The Downside of Interoperability

Posted on May 2, 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.

It’s hard to argue that achieving health data interoperability is not important — but it comes with risks. And I’ve seen little discussion of the fact that interoperability may actually increase the chance that a major attack could hit a wide swath of healthcare providers. It might be extreme to suggest that we put off such efforts until we step up the industry’s security status, but the problem shouldn’t be ignored either.

Sure, data interoperability is a critical goal for healthcare providers of all stripes. While there’s room to argue about how it should be accomplished, particularly over whether providers or patients should drive health data management, there’s no question it needs to get done. There’s little doubt that most efforts to coordinate care will fall flat if providers are operating with incomplete information.

And what’s more, with the demand for interoperability baked into MACRA, we pretty much have no choice but to make it happen anyway. To my knowledge, HHS has proposed neither carrot nor stick to convince providers to come on board – nor has it defined “widespread” interoperability to my knowledge — but the agency has to achieve something by 2018, and that means change will come.

That being said, I’m struck by how little industry concern there seems to be about the extent to which interoperability can multiply the possibility of a breach occurring. Unfortunately, security is only as good is the weakest link in the chain, and data sharing increases the length of the chain exponentially. Of course, the risk varies a great deal depending on who or what the data-sharing intermediary is, but the fact remains that a connected network is a connected network.

The problem only gets worse if interoperability is achieved by integrating applications. I’m no software engineer, but I’m pretty sure that the more integrated providers’ infrastructure is, the more vulnerabilities they share. To be fair, hospitals theoretically vet their partners, but that defeats the purpose of universal data sharing, doesn’t it?

And even if every provider in the universal data sharing network practices good security hygiene, they can still get attacked. So it’s not a matter of requiring participants to comply with some network security standard, or meet some certification criteria. Given the massive incentives these have to steal health data (and lock it up with ransomware), nobody can hold out forever.

The bottom line is that I believe we should discuss the matter of security in a fully-connected health data sharing network more often.

Yes, we almost certainly need to press ahead and simply find a way to contain the risks. We simply can’t afford our fragmented healthcare system, and data interoperability offers perhaps the best possible chance of pulling it back together.

But before we plunge into the fray, it only makes sense to stop and consider all of the risks involved and how they should be addressed. After all, universal interconnection exposes a virtually infinite number of potential points of failure to cybercrooks. Let’s put some solutions on the table before it’s too late.