HHS sees key role for new advisory panel in achieving interoperability

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The challenge of making progress toward the interoperability of healthcare information systems will be one of the key challenges facing a newly formed advisory group that held its first meeting on Thursday.

The 30-member panel is charged with several tasks, but helping the industry exchange patient data is among its most compelling tasks, according to two top administration officials who addressed the panel at its inaugural meeting.

Acting Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan kicked off the Health Information Technology Advisory Committee’s first meeting on Thursday, telling the panel that the creation of the new HITAC is a “major step forward” for America’s health IT policy.

“We want to make sure that everyone here understands what a focus this is at HHS—that’s part of the reason that I’m here,” Hargan told committee members. “By replacing the Health IT Policy Committee and the Health IT Standards Committee with a single committee, we now have a single body that can make expert recommendations to advance our work.”

Established by the 21st Century Cures Act, the HITAC is charged with making recommendations to the National Coordinator for Health IT regarding the implementation of national and local health IT infrastructure, including policies, standards, implementation specifications, and certification criteria that advance the electronic access, exchange, and use of health information.

“We cannot solve these problems solely through better technology and standards, but we can certainly ensure that technology and standards are working to solve the problem—rather than being part of the problem itself,” said Hargan.

According to Hargan, the collective healthcare and technology experience of HITAC’s membership “will be an important asset in helping us to set a strategic direction for the country’s health IT systems.” In particular, he noted that the committee will have a key role in achieving the Trump administration’s goals of HIT interoperability and usability for the benefit of providers and patients alike, adding that “the White House is deeply committed to this effort.”

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The Cures Act provides HHS with new authorities for advancing interoperability “including provisions that should increase market competition—we think—allowing new entrants to design software applications and tools that will help solve these complex challenges,” said Hargan.

Among HHS’s objectives are establishing a HIT infrastructure that “allows for the electronic access, exchange, and use of health information,” added Hargan, while “promoting and protecting the privacy and security of health information” in the face of growing cyber threats to the healthcare industry.

National Coordinator for Health IT Donald Rucker, MD, told the meeting that one of the key areas that must be addressed by the HITAC is how to “get closer to interoperability” and “how with privacy and security do we really make medical data available to patients—that is the charge of the committee.”

Rucker reminded panel members that the Cures Act calls for empowering patients with open application programming interfaces (APIs) “without special effort” to assist with the access and exchange of health information, suggesting that modern web standards such as RESTful APIs could be the enabling technology.

“Americans want control of their own (health) information and to be able to easily access it,” observed Hargan. “Nearly everyone has a smartphone now with which they ought to be able to access information in security.”

The Acting HHS Secretary acknowledged that these are “lofty” goals but he is optimistic that they can be achieved. “Significant efforts have been made in this area before and yet we still have a long way to go,” concluded Hargan.

Nonetheless, he said “huge progress” has been made “in terms of the use of electronic health records” which has “exponentially increased the potential returns to making these records more interoperable and usable.” Hargan also touted advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning to “harness big data” and the “ability to store and share data through the cloud” which he believes is critical for patients to access and use their own health information.

Rucker said that co-chairs of the HITAC will be appointed to provide leadership for the committee and will be announced before the panel’s next meeting scheduled for February 21.

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