Breaching the gate
Information blocking, as defined by the Cures Act, is “a practice by a health care provider, health IT developer, health information exchange, or health information network that … is likely to interfere with, prevent, or materially discourage access, exchange, or use of electronic health information.”2 This practice is explicitly prohibited by the legislation – and is ethically wrong – yet it continues to occur implicitly every day as it has for many years. Even if unintentional and solely because of the growing complexity of our information systems, it makes accessing health information incredibly cumbersome for patients. Even worse, attempts to improve patients’ ability to access their health records have only created additional obstacles.
HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) was designed to protect patient confidentiality and create security around protected health information. While noble in purpose, many have found it burdensome to work within the parameters set forth in the law. Physicians and patients needing legitimate access to clinical data discover endless release forms and convoluted processes standing in their way. Access to the information eventually comes in the form of reams of printed paper or faxed notes that cannot be easily consumed by or integrated into other systems.
The Meaningful Use, while envisioned to improve data exchange and enhance population health, did little to help. Instead of enabling documentation efficiency and improving patient access, it promoted the proliferation of incompatible EHRs and poorly conceived patient portals. It also created heavy costs for both the federal government and physicians and was largely ineffective at producing systems whose use could be considered meaningful. The federal government paid out as much as $44,000 per physician to incentivize them to purchase medical records, while physicians often spent more than the $44,000 and, in many cases, wound up with EHRs that didn’t work well and had to be replaced.
Authors and supporters of the 21st Century Cures Act are hoping to avoid the shortcomings of prior legislation by attaching financial penalties to health care providers or IT vendors who engage in information blocking. While allowing for exceptions in appropriate cases, the law is clear: Patients deserve complete access to their medical records. While this goes against tradition, it has been proven to result in better outcomes.
Initiatives such as the OpenNotes movement have been pushing the value of full transparency for some time, and theirincludes a long list of numerous examples to prove it. Indeed, several studies have demonstrated increased physician and patient satisfaction when both parties have ready access to health information. We believe that we, as physicians, should fully support the idea and lobby our EHR vendors to do the same.
It is time to tear down the impenetrable fortresses of traditional medicine, then work diligently to rebuild them with our patients safely inside.
Dr. Notte is a family physician and associate chief medical information officer for Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Follow him on Twitter. Dr. Skolnik is a professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and an associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health.