Hospitals kill the fax and exchange health data over the Internet

R.I., Minnesota in pilot program on moving health care information via the 'Net

Health-care facilities in two states have begun exchanging data with each other and public health agencies over the Internet as part of a pilot program that standardizes the way patient information is transmitted. The goal is to speed up data transmission and to track public health trends, the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) announced today.

The new electronic data transfer model replaces the sharing of patient information through traditional fax machines and U.S. mail.

The Direct Project, overseen by the ONC, involves hospitals in Minnesota and Rhode Island that are exchanging information, including laboratory results, physician-to-physician transfers of summary patient records, data from physicians to hospitals for patient admission, hospital discharge data, and information to public health agencies.

For example, since mid-January, Hennepin County Medical Center in Minnesota has been sending immunization records to the Minnesota Department of Health.

"This demonstrates the success that is possible through public-private collaborations," James Golden, Minnesota's state health information technology coordinator, said in a statement. "This is an important milestone for Minnesota and a key step toward the seamless electronic movement of information to improve care and public health."

Health-care facilities and state health agencies in six other states, California, Connecticut, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, will soon follow suit. The project is expected eventually to be adopted nationwide.

The Rhode Island Quality Institute (RIQI), has delivered a pilot project with two primary goals. First, RIQI is improving care when patients are referred to specialists by sharing health-care provider-to-provider data. Second, RIQI is leveraging Direct Project messaging as a means to securely feed clinical information from physicians' electronic health records (EHRs) to the statewide health information exchange, called Currentcare, to improve quality by detecting gaps in care and making sure the full record is available to all care providers.

Direct Project's information exchange capabilities will also support providers in meeting "meaningful use" objectives established last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and will thus support providers in qualifying for Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments in their use of EHRs. The Direct Project specifications can also support physician-to-patient information transfers. Microsofttoday also announced an application for that purpose based on Direct Project standards. The program uses Microsoft's online personal health record application, HealthVault, to allow physicians to securely send health-care information through encrypted e-mail to their patients.

The Direct Project began just under a year ago with 200 participants from more than 60 companies and other organizations who came together to work on how to standardize the exchange of data. The project is part of an effort by the the federal government's National Health Information Network to provide a secure, scalable, standards-based way for participants to send authenticated, encrypted health information directly to known, trusted recipients over the Internet in support of Stage 1 "Meaningful Use" requirements. Meaningful Use is a set of standards and best practices adopted by the ONC to ensure health-care providers implement electronic health records appropriately.

By achieving Meaningful Use criteria, physicians and hospitals can receive up to $64,000 per physician in Medicare reimbursements over the next five years.

"It is exciting to see early, real-world examples of applications based on the Direct Project's security protocols emerging through the efforts of the private sector. Through public-private partnerships such as these, we are starting to see the sharing of critical information across the health system," said Wes Rishel, distinguished analyst at research firm Gartner, in a statement.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Read more about health care in Computerworld's Health Care Topic Center.

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