Experts address harmonization of healthcare standards

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John Halamka, MD, CIO Harvard Medical School and John Loonsk, director of department of interoperability and standards for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, summarized progress toward standards harmonization and reviewed upcoming tasks for HITSP (Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel) at a session Monday at the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) meeting in San Diego.
    At “Harmonizing Standards in Healthcare,” Halamka began with a definition of a standard as a well defined approach that supports a business process and is agreed upon by a group of experts; publicly vetted; provides rules, guidelines or characteristics; helps to ensure that materials, products, processes and services fit intended purposes; is available in an accessible format and is subject to ongoing review and revision. Harmonization is required when a proliferation of standards prevents rather than enables progress, Halamka said.
    Currently, disparate healthcare systems and data elements prevent the cross-exchange of health information, creating the need to harmonize standards and leading to the formation of HITSP -- a group of diverse stakeholders organized to harmonize standards used to exchange health data. HITSP will inventory all standards, eliminate redundant or duplicative standards in some cases and establish new standards to span information gaps. The resulting work will be public.
    HITSP has established four committees to tackle specific tasks. The committee on standards inventories will create a meta-repository of standards. The committee on standards readiness will analyze how existing standards are implemented. The committee on business sustainability is charged with developing a business model to sustain HITSP. The committee on international standards will analyze standards harmonization in other countries and apply those lessons to the U.S. experience.
    After 2006, HITSP will work toward its ultimate goal and develop standards harmonization guides to provide an instrument for data sharing. All stakeholders will benefit from standards harmonization, concluded Halamka. Vendors will have a valuable tool to incorporate in products, and the resulting interoperability will empower patients and caregivers.