States align to make it easier for doctors to communicate after disasters

A secure email system allows the exchange of patient health information among doctors, hospitals and health plans after traumatic, widespread events.

By — Posted July 30, 2013

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Accessing patient records in the wake of a disaster just got a little easier for physicians in 10 states.

Health information exchanges in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin worked with the Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to create a secure way for physicians to access critical patient health information when those fleeing a disaster area can’t see their regular physician or go to their usual hospital.

Physicians in those states will be able to use a secure, HIPAA-compliant email system called Direct (link) that allows physicians, hospitals and other health professionals in one state to send emails with attachments to physicians, hospitals and health professionals in any of the other states participating in the program.

“As HIEs advance, it is ideal that all certified EHR technologies will be able to seamlessly support both types of health information exchange, including Direct Secure Messaging and the Query and Retrieval of patient information where it exists. Until that day comes, we can implement tools that are widely available today such as Direct to ensure secure exchange of patient data. This enables providers to have the right information, at the right time, leading to better patient outcomes in both routine care and during the time of a disaster,” said Tia L. Tinney, coordinator for the Southeast Regional Collaborative for HIE-HIT (SERCH), which facilitates the collaborative effort (link).

SERCH members include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Rules on registration

Doctors must sign up through their state HIE programs now so they are on the Direct system before the next hurricane, tornado or other disaster hits. Only authorized users who have been issued a valid Direct email address can send and receive the protected health information, Tinney said.

“This provides a more secure and efficient means for providers to communicate the information that they were previously communicating through fax, mail, phone or patient delivery,” she said. “In addition, because Direct is payload agnostic, great flexibility exists to be able to have organizations share any available patient information in any format that can be produced. This includes attachments of highly structured data, or patient information displayed in PDFs or embedded within the email text itself.”

Also, health plans will be able to manually monitor their Direct inbox for requests for health information about their members after a disaster.

“Health plans typically have a rich data store of claims data that can be used to identify a member’s medications and allergies, as well as their chief medical problems and medical providers involved in their member’s care,” Tinney said. “The same is true of many hospitals that have the ability even in a disaster to function through their disaster response plans leveraging offsite and remote data center operations.”

Other states may join the effort. SERCH is talking to several states that have expressed interest in being part of the secure network.

“Through disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy and large tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., in 2011 and more recently in Moore, Okla., we have learned the importance of protecting patients’ health records through electronic tools like health information exchanges,” said Farzad Mostashari, MD, national coordinator for health IT. “Patients are better off when states and health information exchange organizations work together to ensure that health information can follow patients when they need it the most.”

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