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For CMS Head, Improving Interoperability is Personal


In her ONC 2017 keynote, Seema Verma described the troubled transfer of her husband’s medical records after an emergency.

seema verma,cms,hca news,onc 2017

Seema Verma’s husband was transferring flights with their kids when he collapsed. He had gone into cardiac arrest. Emergency responders took him from the airport to a nearby hospital, where physicians ran a range of tests to determine what exactly was wrong with him, finally concluding that he was OK.

Verma, MPH, the director of CMS, told the story yesterday in her keynote speech at the ONC Annual Meeting 2017 in Washington, DC. But it didn’t end with the good news about her husband. She pointed to the tale as an example of the country’s poor state of interoperability, with its poor cross-border capabilities and haziness around patient data ownership—and a reason why she views the challenge personally.

When it was time for Verma and her family to return home to Indiana, she asked the doctors for copies of her husband’s medical records. “The room got really quiet,” she said, as the clinicians looked at each other in a way that suggested that had no idea what to do.

After a conversation and some time, they got her something. “I left the hospital with 5 sheets of paper and a CD rom,” Verma said. The haul included a discharge summary and a synopsis of his diagnosis, but various test results and medical information was nowhere to be found. It could have helped, she said. “That data should be our data. That’s our information, and the patient should have that.”

Verma then advocated for greater patient empowerment, both in the private and public systems, enabling them to freely move across the nation. Echoing many healthcare experts, she said that could help inform their care, painting a clearer picture of their conditions and boosting precision medicine.

The conference was centered around overcoming obstacles to interoperability and usability. Throughout the 2-day powwow, experts, clinicians, and health information technology workers laid out the problems and potential solutions. But in this anecdote, Verma aimed to underline the great potential of a system in which medical and other personal data flow freely, between different electronic health records vendors, hospital systems, practices, and states.

Beyond guiding the treatment of individual patients, increased interoperability holds “larger implications” for the entire country, she said. The shift toward value-based care—and setting drug prices based on outcomes—would benefit from the seamless stream of information, she said.

Pharma and insurance companies have already noted interest in this proposition. “But they’re going to need the information,” Verma said. “They’re going to need to have some type of interoperability so they can have that information.”

CMS and ONC—the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology—must further work together to realize that goal, she said. “But we need all of you,” the director said, prompting the crowd of innovators to take the mantle.

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