Mar 17 2017

GAO Stresses Interoperability to Up Digital Engagement

Thanks to federal investment, most providers offer online patient access to EHRs, but more cooperative IT infrastructures can drive lagging patient use.

Providing patients with online access to electronic health records (EHRs) is taking priority at the Department of Health and Human Services, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office. Since 2009, HHS has invested heavily in health information technology and bulking up IT infrastructure, in the way of $35 billion, with the aim to provide greater access to electronic health information.

As a result of the funding and increased focus on enabling patient access, in the Medicare program, 88 percent of hospitals and 87 percent of healthcare providers currently offer online access to health records. Most providers offer access to basic information like laboratory test results, information about allergies, medications and immunization records.

But even with the increased accessibility only 15 percent of hospital patients and 30 percent of private practice patients in the Medicare system are taking advantage of the portals, according to the GAO. This is possibly because the portal system is still fragmented.

“More often than not, providers have different portals that people have to access,” says Carolyn Yocom, director of healthcare at the GAO, in a podcast associated with the report.

How Providers Can Bridge the Portal Divide

A recent CDW patient engagement survey backs up this divide between use and usability with online access to healthcare records. While 98 percent of patients say they feel comfortable communicating with providers via online patient portals, only 29 percent of patients would give their healthcare providers an “A” for their use of technology to interact with patients.

Moreover, 89 percent of patients would like to be able to more easily access their personal healthcare records.

Greater interoperability between IT systems, portals and providers can help bridge this divide. An Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology interoperability roadmap released early this year states that while most providers are receiving information from outside providers as to how to best treat an individual, less than half of hospitals are integrating data they receive into an individual’s record. Moreover, when it comes to ambulatory providers, only 14 percent shared EHR information with providers outside their organization as of 2013.

“Some of the interoperability has been improving, but there’s still a lot more work to do,” says Yocom. She points to an ideally interoperable healthcare system as one that would enable patients to “be able to view, download and transmit their information, so that if one provider needed to see what another provider had found, the patient could be involved in that or could be aware of what information is getting transmitted.”

Going forward, as engagement with online portals continues to increase, the GAO recommends that HHS puts a process in place to better understand exactly how patients are using these records and adjusts its methods appropriately.

“If they are finding, for example, that one avenue they’ve been working on, no one is accessing it or using it or finding it helpful, then [providers should] redirect their efforts and associated money to do something that is working,” says Yocom.

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