It seems a bit nutty, in this digital age, that so much of medicine is still being done through paper and faxes, but there it is. Most hospitals have EMR systems, but if a clinician who's not within the hospital system needs medical information, that information usually gets printed and faxed. (At my previous job, I used to get CDs with PDFs from Kaiser. Better in some ways, but still relatively slow to work through.)
What might work better? The most popular plan I hear to solve the problem of independent clinicians accessing hospital records is to create Health Information Exchanges (HIEs).
I really don't know what to think of HIEs, especially since I haven't yet had the chance to use one. They seem to be slow to set up -- the Bay Area has been working on one for a while -- and it's unclear how well they will smooth the workflow of independent outpatient doctors.
Health Information Exchange features we need
Let's assume the HIEs will eventually arrive. How should they function, to allow outpatient clinicians to get needed information in an easy and low-hassle manner? The best-case scenario I can envision with a HIE would be a online system that I could easily log into, and that would allow me to do the following:
- Allow me to search through records to find specific items related to my patient. I can't emphasize search enough. Browsing seems to be the main EMR paradigm. It's slow and a pain and increasingly divorced from our experiences with consumer software, where using the search function rules (and delivers). As clinicians, we shouldn't be trying to figure out which section of some other medical center's EMR contains pulmonary function tests; we should just be able to search for it.
- Make it easy to copy certain records to my own EMR. The ideal would be to easily tag items that you want to copy, and then have them transfer to your own EMR with useful titles included. (Of course, if the data I get is searchable and my own EMR has a good search function, the titles become less necessary.) An alternative would be for providers to be able to use something similar to the EverNote web clipper tool, where you highlight what you want and it gets easily transferred.
- Push or pull certain commonly requested groups of records on request. Just as most labs have created groups of commonly ordered labs (CBC, comprehensive metabolic panel, etc), you could create groups of commonly requested records for certain purposes. For example, when I need to review records from a hospitalization, I want to see the Admission H&P, the discharge summary, all radiology (except chest xrays; just one of those please) and studies, and the last available lab values. (I don't need every CBC drawn in the hospital, just the last one.) Ideally providers could customize the groupings that they wanted. The consumer version of this is creating a search/query, and easily being able to save/reuse it.
- Lets the patient directly give me permission to access his/her records. Whether or not the patient gets direct access to all his or her hospital records, wouldn't it be great if the patient could directly and easily give permission for certain clinicians to gain access? Would speed things up immensely, and make it easier for patients to make sure their care is coordinated.
What's the best path forward for information sharing and care coordination?
I admit I'll be surprised -- stunned, really -- if the HIE, whenever it finally arrives to the hospitals near me, has many of the above features. An HIE is after all enterprise software, purchased not by the daily users, but by administrators or better yet, groups of stakeholders.
Are there alternatives? Some EMR companies, like Practice Fusion, are spearheading a move towards peer-to-peer sharing of medical information. This is a promising idea, but doesn't help when one is trying to extract information from a hospital.
Another option: that health information sharing among clinicians will be driven by the patient's control over his or her medical records. Certainly could happen, since connectivity with patients may happen a lot faster than PCP connectivity with hospitals.
Personally I'd welcome this, as I'd like to see patients get to gatekeep most of their medical data, including laboratory data. But I don't know how close we are to patients getting access to their raw hospital data (and am skeptical that the Blue Button output would cut it, when it comes to clinicians getting the needed info to coordinate care). OpenNotes is a promising start but was just for the outpatient setting -- and the patients were mainly in their mid 50s with relatively few medical encounters.
Will patients soon be able to download meaningful hospital data into their personal health records (PHRs) and share with clinicians of their choosing? Only if they demand it.
In a nutshell:Health information exchanges (HIEs) are projected to eventually allow outside PCPs to access hospital records. Features I hope they'll include are capacity to easily search and copy the information. Bonus if patients end up able to directly give other clinicians permission to access their medical information.
For more information: in doing a little brief research related to this post, I came across a few good resources for those who want to learn more about HIEs. The National eHealth Collaborative has a report on "Secrets of HIE Success," which offers insights into how some HIEs have come into being.
But far more interesting and informative to me is Robert Rowley's series of blog posts on HIPAA and HIE: Part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. Love it when articulate primary care docs write about healthcare.
Clinicians and others, have you had good experiences with HIEs yet?