#IGNITEInterop – Let’s all communicate (Part 2).

Since it’s only 40-some miles away (though a two hour commute) from home, and I got enough advance notice, I headed to Washington, D.C. last Thursday for HCI-DC 2014: Igniting an Interoperable Health Care System.

The event was co-hosted by two different groups: The Gary and Mary West Health Institute, which, according to its website, “is an independent, non-profit 501(c)(3) medical research organization whose mission is to lower health care costs by developing innovative patient-centered solutions that deliver the right care at the right place at the right time.” And the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (trust me, it’s an actual government office).

The idea of the day was to get as many people in the room as possible to talk interoperability in health care. Not just, “Can I get my CGM to talk to my pump”, although there was some of that. But there was also a lot of talk about how to push for standards in medical record-keeping, and making them accessible to health care professionals, in the same format, worldwide. Imagine this: I have an accident in another city, I get rushed to the ER, and a doctor could pull up all of my medications and doses, and my pump settings, etc. Today, all of that might be on paper somewhere, and depending on the timing, a doctor may or may not be able to get access to it right away. You get the picture.

There were things I liked about this conference, and things I didn’t like. I hope I can explain a bit here. Yesterday, I talked about the things I liked. Today, things I didn’t like.
What I didn’t like:

Unless they were hiding under a chair or something, there were no manufacturers present at this gathering. I don’t know if they weren’t asked to attend, or if it was too long a trip from California or Europe or wherever they are, or if they just didn’t want to talk about interoperability at all.

If it’s that last thing: Let me just share something I mentioned in a conversation with someone over lunch that day.

I’m sure that the cost of the CareLink software is baked into the overall cost of my Medtronic insulin pump. But if Medtronic, for example, decided to make their code available to all, or if they agreed to adhere to a standard software protocol with future products, I would still want an insulin pump. And you know what? If they did get on board with interoperability, I might actually want to buy their pump even more. Insulin pumps and CGMs won’t go away once their data is “democratized”, to borrow a phrase I heard that day. Each patient will buy what’s best for them at the right time, but they will still want pumps and CGMs. And if manufacturers finally move toward a standard for device interoperability, they would finally be free to spend less time worrying about how to make their software proprietary, and spend more time worrying about how to make a better product (disclosure: I’m perfectly happy with my insulin pump right now, even if I see it as less than perfect).

There was something else that touched me that day. I want to move delicately around this subject. But… here’s the thing: There were a few female presenters (like, three). All the rest were male. Nearly everyone in a panel discussion or presenting was white.

Now, I realize that even if there was a concerted effort to bring more diversity to the stage for HCIDC 2014, there probably still would have been an overabundance of white people facing the audience. That’s just the way it is. But the fact is, the audience was pretty diverse in itself. Enough so that there were a couple of tweets from others who noted the steady stream of people walking onto the stage wearing a dark jacket, white shirt, and a tie.

Washington is a very diverse city. America is an amazingly diverse country. For next year’s event I kind of hope the presenters, or the members of panel discussions, will reflect that diversity just a little more.
So, now my overall take on this event:

I liked it. I really liked what I heard from everyone, onstage and off. I’m encouraged by where the discussion about interoperability is headed in the future. The will to make this happen, or at least get down the road a little farther, is really starting to crystallize.

But without manufacturers becoming part of the discussion, we’re not going to get very far. As Malcolm Gladwell alluded to in his keynote address, “No one will work toward interoperability in health care unless it is framed as urgent, imperative, life or death”.

Well, guess what? It is. Interoperability isn’t everything. But it is a game changer, because it would 1) Free up already overworked people from writing and entering so much data that can’t be shared anywhere else but at the point of care; 2) Lower costs for manufacturers, because once a standard is in place that everyone can follow, work on proprietary software will be minimal; and 3) Help improve patient outcomes, due to devices working together to ensure safety and optimal results for the patient, rather than being in their own silos just so they can generate more imagined revenue for the maker.

I agree… the time is now. We have the means and the determination to make interoperability in healthcare a reality. I hope this event comes back next year, and I’m looking forward to what kind of changes will happen between now and then.

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  • Kim  On February 11, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Allow me to by cynical, for a moment:

    If device manufacturers (like Medtronic, in your example) don’t make their software proprietary and patent-protected, whom then could they hope to sue? It’s big business.



    • StephenS  On February 11, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      Kim, I completely understand your skepticism. One of the things I forgot to mention was the fact that I met people at this event from more than one firm specializing in intellectual property protection. I wonder how much the manufacturers would save in legal fees if they adopted interoperability?


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