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Health data system gets trial run

A government agency is testing the conceptual National Health Information Network.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Jan. 21, 2009

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TThe Social Security Administration is making the first attempt at using local health information exchanges for their eventual intended purpose -- as a national health information network.

Social Security says it will tap into multiple health information exchanges to expedite the disability benefit approval process. The SSA is working with MedVirginia, the North Carolina Healthcare Information and Communications Alliance and Kaiser Permanente. It will start trading data with MedVirginia first.

"I think 2009 was kind of the date we were predicting awhile back for some first practical uses [of HIEs] on a national level, so I guess this qualifies as a practical use," said Michael Christopher, senior development analyst for Healthcare IT Transition Group, a Tulsa, Okla.-based research group. But, it's "exceptionally limited," he said.

"This does not roll out & to the extent that it will look anything at all like the NHIN that we all envisioned," Christopher said. The biggest limitation is that "it will not benefit the business processes of the health care community at all," he said.

But "the important thing to recognize is it's a strong affirmation of the technology," he said.

President Bush originally set a goal of 2014 for a National Health Information Network, made up of locally based networks in which physicians, hospitals and others would share and have secure access to patient information as a means of increasing efficiency and improving patient safety.

Analysts said slow growth of local networks has made that date unreachable. Numerous exchanges folded, or failed to entrench themselves, because they could not attract enough investment or interest from stakeholders.

But some localities have had better success building exchanges, and interest in the concept remains high, analysts said.

The Social Security test is notable in that it is the first major case of an organization in one location seeking information from exchanges outside its immediate geographic area.

"Social Security is proud to be a leader in the use of health information technology," said Michael J. Astrue, SSA commissioner, in a prepared statement. "This safe and secure method for receiving electronic medical records will allow us to improve our service to the public by cutting days, if not weeks, off the time it takes to make a disability decision."

While streamlining the approval process potentially could save the SSA millions of dollars, the real benefits of the NHIN will come to the health care industry itself when it is rolled out industrywide, analysts said.

Christopher said the NHIN combined with EHR networks and related systems across the country are estimated to save the health care industry $70 billion. "That may be somewhat conservative."

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