, during the entire run of BB, does White stop and wonder (out loud at least) what harm his flood of crystal meth is doing to its users. While it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how people could be harmed by having their medical privacy violated — or especially, having their financial data abused — some healthcare workers will just choose not to think about it

Greed:  No need to explain this one — though people may restrain naturally greedy impulses if the other factors listed above aren’t present. You can’t really screen for it, sadly, despite the damage it can do.

So do you have employees in your facilities on the verge of breaking bad and betraying the trust their stewardship of healthcare data conveys? Taking a look around for bitter, dissatisfied types might be worth a try.

Knotty Problems Surround Substance Abuse Data Sharing via EMRs

Posted on May 27, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As I see it, rules giving mental health and substance abuse data extra protection are critical. Maybe someday, there will be little enough stigma around these illnesses that special privacy precautions aren’t necessary, but that day is far in the future.

That’s why a new bill filed by Reps. Tim Murphy (R-PA.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), aimed at simplifying sharing of substance misuse data between EMRs, deserves a close look by those of us who track EMR data privacy. Tonko and Murphy propose to loosen federal rules on such data sharing  such that a single filled-out consent form from a patient would allow data sharing throughout a hospital or health system.

As things currently stand, federal law requires that in the majority of cases, federally-assisted substance abuse programs are barred from sharing personally-identifiable patient information with other entities if the programs don’t have a disclosure consent. What’s more, each other entity must itself obtain another consent from a patient before the data gets shared again.

At a recent hearing on the 21st Century Cures Act, Rep. Tonko argued that the federal requirements, which became law before EMRs were in wide use, were making it more difficult for individuals fighting a substance abuse problem to get the coordinated care that they needed.  While they might have been effective privacy protections at one point, today the need for patients to repeatedly approve data sharing merely interferes with the providers’ ability to offer value-based care, he suggested. (It’s hard to argue that it can’t be too great for ACOs to hit such walls.)

Clearly, Tonko’s goals can be met in some form.  In fact, other areas of the clinical world are making great progress in sharing mental health data while avoiding data privacy entanglements. For example, a couple of months ago the National Institute of Mental Health announced that its NIMH Limited Datasets project, including data from 23 large NIMH-supported clinical trials, just sent out its 300th dataset.

Rather than offer broader access to data and protect individual identifiers stringently, the datasets contain private human study participant information but are shared only with qualified researchers. Those researchers must win approval for a Data Use Certification agreement which specifies how the data may be used, including what data confidentiality and security measures must be taken.

Of course, practicing clinicians don’t have time to get special approval to see the data for every patient they treat, so this NIMH model doesn’t resolve the issues hospitals and providers face in providing coordinated substance abuse care on the fly.

But until a more flexible system is put in place, perhaps some middle ground exists in which clinicians outside of the originating institution can grant temporary, role-based “passes” offering limited use to patient-identifiable substance abuse data. That is something EMRs should be well equipped to support. And if they’re not, this would be a great time to ask why!

Emerging Health Apps Pose Major Security Risk

Posted on May 18, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As new technologies like fitness bands, telemedicine and smartphone apps have become more important to healthcare, the issue of how to protect the privacy of the data they generate has become more important, too.

After all, all of these devices use the public Internet to broadcast data, at least at some point in the transmission. Typically, telemedicine involves a direct connection via an unsecured Internet connection with a remote server (Although, they are offering doing some sort of encryption of the data that’s being sent on the unsecured connection).  If they’re being used clinically, monitoring technologies such as fitness bands use hop from the band across wireless spectrum to a smartphone, which also uses the public Internet to communicate data to clinicians. Plus, using the public internet is just the pathway that leads to a myriad of ways that hackers could get access to this health data.

My hunch is that this exposure of data to potential thieves hasn’t generated a lot of discussion because the technology isn’t mature. And what’s more, few doctors actually work with wearables data or offer telemedicine services as a routine part of their practice.

But it won’t be long before these emerging channels for tracking and caring for patients become a standard part of medical practice.  For example, the use of wearable fitness bands is exploding, and middleware like Apple’s HealthKit is increasingly making it possible to collect and mine the data that they produce. (And the fact that Apple is working with Epic on HealthKit has lured a hefty percentage of the nation’s leading hospitals to give it a try.)

Telemedicine is growing at a monster pace as well.  One study from last year by Deloitte concluded that the market for virtual consults in 2014 would hit 70 million, and that the market for overall telemedical visits could climb to 300 million over time.

Given that the data generated by these technologies is medical, private and presumably protected by HIPAA, where’s the hue and cry over protecting this form of patient data?

After all, though a patient’s HIV or mental health status won’t be revealed by a health band’s activity status, telemedicine consults certainly can betray those concerns. And while a telemedicine consult won’t provide data on a patient’s current cardiovascular health, wearables can, and that data that might be of interest to payers or even life insurers.

