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HHS secretary Tom Price discusses lack of interoperability, physician burnout

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Tom Price, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, wants to solve problems that have plagued healthcare for some time now: physician burnout  due to time-intensive EHRs, and the lack of interoperability.

At the Health Datapalooza conference in Washington, D.C., Price discussed what, exactly, about health IT is burdening physicians. One burden is simply the time it takes to adopt and implement certain technologies. But most of the burden comes from the need to input data into an EHR.

"A lot of it is about doctors and nurses and other healthcare providers having to spend that time tapping on screens and keyboards rather than [focusing on] patients," Price said. "It, often times, is taking their focus away from the reason they went into taking care of patients or practicing medicine so doctors and patients understand that this can have remarkably challenging and sometimes destructive consequences."

One such consequence is the early retirement of physicians. Price recalls his grandfather, who, like Price, was also in the medical field. Price said his grandfather was a practicing physician until he was 94 years old. But today, physicians want to retire and leave practicing medicine behind in their sixties and seventies, he said. Price explained that this is because of the burden placed on physicians by health IT systems, including EHRs.

While Price recognizes that data is essential to providing better patient care, "we need our physicians to be patient-facing, not computer-facing, which is what many [physicians] feel they are right now from an electronic medical record standpoint," he said.

Interoperability and the free flow of data are absolutely crucial.
Tom PriceSecretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Price also discussed the lack of interoperability in the health IT space and said he believes that a key component to achieving true interoperability is standards.

"From my perspective it seems what we ought to be doing is deciding what the rules of the road are," he said. "We're going to drive on the right side, we're going to stop when the red light comes up. This is the language that we're going to use."

Price is not the only high-profile government official to discuss the issue of the lack of interoperability in healthcare at Health Datapalooza. Last year, former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, shared his own personal experience of data blocking when trying to seek care for his son, Beau Biden.

Price said that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is going to work to encourage and incentivize interoperability.

"Interoperability and the free flow of data are absolutely crucial, absolutely crucial, to making the benefits as big as possible for our system and making sure we're helping as many patients as we can," Price said.

He added that, "the blocks of interoperability are about technology and about incentives."

However, Price said that he believes the focus should be on incentives, noting that he was pleased to see a good number of stakeholders sign the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT's pledge to overcome the lack of interoperability by promising to use common standards, allow consumer access to health information, and halt practices of data blocking.

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