More Universal Use of Electronic Health Records Is Improving Patient Care

Anyone who has tried and failed to share information across devices on competing software platforms knows firsthand the critical importance of interoperability. When different technologies speak different languages, vital data can get lost in translation. These issues are especially challenging in health care, where doctors, hospitals, and insurers use hundreds of distinct products to manage patients’ electronic health records (EHRs).

Patient safety is also vital. When health care providers struggle to navigate complex EHR software, it can lead to data entry mistakes that delay care, increase costs, lead to the wrong treatment, or otherwise harm those receiving care.

The Pew Charitable Trusts launched its health information technology project in 2016 to help improve the interoperability and safety of EHR systems and, ultimately, the quality of care that patients receive. Working with government officials, tech leaders, health care providers, insurers, academics, and advocates, Pew conducted research, provided technical assistance, and advocated for policies to make EHRs better for patients and health care providers. Now, as Pew shifts its focus to improving public health data, we are taking stock of the successes that the project and its partners have garnered over the past six years.

Health data is easier to share

New policies and standards have not only made it easier for health care providers to access patient records more easily and accurately, but have also helped patients obtain their own information.

Informed by research that Pew commissioned, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC)—the federal agency that regulates EHRs—in 2021 updated the U.S. Core Data for Interoperability, a set of information that all EHR systems must be able to share with each other. Among the updates made in 2021, ONC included data on social determinants of health, which can help improve care for patients who face socioeconomic challenges.

The research also supported ONC’s effort to standardize patient addresses, a critical piece of information in EHRs. Small differences in data—for example, using “Street” in one record and “St.” in another—can make it harder for health care providers to access patients’ medical histories from different facilities. Standardizing addresses can help health care providers match tens of thousands of additional patient records each day. Fortunately, ONC is officially standardizing addresses for EHRs through Project [email protected], an effort focused exclusively on this issue.

To further improve patient matching, Pew commissioned research on the use of biometrics, such as facial images and fingerprints, to verify patient identities and link records across different facilities.

Urged by Pew and others, ONC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) also required software developers and health care providers to use application programming interfaces (APIs) to improve interoperability. Just as travel websites use APIs to aggregate data from various airlines and hotels, EHR systems can use them to gather data from different facilities. The…

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