Chicago Hospitals Embark On Long HIE Journey

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I live in Chicago, a highly competitive healthcare market with some world-class medical schools (Northwestern, University of Chicago, Loyola, Rush) and a pretty decent record of EMR adoption. At least four major institutions/health systems run similar Epic EMRs: University of Chicago Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Rush University Medical Center and, in the northern suburbs, NorthShore University HealthSystem (formerly Evanston-Northwestern Healthcare).

Three NorthShore hospitals–Evanston Hospital, Glenbrook Hospital and Highland Park Hospital–were among the first in the country to reach Stage 7 on the HIMSS Analytics EMR Adoption Model.(NorthShore’s Skokie Hospital since has reached Stage 7). Several others, notably Rush, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in northwest suburban Park Ridge, Mercy Hospital & Medical Center and  Swedish Covenant Hospital, have gotten to Stage 6.

But there’s been very little effort to interconnect these institutions and affiliated physician practices. Even during the RHIO heyday of 2004-07, I don’t recall much interoperability talk in the Chicago area. (In fact, one family physician, Dr. Stasia Kahn, in far west suburban St. Charles, got so frustrated that she formed her own group to promote EMR adoption and health information exchange, Northern Illinois Physicians for Connectivity. I had heard talk for a while of some south suburban hospitals joining in an HIE with counterparts across the state line in Northwest Indiana since Illinois was moving too slowly.)

All of that non-action at the state and regional levels happened under the not-so-watchful eye of one Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who apparently was more preoccupied with his own vanity and “giving healthcare to kids” (while also allegedly trying to blackmail the CEO of Children’s Memorial Hospital into donating to his campaign fund and also slowing Medicaid payments to pay for his All Kids program) than in, you know, actually improving healthcare for everyone by promoting HIE.

In February 2009, shortly after Blagojevich was removed from office and a couple weeks before the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act became law, new Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law allocating $3 million to the state’s Department of Healthcare and Family Services for HIE planning. That laid the groundwork for this week’s widely publicized announcement that the not-for-profit Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council had chosen technology from Microsoft, Computer Sciences Corp. and HealthUnity to build what could be the largest big-city HIE in the country, potentially serving 9.4 million people in nine Illinois counties and small parts of Indiana and Wisconsin.

I bring all of this up because I met yesterday with executives from the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, a 76-year-old coalition of healthcare organizations in and around the city. It just so happened that the 2011 Microsoft Connected Health Conference was in town this week, so it was the perfect time and location for Microsoft to drop the news. According to MCHC Vice President Mary Ann Kelly, more than 70 percent of the council’s 150-some members have made a commitment to participate, and they seem to have a plan to make the HIE effort sustainable.

The exchange will operate on a subscription model, with the vendors taking on some of the risk, Kelly said. “The subscription fee will be based on the benefit each member derives,” Kelly explained.

Initially, the exchange will involve 22 hospitals in nine organizations, said Teresa Jacobsen, the council’s HIE director. “We want to get one or two use cases running first,” she said. They will start by linking emergency departments to exchange clinical summaries and for syndromic surveillance, according to Jacobsen. Once that’s going, the HIE plans on adding medication and allergy lists, diagnostic testing results and Continuity of Care Document reports, as well as additional elements for public health, including immunization records.

It all sounds great, and it’s a good idea for them to start slowly, but I wonder when and if smaller physician practices will get involved. My own physician has had an EMR for a while, but not every doctor in the practice uses it. (The four-physician practice recently upgraded to the Meaningful Use Edition of Sage Intergy and has started the 90-day clock for qualifying for Stage 1 Medicare incentives this year, but there’s essentially zero interoperability with other healthcare entities, unless you consider faxing records to others straight from a computer interoperability. I sure don’t.)

My guess is that scenarios like this are playing out all over the country. I wish them luck, but I’m not counting on nationwide interoperability for many years. For one thing, the federally funded, state-chartered Illinois HIE Authority held its very first organizational meeting Wednesday afternoon. “That’s the biggest wild card we don’t know,” MCHC CFO Dan Yunker said.

It’s key to getting payers—particularly Illinois Medicaid—on board with HIE and linking metropolitan exchange networks across the state and beyond. “Our hospitals in Chicago are responsible for the snowbirds who are in Naples (Florida),” Yunker noted. They’re also responsible for patients who come from places like Rockford, Springfield, Champaign, Carbondale and the Quad Cities for certain specialized services only available in the big city.

Yeah, this interoperability thing isn’t so easy.