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Why Georgia's Step Toward Behavioral Health Interoperability Matters


A consortium of 10 providers is linking with a health information exchange, and the implications extend beyond any single state.

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Perhaps there exists hope for behavioral health providers who want to join health information exchanges (HIEs) to foster greater interoperability but worry about failing to meet stringent data privacy regulations. The Georgia Information Technology Consortium (GAIT) announced today that it has joined a statewide HIE, connecting 10 behavioral health providers to existing participants, in a move that spurs better patient data sharing and satisfies regulations.

For years, healthcare thinkers have explored the troubles surrounding the inclusion of behavioral health providers in HIEs. The key reason why, as noted in this 2016 column, is that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), despite having helped HIEs flourish, strictly limits the sharing of behavioral health data. Other laws, both state and federal, make the task especially difficult when it comes to information regarding substance abuse, according to a 2014 report (PDF) from the SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions.

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“Using [HIE] to facilitate necessary care coordination could go far in improving both the patient experience and their treatment conditions,” the authors of that analysis wrote. “Unfortunately, this is happening in very few places across the nation.”

But with its recent move, GAIT has become one of several organizations to navigate a complex set of laws to enable behavioral health patients’ electronic medical records (EMRs) to follow them from one provider to another.

GAIT accomplished this alongside the Georgia Regional Academic Community Health Information Exchange (GRAChIE), the interoperability-focused network it has joined. The organizations also worked with a local county planning council and a behavioral health-driven community service board, which aim to improve care for vulnerable populations in the area.

In the announcement, GAIT and GRAChIE called the partnership a “significant development” that “proves there are ways to meet regulatory burdens” that typically discourage behavioral health providers from joining HIEs.

The upside seems clear. The Office of the National Health Information Technology Coordinator (ONC), for one, has promoted the benefits of behavioral health information exchanges, touting their ability to fully inform care teams, regardless of time or place, and reduce adverse effects of drugs. Further, as of 2014, nearly 70% of adults with mental illness also had some other medical condition, meaning they’re likely to encounter a number of providers. “Failures of care coordination,” meanwhile, could bump up the annual price from $25 billion to $45 billion per year, according to the ONC.

In Georgia, behavioral health providers and patients are already reaping the benefits of interoperability, stakeholders said.

“Through our connection to GRAChIE, we are able to know instantly what medications a patient is taking or if they have recently been seen in a hospital,” Tom Ford, PhD, CEO of Lookout Mountain Community Services, said in a statement. “We can now do in minutes what used to take hours or even days.”

GRAChIE allows hospitals and other providers to immediately pull up a patient’s set of EMRs, an attribute that its leaders said improves care transitions and enable clinicians to create a more robust record, all through a securely embedded EMR connection.

GAIT and GRAChIE aren’t the first partners to connect behavioral health providers to an HIE. The federal government has commended Rhode Island and Maine for developing such unions several years ago.

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