Ensuring that the 21st Century Cures Act Health IT Provisions Promote Interoperability and Data Exchange

Kenneth D. Mandl, MD, MPH,1,2 Dan Gottlieb, MPA,2 Josh Mandel, MD,1,2,3

1. Computational Health Informatics Program, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA

2. Department of Biomedical Informatics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

3. Microsoft Healthcare, Redmond, WA

The opportunity has never been greater to, at long last, develop a flourishing health information economy based on apps which have full access to health system data–for both patients and populations–and liquid data that travels to where it is needed for care, management and population and public health. A provision in the 21st Century Cures Act could transform how patients and providers use health information technology. The 2016 law requires that certified health information technology products have an application programming interface (API) that allows health information to be accessed, exchanged, and used “without special effort” and that provides “access to all data elements of a patient’s electronic health record to the extent permissible under applicable privacy laws.”

After nearly two years of regulatory work, an important rule on this issue is now pending at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), typically a late stop before a proposed rule is issued for public comment. It is our hope that this rule will contain provisions to create capabilities for patients to obtain complete copies of their EHR data and for providers and patients to easily integrate apps (web, iOS and Android) with EHRs and other clinical systems.

Modern software systems use APIs to interact with each other and exchange data. APIs are fundamental to software made familiar to all consumers by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon. APIs could also offer turnkey access to population health data in a standard format, and interoperable approaches to exchange and aggregate data across sites of care.

The Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT (ONC)-funded SMART on FHIR API specification enables apps to connect with EHRs in a standards-based way, giving users a frictionless way to choose their favorite apps. This property of substitutability defines a new form of interoperability. SMART leverages the Health Level Seven (HL7) Fast Health Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard and has been implemented by the major EHR products. The SMART app gallery, and EHR-specific app stores such as Epic’s App Orchard and Cerner’s code App gallery host scores of app that connect to EHRs.

Two particularly intriguing uses of SMART are (1) Apple’s use of the API to connect its health app to hundreds of health systems enabling users to download copies of their health records to their smartphones; and (2) the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid’s implementation of “Blue Button 2.0”, enabling beneficiaries to connect apps to their healthcare financial data.

Because the specifics of the final rule matter greatly, we strongly encourage policy makers to attend carefully to a few key requirements which derive from the phrases “without special effort” and “all data elements.”

Expanded data access. ONC has proposed a set of standardized clinical data that will grow over time from the 2015-era “Common Clinical Data Set” to a forward-looking “US Core Data for Interoperability”. This kind of consistent, standards-based data set holds tremendous promise for the ecosystem. At the same time, standards can lag behind clinical practice and cutting-edge technology development, so the Cures Act goal of “all data elements” would be challenging to achieve through detailed clinical modeling standards alone. We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We propose a three-pronged approach to meeting the Cures provisions for “all data elements”:

  1. Use standards that exist today. For example, FHIR “US Core” profiles cover the 2015 era Common Clinical Data Set, providing a common basis for communicating patient demographics, medidcations, conditions, lab results, vital signs, and more. These core data should be made available through APIs to provider- and patient-facing apps.
  2. Continue developing these standards over time. For example, efforts like HL7’s Argonaut Project are driving common support for new data types like clinical notes as a fast-moving 2018 roadmap. We should start building a community-maintained “profile backlog” to articulate and prioritize the most valuable data that haven’t yet been standardized.
  3. Enable flexible approaches to cover the gap between our well-standardized-and-growing “core data” definitions and the long tail implied by the Cures provision for “all data elements.” As one example to illustrate how EHR vendors could ensure that innovators have programmatic access to all of the clinical data accessible in the system: similar to the way vendors publicly document a subset of APIs today, they might expand this documentation to include database schema, tables, columns, and enumerations used to store complete clinical records.

This approach (use standards, develop standards, and cover the gap) would empower early adopters to develop cutting edge clinical integrations ahead of the standardization process, building experience to guide the standards process that follows.

Standard and ubiquitous APIs for patient facing apps, provider facing apps and population analytics. Our vision is that an app written once should run anywhere in the healthcare system. The availability of standardized APIs, ubiquitously implemented across care settings, is essential to driving down the “special effort” that is still typically required to create, distribute and use health apps.

  1. Standardize APIs for apps. The SMART Health IT (a.k.a. SMART on FHIR) specification is sufficiently mature to be considered as an industry standard for launching and authorizing apps in an EHR or patient portal. It is in widespread use in clinical settings, has achieved consensus through the Argonaut process, is implemented in EHR products, and its core elements are being incorporated into the next release of the FHIR standard.

