Op-Ed: Open Data Policy Has Far-Reaching Implications for Health Care


Among other things, key data will be more readily accessible and usable for analysis and research.

In May 2013, the Office of Management and Budget released an executive order that requires federal agencies to use machine-readable and open formats -- in addition to data standards and other regulations -- for creating and collecting information. This new policy will have a significant impact on how public and private organizations access and leverage information. It will also help build a foundation for easily sharing health data in the future. 

How do open formats support interoperability? The concept isn’t all that different from what occurred in the early days of rail travel. Two centuries ago, most U.S. railroad companies used their own track gauges when building rail lines. Although this kept their railways proprietary, it also required companies to lay tracks where others might already exist, which was both inefficient and costly. Through consolidation and other partnerships, railways eventually standardized the track gauge, leading to a more collaborative, practical and efficient use of existing railways.

Just as “standard gauge” evolved to enable interconnectedness throughout the railway system, the new regulations requiring agencies to use data standards as well as machine-readable and open formats will help organizations access and leverage data more efficiently. Through the use of open data, for instance, well-documented schemas and interface definitions will establish the groundwork for easier access to information that can be used for analytical, research or commercial purposes. Likewise, this evolution will spur the development of new products and ultimately a vibrant product ecosystem.

By establishing standards at these levels, the government is helping organizations communicate more effectively. Essentially, it is laying the tracks for interoperability.

Implications for Health Care

Although the OMB executive order applies across different industries, there are specific implications for health care. In a nutshell, the requirements mean that key data will be more readily accessible and usable for analysis and research, in addition to other innovative purposes such as commercial development.

It is important to note that this policy applies to both public agencies and private organizations that communicate with public agencies. Therefore, organizations such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Defense Health Agency, the Veterans Health Administration and others must comply along with any hospital, health system or provider that share information with them.

Consider the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments. They provide care but they also purchase care from private practitioners for military personnel and veterans when necessary. In these cases, the private providers that work with the VA and Defense must follow the same standards as the federal agencies. Because these private providers must rise to meet the government’s requirements, they are likely to continue using the standards with their commercial partners as well.

The government’s new policy has a direct impact on how most health care organizations --public and private -- will send, receive and manage their data. With the public and private sectors working collaboratively to identify effective data standards and formats, the health care industry as a whole is getting one step closer to connecting its tracks and improving widespread interoperability.

Viet Nguyen, M.D., is the chief medical information officer at Systems Made Simple, Inc., a leading provider of IT systems and services to support critical architecture, data and application challenges in the healthcare industry. Rob Sax is the chief technology officer at SMS.

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