Public Health Agencies Struggle To Integrate With HIEs

Posted on September 21, 2017 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.

New research by ONC suggests that while public health agencies might benefit from connecting with HIEs, there are still some significant barriers many need to address before doing so.

Public health agencies at both the state and local level collect information from providers as part of conducting disease surveillance activities and maintaining data registries. Though some of these registries are common – notably those focusing on childhood immunizations, birth defects and cancer—the agencies’ technical infrastructure and data formats still vary. This makes sharing data between them difficult.

One alternative to cumbersome data matching between agencies is for the agencies to integrate with an HIE. According to the ONC report, public health researchers have begun to find that at least some of the time, the data they get from HIE organizations is richer than data from clinical systems. Not only that, when public health agencies integrate their information systems with HIEs, it can help them conduct many of their functions more effectively. However, it’s still unusual to find HIE-connected agencies as of yet.

In its new report, ONC outlines what it learned about what the agencies hoped to accomplish with HIE integration and how they moved ahead with integration. To find this out, ONC contracted with Clinovations Government + Health, which participated in discussions with eight entities and analyzing more detailed information on 10 others.

Virtually all respondents had two goals for HIE integration: 1) Minimizing the number of connections needed to link providers, HIEs and agencies and 2) Helping providers meet public health requirements for Medicare and Medicaid EHR incentive programs. A small subset also said that over the longer term, they wanted to create a sustainable platform for clinical and public health exchange which could support enhanced analytics and quality measurement.

Not surprisingly, though, they face considerable challenges in making HIE integration actually happen. In most cases, technology issues were possibly the toughest nut to crack, and almost certainly the most complex. To connect with an HIE, agencies may confront incompatible transport and messaging protocols, standards problems, data classification and coding issues, inconsistent data quality, and their often-inflexible legacy systems, to name just a few of the many problems ONC cites.

As if that weren’t enough, the agencies may not have the funding in place to take on the integration effort, and/or lack a stable funding stream; don’t have the kind of cross-functional leaders in place needed to integrate their systems with HIEs; grapple with complicated patient data privacy and security issues; and bump up against state laws limiting data sharing methods.

However, through its research, the ONC did gather some useful feedback on how the agencies were coping with the long list of HIE integration challenges they face. For example, to win over the support of policymakers, some agencies have emphasized that they’ll be able to use HIE data for higher-level analytics and quality measures. The respondents also noted that HIE integration got more internal support when they got buy-in from top leaders and second-tier leaders have project management, technical and policy skills.

Given these odds, it’s little wonder that the number of public health agencies successfully integrating with HIEs is still small. That being said, there’s good reason for them to keep pushing for integration, so their number is likely to grow over the next few years.