Jan. 18, 2007 - “Do I really need to fill out that form again? Isn’t there a way I can just answer the two questions that are different?”

This is one of the most common questions Michael Zaroukian, M.D., hears from his patients — at least when he’s wearing his ‘primary care physician’ hat.

Dr. Zaroukian, who’s also an associate professor of medicine and chief medical information officer at Michigan State University, was a guest speaker Tuesday at the 9th annual Integrating the Heathcare Enterprise (IHE) Connectathon, held Jan. 15-19 in downtown Chicago.

“I tell them with some embarrassment, ‘Maybe next year,’ he said, getting a chuckle from the audience, comprised mostly of healthcare IT vendors and physicians. “So help me with that if you will.”

There was some truth behind his humorous tone — the U.S. heathcare industry is sorely in need of interoperability across vendors to create a more patient-centric healthcare environment and eliminate loads of unnecessary paperwork. This has been the goal of the Connectathon and its sponsors since it started out in the parking garage of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) headquarters in 1998.

The Connectathon is the healthcare IT industry’s only event for large-scale interoperability testing, and it set a record this year with more than 77 vendors (there were only 23 when it started out). With mostly radiology and cardiology modalities, companies participate to test their system’s ability to communicate with others as well as transfer patient data between regional healthcare networks.

Mike Nusbaum, founder of IT management company M.H. Nusbaum & Associates, calls the testing floor “an amazing sight.”

“There are over 350 engineers testing interoperability for five days in a row,” he said. “Thousands of vendor-to-vendor connections are taking place this week. At the end, we truly have working interoperability for those that have passed.”

Catherine Glenz, R.N., a consultant for Alert Care Inc., echoed Nusbaum’s sentiments while giving group tours Tuesday of the floor.

“Normally, these companies are competitors and many of them speak different languages,” she said, with the collective hum of hundreds of computers behind her. “But they are all trying to achieve the same things. If one of them has a problem, they often ask their competitors for help. The cooperation is truly amazing.”

There’s a long road leading up to the event — prior to the Connectathon, IT experts identify common interoperability problems with information access, workflow and infrastructure and document them in IHE integration profiles. At the event, vendors implement the profiles and interface their system(s) with three other vendors. Supervisors keep score, and those who achieve total interoperability receive passing marks and can publish their results.

Almost all of those who pass the tests participate in the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) interoperability showcase in February, which highlights the IHE framework for delivering interoperability across local, regional and national health information networks.

Dr. Zaroukian said there are still several problems vendors and physicians must face before the Connectathon reaches its goal of total interoperability. Issues involving patient identity and security are a few.

“And I think a number of us physicians are actually afraid of getting what we ask for,” he added. “We have enough trouble handling the list of eight things a patient wants to talk about during their 10-minute visit — imagine them coming in with a 4-gigabyte USB drive saying ‘you know, it’s almost full but I was wondering if you could get a chance to look at this before I leave.’”

The Connectathon’s sponsoring organizations include the American College of Cardiology (ACC), HIMSS and RSNA. For more information, visit www.ihe.net.


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