- Electronic data exchange between physicians and public health agencies was dismal even before the coronavirus pandemic began, new government data illustrates.
- Fewer than one in five primary care physicians electronically exchanged patient health information with public health agencies in 2019, according to a new report from the Office of the National Coordinator. More than 70% of hospitals experienced at least one major challenge with electronic public health reporting that year.
- The federal government has a number of ongoing initiatives to try and improve the free electronic flow of data between providers and public health agencies, including a new ONC task force to modernize public health data systems that kicked off this week.
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the importance of closing stark gaps in the U.S.’ public health infrastructure, including the need for smoother data exchange between providers and public health agencies.
Overall rates of public health reporting among doctors has risen over time, with rates among primary care physicians increasing five percentage points between 2018 and 2019, according to the ONC. But the U.S. faces a barrage of public health threats, including more infectious COVID-19 variants and growing monkeypox cases, making real-time communication between physicians and those tasked with monitoring and preventing infectious disease outbreaks even more integral.
In 2019, only 12% of office-based physicians in the U.S. electronically exchanged patient health information with public health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ONC found.
Overall, about a fourth of U.S. physicians didn’t know whether their practice electronically exchanged data with public health agencies.
Primary care physicians who had the ability to electronically send and receive patient information were three times more likely to share it with public health agencies compared to physicians who didn’t electronically exchange. They were also more likely to search for vaccination information outside of their organization, and record patients’ social and behavioral determinants of health data.
Meanwhile, primary care physicians using certified health IT were significantly more likely to exchange information with public health agencies compared to those without it, the ONC said.
Public health reporting capabilities also varied based on EHR developer market share. The data brief found doctors using EHRs with large market shares — Epic, eClinicalWorks, athenahealth, Cerner and Allscripts — had the highest rates of electronic exchange with public health agencies compared to doctors using smaller vendors.
The ONC’s data brief doesn’t dive into physicians’ overall levels of reporting. Much still occurs through manual, paper-based methods. Agency researchers also said it doesn’t reflect current levels of electronic public health reporting, which “may have improved during the pandemic.”
But low rates of electronic reporting could be due to variations in the data different jurisdictions require, along with public health agencies’ inability to electronically receive standardized data from physicians, researchers said.
Currently, a number of federal programs are in place to try and improve data sharing between providers and public health agencies, including the USCDI+ initiative and the STAR HIE program. CMS has also proposed a new requirement that clinicians participating in the interoperability category of its merit-based payment adjustment program for Medicare report on program measures related to immunization and electronic case reporting.
In addition, on Wednesday, ONC head Micky Tripathi kicked off work for the Public Health Data Systems Task Force, which will make recommendations for the ONC and the CDC to improve public health data systems.