Inside the open source, nationwide health information network

To promote electronic medical records, the federal government enlisted Harris Corporation to develop a nationwide health information network. Since 2009, the open source network has been implemented in federal agencies, health systems and commercial enterprises across the country.

To promote electronic medical records, the federal government enlisted Harris Corporation -- specifically its health care division -- to develop a nationwide health information network. Since the Social Security Administration went live with CONNECT in 2009, the open source network has been implemented in federal agencies, health systems and commercial enterprises across the country.

I spoke recently with Jim Traficant, vice president and general manager of Harris Healthcare Solutions, about the history of CONNECT -- and about what this network means for Americans' medical data.

First, here's how Traficant explains his, and his company's, path into health care:

My career is hallmarked by health episodes. I had my first liver transplant where my neighbor saved my life [through donation]. Subsequently, I had an episode of septic shock. That led to a second transplant [about] five years ago. My experience as a technologist and a business executive and, primarily, as a patient gave me great insight into the challenges inside health care. For example, in my first transplant, the doctors described what my neighbor and I would go through. They said the surgery would be science, but the medication afterward would be art. They were going to try to suppress my immune system so I would not reject the transplant, but not too much so I would get an infection.

After the surgery I went into rejection. They said, 'We're going to give you a shot. We don't know if it will cure you or kill you. But it's our only way to stop the rejection.' I was in the hospital for a month. Then, it happened again and I was rushed back to the hospital. [Johns Hopkins] created the drug I needed to take the second time. I was in the hospital again for a month. When I got out of the hospital, I began to study my blood work and medications and came up with an algorithm that would predict when rejection with occur. I developed the symptoms a third time, showed the data to my physicians and we changed how I would be medicated based on that information. It worked.

It was my first clue that health care had tons of data -- what it lacked was information. If you could get the information where it was needed, for the right person, on the right device at the right time, you could save lives, improve the quality of care and make a difference. I sent a note to the CEO coming out of the second transplant and asked for the opportunity to take Harris into health care.

Here's more of our conversation:

What's the history of CONNECT?

The federal government had been trying to create the idea of a health information exchange by working with small communities and regional health information organizations. You had to keep providing grant money to sustain these small, individual entities. The thinking was: if we're going to create a tipping point in health information exchange, we've got to get the federal agencies involved. When they decided to do that, they turned to Harris to make it happen.

How does CONNECT work?

I'll give you an example. With wounded warriors, we have to get their data from Iraq and Afghanistan back stateside. We have to be able to share it with the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] as they transition from active duty to veteran status. [The Department of Defense], the VA and Indian Affairs would be the largest creators of health information in the federal sector. You want to tie that information to the largest consumers of health information at the federal level, like Social Security, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], National Cancer Institute. [Many agencies are] trying to find health records, so they can determine benefits for deserving Americans. For our wounded warriors coming back it was, on average, taking 83 days to find the health information so they could determine benefits. It was taking months to get benefits. The other factor is that over half of all care delivered for retired duty or active service members comes out of the private sector. In order to get that full continuity of care picture, we had to be able to move the information to their local hospital or physician.

Social Security was the first to go operational with CONNECT. They went from 83 days on average to find that health information to 24 seconds. CONNECT enabled a standard way to share information in a trusted framework over the Internet. We made it open source. You can put it into your enterprise if you're a hospital, you can use it within the context of your federal agency, you can embed it in your product if you're a health IT vendor. We've had over 2,000 entities download the software. We're creating an ecosystem for health information to be shared. And we can do it with security and privacy and the goal is to have patients in charge of how their information is shared.

Will the data be used for medical research or studies or will it only be accessed on a patient level?

It's one of the benefits of having a connected framework. The National Cancer Institute, for example, is participating. The goal is to accelerate research, potential treatment protocols and even cures by leveraging information. If you talk to most major academic centers, the federal agencies and the large-scale delivery systems, they will say the transformation in health care will come from applying information science and integrating it with medical science. A lot of medical research is done in isolation. If you can get a connected framework for it, you don't have to replicate all the data that's out there. You could get it from where it resides and deliver it to where it's needed in a secure fashion.

Image: Jim Traficant

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