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Key Interoperability Initiatives Are Set to Change the Healthcare Landscape

by Cynthia Weber


Major announcements by government agencies support emerging healthcare interoperability standards and open the playing field to increased innovation.

This year’s conference of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS16), held in Las Vegas, NV, provided an important venue for announcements regarding key initiatives for health IT and interoperability at the federal level. On Monday evening, February 29, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced during her opening address that those companies currently providing 90 percent of electronic health records in the United States, along with the five largest healthcare systems and more than one dozen professional organizations, agreed to three specific commitments regarding healthcare interoperability. Burwell stated that these include agreement on standardizing APIs, agreeing not to block information flow, and efforts to “speak the same language.”

Figure 1: Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaking at HIMSS16.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaking at HIMSS16.

According to, the core commitments are:

Consumer Access

To help consumers easily and securely access their electronic health information, direct it to any desired location, learn how their information can be shared and used, and be assured that this information will be effectively and safely used to benefit their health and that of their community.

No Information Blocking

To help providers share individuals’ health information for care with other providers and their patients whenever permitted by law, and not block electronic health information (defined as knowingly and unreasonably interfering with information sharing).


Implement federally recognized, national interoperability standards, policies, guidance, and practices for electronic health information, and adopt best practices including those related to privacy and security.

Burwell also noted that the Center for Medical Interoperability will be leading efforts to beta test interoperability among data and devices.

In other announcements, Steve Posnack, director of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) standards and technology, shared details on the Interoperability Proving Ground (IPG). The goal of the proving ground is to highlight interoperability successes and bring the community together to address challenges. According to Posnack, the site is “like for FHIR” (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources). Participants can sign up, share information about what they are working on, and choose to receive updates on topics of interest.

Karen DeSalvo, MD, national coordinator for Health IT, echoed this emphasis by announcing three new developer challenges that aim to advance interoperability via the FHIR standard. These grants will total $US625,000 and consist of three streams: a consumer-facing, vendor neutral app; a provider-facing app; and a discovery place where people can download these products. The intent is “to create a world that is more Internet-like” for health care, much like other consumer industries, DeSalvo commented. “It’s time for us to see some digital dividend,” she added.

Interoperability will continue to be a priority for U.S. government agencies in the foreseeable future, which will in turn drive national interoperability standards. In a session at HIMSS16, Elliot Sloane, IEEE senior member and president of the nonprofit Center for Healthcare Information Research and Policy, noted that the interoperability problem is bigger than any one entity, “but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

The IEEE Standards Association (IEEE–SA), in conjunction with the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Committee and the Personal Health Devices (PHD) Working Group has been working to develop standards that help enable personal health devices to plug and play with mobile phones and home hubs, using Bluetooth and USB specifications. The IEEE 11073 standards are coordinated across the entire healthcare continuum, supporting communications for monitors, point-of-care communication foundations, and transport files. In addition, an IEEE Working Group for Location Services in Healthcare was recently formed. For more information on healthcare IT standards, see the IEEE-SA website.

These efforts, combined with growing support of open APIs that further level the playing field for consumer health technology, are posed to stimulate the market and spur health care innovation into the future.

Cynthia Weber, Ph.D., is associate editor of the IEEE Life Sciences Newsletter.

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May 2016 Contributors

Mohamad Sawan Dr. Mohamad Sawan joined Polytechnique Montreal in 1991, where he is currently a professor of microelectronics and biomedical engineering. Dr. Sawan is leading the Microsystems Strategic Alliance of Quebec (ReSMiQ), one of the largest research centers in Canada. He is founder of the Polystim Neurotechnologies Laboratory at Polytechnique including two major research infrastructures intended to build advanced medical devices.
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