Over the past several years, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology has been at the forefront of pushing the industry toward advanced usage of electronic health records. While interoperability might just be a buzzword for some, the ONC has demonstrated through dogged campaigns that achieving a nationwide network of interconnected EHRs holds more clinical promise than can be responsibly ignored.

January 2015 saw the ONC take one large step forward in the fight for interoperable EHRs, as the agency published its first iteration of “Connecting Health and Care for the Nation: A Shared Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap.” Aimed at outlining a uniform process by which providers large and small can upgrade their internal health IT systems and the workflows that go along with them, the report’s public comment period recently closed in early April, and the ONC has shared the trove of advice, criticism and opinions from industry leaders around the healthcare sector.

Achieving the future of health IT is easier said than done.Achieving the future of health IT is easier said than done.

10-year plan
According to the ONC, the agency’s interoperability roadmap would take around 10 years to fully implement, by which time benefits from the advancement of health IT will be readily available for physicians and clinicians alike, not to mention researchers who will be able to turn valuable information in EHRs into actionable medical interventions much more quickly. In the view of Teresa Lee, executive director of the Alliance for Home Health Quality and Innovation, the ONC’s plan represents a critical step forward in helping providers move forward in lock-step fashion.

“With the roadmap, ONC is demonstrating an interest in moving forward the discussion of interoperability as a central component of a more efficient and cost-effective healthcare delivery system,” Lee noted, as quoted by Healthcare IT News. “As noted previously, the idea of a shared Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap is critical to providing high quality care to patients regardless of where they are treated in the continuum. Additionally, the Alliance appreciates the mention of home healthcare and long-term and post-acute care in the specific discussion of future care delivery and the move to community-based models of care delivery.”

Advancing forward in unison with EHR interoperability may seem like a platitude, but if true communication and interconnectedness is what physicians expect out of the technologies they employ, then it is imperative that they are able to progress along similar lines of health IT development. As the old saying goes, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and when patient health information needs to be shared across disparate health networks, a few critically positioned providers with inadequate health IT systems can slow data transfers across the entire nation.

“Providers need to be given some leeway to tweak and innovate upon health IT.”

Words of warning
While many who posted public comments agree that the ONC’s interoperability roadmap is a great place to start building a foundation of principles and standards that the industry can then work off of, not everyone is convinced of the specific outlines set forth in the plan. For example, Michael Talley, director and co-project manager of the Southeast Michigan Health Information Exchange, noted that providers need to be given some leeway to tweak and innovate upon health IT in the ways that best work for their specific practices.

“The roadmap approach to governance, architecture and infrastructure, and security and privacy are very good and shall require work, collaboration and testing and validation before deployment to be useful,” Talley explained. “SEMHIE agrees that solutions should be vendor neutral and the architecture should allow for the process of multiple solutions as health care is a rather diverse and fragmented industry.”

After all, the ONC’s roadmap is not a regulatory document, but rather a guiding plan to help all providers begin their paths to interoperability on the same ground. However, as new challenges arise and innovations are made to existing technologies, sticking blindly to the roadmap may hamper progress more than help it. Providers must be open to and proactively looking for ways to improve upon existing health IT systems as a way of delivering better and more efficient care to their patients.