Observations in Health
Colorado Regional Health Information Organization
Phyllis Albritton Organization Tackles HIT's 'Tower of Babel'
By Sandy Graham
Photograph by James Chance
EDITOR'S NOTE: Phyllis Albritton is the executive director of the Colorado Regional Health Information Organization, a nonprofit public-private partnership created to facilitate health information exchange to improve care for all Coloradans. She has more than 20 years of experience in health care and technology policy development including telecommunications discounts for schools and libraries, oral health, children's basic health insurance and other federal programs. She is an alumna of Leadership Denver.
The United Nations' translators and interpreters have nothing on Phyllis Albritton and her team at the Colorado Regional Health Information Organization.
The U.N. works in a mere six official languages. CORHIO, as it facilitates electronic exchange of health information among providers and consumers, deals with scores. Health information sits in diverse and often incompatible software products, making it difficult for one to "talk" to another.
"Everybody speaks a different language in health information technology," says Albritton, CORHIO executive director. "This is like taking the different countries in Europe and having something that's in Spanish say the same thing in Swedish."
Created in 2007, CORHIO is charged with developing a statewide system of health information exchange to improve health care for all Coloradans. Using Colorado's federal stimulus money for HIT and a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation, CORHIO supports communities' efforts to create health information exchanges and consults with practitioners who want to use HIT.
If HIT is ever to fully realize its promise to deliver higher quality, safer and cheaper health care, sharing important health information must be easy and fast. And Albritton is seeing progress, much of it driven by the federal government's recent efforts to change the economics of HIT.
Federal stimulus money has poured into deploying technology and broadening information exchange. Equally important, the government is going to provide financial lures, through Medicaid and Medicare, to get individual providers to take the plunge into HIT and information exchange.
"There is now an incentive to share information, and that's a huge shift," Albritton says.
That isn't to say, however, that CORHIO and other health information exchange organizations are creating some kind of Esperanto for health data – a single "digital language" that every HIT system will have to speak. When CORHIO works with different providers, it respects the varying thought and work processes used.
"Whether we're working with gastroenterologists or ophthalmologists or primary care doctors, they're doing different things in different ways and have different needs," Albritton says. "It's foolish for us to establish on top of all these processes and workflows one way of doing things."
Instead, CORHIO finds commonalities. "Behind the scenes, we can do a lot of work... to figure out the common theme so information can go wherever the patient and provider want it to go," Albritton says.
In Colorado, CORHIO has been flexible in its approach to exchanging health information. If a community has nothing in the way of existing technology, the CORHIO team is helping provide low-cost, valuable solutions. Where HIT has taken hold, CORHIO helps the community figure out a cost-effective way to have different systems communicate and share data.
One of its key demonstration projects is the San Luis Valley Health Information Exchange, which is linking San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center, Valley-Wide Health Systems, San Luis Valley Mental Health Center, Alamosa County Nursing Services, Rio Grande Hospital, Conejos County Hospital and other providers. CORHIO also is assisting the Boulder County Health Information Exchange (See story, The Common Good) and led a federally funded demonstration of information exchange among The Children's Hospital, Denver Health & Hospital Authority, Kaiser Permanente Colorado and the University of Colorado Hospital.
The latter was particularly important since it showed that several large, complex health care systems could use technology to securely share information across different systems. And it was unusual in that there was no central repository for all four institutions' health information. Instead, each kept its own databank and allowed access when information was needed.
Albritton is committed to a future where Coloradans enjoy the benefits of HIT.
"It saves time, improves care, reduces cost and enhances privacy," she says.
In mid-February, a collaboration of organizations including CORHIO received about $12.5 million in federal funding to create a Colorado Regional Extension Center. This will provide technology services to health providers — particularly small practices and safety-net providers — so that they can meaningfully use these new electronic tools to best meet their needs. CORHIO then coordinates organizations' efforts while giving practitioners a choice of organizations with which to work.
The extension center is expected to drive health information exchange even faster. Ultimately, Albritton predicts exchanges will be in place and operating in all seven medical referral regions of Colorado by 2015.
"We'll realize our vision of shared health information for all individuals in every Colorado community, promoting the right care at the right time and place," she says.