Guest Column | April 16, 2020

Data Sharing In A Crisis Environment

By John Moehrke, By Light Professional IT Services


In February, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued two transformative rulings that give patients unprecedented access to and control over their personal health data. The rules implement interoperability and patient access provisions that empower patients to manage their health electronically. Under typical circumstances, these HHS rulings would have garnered considerable attention; however, the news broke just as America was besieged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The opportunity for a widespread discussion was tamped, as professionals began an immediate response to an invisible foe that threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system across the nation and the world. However, providers may find that these new data-sharing capabilities could play a significant role in managing the crisis, particularly in high-density areas that face the most risk.

In New York, which has outpaced the nation in COVID-19 cases by an order of magnitude, government leaders have called on hospital systems across the state—both public and private—to operate as a single, interconnected system. In theory, this offers relief to hospitals in hot zones by balancing patient care between facilities based on capacity and demand. For example, patients may need to be transferred to a different hospital system or potentially to another area of the state to prevent dangerous overcrowding. On a smaller scale, hospital systems in other states and regions are working together to preemptively address anticipated capacity issues. Urgent care centers are taking measures to help general practices with the increase.

Interoperability And Data Sharing In The COVID-19 Response
Along with the new rules, the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has made additional announcements that ease other barriers to data sharing. On March 17, telehealth restrictions on certain video chat features were relaxed, and on April 2, the OCR began allowing the sharing of normally protected health information used to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

Given the “stay-at-home” mandates in nearly every state, there has been a significant surge in telehealth options, and the ability to share data and medical records electronically is making telehealth more effective. Providers can share the patient load with less risk, as they have the data necessary to make informed health recommendations more quickly.

Simplified data exchange could not only expedite transfers, but also arm attending physicians with critical details about patient conditions and medical history. It could additionally make it easier for health systems to follow up with patients after discharge to ensure they continue on a path to health. And because time is of the essence, attending providers having the patient information quickly facilitates the best care possible and ultimately better outcomes.

Projections for patients seeking medical attention from general practitioners and those requiring hospitalization are high. With such a sharp increase in claim submissions, easier data-sharing methods could help expedite the process.

Technology Impacts Patient Care
Without question, time and personnel resources are scarce for healthcare providers as COVID-19 spreads and adopting and experimenting with new technology is not feasible, but there are a few simple ways to get more out of existing tools. For example, explore using patient portals to quickly provide notifications on the available capacity, crisis procedures and other commonly asked questions to limit phone inquiries. Another option would be to put telehealth options and medical information on the provider’s website to be more prominent to patients for quick reference. Providing an easy option for patients to download their medical summary also can help save time in the event of an emergency.

Offering the best care possible with the resources available is the priority for overburdened healthcare systems. When health data is more accessible for both patients and providers, the result is more efficient, effective healthcare. While adopting new policies during a crisis is not optimal, the impact that HHS’s ruling will have on easier data sharing could not have come at a better time.

About The Author

John Moehrke specializes in standards architecture in interoperability, security, and privacy for By Light Professional IT Services Inc. He is co-chair of the HL7 Security workgroup, a member of the FHIR Management Group, FHIR core team facilitator and founding member of the FHIR Foundation, co-chair of IHE IT Infrastructure Planning Committee, and a HITRUST Certified CSF Practitioner. He is also active in many regional initiatives such as CommonWell, Carequality, Sequoia (NwHIN-Exchange), and WISHIN.