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Aug 27 2012   9:58AM GMT

The promise of better care via the health care data highway

Posted by: Jenny Laurello
electronic data interchange, health information exchange, healthcare standards

Guest post by: Ruby Raley, Director, Healthcare Solutions, Axway

The notion of turning our health care data highway into a high-volume, high-speed data corridor capable of handling big data seems less abstract when we consider an analogous concept already firmly established in the physical world: the railroad.

Have you ever stopped at a railroad crossing and watched a freight train pass by? You might have seen such massive spectacles as 200-car consists (i.e., lineups of railroad cars) or two-story-tall double stacks (i.e., cars comprised of two sea containers stacked upon one another).

And you might have noticed that while the make and model of the locomotives and rail cars often varies, every train is capable of running along the flat-bottom steel rails supported by railroad ties, thanks to a standard gauge established long, long ago.

The couplings between the rail cars are standardized, too, so any rail car can connect to any other rail car according to customer demands, and any rail car can be sorted into a consist in any destination’s yard.

If we’re to turn the health care data highway into a high-volume, high-speed data corridor that can handle big data — the 200-car consist of the IT world — we’ll have to guarantee it can handle high volumes and massive payloads, and that the payload management is consistent over both long and short distances, just like the designers of the railroad did.

Further, those designers didn’t just standardize the physical aspects of the railroad; they standardized the railroad’s information system, too.

They hashed out a central intelligence system based on sophisticated data marks that makes traceability of every single rail car possible. Today, these tracking methods include electronic data interchange, human interface, and the Web, and they make it possible for railroad operators to analyze their data and identify obstacles like congestion and weather anomalies. The status of any rail car’s routine journey is always available, regardless of the industry it’s serving or whose possession it’s in.

Health care data also goes on a routine journey — complete with origin points, a series of connection points through which it passes, and a destination — and it could benefit from status updates and traceability at every key point along the way, just like the railroads do. But unlike the railroads, health care doesn’t have standardized connectors yet, despite the fact that standardized connectors are imperative in order for every single health information exchange (HIE) in the U.S. to add and attach records that other HIEs can inter-operate with.

As health care professionals, we need that information visibility. We need to know where every single claim and health record goes, and we need to be able to verify that every single claim is processed. When problems occur, we need to be able to isolate their causes, assure patients that we’re managing their information responsibly, and prove to the Office of Civil Rights that we’re maintaining the appropriate checkpoints and policy for HIPAA compliance.

Let’s learn from a completely unrelated industry (one that also started out as an unreliable, less organized institution but grew into a reliable, highly organized part of our infrastructure) the promise that transparency, traceability, and analytics will bring to the well-being of our patients and our industry as a whole.

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