In Ontario, real steps are being taken to reach EHR interoperability
March 3, 2023
Thanks to a series of innovative collaborations under way in Ontario, health records are starting to follow patients as they transition between hospitals – without the need to fax. It’s a lesson in interoperability that requires vendors, users and governments working together at multiple levels. The first goal is to achieve data sharing between hospitals that are using the same electronic health record; the next step is to facilitate widespread data sharing between the three leading vendor platforms – Epic, MEDITECH and Cerner – as well as between each health record and PointClickCare, the long-term care record widely used in the province.
The ultimate prize is expected to be a provincial shared care record that will also include lab systems, patient registries, primary care records and community records.
“The fact that Epic, Cerner and MEDITECH are working so collaboratively with Ontario Health and the hospitals to develop this has been a game changer,” said Tim Pemberton, CIO and chief privacy officer at Queensway Carlton Hospital in Ottawa. “Historically you couldn’t get the vendors in the same room together. I can tell you, I’ve been on calls where they’re now working collaboratively and that’s huge.”
Pemberton is co-chair of the MEDITECH collaborative, a group working to facilitate data exchange between the 90 hospitals in Ontario that are using MEDITECH. Similar collaboratives are in place for the roughly 48 hospitals on Cerner and nine instances and 46 sites on Epic, and all three groups are working to achieve the same goal: province-wide record sharing between acute care centres, regardless of the health record in place.
“What I’ve seen over the last year is a desire to work together to break down the siloes between each other,” said Pemberton. “It’s the right thing to do now. They’re finally getting to this interoperability.”
A cluster of six hospitals in the greater Ottawa area called CHAMP – the Champlain Association of MEDITECH Partners – has been sharing a single instance of MEDITECH since 2017. Last year, they took that data integration a step further, working with the Epic collaborative to build a point-to-point connection with the Ottawa Hospital, an Epic user. Leveraging the Epic Care Everywhere HL7 integration engine and the consolidated clinical document architecture (CCDA) model widely used in the U.S., the project went live in the fall.
Now, when a patient registers at Queensway Carlton and provides consent, the hospital’s electronic record system automatically queries the Ottawa Hospital and if it finds a match, returns a consolidated record for that patient. The same process occurs for patients registering at Ottawa Hospital, always with patient consent.
A similar point-to-point connection was built between Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, a MEDITECH site, and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), which share an Epic instance.
Prior to the collaboration, the hospitals would print off and fax very long and detailed charts whenever a child transferred between acute care and rehab. Since going live last year, thousands of records have been shared electronically instead.
SickKids CIO and vice-president, Information Management and Technology, Dr. Sarah Muttitt currently facilitates Ontario’s Epic collaborative. As interoperability efforts move forward in the province, she said it’s important to leverage the experience of others, including health information exchanges that already exist in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
The added benefit for Epic users, explained Dr. Muttitt, is that data sharing between Epic sites is an inherent capability of the platform itself, made possible through Care Everywhere.
“It’s really helpful not only for continuity of care, but also so the patient doesn’t have to repeat their history every time they arrive on your doorstep,” she said, noting that it’s possible for Ontario’s Epic hospitals to share information about medications, allergies, immunizations, problem lists, upcoming appointments and prior hospital visits.
After working to optimize and standardize the use of Care Everywhere between the Epic sites in Ontario, the collaborative led the development of the point-to-point connections with MEDITECH in Ottawa and Toronto, and is now working with the MEDITECH and Cerner collaboratives on a strategy to expand data sharing even further.
Key to their efforts will be the successful development and rollout of health information exchanges: the Traverse Exchange Canada (TEC) for MEDITECH users and the Oracle Cerner Ontario eHub for Cerner users.
MEDITECH users in Ontario will be the first jurisdiction eligible to access Traverse Exchange Canada, a cloud-based interoperability network that supports information flow between participating organizations. Powered by MEDITECH partner Health Gorilla, the exchange was developed in partnership with the MEDITECH collaborative and is expected to provide access to external records from acute care, primary care, long-term care and other settings once fully deployed as a subscription service to MEDITECH sites.
