“Somethin' is brewin'”: three things we need before the data storm breaks

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Last week Farzad Mostashari, my colleague and friend, grabbed an umbrella, channeled Gene Kelly, and marched down the halls of the Warden Park Marriott in Washington, D.C. promoting awareness of patients’ desires for access to their healthcare data. Unfortunately, the issue is a little less “Singing in the Rain” and more “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins. We can’t just open up access to data individually. It’s critically important that we get interoperability tools in place before the data torrents begin to fall.

We’ve all heard about the benefits of electronic health records like the long anticipated elimination of redundant patient paperwork. No one wants to fill out another medical history form—repeating the medications, surgeries, and family health complexities none of us accurately remember. The standardized flow of electronic patient data will move the nation toward supporting individuals making the best decisions about their health and healthcare. This will ultimately lead to better care and lower costs, but we can’t get there dancing alone. We—healthcare providers, organizations, payers, and the government—need to commit to standards if we’re going to sweep things into order.

True interoperability will allow clinicians and patients to have the information they need when they need it. But we—and our patients—aren’t ready to deal with a deluge of data if it’s contextually unusable. Until we have three tools in place, we can’t effectively liberate our patients’ information.

  1. Technical standards for data architecture. Different systems use data in different ways; the technology to move data is not difficult to implement, but a lack of standards only makes sharing data difficult and expensive.
  1. An effective way to match patient records. We need nationwide support to identify duplicate records and eliminating the potential co-mingling of different patients.
  1. Mature security and privacy standards. We’re underperforming in our ability to protect data as a society. Every organization is working hard to protect data, but we need to be more cohesive in our approach to funding security efforts and responding to cyber-threats. 

So, yes, let’s liberate data. Indeed, rally behind these campaigns, but remember that data will only be meaningful when we can exchange it effectively, ensure that we can share it securely, and accurately attach it to the right patient. We’re not ready for yellow slickers yet. Standards, like a spoonful of sugar, help the interoperability of medicine go down.