Building a Health Care IT Infrastructure

 
 
By Wylie Wong  |  Posted 2009-01-23
 
 
 

The federal government has developed software that will allow government agencies and private health care providers to connect their IT systems to an emerging nationwide health network that will enable them to exchange health care records electronically in the future.

It’s part of a larger public-private initiative that began in 2004 when President Bush issued an executive order making it a goal for Americans to have electronic medical records (EMRs) by 2014. Since then, government agencies and private health care providers have worked together to create the underlying technology infrastructure that will allow seamless and secure data exchange.

Their efforts—overseen by the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—include establishing national standards for data exchange, privacy and security; certifying health care applications; and developing a National Health Information Network (NHIN) for sharing and exchanging health care data.

The Federal Health Architecture (FHA), part of the ONC, is a group of more than 20 federal agencies that recently worked together to develop a software “gateway” to the network. It will allow local, state, federal and tribal agencies—as well as the private sector—to securely connect their individual health care IT systems to the NHIN, says Vish Sankaran, program director of the FHA.

The software gateway, called Connect, is built using open source code. Last September, several federal agencies (including the Department of Defense, Veterans Administration and Social Security Administration) and some private-sector health care organizations conducted a demonstration of the technology as they connected to the NHIN and transmitted data.

In December, they conducted another trial, demonstrating new services and specific use-case scenarios. FHA plans to make the Connect software interface available to the public as early as March.

Overall, the government and the private sector have made a lot of headway in the health care IT effort, but many issues—including security—still need to be resolved before the NHIN goes live, Sankaran says. “We have in place a strong infrastructure that will really move forward in the coming years,” he adds.