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As we wait for final rules that will enable consumers to freely access their health data, electronic health record (EHR) giant Epic is saying breaking down the silos where this information lives will create a privacy hazard for patients.

While privacy concerns over health data sharing are always legitimate, they can’t stem the tide of the inevitable: Patients and consumers are demanding access to their data, and new proposed government rules supporting a consumer-directed, seamless flow of medical information will likely go into effect as soon as this month.

When they do, it will accelerate the race among technology companies to offer consumers the end-to-end healthcare experience and outcomes we’ve all been missing. At the same time, they will force the government to move quickly to establish a new privacy framework that will replace HIPAA’s limited reach and work to benefit all stakeholders.

Case Study

Across-the-Board Impact of an OB-GYN Hospitalist Program

A Denver facility saw across-the-board improvements in patient satisfaction, maternal quality metrics, decreased subsidy and increased service volume, thanks to the rollout of the first OB-GYN hospitalist program in the state.

See how

We could be in for a wild ride. But when the dust settles, we will have what we should have had all along: a healthcare system where consumers sit at the center and are empowered by ownership of their own health data.

A snapshot of health IT’s bumpy history

In 2004, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT released a framework for strategic action, the decade of health information technology: delivering consumer-centric and information-rich care (PDF).

I worked for David Brailer at the time, who was appointed by President George W. Bush to be the country’s first information “czar” for healthcare. Dr. Brailer is still an advocate for information-sharing, recently calling on healthcare CEOs to lean into, not away from, the opportunity to engage the patient in a more meaningful way. If healthcare CEOs fall short, tech companies will fill the void (more on that later). 

We envisioned a system where important health data would follow the individual by building interoperability into EHRs from the start—a vision that tragically has yet to be realized. 

ELATED: Epic’s Judy Faulkner: ONC data blocking rule undermines privacy, intellectual property protections

We imagined health data would function as a powerful currency for consumers, but to date, this valuable asset has stayed in the hands of EHR companies who keep it under lock and key. 

Consumers will soon hold this currency in their hands for the first time. If they seek to understand and apply their health data like they have with their genetic information—consider the explosion of tech companies like 23andMe and others—we’ll see dramatic shifts in the health tech landscape.

Consumers are most likely to share their health information with companies that have proven they can offer a powerful, secure and user-friendly experience: companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and a host of established and emerging technology players.

We must now endeavor to build the necessary security and privacy frameworks that ensure the consumer will always be protected and in control of their personal health information.

Where to go from here

We’re entering a new era, one where healthcare providers, payers, solutions providers and technology companies will create a superior healthcare experience and deliver improved patient outcomes.

The days of medical information being walled off and guarded by EHR vendors are coming to an end.

We can expect three things to occur once the rules are finalized:

  •  EHR companies will see their business models disrupted: As consumers control their health data, the silos created by EHR companies will gradually erode. This will change these companies’ business models permanently. No longer the central gatekeepers of the country’s medical information, EHR companies will scramble to build new capabilities and services in a bid to remain important players in healthcare.
  • Technology companies that build trust will earn their moment in the sun: Consumers have shown a willingness to share sensitive information with technology companies in exchange for insights about their health. With new rules in place that turn loose volumes of health data, incumbent tech giants and newcomers will compete to create compelling new healthcare experiences and superior outcomes. Consumers will decide the winners by preferentially sharing their data with companies whose products and services are both transparent and secure.
  • New privacy laws must take shape: As tech companies compete to win the trust of consumers, the government will develop updated rules of the road for our new, consumer-centric health system. This effort is already underway thanks to multi-stakeholder groups like the CARIN Alliance and the work that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing with Manatt. We can expect these efforts to ramp up quickly.

HIPAA doesn’t cover many of the new digital products and services that can benefit consumers, but that doesn’t mean consumers and technology companies cannot hold this data. It means we need to modernize HIPAA.

When these trends come to pass, it will be the consumer—newly empowered with their health data—who will drive our country toward value-based care. Top-down decisions by healthcare providers, insurers and government agencies haven’t accomplished this vision—consumers can and will.

As a consumer, a health tech entrepreneur, a mother and a former federal and state official, I am eager to bear witness as consumers take the driver’s seat, which was the intention all along.

Lori Evans Bernstein is a co-founder and the president and chief operating officer of HealthReveal. She was a senior advisor to the first National Coordinator for Health IT in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and served as deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Health’s Office of Health IT Transformation. 

As the industry waits for a landmark rule aimed at opening up access to patient data, Donald Rucker, M.D. said Wednesday that regulators are challenged with balancing data privacy and transparency.

The proposed interoperability rule will be coming out “relatively soon,” Rucker, who is head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), said during a Health IT Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday.

Many have speculated that the rule will be released during the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference in March.

Case Study

Across-the-Board Impact of an OB-GYN Hospitalist Program

A Denver facility saw across-the-board improvements in patient satisfaction, maternal quality metrics, decreased subsidy and increased service volume, thanks to the rollout of the first OB-GYN hospitalist program in the state.

See how

A year ago, ONC, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), proposed an interoperability and information-blocking rule that defines the demands on healthcare providers and electronic health record (EHR) vendors for data sharing. The rule also outlines exceptions to the prohibition against information blocking and provides standardized criteria for application programming interface (API) development. 

HHS officials say the rule, which promotes the use of application programming interfaces (APIs), will help bring healthcare into the modern app economy.

The proposed rule has created an industry rift—EHR vendor Epic, many health systems, and some privacy groups have voiced strong opposition to the rule. About 60 health systems signed an opposition letter circulated by Epic CEO Judy Faulkner that was sent to Azar. The letter cited risks to patient privacy and intellectual property if the rules are finalized now.

Meanwhile, newer technology entrants to healthcare such as Apple and Microsoft, some EHR companies like Cerner and consumer advocates are backing the rule. Google Health’s David Feinberg, M.D. has met with HHS officials about the rule, Politico reported.

Rucker was asked by members of the Health IT Advisory Committee about the status of the rule.

“There are complicated issues balancing the various interests of the American public to get a good deal in healthcare, to have transparency, to do this in a way that doesn’t prevent innovation and allows vendors to be able to build products in a practical way and draws the right balance on protecting privacy, yet addressing what is ultimately the biggest issue, which is simply the vast amount of healthcare costs that are out there and lack of patients having agency.”

As the lobbying battle over the rule goes on, Politico reported Tuesday that ONC’s rules gained a rare endorsement from a hospital system: the University of California, San Francisco. The “nation needs ONC’s proposed regulations,” the leaders of UCSF and its health system wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, according to Politico.

All the lobbying efforts and public debates could have some positive results, Rucker said.

“Maybe it’s had the unintended benefit of getting people to focus on how this all will play out and part of a broader dialogue about what we want to do with technology in our lives,” he said.