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HHS Cracks Down on Hospitals Hoarding Patient Information

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By Mohana Ravindranath April 10, 2015

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It could be years before patients move freely between health care systems followed seamlessly by their electronic health records.

Are technology developers -- and big health care conglomerates -- to blame?

The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT is paying special attention to health systems engaging in “information blocking" -- knowingly, and sometimes "unreasonably," interfering with the exchange of information.

On Friday, ONC issued a report to Congress about allegations that health care providers and IT developers are working to block the exchange of patient information, especially to competitor health systems.

For instance, larger hospital systems are less likely than smaller ones to exchange electronic health information externally with competing hospitals and unaffiliated providers, the report found. Hospitals that have “invested significant resources internally to deliver more valuable care” could be less likely to exchange information with unaffiliated providers.

ONC compiled the report based on complaints to HHS. During a conference call Friday, agency heads acknowledged there isn’t yet much quantifiable information about the practice.

Most complaints about information blocking are directed at health IT developers, the report said -- developers sometimes charge fees for customers (health care systems) to send, receive or export electronic health information. Others allegedly charge a per-transaction fee each time a user sends, receives or searches for a patient’s information. Some electronic health record system developers charge higher prices to establish connections to local labs or hospitals, the report noted.

ONC proposed developing new certification requirements to target this practice, and working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to use payment incentives to discourage information blocking, among other strategies.

During the call, Jodi Daniel, the director of ONC’s Office of Policy, noted that some barriers to the free exchange of information are to be expected, and that not all “are problematic or should be addressed.”

These may include genuine concern for patient privacy and laws prohibiting information sharing. She added, “there may be legitimate cost involved in the exchange of information that may technically interfere, but are not knowing or unreasonable."

(Image via Brian A Jackson/ Shutterstock.com)

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