Below is the second in a series of guest posts from Nirav R. Shah, MD, MPH, the commissioner of health for the state of New York. Look for more of his blogs in the Intel Healthcare Community in the coming months.


A woman on methadone for unrelenting pain goes to the Emergency Department, complaining of anxiety, heart palpitations and trouble sleeping. Exhausted and disoriented, the patient neglects to tell the doctor that she recently started taking methadone. The ED doctor checks the patient’s records, sees nothing about her new medication, and prescribes valium to settle her nerves.


Without knowing that she’s on methadone, the doctor has just created a dangerous combination of medications. Taken together, valium and methadone can exaggerate dizziness and drowsiness, and cloud the patient’s already fragile judgment.


It’s hard to imagine, but such a scenario is a potential reality at a hospital in New York, where the health IT system in the methadone maintenance clinic is unable to communicate with the systems in the rest of the hospital. As we all know, poor communications between any two parties – spouses, business partners, roommates – has the potential to spell disaster.


It’s no different in the world of health IT. The ability of any IT system to communicate with another is known as interoperability. Simply put, it’s the ability of different systems to speak the same language.


Because interoperability is so critical when it comes to health information, the New York eCollaborative – also known as NYeC (pronounced NICE) has launched the EHR/HIE Interoperability Workgroup. NYeC is a non-profit founded in 2006 in partnership with the New York State Department of Health that helps health care providers transition to electronic health records while also working to create a network that links health care providers across the state.


Even though NYeC is based in New York, we knew that interoperability was more than a regional issue. This was an issue with national ramifications. Think of all the people who require medical treatment on vacation or all the snow birders who live in New York but spend their winters in Florida.


So far, 19 forward thinking states – including New York, California, Illinois, and  Oregon – and leading vendors in EHR and HIE have joined the work group, with the shared goal of increasing the adoption of such services. Part of doing that involves making sure that the interfaces between health systems are compatible, so that they can communicate with one another, even across and between states.


At the moment, there is no single set of universal standards to connect various health information exchanges. As a result, custom interfaces must be developed every time a hospital or practice adopts a new EHR or HIE. Developing these interfaces drastically increases the amount of time and money spent adopting and learning new EHRs and HIEs, which as you might imagine, becomes a deterrent to adoption. To address this issue, the EHR/HIE Interoperability workgroup has developed a set of interoperability standards and a compliance testing program which will certify EHR and HIE products against these standards.


Having a set of common standards creates the potential for a larger market and gives vendors a clear roadmap for interoperability. By collaborating and committing to common APIs and a shared HIE platform, it creates bigger opportunities for all vendors involved.


Most important, it means better care for patients.


What questions do you have?