While the SMART-based app integration focuses on one‐patent‐at‐a‐time access to health system data, population level data export is critical for value‐based care, postmarket surveillance, quality improvement, and clinical research. The API should enable a user or an app to specify export of all EHR data or EHR data on defined cohorts at the discretion of the data owner. Under ONC funding, a standard for bulk data export in a FHIR‐formatted flat file has been proposed and the Argonaut implementation group is working to pilot it in 2018.

  1. Allow multiple pathways to register apps for connection to EHRs and other HIT. As more EHR vendors build support for standards-based apps, developers are discovering that they need to independently register each new app with each vendor and complete a set of on-boarding, review, or “vetting” steps before users are able to install the app and authorize a data connection. The app registration and vetting landscape is evolving quickly as vendors create developer programs, launch partnerships, and build out their own app marketplaces. App vetting procedures review and assess critical aspects of integration including security, usability, and business/privacy practices and offer value to end-users, who expect a clean, safe, experience of choosing, installing, and running apps.

Nonetheless, we have observed that these vetting practices can cause friction for some use cases and believe it is too early to define a “one size fits all” standardized app vetting process.  As such, we propose an “escape hatch” in the form of an at your own risk principle, by which provider organizations and individual patients should be able to accept the risk of connecting an un-vetted app to their own data without vendor review. While many apps will follow a conventional path of registration and vetting, this option provides a route to ensure that all apps, even small-scale apps (e.g., one-offs produced by individual tinkerers, open-source developers, research efforts) can reach visibility and commercial viability within the real-world clinical landscape, and that providers have the opportunity to select any apps of their choice.

  1. Ownership terms. App developers should have the option of retaining all intellectual property related to the app, regardless of how the app connects to the EHR and which underlying EHR APIs the app consumes.
  2. Maintain free registration of apps for patients. As required now under Meaningful Use Stage 3, patients should always be able to connect apps of their choice, without cost.
  3. App connections should be long lasting, when desired. In other words, the user should not need to reauthorize the app to the system each time data is accessed. This property will enable apps to perform functions on behalf of patients and providers, without special effort (for example, checking periodically for new lab results).

Summary. We are so pleased that ONC has and the OMB have gotten to the is stage in which a proposed rule is pending at OMB. We are on the precipice of creating a national-scale apps model for health, based on an API that promotes interoperability and data exchange via substitutable apps. The simple imperatives we enumerate above, could reshape the health IT industry by providing a channel for innovators to distribute and/or sell their software applications by enabling customers to select and integrate EHR-connected apps as easily as they do for smartphones. As the final proposed language implementing the 21st Century Cures Act API provisions is reviewed and prepared for release is decided, we encourage policy-makers to keep all eyes on this prize.

This blog has been cross posted at The Health Care Blog.

Can Apple Take Healthcare Beyond the Fax Machine?

(A version of this blog was published by CNBC)

January 30, 2018

Ken Mandl (Twitter @mandl)

Despite spectacular advances in diagnostic imaging, non-invasive surgery, and gene editing, healthcare still faces a lackluster problem: many patients can only get health records from their doctor if the fax machine is working. Even when records are stored electronically, different chunks of every patient’s health information sit in the non-interoperable, inaccessible electronic record systems in different doctor’s offices.  

Anyone who needs her medical files gets them either printed or faxed, or has to log on into separate portals for each doctor and hospital, and even then getting view-only access. View-only apps can’t access data to help patients share information with family and healthcare providers, make decisions, monitor disease, stay on course with medications, or just stay well.

On the positive side, this is changing, sort of. Using the iPhone Health app, patients will soon be able to download and view health records on their phones. On the one hand, don’t get too excited–it will initially only work for patients at a handful of institutions, Android users are still out in the cold, and the data available will be limited. And, some dismiss the impact of Apple’s move because of others’ failures to give patients control of their records.

However, Apple’s move is a decisive and consequential advance in patients’ struggle to get a copy of their own health data. Apple wisely chose to use open, non-proprietary approaches that will float all boats–even for Android users.  

Every patient deserves a ‘bank account’ of her health data, under her control, with deposits made after every healthcare encounter. After my colleagues and I demonstrated an open, free version of a “bank account” to companies in 2006, Google and Microsoft launched similar personally controlled health records — GoogleHealth and Microsoft Healthvault. Walmart and other employers offered our version, Indivo, as an employee benefit. Unfortunately, even these industry giants couldn’t shake loose data from the proprietary computer systems in doctors’ offices, or make the case to patients that curating the data was worth the effort.

