10 things to know about data sharing, HIPAA during the coronavirus

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The COVID-19 pandemic has required healthcare organizations as well as federal agencies to take data gathering and reporting to a new level for coordinated care.

The response promotes interoperability and the federal government has relaxed information sharing and HIPAA regulations to ensure efficient and effective care. Tech giants including Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft have also engaged in several new data-related initiatives around resource management and public health, giving the nation insights into what can be done with the large amounts of aggregated data these companies have.

Here are 10 updates on HIPAA and data sharing during the pandemic.

1. All 200 New York hospitals collaborate on one digital health platform. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo collaborated with hospital leaders on a plan to merge the state's 200 hospitals onto a single digital system. The plan would require all hospitals to share data to allocate resources including ICU beds, staff and PPE where it's needed most.

2. Huge national efforts to capture and share data. The Trump administration requested hospitals share COVID-19 testing data as well as information on bed capacity and supplies with the federal government to enhance the administration's surveillance efforts of COVID-19. The data is reported without personal identification information and submitted daily so the administration can track the spread of the disease and allocate resources appropriately.

3. ONC's data interoperability projects. The ONC has tracked more than 500 interoperability projects on its Interoperability Proving Ground open platform, including around 86 that are associated with COVID-19. The platform allows groups to share ideas and view other projects led by health systems or industry members.

4. HIPAA rules relaxed around patient data sharing. President Donald Trump first announced his administration would not enforce HIPAA penalties on March 17 related to violating the patient's right to request privacy restrictions, confidential communications and more to make it easier for healthcare organizations to share information about patients with COVID-19. On April 2, the Office for Civil Rights took that a step further, saying it would not penalize hospitals or business associates for disclosing COVID-19 related protected health information with federal, local and state health departments. Even with the relaxed rules, hospitals should still remove personal identification information from data shared. The HIPAA updates do not require healthcare organizations to share data with the press or other parties outside of federal agencies.

5. Organizations are waiving costs associated with obtaining medical records and doing what they can to speed information transfer. Change Healthcare is one example; the company eliminated costs that could impede the adoption of interoperability and have provided a free clinical data interoperability service for the healthcare industry designed to accelerate access to medical records. The company has launched efforts with their partners, including CommonWell Health Alliance.

6. Big tech is gathering data about COVID-19 through symptom checkers, travel and location data. Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all launched tools to help track COVID-19. Google has set up testing sites and a chatbot to help users with symptoms of COVID-19 triage to the right site of care, or advise them to self-quarantine. Facebook tools include using its data on population movements and connectedness to predict the spread of the virus, according to Politico, and understand the effectiveness of lockdown measures. The CDC is using Microsoft's Healthcare Bot service to create a COVID-19 assessment chatbot as well, according to The Verge, which runs on Microsoft Azure. Lab Corp and Ciox Health are also collaborating on a COVID-19 patient data registry.

7. HCA, Google Cloud are creating a national patient registry. HCA Healthcare, 185-hospital health system, has reached out to hospital groups representing 4,000 hospitals to join its efforts with Google Cloud to create an open data platform focused on sharing COVID-19 data. Sada Systems will power the portal, which will include information like ICU bed supply and utilization, ventilator supply and utilization, COVID-19 test results and the number of healthy patients discharged from the hospital. HCA will include data on 35 million daily patient encounters for the registry, which is expected to launch next week. Other smaller local and state-based efforts exist to report similar data on a smaller scale, and San Francisco-based medical data company Datavant is working on efforts to create a national registry as well.

8. Amazon opened its COVID-19 data lake to hospitals. Amazon Web Services made its COVID-19 data lake available on April 8 to support hospitals, researchers and public health officials. The data lake is a centralized repository of curated datasets related to the spread of COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus. The data lake includes COVID-19 tracking information from Johns Hopkins as well as the New York Times data lake and hospital bed availability from companies including Definitive Healthcare.

9. Individual states and health systems also have several efforts underway to collect data on the coronavirus tests, economic impact and social distancing measures. The San Francisco public health department established a task force to develop an online app that will trace the interactions of people who tested positive for COVID-19. The University of Washington department of Medicine's sepsis center, with funding from Microsoft, is using clinical data, radiologic imaging and other patient biomarkers to develop algorithms that will predict and improve healthcare as well as socioeconomic outcomes for COVID-19 patients. Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is working with the state health department to create an artificial intelligence-powered tool to identify zones of greater COVID-19 transmission.

10. HHS may delay interoperability rule enforcement. Politico reported that HHS will likely pause enforcement efforts of its final interoperability rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The rules, issued in March, require health IT developers to use standard application programming interfaces to prevent information blocking. They also give patients control over their personal health records. HHS is assessing priorities so that healthcare providers and IT companies can focus on the coronavirus relief efforts.


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