Azar: Free flow of data, price info is what healthcare needs

Technology must support the change in thinking that keeps patients at the center of the care process.

Technology alone will not improve healthcare outcomes or reduce costs if the industry doesn’t openly share data and pricing information, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

“What we need is a healthcare system that allows the free flow of data and price information, that pays for providers to discover and implement treatments based on all of that data and keeps the patient at the center of that process,” Azar told a Boston audience on Tuesday at the World Medical Innovation Forum, hosted by Partners HealthCare. “Such a system will finally deliver American patients the affordability they need, the options and control they want and the quality they deserve.”

To help curb growing healthcare costs and to promote competition, Azar made that case that both patients and providers should be able to require pricing information to make informed care decisions.

“That’s why this administration has already taken historic steps around price transparency, including requiring hospitals to post their price lists in a machine-readable format online for the first time and proposing to require the disclosure of prescription drugs’ list prices in television ads,” said Azar.

In addition, starting in 2020, HHS has proposed requiring that Medicare Part D plans “make available a real-time pharmacy benefit tool—already used in the commercial market—which can provide instant electronic access to the kind of information that patients and physicians find so hard to track down today,” according to Azar.

When it comes to patients accessing their health information, he remarked that few experiences in healthcare are as “disempowering” as Americans trying to obtain their own medical records.

“We have already taken major steps to fix this situation by allowing seniors to give private-sector apps access to their Medicare data, and proposing new rules around the interoperability of health information that will ensure patients have seamless access to their own data—at no cost,” added Azar.

The HHS secretary commented that he is a “big believer” in the promise of artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to turn big data into actionable insights. However, he observed that the lack of health IT interoperability is hampering the healthcare industry’s ability to leverage the “very rich stew” of valuable data that AI algorithms can leverage.

“We put out these major rules from the Office of the National Coordinator (for Health IT) and CMS that are part of the whole interoperability and information blocking initiative that we have,” said Azar. “We want to ensure that the patient owns their information--it’s personal to them, it’s portable with them, and it carries forward.”

Also See: CMS, ONC proposed rules press industry to improve interoperability

On Monday at the World Medical Innovation Forum, CMS Administrator Seema Verma told the conference that the inability of EHR systems to interoperate is a major obstacle to healthcare innovation.

“We want to lean into innovation and technology and use that to help find ways to make sure that our healthcare is more efficient,” said Verma. However, she argued that despite the federal government spending $36 billion to foster EHR adoption, the industry has moved from “paper filing cabinets” for medical records to essentially “silos of patient data that are locked into electronic systems.”

Verma also warned about the negative impact on healthcare innovation because of the lack of competition in the health IT market.

Holding vendors accountable has been a challenge, she said. Healthcare innovators “need to be able to create their innovations in tandem with the EHR,” Verma added. But, she noted that “the way EHRs have been adopted in our country—there’s not a whole lot of competition, there’s only a few vendors—and many providers have invested very heavily and so it’s not easy for them to change course.

“I think it’s a problem that we need to address because if we’re going to move forward on innovation and turn the corner on trying to do something about our growing healthcare costs, then part of the solution is bringing innovation,” Verma concluded. “If the EHR vendors are blocking that and not allowing that to happen, then they’re hurting our country and we need to address that.”

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