But 12 years later, Apple’s product enters healthcare under different circumstances.  A lot more patient data is electronic after a $48 billion federal investment in promoting the adoption of information technology to providers. But those products, mostly older software and purchased at enormous expense, still don’t promote record sharing with doctors or patients.

Recognizing this unacceptable limitation and having received a generous grant comprising a tiny fraction of that federal investment, our team created SMART on FHIR. SMART is an interface to make doctors’ electronic health records work like iPhones do. Apps can be added or deleted easily. The major electronic health record brands have built this interface into their products.

Apple uses SMART to connect the Health app to hospitals and doctors offices. The good news for patients, doctors, and innovators is that Apple chose a standardized, open connection over a proprietary, closed one. This approach lets any other app, whether running on the web,  iPhone, or Android, use that very same interface to connect.

So Apple will compete on value and customer satisfaction, rather than on an exclusive lock on the data. Does Apple’s approach help Americans trying to stay well or manage their conditions? Yes. But only with follow-through by Apple, health systems, technology companies, patient groups, policy makers, and government regulators. The emerging ecosystem’s nuances must be appreciated.

First of all, the floodgates for patient information are at least a crack open and will be very hard to close. As patients gain access to their data, they will recognize it is incomplete and feel frustrated it’s not available everywhere. But, patients in need will drive demand for data access in their role as health consumers.

Secondly, the government is effectively using law and regulations to compel an open interface. By selecting SMART on FHIR, Apple and its healthcare launch partners mark the importance of standardization. A uniform approach is critical for scale. Imagine if every electrical product required a differently shaped 120V outlet. Understanding this, Google, Quest Diagnostics, Eli Lily, Optum, and many other companies are using the same interface to plug into healthcare.

Thirdly, Apple’s first version of health records brings data onto the phone, but from there, like the portals many patients are already familiar with, the data are still “view-only.”  In 2009, I had the chance to meet with Apple’s rockstar Bud Tribble and talk about how the iPhone could serve healthcare. We concluded that crucial data–like the medication list–had to be as easy for iOS developers to use in their apps as contacts and location are now.  I would not be at all surprised if this is the next step in Apple’s journey–making the health records available to iPhone app developers. Here too is an opportunity to chose open interfaces, and to allow patients to export the data to another device.

Lastly, competition in healthcare IT is hot. Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook all have healthcare divisions.  Apple’s extraordinary hardware, including sensors in the phone and watch, will monitor patients at home.  Google’s artificial intelligence will lead doctors and patients to diagnoses and decisions.  Amazon is rumored to be eying pharmacy management. Facebook has sifted through posts to detect and possibly intervene when users may be suicidal.

There are so many opportunities to compete. Locking up a patient’s data should never be one of them.  

Ken Mandl, MD, MPH directs the Boston Children’s Hospital Computational Health Informatics Program and is the Harvard Medical School Donald A.B. Lindberg Professor of Pediatrics and Biomedical Informatics.

HHS Idea Lab blog post provides a great overview of FHIR and SMART!

FHIR is laying a framework for digital disruption to occur. A big part of FHIR’s popularity is that it’s vendor-neutral and free to use, which allows innovators to do things that couldn’t easily be done before. […] The SMART on FHIR app platform and app gallery are great examples. Think of SMART on FHIR like the app store on a smartphone. Some of the apps are designed for physicians to use, such as the Growth Chart app developed by Boston’s Children’s Hospital. The app plots a child’s height and weight against growth charts published by the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so that physicians can track a child’s growth over time and communicate this to the child’s caregivers.

Other apps in the SMART on FHIR gallery are patient-facing, such as the ClinDat application, which makes it easier for rheumatoid arthritis patients to document which joints are normal, tender, or swollen. These data are captured electronically and sent back to the medical record in real-time to support the clinical care patients receive. The beauty of SMART on FHIR is the apps are vendor neutral and can be ‘plugged-in’ to EHRs and other tools used on multiple devices (particularly mobile devices) that are already integrated into clinicians’ workflows.

A Primer on FHIR: Lightweight, Reusable Web Technologies Can Help Solve Substantial Real-World Health Challenges

RFP Language for Buying SMART-Compatible HIT

SMART Platform (www.smarthealthit.org) is a project that lays the groundwork for a more flexible approach to sourcing health information technology tools. Like Apple and Android’s app stores, SMART creates the means for developers to create and for health systems and providers to easily deploy third-party applications in tandem with their existing electronic health record, data warehouse, or health information exchange platforms.

