Sylvia Mathews Burwell: Work remains to make healthcare system open

WASHINGTON--Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell believes that despite the progress of the Meaningful Use incentive program to put electronic health records in the hands of hospitals and clinicians, much work remains to ensure the healthcare system is truly open.

Burwell, speaking at Health Datapalooza in the District of Columbia Monday, said that while most patients don't have to "lug around" paper from office to office anymore, many issues still hinder data sharing. For instance, technical incompatibilities between disparate systems have proven problematic, as have HIPAA misunderstandings and business cases.

The HHS leader outlined three steps for achieving that openness:

  1. Use common standards between organizations.
  2. Change the culture around access to information: "Data blocking can't be tolerated, and a patient's data needs to be able to move to all the clinicians treating that patient," Burwell said.
  3. Ensure rules and regulations reflect that data movement is vital for market success.

She delivered a similar message to the American College of Physicians last week.

"Overcoming these challenges won't be easy," Burwell said. "Getting different systems to speak the same language can be time-consuming and expensive. Changing the culture is easier said than done."

Burwell touted a data-sharing pledge unveiled at HIMSS16 in Las Vegas and signed by both providers and health IT vendors as progress. For the pledge, companies that provide 90 percent of EHRs used by American hospitals signed, as did hospitals in 46 states, including the nation's five largest private healthcare systems.

She also called making data work "foundational" to the rest of the federal government's work in healthcare. In particular, she said that better data will be vital to success under the recently announced Quality Payment Program.

"With more reporting and better data, we can start to promote the evidence-based care we all want," Burwell said.