Helping Organizations Tie Health IT Systems
The Federal Health Architecture is making software available as a first step to help public and private health information technology systems communicate to the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN), a federal initiative to facilitate the electronic exchange of health information. The Federal Health Architecture, an E-Gov initiative led by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), is making this free software, called CONNECT, and supporting documentation available at www.connectopensource.org.
The ONC has facilitated development of the NHIN, which will tie together health information exchanges, integrated delivery networks, pharmacies, government health facilities and payors, labs, providers, private payors and other stakeholders into a “network of networks.” The NHIN provides a mechanism for previously disconnected systems and exchanges to connect to each other and share data. The NHIN uses interoperability standards recognized by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as public and private sector specifications, participation agreements and policies. To enable health information exchanges over the NHIN, the ONC is working to develop the necessary governance processes and legal framework for participation in the network.
“This software will strengthen our health systems’ ability to share data electronically and provide a wide range of benefits to citizens,” said Robert Kolodner, M.D., National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. “Benefits include up-to-date records available at the point of care; enhanced population health screening; and being able to collect case research faster to facilitate disability claims, as demonstrated by transfers of information already underway between the Social Security Administration and MedVirginia, a regional health information organization.”
The CONNECT software is the outcome of a 2008 decision by more than 20 federal agencies to connect their health IT systems to the NHIN. Rather than individually building software required to make this possible, the federal agencies, through the Federal Health Architecture, created CONNECT. This shared software solution can be used by each agency within its own environment. CONNECT implements the core services defined by the NHIN including standards for security to protect health information when it is exchanged with other trusted health organizations.
The agencies built CONNECT using open source components, and will make it available under an open source license in order to encourage innovation and to keep costs low. CONNECT will be available to the entire health care industry, which is expected to speed NHIN adoption among health care organizations.
“Federal agencies accomplished something remarkable in developing CONNECT. They looked beyond their individual needs to the needs of the group as a whole, and they collectively built a solution that provides benefit to all involved much faster and at a significantly reduced cost than if they had worked independently,” said Dr. Kolodner. “Not only did the agencies deliver a valuable product for use in the federal government, CONNECT is now an option for any public or private sector organization that wants to use the solution in the future to tie into the Nationwide Health Information Network when it goes into full production.”
The Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Indian Health Service, and the National Cancer Institute have tested and demonstrated CONNECT’s ability to share data among one another and with private sector organizations. In February 2009, the CONNECT software gateway was used for the first time in a limited production environment when the SSA began receiving live patient data from MedVirginia through the NHIN.
“Delivering CONNECT has been an enormous project, and we still have a lot of work to do to move us to large-scale production usage. But with the support of the federal agencies and industry, we can accomplish the lofty health IT goals set at the national level,” commented the Federal Health Architecture’s program director Vish Sankaran.
Private and public sector organizations can download CONNECT and use it for their connectivity needs. As with other open source solutions, organizations are encouraged to modify and expand the capabilities of the software. Although the download is free, an organization opting to use the solution should be aware it will be responsible for costs associated with its implementation and maintenance within its own environment.