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Just as language barriers can cause a breakdown in communication between people, computers need a standard way to talk to each other to ensure that can correctly understand one another’s messages. In the healthcare arena, many standard “languages” have been in place for years. But in the brave new world of health information exchange, these standards aren’t quite enough to give a complete picture of a patient’s health.

That’s where the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Standards & Interoperability (S&I) Framework team steps in. Their job is to ensure that all computer systems responsible for sharing healthcare data speak the same language, and that the language they use is clear, concise and understandable to other computer systems.

Michael Sawczyn, The Partnership’s enterprise architect and security/privacy officer, has been working as a committed member with S&I since October 2011 in the Data Segmentation for Privacy workgroup.

It’s exciting work,” Sawczyn says, “and one of the most difficult computer programming problems I’ve had to deal with in a long time. But the end result will be safe and secure healthcare information, and to me that makes it worth the effort.”

The S&I Framework invites volunteer participation from outside organizations such as the vendor community, healthcare providers, technology implementers and anyone else with an interest in this field to participate in the development of these computer standards, and The Partnership has thrown its hat into the ring to help ensure that the decisions made in this group will have a positive impact on our efforts for Ohio.

To help keep its volunteers focused, S&I has created workgroups that focus on different parts of the system interoperability landscape, with a goal that each workgroup’s efforts can last no longer than 12 months. Sawczyn’s privacy workgroup’s task is to develop the structure for ensuring that patient data remains confidential unless proper patient consent has been entered into the system. Via webinar, the workgroup has been meeting twice a week since November 2011.

“We picked two scenarios that we considered to be the toughest to handle,” says Sawczyn. “CFR 42 Part 2 deals with strict consent format and content for certain medical treatments, such as drug abuse and mental illness, and Title 38, which speaks to an insurance carrier’s inability to access their insured’s data unless they paid for that specific procedure. Both have a lot of nuances that have to be addressed by EMR and HIE systems, and current computing standards don’t handle them well.”

The process started in November with group discussions on which scenario(s) to address with the final selection in January, Sawczyn says. Work then turned to a review of pre-existing standards in this area to narrow the group’s focus on gaps that must be filled. Three different sub-workgroups pulled from the overall workgroup membership are reviewing the gaps, and Sawczyn is participating in two of these.