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What's so important about EHR standards?

Hospitals and health care providers looking to demonstrate the meaningful use of electronic health records might not know about the importance of EHR standards. What are EHR standards and why are they so important? A recent health policy brief from Health Affairs answers these questions at a high level, and explains why setting standards for EHR systems will help to ensure their security, reliability and interoperability.

The brief explains that a common set of standards is needed for EHR systems to exchange data, and compares the current sporadic use of electronic health records to a “tower of Babel.” However, the passing of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act means that patients have a right to obtain a copy of their own records, and the portability of digital records is increasing in importance. As more providers begin using certified EHR systems that adhere to a common set of standards, aggregating and exchanging patient data will become easier.

Certification will ensure that EHR systems have passed tests for functionality, reliability, security and compliance with EHR standards. The certification process is important for health care providers who want to demonstrate meaningful use of their EHR system, but it will not be cheap for EHR developers who must upgrade previously certified systems to meet meaningful use requirements. According to the brief, “[The Health & Human Services Department] estimates that a previously certified EHR for hospital use will cost at least $50,000, and probably $138,000 or more to prepare for the new certification. A system for doctors that has never been certified will cost at least $120,000 and probably close to $240,000 to be upgraded; hospital systems will cost perhaps $100,000 more.” In addition, the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology estimates that it will cost $33,000 to test and certify an EHR system.

As for what’s next, the brief concludes that although it’s predicted that the market for EHR systems will double over the next three years, the future of EHR adoption remains unclear. Ultimately, the administration hopes to create a unified Nationwide Health Information Network that will allow for the secure exchange of health information across the entire country.