“Traverse Exchange Canada will be the go-between; it will query Epic rather than our instance of MEDITECH querying Epic,” said Pemberton, explaining that while the point-to-point connections work, they aren’t scalable. The exchange, on the other hand, can facilitate endless connections.
“…Once we start to build this work, you can see that you very rapidly onboard hospitals. Once I plug into the exchange, I’m connected to everything else that’s plugged into Exchange,” he explained.
Part of the exercise involves nomenclature mapping to reflect Canadian standards and ensure that ‘an apple’ in one system is ‘an apple’ in another. Pemberton also believes that artificial intelligence needs to play an important role to filter and sort the data so that only clinically relevant information is shared.
“I’m worried that once you connect all of these sources, you’re going to bombard clinicians with information. They’re going from having nothing to getting 50 sources coming at them they may not need,” he said.
Among the Cerner collaborative, integration efforts started to ramp up just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic when the province was looking to achieve interoperability between acute care and long-term care systems. Epic sites were starting to create an interface with PointClickCare and the Epic collaborative approached the Cerner collaborative to see if there was a way to connect a Cerner hospital as well.
After meeting with Cerner, the collaborative decided the best course of action would be to put a health information exchange in place first – the Ontario eHub – and then connect to PointClickCare through the exchange. The first hospitals to connect via Ontario eHub are Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, Erie Shores HealthCare, Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, Windsor Regional Hospital and Cornwall Community Hospital, followed by London Health Sciences Centre, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Grand River Hospital and St. Mary’s General Hospital. The remaining Cerner hospitals will be connected over the course of 2023 and as new sites go live, they will also join the Ontario eHub.
“What we’re going to move forward with and continue to refine is what I would call true interoperability,” said Lyn Baluyot, co-chair of the Cerner collaborative and CEO of TransForm Shared Service Organization (SSO), a not-for-profit founded by the five Erie St. Clair hospitals in Ontario to manage their hospital IT and supply chain needs.
“There are all sorts of technical things we’re working through, but once we get this right, it will enable really safe transitions of care, from acute to long-term care, acute to home, and vice versa without having to print and fax hundreds of pages of documents,” she said, noting that patients will no longer have to tell their story over and over again as they move between care providers.
As the interoperability work marches forward, the heavy lifting will include the effort to harmonize and standardize data. At the same time, all three vendor collaboratives are sitting at the table with Ontario Health each month to ensure their work aligns with the province’s vision for interoperability as well. As Dr. Muttitt explained: “When you’re starting to exchange data across different platforms, everybody uses tables in a different way and data structures in a different way, so we want to make sure that it’s safe and that we’re bringing in data we can understand, that’s relevant and adds value to the patient record.”
Pemberton is hopeful that breaking down health record siloes in the province will facilitate automated workflows. For example, when patients are admitted to hospital from long-term care, one of the first steps is to obtain a best possible medication history or BPMH. Hospital pharmacy staff typically gather information from numerous sources, such as the patient’s retail pharmacy and the Connecting Ontario database, and then “manually stitch” a history together.
“What we envision with this is that the electronic stitching will occur for them,” he said. “The exchange will query those sources and bring back the information for them to reconcile, making that process digital, more accurate and helping to automate some of those workflows so they’re not so onerous.”
Baluyot envisions much of the work ahead involves sorting out technical and contractual relationships, deciphering privacy laws and agreeing on standards. Even something that seems simple – like recording gender and/or sex – can become quite complicated, she explained.
In the Cerner system, for example, sex is what you’re born with and is defined as male, female or X, with X being undefined. Gender is what you self-identify as and can be selected from a list as short as three characters or as long as 25 characters, depending on the list used.
“So, the question becomes, if we’re going to standardize across the province, do we all agree that sex is male, female and X, and do we agree that gender as a definition will be what the person chooses to self-identify as and that we will all use this list,” posed Baluyot. “This will work. It’s just a matter of time and resources, and ensuring everyone has the right vision.”
“The game changer is that hospitals don’t need to change their health record. If it’s working for you, you can be interoperable without having to adopt the other system,” added Pemberton.