I admit that when the data being broadcast isn’t clear text summaries of a patient’s condition, possibly with their personal identity, credit card and health plan information, it doesn’t seem as likely that patients’ well-being can be compromised by medical data theft.

But all you have to do is look at human nature to see the flaw in this logic. I’d argue that if medical information can be intercepted and stolen, someone can find a way to make money at it. It’d be a good idea to prepare for this eventuality before a patient’s privacy is betrayed.

An Important Look at HIPAA Policies For BYOD

Posted on May 11, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Today I stumbled across an article which I thought readers of this blog would find noteworthy. In the article, Art Gross, president and CEO at HIPAA Secure Now!, made an important point about BYOD policies. He notes that while much of today’s corporate computing is done on mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets — most of which access their enterprise’s e-mail, network and data — HIPAA offers no advice as to how to bring those devices into compliance.

Given that most of the spectacular HIPAA breaches in recent years have arisen from the theft of laptops, and are likely proceed to theft of tablet and smartphone data, it seems strange that HHS has done nothing to update the rule to address increasing use of mobiles since it was drafted in 2003.  As Gross rightly asks, “If the HIPAA Security Rule doesn’t mention mobile devices, laptops, smartphones, email or texting how do organizations know what is required to protect these devices?”

Well, Gross’ peers have given the issue some thought, and here’s some suggestions from law firm DLA Piper on how to dissect the issues involved. BYOD challenges under HIPAA, notes author Peter McLaughlin, include:

*  Control:  To maintain protection of PHI, providers need to control many layers of computing technology, including network configuration, operating systems, device security and transmissions outside the firewall. McLaughlin notes that Android OS-based devices pose a particular challenge, as the system is often modified to meet hardware needs. And in both iOS and Android environments, IT administrators must also manage users’ tendency to connected to their preferred cloud and download their own apps. Otherwise, a large volume of protected health data can end up outside the firewall.

Compliance:  Healthcare organizations and their business associates must take care to meet HIPAA mandates regardless of the technology they  use.  But securing even basic information, much less regulated data, can be far more difficult than when the company creates restrictive rules for its own devices.

Privacy:  When enterprises let employees use their own device to do company business, it’s highly likely that the employee will feel entitled to use the device as they see fit. However, in reality, McLaughlin suggests, employees don’t really have full, private control of their devices, in part because the company policy usually requires a remote wipe of all data when the device gets lost. Also, employees might find that their device’s data becomes discoverable if the data involved is relevant to litigation.

So, readers, tell us how you’re walking the tightrope between giving employees who BYOD some autonomy, and protecting private, HIPAA-protected information.  Are you comfortable with the policies you have in place?

Full Disclosure: HIPAA Secure Now! is an advertiser on this website.

Telemedicine Startup Offers Providers A Shot At Equity

Posted on April 22, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Over the last couple of years, the number of telemedicine vendors out there fighting for business has exploded.  These include DoctoronDemand, GoTelecare, HealthTap, MDLIVE, American Well and many, many more.

Health plans are jumping on the bandwagon too. For example, United Healthcare  has been running a popular national television campaign advertising its “virtual clinic” services. UHC is my plan, so I can attest that this service — shown as embedded in its member site — hasn’t been rolled out yet, but that only makes its desire to get out in front of the trend more noteworthy.

Telemedicine models in play include companies that recruit providers and sell them to consumers, vendors who enable telemedicine via proprietary platforms and firms that lead with community building. At present the direct-to-consumer players seem to be somewhat ahead, simply because they’ve already begun developing a national brand, but the story doesn’t end there.

Though consumer-facing telemedicine companies probably have a viable business model, they’ll have to build a memorable consumer brand to make it, something that takes a great deal of  time and money.  On the other hand, vendors that offer white-label telemedicine technology to hospitals and health plans have at least as much to gain, without having to win the loyalty of fickle consumers.

One telemedicine player doing just that is Nashville-based PointNurse, which has developed a distributed collaboration and communications platform providers can use to deliver telemedicine services. I just spoke to CEO Cyrus Maaghul, who gave me a company overview, and was interested to hear that his venture is taking things in some new directions.

PointNurse is different than most companies in the telemedicine space for a few reasons.

For one thing, the platform includes block chain capabilities, which allow providers to accumulate credits for both community participation and actual care delivery. (In case you aren’t familiar with block chain technology, which powers crypto currency Bitcoin, you may want to click here.)

These credits aren’t just for fun. Eventually, when providers accumulate enough credits, they get a pro-rata share of a dedicated pool of equity.

Consumers, for their part, are given a multi-signature wallet which stores both their personal and clinical information, resulting more or less in a PHR with added capabilities. PointNurse hasn’t yet devised a way to share the data with provider EMRs, but that’s a short-term goal.

