CommonWell is the name of the new organization formed to create the interoperability that would enable universal access to each patient’s health care records

It was big news in the healthcare IT world when six major healthcare IT companies joined together on March 4 and announced a collaboration intended to develop electronic health record (EHR) systems that are interoperable. That is a goal that can come none too soon for clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups.

The collaboration will take the form of an independent nonprofit organization to be called CommonWell Health Alliance. The six companies contributing to the formation of CommonWell are:


Goal Is Seamless Interoperability for Electronic Patient Records

As a nonprofit organization, CommonWell will support universal access to healthcare data through what the alliance calls seamless interoperability. Not surprisingly, both praise and criticism surfaced in the wake of the announcement.

Praise came from those who recognized that interoperability in healthcare IT has been slow to develop. The questions came from those who thought the federal government was already investing in EHR interoperability through its meaningful use (MU)  standards under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.

commonwell

During last month’s HIMSS conference in New Orleans, CEOs of five major health information technology companies announced the formation of the CommonWell Alliance. This nonprofit organization seeks to advance EHR interoperability. On stage at the HIMSS conference were the five CEOs (from left to right): John Hammergren, McKesson; Jonathan Bush, athenahealth; Rich Elmore, Allscripts; Tee Green, Greenway; and Neal Patterson, Cerner. Improved interoperability among various EMR systems would benefit clinical laboratories and pathology groups, which are feeding lab test data into these EHRs. (Photo copyright Microwize.com)

In reaction to the CommonWell announcement, Carl Dvorak, Epic’s Chief Operating Officer, told Forbes Magazine in a recent story that Epic was not invited to join the alliance. He also questioned CommonWell’s purpose, saying standards already exist for interoperability. A report by the Falcon Consulting Group said Epic viewed CommonWell as a “competitive weapon.”

CommonWell May Have Positive Benefits for Clinical Labs

Pat Wolfram, Director of Marketing at Liaison Healthcare Informatics, believes pathologists and clinical laboratories could find the work done under the CommonWell umbrella to be useful if it allows physicians to use the to more effectively share medical lab test results and other patient chart data with other members of the care team, as well as patients. This is a feature that clinical laboratories have strived to develop for their referring physicians.

Effective interoperability among all care settings will facilitate better patient care—a top priority of laboratory medicine—butit could also lead to less diagnostic testing. When physicians knowwhich clinical laboratory tests have been performed recently, they may be inclined not to order what would be duplicate or unnecessary tests.

Meaningful Use Supports Interoperability

“The federal government is already fostering the same interoperability that CommonWell is gearing up to tackle,” explained Wolfram. “By adding much needed ‘oomph’ to the goal of interoperability, CommonWell compliments the meaningful use initiatives within the federal program to encourage EHR adoption. With each stage of MU compliance, interoperability gets better and patient care improves. Many physicians have already achieved their MU stage 1 certification, but not all.”

Meaningful use is proceeding in three stages, the first of which is occurring now. Stage 2 will begin next year (2014) and the Stage 3 schedule is still to be determined.

“The alliance formed by these six companies to foster interoperability is itself a statement about the lack of effective interoperability that continues to frustrate providers and healthcare IT vendors alike,” noted Wolfram. “It shows that these companies recognize that the marketplace should be moving more quickly and that the biggest companies in the field could speed the process along.”

Market Response to Epic’s EHR System

“In addition, the shift in market share held by healthcare information technology companies is also part of this story,” he continued. “One could argue that by banding together to form CommonWell, these six companies are reacting to Epic Systems Corporation’s fast growth and steady success in winning new clients for its EHR system.

“A major feature of the Epic EHR is that it allows any provider in either an ambulatory or inpatient setting to view the same patient chart,” stated Wolfram. “Wherever a patient shows up for care, his or her complete medical history is available in that one chart for today’s care episode.

“Both the MU criteria and the CommonWell effort hope to achieve that same result by allowing disparate systems to interoperate well,” added Wolfram, “This would allow easy-to-use access to the holistic chart in support of today’s care episode.

Developing Systems to Work Well in Both Acute and Ambulatory Care

“The EHR industry has plenty of challenges with interoperability,” stated Wolfram. “Many vendors offer an EHR that excels for clinician users in the ambulatory settings but their EHR products don’t work well for user workflows in the acute-care settings.

“Similarly, some vendors have EHR systems that work well in acute-care but not in ambulatory settings,” he continued. “If CommonWell delivers what’s needed to establish the standard interoperability framework that all vendors can plug into, then all vendors can focus more efforts into making their end user experience better. The industry as a whole gets better products this way.”

Over the next 18 months, the CommonWell Alliance intends to define and certify a national infrastructure with common platforms and policies. The certification will ensure that HIT products will work on the national infrastructure, the alliance said. Parts of that infrastructure will be tested within a year. The components of the infrastructure will include:

  • A way to link and match patients as they move from one care setting to another, regardless of the underlying software system;
  •  A patient consent and data access management system; and
  • A patient record locator and query service to help providers view a history of recent patient-care encounters across multiple providers and episodes of care.

The creation of CommonWell by six competitors of Epic is a signal that competition is likely to heat up in the national market for EHR systems. This development may be auspicious for clinical laboratories and pathology groups if heightened competition among EHR vendors leads to streamlined protocols that make it fast and cheap for medical laboratories to link their LIS’ with the EHRs of the their client physicians and hospitals.

—By Joseph Burns

Related Information:

Cerner, McKesson and other EMR rivals form interoperability partnership

Five Health IT Firms Band Together To Create A National System For Identifying Patients And Sharing Medical Records

Epic Systems Says Alliance Between Electronic Health Records Vendors Caught It By Surprise

Epic Systems views new CommonWell Alliance as a “weapon”

Cerner McKesson Allscripts Athenahealth, Greenway, and Relayhealth announce ground breaking alliance to enable integrated health care

Policy Committee Hears Report on New EHR Vendor Alliance