Monday, November 1, 2010

Healthcare Provider Discoverability and building Trust

The HIT Policy - Information Exchange Workgroup - Provider Directory Task Force - committee had a discussion today around Provider Directory. It is still not clear to me what use-cases they are trying to resolve. I have mentioned this in Healthcare Provider Directories -- Let's be Careful. I think they need to identify the use-cases and then prioritize these use-cases relative to how urgent it is that they solve these issues. For example in the case of Lab, there are well established methods. But there is a urgent need in the case of Community or Cross-Community based Provider to Provider referrals. Specifically where there is not a pre-existing relationship. This ad hoc need is more important than re-inventing where a solution is already available.

There is lots of conflating the need to discover
  • an individual healthcare provider, with
  • a healthcare providing organizations, with
  • the Network Services of a healthcare providing organization.

Yes these could all be considered needs driving the abstract need for a Healthcare Provider Directory, but they are not all the same thing. If we really want to expand the

Discovering Healthcare Providers and Healthcare Services:
IHE has a Profile for Healthcare Provider Directory (HPD). This profile does cover the first two groups of use-cases as outlined in Healthcare Provider Directories. This is the list of use-cases included in the IHE profile.
  • Yellow Pages Lookup: A patient is referred to an endocrinology specialist for an urgent lab test. The referring physician needs to get the contact data of close-by endocrinologists in order to ask whether one of them can perform this test in their own lab. The patient prefers a female endocrinologist who can converse in Spanish regarding medical information.
  • Identification in planning for events: Emergency response planning requires the identification of potential providers who can assist in an emergency. Providers must meet specific credentialing criteria and must be located within a reasonable distance of the emergency event.
  • Provider Authorization and lookup during an emergency event: During Hurricane Katrina, health care volunteers were turned away from disaster sites because there was no means available to verify their credentials. At an emergency site, the Provider Information Directory
  • Forwarding of Referral Documents to a Hospital : A PCP refers a patient to the Hospital for admission. The PCP needs to send various documentation to the Hospital to be part of their EHR when the patient arrives. The PCP needs to identify the Hospital's electronic address such as email or service end point where the patient's documentation should be sent.
  • Keeping agency provider information current: A German government agency dealing with healthcare services for its constituents wishes to keep its agencies healthcare provider information current. The agency determines that it will use the Provider Information Directory to access the most current provider information. The German agency only requires a subset of the Provider Information Directory available information. On a regular basis, the Provider Information Directory provides to the agency a list of the updated information needed.
  • Providing Personal Health records to a new Primary Care Physician: An individual has changed health plans. As a result that individual must change his Primary Care Physician. The individual has a Personal Health Record and would like to provide that information to his new Primary Care Physician. The individual needs to determine where to have the Personal Health Record transmitted to.
  • Certificate Retrieval: National regulations in many European countries require that an electronically transmitted doctor's letter be encrypted in a way that only the identified receiver is able to decrypt. In order to encrypt the letter, the sender has to discover the encryption certificate of the receiver.
  • Language Retrieval: An individual who only speaks Italian requires healthcare services at an Outpatient Clinic. That individual would like to be able to communicate with the Clinic personnel, if at all possible. The individual or his caregiver needs to determine which clinic supports Italian and provides the service that is required.
Discovering Network Services:
IHE has another Profile under development for the third issue. This profile is highly influenced by the experience from the NHIN Exchange project, as well as many Health Information Exchanges. This profile is still under development so there is not much I can point at. This profile will not be using the same technology as the HPD, but will have appropriate linkage between them. The profile has very different uses and very different information needs. This profile will be constraining UDDI, as that is the standard used for services to lookup other endpoints.

Discovered, but not Trusted:
However just having a Directory entry does not mean you have trust. I often hear people discussing the scenario where a doctor needs to send something to someone else who they have never dealt with before. And in this case they want the doctors system to automatically discover the other system, attach securely, and communicate PHI to it. I don't find this use-case to be very reasonable.  Even in the case where there is regulatory oversight that all individuals found in the directory are fully compliant to very strict requirements, far more strict than HIPAA. This is because sending PHI to someone else is more than just assuring that the endpoint is secure. There is also business relationships that need to be built, including agreements by that endpoint to act on the package.

This is true both of cases like NHIN Direct (The Direct Project), as well as Health Information Exchanges (Directed Exchange vs Publish/Discover Exchange).

NHIN Direct might be less of a problem because their use-cases are primarily manually controlled cases of delivering one package at a time, however this limit could easy go away with automation. The "Trust" issue for NHIN Direct is embedded in the NHIN-Direct Privacy and Security Simplifying Assumptions. Having these embedded in preconditions does not mean they are trivial or easily automated. These are in preconditions because they are actually hard and not easy to automate. I think that it is far more normal that the Doctor will make phone calls prior to sending PHI, or prior to asking for PHI to be sent. These phone calls are very critical validation that the two parties do indeed intend to work together for this Patient. These phone calls will likely result in at least a gentlemen's agreement in not a fully signed agreement.

NHIN Exchange has an extensive process for 'onboarding'. This is not a trivial process and covers many levels of checks and balances. What is important to take away is that the process is not just about the technology. The technology is used to enable the process. The technology is used to certify that an organization has achieved validation, and is also used to indicate that this validation has expired or been revoked. Specifically the Digital Certificates used to 'secure' all communications are this technology. The issuance of a Digital Certificate from the NHIN Exchange authorized "Certificate Authority" is only achieved when the system has been validated against the onboarding process. If ever that system is determined to be compromised this certificate can be revoked. So, clearly technology (Digital Certificates and Public Key Infrastructure) can be a critical part of building trust. But this trust is built prior to technology being engaged.

Building trust is hard, and keeping trust is sometimes harder. Technology can help, but there is so much more to it.