A wide range of providers can participate in PointNurse, including not only MDs but also nurse practitioners, pharmacists, RNs, LPNs and elder advocates.

A sister venture, HealthCombix, will license the technology underlying PointNurse to hospitals and payers. HealthCombix will provide APIs and tools to build their own distributed applications.

As Maaghul sees it, it’s critical for providers to realize more than a short-term benefit from participating in telemedicine. “I wanted to make providers feel highly motivated — that they can gain from this [arrangement],” Maaghul said. “This creates value for the patient.”

Of course, there’s no proof yet that this or any particular telemedicine business model is going to capture its market niche.  In fact, it’s not even clear what niches will emerge in this space; after all, though it’s moving fast it’s far from mature.

That being said, this approach has some intriguing aspects. I’ll be interested to see whether its business model and and unusual underlying technology work out.

Were Anthem, CHS Cyber Security Breaches Due to Negligence?

Posted on February 19, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Not long ago, health insurance giant Anthem suffered a security breach of historic proportions, one which exposed personal data on as many as 80 million current and former customers. While Anthem is taking steps to repair the public relations damage, it’s beginning to look like even its $100 million cyber security insurance policy is ludicrously inadequate to address what could be an $8B to $16B problem. (That’s assuming, as many cyber security pros do, that it costs $100 to $200 per customer exposed to restore normalcy.)

But the full extent of the healthcare industry hack may be even greater than that. As information begins to filter out about what happens, a Forbes report suggests that the cyber security intrusion at Anthem may be linked to another security breach — exposing 4.5 million records — that took place less than six months months ago at Community Health Systems:

Analysis of open source information on the cybercriminal infrastructure likely used to siphon 80 million Social Security numbers and other sensitive data from health insurance giant Anthem suggests the attackers may have first gained a foothold in April 2014, nine months before the company says it discovered the intrusion. Brian KrebsAnthem Breach May Have Started in April, 2014

Class action suits against CHS were filed last August, alleging negligence by the hospital giant. Anthem also faces class action suits alleging security negligence in Indiana, California, Alabama and Georgia. But the damage to both companies’ image has already been done, damage that can’t be repaired by even the most favorable legal outcome. (In fact, the longer these cases linger in court, the more time the public has to permanently brand the defendants as having been irresponsible.)

What makes these exploits particularly unfortunate is that they may have been quite preventable. Security experts say Anthem, along with CHS, may well have been hit by a well-known and frequently leveraged vulnerability in the OpenSSL cryptographic software library known as the Heartbleed Bug. A fix for Heartbleed, which was introduced in 2011, has been available since April of last year. Though outside experts haven’t drawn final conclusions, many have surmised that neither Anthem nor CHS made the necessary fix which would  have protected them against Heartbleed.

Both companies have released defensive statements contending that these security breaches were due to tremendously sophisticated attacks — something they’d have to do even if a third-grade script kiddie hacked their infrastructure. But the truth is, note security analysts, the attacks almost certainly succeeded because of a serious lack of internal controls.

By gaining admin credentials to the database there was nothing ‒ including encryption ‒ to stop the attack. The only thing that did stop it was a lucky administrator who happened to be paying attention at the right time. Ken Westin – Senior Security Analyst at Tripwire

As much these companies would like to convince us that the cyber security breaches weren’t really their fault — that they were victims of exotic hacker gods with otherworldly skills — the bottom line is that this doesn’t seem to be true.

If Anthem and CHS going to point fingers rather than stiffen up their cyber security protocols, I’d advise that they a) buy a lot more security breach insurance and b) hire a new PR firm.  What they’re doing obviously isn’t working.

Wearables And Mobile Apps Pose New Data Security Risks

Posted on December 30, 2014 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

In the early days of mobile health apps and wearable medical devices, providers weren’t sure they could cope with yet another data stream. But as the uptake of these apps and devices has grown over the last two years, at a rate surpassing virtually everyone’s expectations, providers and payers both have had to plan for a day when wearable and smartphone app data become part of the standard dataflow. The potentially billion-dollar question is whether they can figure out when, where and how they need to secure such data.

To do that, providers are going to have to face up to new security risks that they haven’t faced before, as well as doing a good job of educating patients on when such data is HIPAA-protected and when it isn’t. While I am most assuredly not an attorney, wiser legal heads than mine have reported that once wearable/app data is used by providers, it’s protected by HIPAA safeguards, but in other situations — such as when it’s gathered by employers or payers — it may not be protected.

For an example of the gray areas that bedevil mobile health data security, consider the case of upstart health insurance provider Oscar Health, which recently offered free Misfit Flash bands to its members. The company’s leaders have promised members that use the bands that if their collected activity numbers look good, they’ll offer roughly $240 off their annual premium. And they’ve promised that the data will be used for diagnostics or any other medical purpose. This promise may be worthless, however, if they are still legally free to resell this data to say, pharmaceutical companies.

