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At HIMSS 2016, HHS chief Burwell blasts information blocking

On the eve of HIMSS 2016, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell blasts information blocking, saying interoperability is needed to reform the nation's healthcare delivery system.

LAS VEGAS -- On the eve of HIMSS 2016, the government's top healthcare official said ending information blocking, and instituting interoperability and health IT standards are critical to reforming the nation's healthcare delivery system.

In her keynote address to a hall packed with some 10,000 Healthcare Information and Management System Society (HIMSS) 2016 attendees, Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, singled out information blocking as holding back progress in health IT.

"Information is too often knowingly [or inadvertently] blocked," Burwell, who oversees CMS and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), the two most important government agencies that deal with health IT, said in the Palazzo Ballroom of the Sands Hotel and Casino. "We must demand interoperability."

Controversy over information blocking continues

HIMSS 2016 officially started March 1. Cybersecurity, population health, connected health and wearable health technology are among the hot topics at the annual gathering of health IT vendors, users, clinicians and government regulators.

Controversy over information blocking exploded last April, just before HIMSS 2015 in Chicago, when ONC released a report to Congress that appeared to implicate -- without identifying the company by name -- EHR giant Epic Systems Corp., in purposely stymieing the exchange of health data.

Critics of information blocking said some big healthcare providers also hoard health data to the detriment of patients, medical researchers and other providers.

For its part, Epic, during last year's HIMSS conference and exhibition, dropped a long-standing fee it charged customers for exchanging data with its corporate health information exchange. Epic's archrival, Cerner Corp., implied the move came in response to pressure from both Cerner and the government.

Interoperability standards needed

Burwell also touched on an issue that many health provider CIOs have long complained about: the absence of agreed-upon interoperability standards.

he noted that ONC has begun to address the standards issue with its proposed 2016 Interoperability Standards Advisory, which is open for public comment until March 21.

We need to work together to unblock data. Doctors should share data with each other ... without high fees or restrictive legal arrangements.
Sylvia Burwellsecretary, HHS

"We have to speak the same language, with federally recognized standards," Burwell said. "We need to work together to unblock data. Doctors should share data with each other ... without high fees or restrictive legal arrangements."

Burwell also called for more privacy and a stronger emphasis on health data cybersecurity.

In addition, citing Epic, Cerner and some major providers, Burwell said she had secured an agreement among key health IT organizations to work together on interoperability and standards initiatives.

Dell speaks on healthcare cybersecurity

Dell CEO and founder Michael Dell also hit on health IT cybersecurity when he appeared after Burwell in an informal "fireside chat" with Mark Barner, senior vice president and CIO of Ascension Health in St. Louis, and a former Dell executive.

Dell, which recently acquired EMC, and signed deals with VMware and SAP, also has been a major player in health IT in recent years in the Internet of Things, cybersecurity and cloud storage spaces.

In his unscripted conversation with Barner in front of the large HIMSS crowd, Dell said "the IT of tomorrow" will see major roles for hybrid cloud systems and mobility, among other things.

Dell also pointed to emerging health IT applications, such as genomics, molecular imaging, immunotherapy and precision medicine, as the immediate future.

But he also noted that with today's dramatic proliferation of data-gathering devices, those who seek to attack health data networks have a much bigger target. "With all these devices, the attack surface becomes greater," Dell said.

MACRA focuses on better value healthcare

Dana Alexander, HIMSS board chairwoman, said in her welcome remarks before Burwell and Dell that the Medicare Access and Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (MACRA) -- the new healthcare bill passed by Congress last year -- will "speed the advancement toward the goal of paying for better value healthcare."

MACRA is considered the framework for the federal government's shift from fee-for-service to value-based medical reimbursement, and the possible successor to meaningful use.

"Creating value by improving the health of populations is the brave new work we will all do for the rest of our careers," said Alexander, a trained nurse practitioner, and vice president and practice leader for clinical advisory services at health IT consulting firm Divurgent, based in Virginia Beach, Va.

Next Steps

ONC watching over information blocking

Hybrid cloud and VNAs

Massachusetts hospitals adopt value-based reimbursement model

Dig Deeper on HIMSS conference and exhibition