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COVID-19 Makes the Case for Health Information Exchanges

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In a pandemic, healthcare professionals are quickly learning just how important the ability to exchange information in a secure and timely manner is. A crisis of this scale has required a globally coordinated response, but without care coordination at the local and state levels, the United States has faced challenges. Coronavirus has tested the resources of the nation’s health systems, and while efforts to stop the spread were attempted, there is still concern as to how the nation will manage the scale of testing required going forward and how providers can give patients the best care in new and variant settings indefinitely.

Disparate, Disconnected Systems

The role of health information exchanges (HIEs) is to maintain electronic care records that follow a patient wherever they seek care, like their medical history, drug allergies, encounter history, provider history, other documents, and most topically, their lab results. As the pandemic developed, appropriate tracking of COVID-19 results and contact tracing were immediately required. However, various systems collect and share these results differently, and accurate, timely monitoring has become increasingly difficult. Many states have initially reported only receiving results from private labs. Other states have reported a lack of automation with results delivery that impacts reporting or delays the ability to measure. These barriers result in a false sense of security and more delays in accuracy and contact tracing.

Treating Patients with the Full Story in Hand

Many months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a massive uptick in telehealth visits. The new ways to receive care continue to develop as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) modify policies to allow for greater flexibility. In areas where the coronavirus has taken a stronghold, a patient may not have the option to be seen at their usual care venues. Many HIEs can support this shift and send patients’ entire medical records to a corresponding care team to be fully informed. The connectivity promotes public health communication, visibility, and maintains the continuity of care, which only furthers their cause as robust solutions.

The COVID-19 virus has had disproportionate impacts on those with underlying comorbidities and those in underserved communities. Observations indicate that the patients most at risk are people age 60 and above with conditions like hypertension, diabetes, lung disease, cancers, heart disease, respiratory conditions, and immunodeficiencies. These patients require full documentation when they seek medical care. Accessing a patient’s entire medical history, prior physician notes, diagnoses, and current medications maximize a provider’s expertise to determine their next steps. When treating a patient for COVID-19, especially in those severe cases where underlying health issues are present, having the full picture on the patient is critical. Many communities have reported sending their COVID patients to specific locations for isolation purposes, again enforcing the need for a patient’s record to follow and provide the safest experience and inform providers.

Stepping Up in COVID-19

Many HIEs across the United States have already stepped up to respond to the needs of medical facilities during COVID-19. HIMSS Media wrote an insightful piece, titled, “In Times of Crisis, HIEs are Front and Center.” The article highlights how HIEs have specific roles during the coronavirus pandemic, the roadblocks they may face, and how the added flexibilities allow them to act with fewer barriers in data exchange. HIEs can offer many valuable roles in the wake of a pandemic:

  • Automated orders and results delivery
  • Real-time information, at the point of care
  • Aggregated information across various care venues
  • Immediate access and data for telehealth providers
  • Coordination or improvement in communication to public health officials
  • Event detection and alerting
    • e., Notification to key recipients of COVID related activity, and more

While HIEs can provide much value and have already during COVID-19, many challenges remain. With varying levels of adoption throughout the nation, the HIEs that have risen to the challenge in providing critical functionality during the pandemic are not the standard throughout the United States. Many of these functions are heavily dependent on adoption and widespread data contribution from labs and inpatient facilities. COVID-19 has showcased the value of HIEs and the remaining gaps in the technology and data exchange ecosystem.

Carrie Roth is Manager of HIE Implementations at Lightbeam.

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