To deploy SMART-enabled applications, health systems must ensure that their existing health information technology infrastructure supports the SMART on FHIR API. The SMART on FHIR starter set detailed below lists the minimum requirements for supporting the API and SMART-enabled applications. You may wish to augment this list of minimum requirements with suggestions from the Add-On Functionality listed depending on the types of applications your organization wishes to deploy.
Continue reading “RFP Language for Buying SMART-Compatible HIT”

C-CDAs — What are they good for?

David Kreda, SMART Translation Advisor
Joshua Mandel, SMART Lead Architect

Some readers of our JAMIA paper “Are Meaningful Use Stage 2 certified EHRs ready for Interoperability?” have wondered if we were insinuating that C-CDAs are all but useless because of their heterogeneity and other defects.

We did not say that.
Continue reading “C-CDAs — What are they good for?”

Certification/MU tweaks to support patient subscriptions

This is a quick description of the minimum requirements to turn patient-mediated “transmit” into a usable system for feeding clinical data to a patient’s preferred endpoints. In my blog post last month, I described a small, incremental “trust tweak” asking ONC and CMS to converge on the Blue Button Patient Trust Bundle, so that any patient anywhere has the capability to send data to any app in the bundle.

This proposal builds on that initial tweak. I should be clear that the ideas here aren’t novel: they borrow very clearly from the Blue Button+ Direct implementation guide (which is not part of certification or MU — but aspects of it ought to be).

Continue reading “Certification/MU tweaks to support patient subscriptions”

Improving patient access: small steps and patch-ups

In a blog post earlier this month, I advocated for ONC and CMS to adopt a grand scheme to improve patient data access through the SMART on FHIR API. Here, I’ll advocate for a very small scheme that ignores some of the big issues, but aims to patch up one of the most broken aspects of today’s system.

The problem: patient-facing “transmit” is broken

Not to mince words: ONC’s certification program and CMS’s attestation program are out of sync on patient access. As a result, patient portals don’t offer reliable “transmit” capabilities.

2014-certified EHR systems must demonstrate support for portal-based Direct message transmission, but providers don’t need to make these capabilities available for patients in real life. Today, two loopholes prevent patient access:
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SMART Advice on JASON (and PCAST)

As architect for SMART Platforms and community lead for the Blue Button REST API, I’m defining open APIs for health data that spark innovation in patient care, consumer empowerment, clinical research. So I was very pleased last month at an invitation to join a newly-formed Federal Advisory Committee called the JASON Task Force, helping ONC respond to the JASON Report (“A Robust Health Data Infrastructure”).

We’re charged with making recommendations to ONC about how to proceed toward building practical, broad-reaching interoperability in Meaningful Use Stage 3 and beyond. Our committee is still meeting and forming recommendations throughout the summer and into the fall, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts on the scope of the problem; where we are today; and how we can make real progress as we move forward.

Continue reading “SMART Advice on JASON (and PCAST)”

Disturbing state of EHR Security Vulnerability Reporting

Last week I reported on a set of security vulnerabilities that affected multiple EHR vendors and other Health IT systems.

I initially discovered the vulnerability in a single Web-based EHR system and successfully reported it directly to that vendor.

But my subsequent journey into the world of EHR vulnerability reporting left me deeply concerned that our EHR vendors do not have mature reporting systems in place. Patient health data are among the most personal, sensitive aspects of our online presence. They offer an increasingly high-value target for identity theft, blackmail, and ransom. It’s time for EHR vendors to take a page from the playbook of consumer tech companies by instituting the same kinds of security vulnerability reporting programs that are ubiquitous on the consumer Web.

HL7 and EHR Vendors must address security reporting

I’ll lead with the key message here, and provide supporting evidence below: HL7 and EHR vendors need to institute security vulnerability reporting programs!
Continue reading “Disturbing state of EHR Security Vulnerability Reporting”

Case study: security vulnerabilities in C-CDA display

For background, see my previous blog post describing the details of three security vulnerabilities in C-CDA Display using HL7’s CDA.xsl.

Last month I discovered a set of security vulnerabilities in a well-known commercial EHR product that I’ll pseudonymously call “Friendly Web EHR”. Here’s the story…

The story: discovery and reporting

I was poking around my account in Friendly Web EHR, examining MU2 features like C-CDA display and Direct messaging. I used the “document upload” feature to upload some C-CDAs from SMART’s Sample C-CDA Repository. At the time, I was curious about the user experience. (Specifically, I was bemoaning how clunky the standard XSLT-based C-CDA rendering looks.) I wondered how the C-CDA viewer was embedded into the EHR. Was it by direct DOM insertion? Inline frames? I opened up Chrome Developer Tools to take a look.
Continue reading “Case study: security vulnerabilities in C-CDA display”