Verma: COVID-19 proving the need for greater interoperability

The COVID-19 pandemic has “exposed a lot of inefficiencies” in the healthcare system—with one of the largest being data sharing and access, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma said Tuesday.

Data access is critical both for patients who are navigating care for COVID-19 as well as for the army of contact tracers trying to track the spread of the virus, the CMS chief said while speaking during Fortune’s Brainstorm Health event.

“That data is often trapped in electronic silos,” Verma said.

For example, Verma said, the patients who were in quarantine on cruise ships during the early days of the pandemic would have been in a better position if they had access to their electronic health records and medical data, which would provide details on other medical conditions or medications they take.

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Interoperability has been a key focus at CMS under the Trump administration, which has been working to push through regulations aimed at increasing data sharing alongside the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT.

The pandemic has posed a major hurdle to those efforts, as providers call for more time to implement changes amid surges of the virus—even as federal officials argue that COVID-19 has made a clear case for why these updates are necessary.

Verma said enhanced interoperability is also critical in arming public health workers to conduct the necessary contact tracing to monitor the spread of the virus as the economy opens up. She said investments in this area haven’t been up to snuff.

Greater data sharing has also been key for the administration in distributing necessary supplies, including personal protective equipment, ventilators and medications that are being repurposed to treat COVID-19 such as remdesivir.

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In addition, Verma said the pandemic has clearly opened the floodgates for the use of telehealth—“the genie is out of the bottle,” she said. Virtual and telephonic visits for a variety of care needs have skyrocketed as patients are urged to avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office.

She said moving forward telehealth is likely to play a key role in boosting access to care in rural and underserved communities and will be crucial for behavioral health, as having visits in the home can mitigate some of the stigmas associated with seeking mental health care.

As such, CMS is eyeing ways to make expanding access to telehealth permanent, though the final word in overhauls to Medicare lies with Congress, Verma said.

“It's not a panacea; it’s not going to solve every problem,” she said. “Not everything is going to be able to be addressed by telehealth. But it’s a very powerful tool for medicine.”