ORLANDO, Fla. — Of all the health tech industry’s top priorities, interoperability is among the driest. It’s wonky. It’s technical. It takes a lot of explaining.
But at this year’s HIMSS conference, interoperability is getting a splashy, eye-catching rebrand as businesses face a new marketing challenge: getting hospitals and clinics to actually buy into data-sharing technology that federal rules have forced vendors to adopt.
On the lively exhibit floor, tour guides lead attendees twice-hourly into a maze of elaborate sets involving more than a dozen fictional patients, carefully crafted to depict a vision of a world with seamless communication between patients, their providers, and the payers footing the bill.
In one, employees from health records companies like Epic and NextGen step into the role of doctors, payers, and care managers, clicking through screens from disparate software systems that all link up to share information about Donnie, a 75-year-old diagnosed with morbid obesity, initially discharged from a hospital and eventually admitted to a skilled nursing facility. In another room, Cerner’s health record plugs into technology from Redhat and Trisotech to automatically detect human trafficking in the emergency department. Interested viewers can scan a QR code, handily telling them how to replicate the system in their own hospitals.
These often painstakingly detailed scenarios — one spends several minutes discussing how, exactly, a skilled nursing facility might turn patient Donnie away in the event all its beds are full — try to crystallize all the benefits of seamless patient data flow for providers hesitant to take on new technology: quick and easy specialist referrals, rapid prior authorization requests for insurance, instantaneous communication with home caregivers and skilled nursing facilities, better access for patients to their own health records.
They’re also part of an effort by companies that sell these technologies to signal the value of a wonky, years-long policy discussion in Washington about common health data standards to providers and patients across the country. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, which largely regulates interoperability, helped coordinate the vignette featuring Donnie.
“So much of what we’ve been working on, for I’ll call it decades, is actually coming to fruition,” said Sam Lambson, vice president of interoperability at Cerner, which also participated in the showcase. But providers, he said, “do have a lot of obligation to do their part in adopting certified technology.”
Several of the building blocks of interoperability — generally regulated by ONC — are starting to take effect. A provision stemming from the 21st Century Cures Act barring health records vendors and other software developers from blocking the transfer of patient data took effect in April. By October, to maintain federal certification, vendors and developers will need to make more protected health information available to patients electronically.
Part of the goal in highlighting the benefits of interoperability, Lambson said, is to “get this certified technology in the hands of providers and give them the time and space to actually get things implemented and learn what type of opportunities they open up.”
Epic, a Cerner competitor and the largest player in the EHR market, is undertaking a similar campaign to pitch its existing customers and other providers on new features they can request to make data sharing easier. “I want them to know this exists so they go to their vendors and ask for it,” said Matt Doyle, research and development team lead at Epic. “I also want vendors to hear it so they realize there is a way to solve these problems, and it’s standards based.”
It’s not the first such “interoperability showcase” — HIMSS has hosted data sharing demonstrations for years — but this year’s features the most diverse set of vendors and settings. The rooms are designed to immerse the viewer in an almost real-world health care workflow, said Christina Caraballo, who organized this year’s exhibit. The fictional patients, she added, make the discussion about common data standards less abstract. “It’s about the stories that are going with the tech.”
As seamless data sharing becomes more commonplace, however, the splashy set could fall by the wayside. “Maybe we won’t need an interoperability showcase in a few years,” Lambson said.
Even companies not directly involved in the showcase tell STAT they’re increasingly highlighting interoperability’s benefits to providers in marketing pitches. Sandeep Gupta, who co-founded Innovaccer, a health data company that helps providers and payers collate information from disparate sources including health records, said the recent federal data sharing rules illustrate “the floor of how it should be, not the sky.”