2020 has been a year of unprecedented public health measures. Border restrictions, school closures, mask mandates, and stay-at-home orders are now a part of everyday life. This year has also proven that interoperability is intrinsically tied to public health.
At its most basic, interoperability is the ability for electronic health records (EHRs) to share data and communicate with each other. Optimally, interoperability would allow an emergency room in Florida to check the health record of a tourist from Minnesota.
In a pandemic world, this might mean that an urgent care facility could securely access a patient’s health history to see their risks for complications, test them for COVID-19, and rapidly transfer that information and the patient to a treatment facility. Once the patient has recovered, their primary care physician could monitor any latent or persistent symptoms.
Unfortunately, our healthcare system is not that connected. This has been especially notable as we work to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Throughout the pandemic, each state was responsible for its own response. Without a unifying database of COVID-19 patients, each state has ended up with a data silo, and there appears to be no single source of truth. Even our total death counts vary based on where the information is sourced.
However, there is good news on the horizon.
During the pandemic, the Nevada Health Information Exchange (HealtHIE NV) has increased its data sharing by 36%. And other states are working together to unify their understanding of the pandemic. KeyHIE is working on predictive models, using their data to predict rising COVID hotspots throughout the region they support. These and many other healthcare organizations are using this time to advance their interoperable efforts as a way to strengthen the fight against COVID-19.
A Unified Vaccination Approach
With the successful Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trials, vaccine distribution is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Much planning is needed as most of the recently trialed vaccines require multiple doses. Moderna’s vaccine, for example, requires two shots to be administered three to four weeks apart. And it’s not clear what future vaccine needs will be.
Maybe, like the Flu vaccine, patients will need an annual follow-up. How do we track who has had which dose of the vaccine and when? Think of snowbirds, people who travel to the South in winter and return to the North in summer. These patients may need to receive their vaccines at different locations in different states.
Additionally, most of these vaccinations have special storage requirements. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, needs to be kept extremely cold. We’re talking colder than winter in Antarctica. There are exceptions for thawing and using the Pfizer vaccine, but that information will need to be closely monitored by providers.
An Opportunity for Growth
So, what does the COVID-19 vaccine mean for interoperability?
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recognizes how important interoperability is to executing a successful vaccination plan. You’ve likely heard already about the HHS initiative, Operation Warp Speed. As a part of that plan, HHS plans to create a centralized database to track who has received which vaccine and when. The information in this database can also be used to:
- Ensure vaccines are handled properly
- Understand the impact on the population
- Monitor adverse reactions
Hopefully, this database will pave the way for future interoperable initiatives especially because several regulations are currently relaxed giving HIEs more freedom to expand.
HHS continues to push for nationwide interoperability efforts with other initiatives such as the Veterans Health Information Exchange (VHIE). But we’ve never seen such a large scale need for a database like Operation Warp Speed. HHS will be giving more money, attention, and effort to this widely interoperable effort, which could positively impact our healthcare landscape for years to come.
An Crucial Tool in the Fight Against COVID-19
The COVID-19 vaccine presents a very complex challenge that will put our healthcare systems to the test. But interoperability can, and hopefully will, play an important role in creating and streamlining a solution.