HHS makes software available for health IT network

The department said it wants to encourage health organizations to connect to the nationwide health information network by using the open-source software.

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) said it is making software available to connect health information technology systems to the nationwide health information network (NHIN). The software availability is a first step toward encouraging public and private organizations to link with the NHIN, which would provide for the electronic exchange of health data, HHS has said.

The Federal Health Architecture program, an e-government effort led by HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, is making the free software, named Connect, and supporting documentation available at www.connectopensource.org.

The national coordinator’s office has established the foundation for development of the NHIN, which it says will tie together health information exchanges, integrated delivery networks, pharmacies, government health facilities, laboratories, doctors, hospitals and private payers into a “network of networks.” The NHIN uses interoperability standards, public- and private-sector specifications, participation agreements and policies, Robert Kolodner, the national coordinator for health IT, said April 6.

The NHIN would provide for up-to-date records available at the point of care, enhanced population health screening, and the ability to collect case research faster to facilitate disability claims, he said.

The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, the Social Security Administration (SSA), and HHS’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Indian Health Service, and the National Cancer Institute have tested and demonstrated Connect’s ability to share data among each other and with private-sector organizations, Kolodner said. In February, SSA used the Connect software gateway for the first time when the agency began receiving live patient data from MedVirginia, a regional health information exchange, through the NHIN. SSA has said it is using the NHIN to speed up delivery of information to support disability claims applications.

The Connect software is the result of a 2008 decision by 26 federal agencies to connect their health IT systems to the NHIN, Kolodner said. Instead of individually building software required to make this possible, the agencies produced the Connect software through the Federal Health Architecture program. The software establishes the core services defined by the NHIN, including standards for security to protect health information when it is exchanged with other trusted health organizations, he said.

“Federal agencies accomplished something remarkable in developing Connect," Kolodner said. "They looked beyond their individual needs to the needs of the group as a whole, and they collectively built a solution that provides benefit to all involved much faster and at a significantly reduced cost than if they had worked independently."

HHS plans to make Connect, which is based on Sun Microsystems open-source technology, available under an open-source license to encourage innovation and to keep costs low, said Vish Sankaran, the Federal Health Architecture program director. The software will also be available to the health care industry in order to speed NHIN adoption among health care organizations.

The federal government has developed a working prototype, which can be deployed across multiple agencies, said Bill Vass, Sun president and chief operating officer.

“The open nature of the IT foundation is critical to ensuring that government can work with the private health care sector to revolutionize the nation’s health care system,” he said.

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