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Cerner-McKesson HIE agreement: Everyone's still (mostly) mum

It seemed pretty convenient that a health IT media outlet received a tip on a possible deal between Cerner Corp. and McKesson Corp. to make their patient data systems interoperable…conveniently in time to publish a story the day before Cerner’s quarterly earnings call with financial analysts, which took place late yesterday afternoon.

But anyone who listened to the webcast of the Cerner earnings call hoping for a big reveal got zero new information on the HIE deal. While we know what’s said on these public calls is regulated heavily, the participating analysts and Cerner executives had their shot at least to acknowledge the story, even if they might not have been able to do jumping jacks over its potentially far-ranging market implications and benefit from a bump in share prices.

Instead, Cerner executives and the analysts slapped each other’s backs and congratulated each other for existing during a health IT epoch in which the federal government is giving billions to the EHR vendor’s customer base to do what? Purchase EHRs. The financials never looked rosier, they all agreed, as the company booked its first billion-dollar (in new contracts) quarter to finish calendar year 2012.

There were a few actually interesting nuggets that came from the call. Cerner feels its next growth area will be selling revenue cycle management systems. Also, its project Cerner Math, which looks to be an endlessly fascinating operational and clinical data analytics engine, database and care-outcomes predictive modeling initiative run by a group of data analysts headed by Douglas McNair, MD. Big data at work, at last, not just some fuzzy concept about which futurist TED speakers bloviate endlessly.

The closest the Cerner brass got to revealing any detail about a potential deal was more talk about “data liquidity” in health care. The statements mirrored CEO Neal Patterson’s testimony during hearings held in early February by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC)’s advisory committee.

“We’ve been increasingly vocal around our support for interoperability and the importance this will have on realizing the benefits of the digital health economy,” said Jeff Townsend, executive vice president, who went on to detail the company’s support of open-source projects such as the Direct Project. “Going forward, we believe the industry needs to continue to step up to the challenges of interoperability.”

In his remarks, Townsend left off the strong “cross-vendor” patient data interoperability themes that Patterson included in his ONC testimony. Townsend instead referred to the patient’s right to access data regardless of providers — in essence the same thing, but without calling for any particular interoperability deal with any particular EHR competitor.

Yet we believe there’s smoke to this story, and, somewhere, fire. SearchHealthIT found three sources corroborating different overlapping elements of the deal. These insiders are certain it will happen — and not just that it will happen, but in time to make a big splash at the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) 2013 convention next month. It appears negotiations are being led at the highest levels of the companies involved; from our perspective, it also appears that few employees outside those circles seem to know, even vaguely, that something’s afoot. Our sources also cautioned this deal could be off at any point. In fact, it’s been off at least once, one person said.

But at long last, the source added, this time it’s very likely to get done. Both McKesson and Cerner have a lot to lose by keeping their customer’s patient data in silos, and everything to gain by opening it up. Eventually such openness will lead to the time all parties – including Epic – may be pressured into dropping their attitude for the betterment of patients. Compete on some other metrics, such as better analytics that yield better outcomes, and not platforms, we say to the EHR vendors.

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