Vendors flock to HHS's health information exchange

HHS' Connect software for health information exchange has been distributed to hundreds of organizations that who are starting to use it.

The Health and Human Services Department has signed up 506 vendors to furthering develop of HHS’ open-source Connect software suite for secure health information exchange, according to agency officials.

Another 300 organizations, including federal, state and local agencies, non-profit organizations and academic institutions, also are taking part in activities to expand and extend Connect’s reach, David Riley, HHS’ Connect leader, said at a forum Oct. 30.

Connect is an open-source application developed for secure information exchange as part of HHS’ Nationwide Health Information Network. HHS originally created it for the 20 federal agencies participating in the NHIN, but the system can be adapted for use with other health information exchanges. Several vendors and agencies have begun testing applications for Connect and some are developing services that can be added to the platform, Riley said.

The goal is for private sector hospitals, doctors and insurers to use Connect for exchanging data, and eventually to become part of the NHIN, Riley said on Oct. 30 at a forum Harris Corp. organized. Harris was a key player in Connect's initial development. 

Federal officials are encouraging vendors and agencies to adapt Connect for their medical data exchange needs and to develop additional services. So far, a handful of federal agencies including the Social Security Administration, are using Connect and the NHIN on a regular basis, and members of a broader vendor and agency community are experimenting with various uses.

“We are trying to knock down the barriers to adoption,” Riley said. “We hope Connect will be ubiquitous in five years.”

Vish Sankaran, program director for the Federal Health Architecture, which supports both Connect and the NHIN, said that with 20 federal agencies committed, including the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, eventually the private sector will migrate toward a health information exchange architecture that is compatible with Connect and NHIN.

“Our role is to tip the market,” Sankaran said. “We expect to see more momentum.”

HHS in July hired an open-source developer, Brian Behlendorf, to help with Connect, said Ivy Ackerman, a spokeswoman for the Connect program. Behlendorf is the founder of the Apache Web server software and a board member for the Mozilla Foundation.

In November, about 130 software programmers will meet in Oregon for Connect’s second code-a-thon in which the volunteer programmers will jointly upgrade and update the software.

The point of open-source is to try to replicate the successful technologies on the Internet, such as e-mail and Web servers and browsers, Behlendorf said at the forum.

By bringing in freelance programmers, software developers, volunteers and vendors to work on its code, Connect will benefit from a “gigantic commercial ecosystem” that eventually will spin off many additional solutions for electronic health records, Behlendorf said.

The vendors will develop health data exchange solutions that use Connect at a local level, in many cases, which later can be integrated into the NHIN, which will function as a a network-of-networks, he added.

“We are sending a clear message that this is innovation from below, “ Behlendorf said.

The prime use of Connect for now is  to transfer summaries of clinical care. However, the 3.0 version, set for release next year, will include administrative features, such as eligibility determination data, Riley said.

Eventually Connect will carry data for all aspects of electronic health records, including prescriptions, images and lab results, he said.