An information technology (IT) leader is pleading with policymakers in Washington to do what they have to do to make U.S. electronic health record (EHR) systems truly “interoperable,” or easy to connect.

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Neal Patterson, the founder and chief executive officer of Cerner Corp. (Nasdaq:CERN), blasted the current state of U.S. health IT interoperability efforts Wednesday at a health IT hearing organized by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Patterson, whose company is one of the world’s biggest health IT companies, said his own wife has been fighting breast cancer since 2007.

“She has had procedures in the last eight years ranging from mastectomy, radiation and chemo to brain surgery and genome sequencing,” Patterson said, according to a written version of his testimony posted on the committee website. “Her diagnostic and treatment journey has taken her to multiple providers, and her records have wound up in more than 20 different health organizations’ EHRs.”

Many companies and organizations promote limited EHR standards efforts in the media, but because in the real world the systems cannot actually connect, “Jeanne carries printed copies of her records around in shopping bags,” Patterson said. “Each record she carries represents a phone call, a wait in a line at a records desk, a fax or a photocopy.”

The average American has seen 18 different doctors, the average American over age 65 has seen 28 different doctors, and, even if a patient’s doctors are in the same city, it’s unlikely that the doctors’ EHR systems can connect, Patterson said. 

The burden falls especially hard on anyone who has a serious chronic condition, Patterson said.

If EHR systems were truly interoperable, patients would have an easier time seeing new doctors, and health care system players would have an easier time making the system better and more efficient, Patterson said.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) all contain provisions that had broad support from both Democrats and Republicans and were supposed to promote EHR interoperability.

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One major barrier to true interoperability is vendor use of control over data to maintain market share, Patterson said.

Vendors, providers and organizations are also failing to collect and publish the data needed to verify how well the U.S. health care system is moving toward true EHR interoperability, Patterson said.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), must continue pressing for interoperability, Patterson said.

“Congress should not be afraid to act,” Patterson added.

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