Panel: Interoperability will improve health care

The health care industry must embrace open standards for interoperability to improve the delivery of medical services, a panel of experts said yesterday.

Medicaid is going bankrupt because it is paying for hospital services for elderly people who can no longer stay in their homes, said James Turner, chief minority counsel for the House Science Committee. He spoke at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Interoperability Week conference in Gaithersburg, Md.

According to some estimates, full implementation of interoperability would save the health care industry $78 billion a year, or 5 percent of its total costs, said William Jeffrey, NIST’s director.

Interoperability allows data sharing among new and existing systems and accelerates innovation by allowing more flexible and incremental improvements to those systems, said Karla Norsworthy, vice president for software standards at IBM. Open standards enable interoperability and open opportunities to create new solutions to business problems, she said.

Electronic medical records must be in formats that multiple organizations can implement in multiple ways, Norsworthy said.

Olwen Huxley, staff member of the committee, said that the health care industry must reconcile the different ways to store and share information among often old legacy systems.

IT providers are excited about the possibilities of integrating databases, diagnostic tools and other IT, but health care providers are often too busy to use new technology, Huxley said.

“Everyone is feeling their way along,” she said. Only 10 percent of hospitals keep electronic records, she said, and an even smaller percentage of doctors’ offices do.

Hospitals, doctors’ offices and other health care providers often create new IT systems in isolation, Huxley said. The challenge is to get them all to talk to one another, she said.

Databases must recognize variant spellings of the same disease, drug and other shared data, Huxley said. But health care providers hold tight to their preferred versions, Norsworthy said. “Doctors would rather share a toothbrush than agree on the names of genes,” she said.

Doctors and software developers don’t bemoan the lack of interoperability standards because they are more interested in setting up local systems, Huxley said. She said that would change, though, when necessary patient data is not shared and somebody dies.

People already have died because of it, Turner said. The problem several years ago with Firestone tires deflating and causing sport utility vehicles to roll over was a supply chain problem caused by a lack of interoperable systems, he said.

“Data to solve the problem was dumped” at motor vehicle departments nationwide because it couldn’t be collected off 50 state systems, Turner said.

If hospitals and doctors’ offices share information through automated systems supporting open standards for interoperability, it could enable a supply chain for emergency medicine, Turner said.

Systems connected to sensors in patients’ homes could alert emergency personnel of a patient’s condition before he or she arrives, improving treatment, Turner said. A lack of automation and interoperability standards are large obstacles preventing the creation of such a system, he said.

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