Please, No More HIE “Coming Of Age” Stories

Posted on September 29, 2016 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 read a Modern Healthcare story suggesting that health information exchanges are “coming of age,” and after reading it, I swear my eyes almost rolled back into my head. (An ordinary eye roll wouldn’t do.)

The story leads with the assertion that a new health data sharing deal, in which Texas Health Resources agreed to share data via a third-party HIE, suggests that such HIEs are becoming sustainable.

Author Joseph Conn writes that the 14-hospital system is coming together with 32 other providers sending data to Healthcare Access San Antonio, an entity which supports roughly 2,400 HIE users and handles almost 2.2 million patient records. He notes that the San Antonio exchange is one of about 150 nationwide, hardly a massive number for a country the size of the U.S.

In partial proof of his assertion that HIEs are finding their footing, he notes that that from 2010 to 2015, the number of HIEs in the U.S. fluctuated but saw a net gain of 41%, according to federal stats. And he attributes this growth to pressure on providers to improve care, lower costs and strengthen medical research, or risk getting Medicare or Medicaid pay cuts.

I don’t dispute that there is increased pressure on providers to meet some tough goals. Nor am I arguing that many healthcare organizations believe that healthcare data sharing via an HIE can help them meet these goals.

But I would argue that even given the admittedly growing pressure from federal regulators to achieve certain results, history suggests that an HIE probably isn’t the way to get this done, as we don’t seem to have found a business model for them that works over the long term.

As Conn himself notes, seven recipients of federal, state-wide HIE grants issued by the ONC — awarded in Connecticut, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Wyoming — went out of business after the federal grants dried up. So were not talking about HIEs’ ignoble history of sputtering out, we’re talking about fairly recent failures.

He also notes that a commercially-funded model, MetroChicago HIE, which connected more than 30 northeastern Illinois hospitals, went under earlier this year. This HIE failed because its most critical technology vendor suddenly went out of business with 2 million patient records in its hands.

As for HASA, the San Antonio exchange discussed above, it’s not just a traditional HIE. Conn’s piece notes that most of the hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have already implemented or plan to use an Epic EMR and share clinical messages using its information exchange capabilities. Depending on how robust the Epic data-sharing functions actually are, this might offer something of a solution.

But what seems apparent to me, after more than a decade of watching HIEs flounder, is that a data-sharing model relying on a third-party platform probably isn’t financially or competitively sustainable.

The truth is, a veteran editor like Mr. Conn (who apparently has 35 years of experience under his belt) must know that his reporting doesn’t sustain the assertion that HIEs are coming into some sort of golden era. A single deal undertaken by even a large player like Texas Health Resources doesn’t prove that HIEs are seeing a turnaround. It seems that some people think the broken clock that is the HIE model will be right at least once.

P.S.  All of this being said, I admit that I’m intrigued by the notion of  “public utility” HIE. Are any of you associated with such a project?