Logical and physical security

Meanwhile, even if providers, payers and employers are very cautious about violating patients’ privacy, their careful policies will be worth little if they don’t take a look at managing the logical and physical security risks inherent in passing around so much data across multiple Wi-Fi, 4G and corporate networks.

While it’s not yet clear what the real vulnerabilities are in shipping such data from place to place, it’s clear that new security holes will pop up as smartphone and wearable health devices ramp up to sharing data on massive scale. In an industry which is still struggling with BYOD security, corralling data that facilities already work with on a daily basis, it’s going to pose an even bigger challenge to protect and appropriately segregate connected health data.

After all, every time you begin to rely on a new network model which involves new data handoff patterns — in this case from wired medical device or wearable data streaming to smartphones across Wi-Fi networks, smart phones forwarding data to providers via 4G LTE cellular protocols and providers processing the data via corporate networks, there has to be a host of security issues we haven’t found yet.

Cybersecurity problems could lead to mHealth setbacks

Worst of all, hospitals’ and medical practices’ cyber security protocols are quite weak (as researcher after researcher has pointed out of late). Particularly given how valuable medical identity data has become, healthcare organizations need to work harder to protect their cyber assets and see to it that they’ve at least caught the obvious holes.

But to date, if our experiences with medical device security are any indication, not only are hospitals and practices vulnerable to standard cyber hacks on network assets, they’re also finding it difficult to protect the core medical devices needed to diagnose and treat patients, such as MRI machines, infusion pumps and even, in theory, personal gear like pacemakers and insulin pumps.  It doesn’t inspire much confidence that the Conficker worm, which attacked medical devices across the world several years ago, is still alive and kicking, and in fact, accounted for 31% the year’s top security threats.

If malevolent outsiders mount attacks on the flow of connected health data, and succeed at stealing it, not only is it a brand-new headache for healthcare IT administrators, it could create a crisis of confidence among mHealth shareholders. In other words, while patients, providers, payers, employers and even pharmaceutical companies seem comfortable with the idea of tapping digital health data, major hacks into that data could slow the progress of such solutions considerably. Let’s hope those who focus on health IT security take the threat to wearables and smartphone health app data seriously going into 2015.

HL7 Backs Effort To Boost Patient Data Exchange

Posted on December 8, 2014 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Standards group Health Level Seven has kicked off a new project intended to increase the adoption of tech standards designed to improve electronic patient data exchange. The initiative, the Argonaut Project, includes just five EMR vendors and four provider organizations, but it seems to have some interesting and substantial goals.

Participating vendors include Athenahealth, Cerner, Epic, McKesson and MEDITECH, while providers include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Intermoutain  Healthcare, Mayo Clinic and Partners HealthCare. In an interesting twist, the group also includes SMART, Boston Children’s Hospital Informatics Program’s federally-funded mobile app development project. (How often does mobile get a seat at the table when interoperability is being discussed?) And consulting firm the Advisory Board Company is also involved.

Unlike the activity around the much-bruited CommonWell Alliance, which still feels like vaporware to industry watchers like myself, this project seems to have a solid technical footing. On the recommendation of a group of science advisors known as JASON, the group is working at creating a public API to advance EMR interoperability.

The springboard for its efforts is HL7’s Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources. HL7’s FHir is a RESTful API, an approach which, the standards group notes, makes it easier to share data not only across traditional networks and EMR-sharing modular components, but also to mobile devices, web-based applications and cloud communications.

According to JASON’s David McCallie, Cerner’s president of medical informatics, the group has an intriguing goal. Members’ intent is to develop a health IT operating system such as those used by Apple and Android mobile devices. Once that was created, providers could then use both built-in apps resident in the OS and others created by independent developers. While the devices a “health IT OS” would have to embrace would be far more diverse than those run by Android or iOS, the concept is still a fascinating one.

It’s also neat to hear that the collective has committed itself to a fairly aggressive timeline, promising to accelerate current FHIT development to provide hands-on FHIR profiles and implementation guides to the healthcare world by spring of next year.

Lest I seem too critical of CommonWell, which has been soldiering along for quite some time now, it’s onlyt fair to note that its goals are, if anything, even more ambitious than the Argonauts’. CommonWell hopes to accomplish nothing less than managing a single identity for every person/patient, locating the person’s records in the network and managing consent. And CommonWell member Cerner recently announced that it would provide CommonWell services to its clients for free until Jan. 1, 2018.

But as things stand, I’d wager that the Argonauts (I love that name!) will get more done, more quickly. I’m truly eager to see what emerges from their efforts.