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EHR Interoperability is a Nervous System

For those familiar with using email applications such as Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail, it might not seem like it should be very hard to send and receive electronic health information.   But as it turns out, maintaining privacy, security, HIPAA compliance and electronic patient consent is very complex when exchanging electronic health data over the Internet.   It is not easy even for physicians and hospitals using fully functional EHRs.

Virtual Scenario:  Imagine that your patients’ electronic medical records are packaged in individual charged impulses that can propagate along the axons of a national health IT nervous system. This neuronal circuit provides the infrastructure needed to send one of those charged impulses containing the right information on the right patient to the right receiving provider whenever and wherever needed. As physicians know, the charged impulses will propagate along the tubular-shaped axon until they reach the terminal end, which does not directly connect with another axon. Instead, there is a gap or synapse which prevents the impulses from proceeding unless an intermediary event occurs. This constraint prevents chaotic, asynchronous transmissions of impulses that would result in unwanted movements or seizures. So, trusted intermediaries (i.e. neurotransmitters, ions) are needed at the gaps or synapses to enable axons to “talk” with one another in a standard and controlled manner. This allows the charged impulses to proceed in a synchronous manner. The axons, gaps, synapses and intermediaries must work together, or be “interoperable”, so that the charged impulses travel in a secure, coordinated manner all the way to their intended destination.

In this scenario the imaginary national health IT nervous system is analogous to the real-life health IT infrastructure being developed at the national and state levels through National Health Information Network (NHIN) Direct project and the State Health Information Exchange (HIE) Cooperative Program.   The charged impulses represent each patient’s electronic health information.  The axons represent each physician’s cable to the Internet.   The gap or synapse represents the present-day constraints on our ability to send and receive electronic health information to one another.   The trusted intermediaries represent local health information exchanges (local HIEs) and health information service providers (HISPs) that allow each physician’s axon to communicate through the Internet with axons from other physicians and hospitals.  The interoperability needed among all parts of the virtual health IT nervous system is analogous to the interoperability needed among all parts of the real-life health IT infrastructure including EHRs, local HIEs and HISPs.

The Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN), through the NHIN Direct project, defines standards, services and policies at a national level for health IT interoperability.  At the core of NHIN Direct are trusted intermediaries that physicians can connect to in order to allow electronic health information to traverse the synapses between their axons and those from other physicians and hospitals.   These trusted entities are called health information service providers (HISPs). HISPs are able to authenticate the senders and recipients of electronic health information.   This provides verification regarding who really sent information and who really received it while also maintaining privacy and security while the data passes across the axonal synapses.

The Office of National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) is making an effort to trickle down NHIN Direct standards and protocols to each state.   Through the State HIE Cooperative Program, ONC grants funds to states who submit plans to build statewide health IT infrastructure to support interoperable health information exchange.   In order to be funded the states must adhere to NHIN Direct standards.

For example, the Texas Health Services Authority (THSA) is using the grant funds to serve as a statewide convening entity that has gained consensus from a broad base of healthcare stakeholders on a three-pronged strategic plan for HIE in Texas:

  1. Local HIE Program— Local HIEs are another type of trusted intermediaries, like HISPs, that physicians can connect to in order to allow electronic health information to pass across the synapse to the axons of other physicians, labs, radiology centers, hospitals or others with electronic health information. Twelve local HIEs were launched in 2011-2012 with partial funding through the THSA’s Local HIE Grant Program. Some are currently operational and actively providing HIE connectivity to physicians and hospitals in their area 
  2. State-level IT infrastructure and services—The goal is to develop statewide infrastructure and services that can be used by local HIEs to help them provide HIE services locally as well as to enable exchange of data from one HIE to another (statewide HIE services); also to support a transparent governance structure and develop policies and strategies that guide maturation of statewide health IT infrastructure
  3. “White Space” initiative—The goal is to make available basic health information exchange services to physicians and hospitals in regions of the state without local HIEs (the “white space”) by creating a marketplace of health information service providers (HISPs); physicians can apply for “vouchers” from THSA to offset the initial costs of connecting with the HISP they select.
Physicians should stay abreast of health IT interoperability efforts like these, especially those in their own communities like the local HIE efforts in Texas.  Physician input and involvement in these initiatives helps ensure health IT is spliced into the healthcare industry's genome in way that promotes high quality care.


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