Stakeholders: Don't overlook HIT data sharing abilities already at your fingertips

There's been a lot of talk about the struggles providers have had sharing data. For instance, in addition to sharing data with other providers, they also need to meet the view/download/transmit requirements of Stage 2 of Meaningful Use; many have purchased patient portals to meet these requirements.

I find it surprising, then, that one detail is receiving relatively little publicity: Evidently, 2014 Edition certified electronic health records already have the ability to share data with patients--if only providers would bother to use it.

In a letter sent Jan. 30, a group of organizations urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to issue guidance to the provider community that patients can, and in fact have the right under HIPAA, to obtain their electronic records via Direct Messaging merely by downloading a personal health record (PHR) app that supports this secure messaging vehicle. Providers using certified EHRs can interact with these PHRs via Direct Messaging because the 2014 certification criteria require EHRs to have this capability either internally or via a third party. The National Association for Trusted Exchange even demonstrated such interoperability of patient-mediated exchange at Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT's annual meeting Feb. 3.

So why aren't providers using this data sharing tool they already own?

According to the letter, providers may not realize that they can easily turn this capability on merely by contacting their vendor or health information service provider and asking them to upload the PHR digital certificates. Others won't share data this way because they mistakenly believe that HIPAA won't allow them to do so.

Granted, Direct Messaging isn't perfect. ONC's draft interoperability roadmap, released the same day as the letter, points out that Direct Messaging depends on trust and agreements between participants, and that different systems use different proof and authorization systems, which can make the tool more cumbersome.

But apparently it's easy to use, and providers have already paid for it. So why not go this route?

It's like a TV remote or a Smartphone. While these devices have all sorts of capabilities, many of us use just a few buttons.

However, those are cheap gadgets compared to an EHR system.

It's bad enough that many EHRs lack the ability to share data with other providers' EHRs. But to not use functionalities already available to enjoy at least some measure of interoperability is disconcerting.

The inability to share electronic health data is a big problem in this country, and steps are being taken to resolve it. Aside from ONC's roadmap, President Barack Obama is supporting data sharing in his 2016 budget. What's more, Congress has instructed HHS and ONC to consider penalizing vendors who are blocking data sharing. 

Additionally, ONC is now offering a $28 million grant to advance interoperability.

Providers, don't neglect a tool that we know exists. Add it to the arsenal. Otherwise, we aren't maximizing the opportunity to share data this way. - Marla (@MarlaHirsch and @FierceHealthIT)