Why experts say the information blocking ban will be game changing for patients

Starting next week, a new regulation goes into effect that will give patients easier access to their digital health records through their smartphones.

But while health IT experts have been calling for interoperability for years, they say this particular rule could finally be a major step in achieving a meaningful level of data sharing far beyond what's been seen before in the healthcare sector.

If effectively enforced, the mandate that prohibits information blocking has the potential to revolutionize how patients interact with the healthcare system, said Deven McGraw, a health privacy expert and co-founder and chief regulatory officer at Ciitizen, a consumer health technology company.

“[The information blocking rule] has enormous potential to open up data sources that have previously been closed to patients but hold rich data about patients and that would be potentially game changing for them to tap into and access,” she told Fierce Healthcare.

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Micky Tripathi, the new national coordinator for health IT under the Biden administration, recently said the information blocking rules, along with other interoperability rules mandated by the 21st Century Cures Act, represent a "paradigm shift for the industry" by putting patients in control of their health data.

The new information blocking and interoperability regulations will open up an app ecosystem that enables patients to engage with healthcare on their smartphones and through health apps.

"We haven't broached or embraced that yet," he said.

"It's a significant difference from everything we’ve had in the past, in that, it forces a culture change," Tripathi said.

The rule also enables digital health companies and app developers to access patient data to advance new innovations in healthcare. Over time, the policy could enable patients to integrate all their health data from medical records, fitness trackers, smartwatches and apps to have a more complete picture of their health, industry experts say. 

“My teams have heard me say this: COVID changes everything. Information blocking changes everything else,” Dick Flanigan, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at health IT giant Cerner, told Fierce Healthcare. “This gets to what we have all talked about for decades, the digitization of an industry, automation across various players, and the free flow of health information.”

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By giving patients access to their health data, there is the opportunity to improve health outcomes, enhance care coordination, increase efficiencies and reduce costs.

“This can have a very large impact as far as patient safety and data accuracy. With data coming from different systems, the right person to mediate that is the patient," said Jean Tichy, director of clinical solutions at Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin, during a recent virtual event on the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT rules. 

It could help get rid of fax machines along the way, she said.

But these changes won’t happen overnight, industry stakeholders say.  

“When the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) law passed, it took two to four years to get entrenched and to a point where people fully understood it,” McGraw said.

As far as immediate changes, providers shouldn’t expect a tsunami of records requests April 5.

“For the vast majority of patients, it will take a while for it to sink in. I think this will build over time. There will not be thousands of patients banging on their doors to get their data," she said.