Med Tech Report

The 21st Century Cures Act: Tearing down fortresses to put patients first


"A fortress not only protects those inside of it, but it also enslaves them to work.”
– Anthony T. Hincks

As physicians, we spend a great deal of time intending to do our best for the people we serve. We believe fundamentally in the idea that our patients come first, and we toil daily to exercise that belief. We also want our patients to feel they are driving their care as active participants along the journey. Yet time and time again, despite our greatest attempts, those efforts are stymied by the state of modern medicine; patients are often prevented from active engagement in health decisions by the complexity of the way in which we manage their records.

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik of Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik

Over the past 10 years, we have done a tremendous job of constructing expensive fortresses around patient information known as electronic health records (EHRs). Billions of dollars have been spent implementing, upgrading, and optimizing. In spite of this, physicians are increasingly frustrated by EHRs (and in many cases, long to return to the days of paper). It isn’t surprising, then, that patients are frustrated as well. We use terms such as “patient-centered care,” but patients feel like they are not in the center at all. Instead, they can find themselves feeling like complete outsiders, at the mercy of the medical juggernaut to make sure they have the appropriate information when they need it. There are several issues that contribute to the frustrations of physicians and patients, but two in particular warrant attention. The first is the diversity of Health IT systems and ongoing issues with EHR interoperability. The second is a provincial attitude surrounding transparency and medical record ownership. We will discuss both of these here, as well as recent legislation designed to advance both concerns.

We have written in previous columns about the many challenges of interoperability. Electronic health records, sold by different vendors, typically won’t “talk” to each other. In spite of years of maturation, issues of compatibility remain. Patient data locked inside of one EHR is not easily accessible by a physician using a different EHR. While efforts have been made to streamline information sharing, there are still many fortresses that cannot be breached.

Bridging the moat

The 21st Century Cures Act, enacted by Congress in December of 2016, seeks to define and require interoperability while addressing many other significant problems in health care. According to the legislation, true interoperability means that health IT should enable the secure exchange of electronic health information with other electronic record systems without special effort on the part of the user; the process should be seamless and shouldn’t be cumbersome for physicians or patients. It also must be fully supported by EHR vendors, but those vendors have been expressing significant concerns with the ways in which the act is being interpreted.

In a recent blog post, the HIMSS Electronic Health Record Association – a consortium of vendors including Epic, Allscripts, eClinicalWorks, as well as several others – expressed “significant concerns regarding timelines, ambiguous language, disincentives for innovation, and definitions related to information blocking.”1 This is not surprising, as the onus for improving interoperability falls squarely on their shoulders, and the work to get there is arduous. Regardless of one’s interpretation, the goal of the Cures act is clear: Arrive at true interoperability in the shortest period of time, while eliminating barriers that prevent patients from accessing their health records. In other words, it asks for the avoidance of “information blocking.”


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