SSG Blog

Standardizing Health Information Exchange (HIE) Solutions: The Key to Effective and Efficient Communication Between Agencies

Posted on September 12th, 2022   |   SSG

It’s hard to pick up a newspaper without reading a story about how a problem could have been averted if only different public organizations had seamlessly communicated with each other in a timely way. People think of “government” as a monolithic entity, but the reality is that there are literally tens of thousands of organizations in the United Stated that developed their own policies and implemented their own technology solutions at various times and under different mandates. These systems might work well in isolation, but they were never designed to integrate with each other. In today’s digital age, there’s simply no reason for this to be the norm. 

What if there was a way for all state and local public health departments to create a “secret handshake” that would allow them to instantly share and access information from other jurisdictions – or even in their own communities – to help them create faster and better responses to public health situations. In fact, that’s exactly what is happening now thanks to an increasing commitment to standardize Electronic Health Information Exchange (HIE). 

HIE is a broad term that is often used in the context of sharing individual medical information between healthcare providers, and can include everything from laboratory results to doctors’ notes to a list of medications that a person is taking. This may sound relatively straightforward, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), “Despite the widespread availability of secure electronic data transfer, most Americans’ medical information is stored on paper—in filing cabinets at various medical offices, or in boxes and folders in patients’ homes. While electronic health information exchange cannot replace provider-patient communication, it can greatly improve the completeness of patient’s records, (which can have a big effect on care), as past history, current medications and other information is jointly reviewed during visits.” 

The fundamental problem is obvious: not only do various entities in the healthcare vertical not share information through a single platform, but some of the most important data isn’t even stored electronically. There’s simply no reason for this to be the norm in 2022. Hospitals have been storing healthcare data on computers since the 1960s. So, the first step needs to be a commitment to full digitization of all patient records, which will not only supply better care options for individuals, but will allow health departments to use this data to develop broad policies related to everything from disease outbreaks to community health crises. 

Setting the Standard 

Digitization is only the first part of the process of building a true comprehensive HIE. That’s because information can’t exist in isolation. So even if a public health department has perfect electronic records of everything going on in its area of service, there needs to be a practical way to share that information with other health departments – and for those health departments to be able to analyze that information as quickly as possible. That can’t happen when there needs to be a major conversion updated from one system to another. The answer is to create a common language for all health departments to be able to send, receive, and use information without requiring a massive IT involvement to make information usable by the people who need it. 

The good news is that there is at least one HIE in almost every state in the country, and several states have several in place to offer a variety of services that are quite different from each other. For example, in Vermont there’s one HIE that goes all the way back to 2003, so state governments aren’t starting from zero when it comes to this approach. The trick is building effective HIEs that serve three main purposes. 

  1. The first goal is to create one health record for every person in the state to support optimal care delivery across the entire healthcare system and to improve coordination by ensuring that everyone has access to complete and accurate health information. For example, if someone named Mike Smith lives in Burlington, Vermont, it’s important that he not be confused with another Mike Smith in another part of the state. This kind of confusion happens often with paper-based systems and legacy technology platforms that don’t communicate with each other. 
  2. The second goal is to improve healthcare operations by aggregating as much data as possible from various sources and supporting quality reporting so that all relevant entities have access to the same information. This is critical when it comes to reporting data to government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as to hospitals and clinics in local communities. 
  3. The third major goal is to use data to enable investments and implement policy changes across the state that will reduce costs and improve care. Leaders need to have correct and comprehensive data to guide their investment efforts and labor resource coordination and make sure that they are informing state legislators on what’s going on. 

A huge part of our goal is to make sure that we react to all the challenges that healthcare organizations are currently facing. One of the overarching goals for any HIE is to reduce disparities in healthcare across the state and across the country to make sure that data is accessible by everyone, no matter where they are. This is one of the reasons why we are focusing on interoperability efforts, because the data often is very disjointed. Health officials and institutions need to make sure that they are talking in the same language and have the same standards. This is where SSG is playing a vital role in helping state governments accelerate their modernization and digital transformation efforts so that they can roll out HIEs that will not just improve operations, but also help the public by improving the ability to deliver healthcare quickly and accurately.