In April of last year VHA, a nationwide network of community-owned health care systems, published a viewpoint essay on their website called “The Track to Improving Health Care will be Built with IT Standards”. The posting was written by Mike Cummins, Chief Information Officer of VHA, Inc. In it, he draws a great analogy between the widespread adoption of a standard railroad gauge by railroad companies 150 years ago as part of the U.S. Transcontinental Railway (as set in motion by President Abraham Lincoln), and the potential benefits of widespread adoption of health care IT standards. Mike points out that some historians believe that the nationwide adoption of a single railway gauge accelerated the evolution of the greatness of the United States. It’s well worth reading.
I think the problem Mike sees is that there are so many incompatible IT standards in use in the healthcare industry, with different ones in use in different pockets of the industry. There are too many proprietary approaches in use, and too many standards in use in one segment of the industry that are incompatible with similar standards in use in another. In effect, it’s a patchwork, yet each user can claim to be using a standard. This was exactly the case with the railroads 150 years ago as Mike’s analogy implies. Each railroad company, or groups of companies, had their favorite “standard” gauge, but which standard was “the best”…the one worthy of becoming the national standard? I don’t know, but I do know they eventually figured it out and settled on a single gauge for the Transcontinental Railroad and that gauge become the defacto standard. That allowed the country to be connected and, as Mike points out, historians have dawn a direct line from that agreement to economic expansion and eventual greatness.
Mike makes several proposals that I interpret as ways to cut through the patchwork of standards and get the industry to settle, like the railroad companies, on a single standard for some key technologies like Electronic Medical Records (EMR), Health Identification Numbers and Personal Health Records (PHR). He calls for the broad, mandatory adoption of GS1barcodes, Global Location Numbers (GLN), Global Trade Item Numbers (GTIN) and accelerated plans by the FDA to mandate the usage of Unique Device Identification (UDI). He calls for the use of part of the federal economic stimulus money to be used for standards development. Continue reading “Why the rush for GS1 standards?”