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Posted in Health Privacy/HIPAA

Interoperability and Privacy are Buzzwords at 2015 ONC Annual Meeting

Federal health IT leaders emphasized interoperability and computable privacy during the two-day Annual Meeting of the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), which took place on February 2 and 3. Over 1,200 participants representing viewpoints across the healthcare spectrum attended the meeting in Washington, D.C. The meeting built on momentum from last week’s release of ONC’s draft Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap, as well as several high-profile announcements reinforcing the Obama Administration’s commitment to interoperability and privacy.

During a keynote address delivered on Tuesday morning, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced a two-year, $28 million grant program that will aim to increase the adoption and use of interoperable health IT tools and services to support the exchange of health information. Meanwhile, the President released his FY2016 budget, which would increase ONC’s annual budget from $60 million to $92 million. In a separate announcement on February 2, the President revealed details about his Precision Medicine Initiative, which includes $5 million to support ONC’s development of interoperability standards and requirements that address privacy and enable secure exchange of data.

Several themes emerged during the two-day meeting:


On February 2, ONC shared a detailed overview of the goals and structure of the Interoperability Roadmap, which will serve as a blueprint for the agency’s activities over the next decade. The roadmap sets a short-term goal of enabling individuals and providers across the healthcare continuum to be able “to send, receive, find, and use a common set of electronic clinical information” by 2017.  To achieve these goals, ONC structured the roadmap around five core building blocks:

  1. Clearly defined rules of engagement and governance;
  2. Supportive business, clinical, cultural and regulatory environments;
  3. Privacy and security protections for health information;
  4. Certification and testing to support adoption of health IT products and services; and
  5. Establishing core technical standards and functions.

Computable Privacy

Lucia Savage, ONC’s chief privacy officer, emphasized that inconsistent rules about permissions to access, use, and disclose patient data are a key barrier to developing functional and interoperable systems nationwide. She noted that the current system is governed by a patchwork of state rules and often relies on handwritten patient consent—a fundamentally non-interoperable technology.

Savage proposed the concept of computable privacy to enable technology to capture and share patient choices. Computable privacy would integrate privacy protections into software design at three levels: First, software would incorporate HIPAA permitted uses as background rules, to be implemented when no patient choice is recorded. Second, software would solicit basic choices about a patient’s preferences, such as whether a patient wished to opt out of data sharing entirely. Finally, computable privacy would incorporate more granular choices about a patient’s preferences.

The conference comes at a time when ONC has been very active in reshaping the health IT environment. The agency is soliciting input on its Federal Health IT Strategic Plan 2015–2020, for which comments are due February 6, and its Interoperability Roadmap, for which comments are due April 3.