HHS launching effort to better track office-based EHR use

By | September 30, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • HHS is launching a program to revitalize data collection of and insights into office-based doctors’ health IT use, the agency announced Tuesday.
  • The program, which will be run by the nonprofit medical group American Board of Family Medicine, will focus on software interoperability and burden on providers to inform future rulemaking.
  • Clunky IT systems are a major contributor to physician burnout and cost the healthcare system millions annually. The Trump administration released two rules meant to nudge the industry toward smoother data flow, but earlier this year pushed back compliance deadlines amid COVID-19 — and could do so again.

Dive Insight:

Information blocking has long been a problem in healthcare. Legislation and federal regulations meant to push the industry toward tech modernization didn’t include provisions requiring EHRs to integrate with one other, incentivizing business models based on siloing data.

The Trump administration has made promoting interoperability a key tenet of its first-term health IT strategy, yet was forced to delay the culmination of a major effort — two rules forbidding information blocking between disparate vendors, providers and payers (with some exceptions) — amid COVID-19.

The effort to analyze office-based doctor use of IT follows 2017 research finding about 80% of office-based doctors used a certified, federally approved EHR, but only 10% were able to send, receive and integrate data electronically from other EHR networks, HHS said.

Poorly designed and functioning EHRs are directly correlated with physician burnout, contribute to waste in the system and can negatively impact patient quality of care.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT has run a number of data collection efforts over the past decade. Since 2008, ONC has worked with the American Hospital Association to survey hospital chief information officers on their use of health IT, and supported surveys for office-based doctors, too.

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However, response rates for office-based physicians have been declining, according to the agency. The goal of the new partnership with the ABFM, one of two dozen medical specialty boards that make standards for physicians to get board certified in the U.S., is to get higher response rates in the physician community.

Under the three-year agreement, ABFM will develop measures to track health IT use and interoperability, collect nationwide data and work with ONC to interpret the results, and inform future regulations. HHS is paying ABFM just over $ 439,000 under the agreement.

ONC and CMS in April pushed back specific near-term deadlines in their information blocking and interoperability rules, as providers said they needed to prioritize internal resources for pandemic response. Yet more than five months later, the pandemic shows no signs of stopping, with new cases rebounding to April peaks.

And the nearest deadline is coming due. By Nov. 2, providers will have to be able to exchange certain medical data with other providers and patients, or be fined for information blocking. By the same date, EHRs will have to integrate with third party applications through standardized application programming interfaces.

On Sept. 17, HHS sent the Office of Management and Budget an interim final rule, called Information Blocking and the ONC Health IT Certification Program: Extension of Compliance Dates and Timeframes in Response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. The office is not commenting publicly on the rule, but its title implies industry could be granted another stay of execution to come into compliance because of the pandemic. Last week, ONC head Don Rucker also hinted at the deadlines being further delayed.

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