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The Nationwide Health Information Network's preliminary launch marks one more step toward national interoperability.

The Nationwide Health Information Network will become reality very soon when the Social Security Administration performs a preliminary test of the new system this month. The NHIN's trial run will be used to determine benefits eligibility for the SSA's 2.6 million annual disability claims.

The NHIN rollout—even in its limited form—is considered a major milestone because until now, the public-private "NHIN Cooperative" has only performed trial implementations based on fictitious patients. This test run will have the real-life benefit of greatly decreasing the time it takes to determine disability eligibility, says SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue.

"This safe and secure method for receiving electronic medical records will allow us to improve our service to the public by cutting days, if not weeks, off the time it takes to make a disability decision," he said in a release.

The SSA is working with MedVirginia, the North Carolina Healthcare Information and Communications Alliance, and Kaiser Permanente to implement the NHIN. In early 2009, the first exchange of information will begin between Social Security and MedVirginia, with the assumption that if all goes well, the SSA will expand the trial to include North Carolina and Kaiser Permanente.

Work on getting the NHIN up and running has been frenzied since September 2007 when the Department of Health and Human Services awarded contracts totaling $22.5 million to nine health information exchanges to begin trial implementations of the network. During the fifth forum on the NHIN held in Washington in December, officials said they fully expect that the millions handed out in federal grants will soon begin to yield results as each of the nine HIEs gets up and running and begins to exchange actual health information with the medical community.

But even outside of that funding for those nine HIEs, other states are working hard to create their own HIEs. Colorado recently announced it has become one of the first states in the nation to share electronic health information securely between hospitals and other healthcare organizations at a statewide level. Currently, 500 emergency clinicians are being trained to use the system, which shares a host of health information across emergency departments at The Children's Hospital, Denver Health and Hospital Authority, and University of Colorado Hospital, as well as Kaiser Permanente Colorado. The CORHIO system, which began in 2004, was funded by a mix of federal and state agencies, as well as several insurers.

Meanwhile, Idaho just announced that the Idaho Health Data Exchange will connect two hospitals and a physician group in January 2009 as part of a goal to have 100 physicians and three hospitals join the network by June 2009. That HIE was funded by the state and charges participating fees.

There is no doubt that this announcement from the NHIN coalition is big news. It will soon actually be exchanging actual information that will provide real-life benefits. And each step toward interoperability made by individual states gets us one step closer to that "network of networks" the Bush administration envisioned occurring by 2014. Now, with President Obama pledging to keep technology and healthcare reform at the forefront of his agenda, is it possible that the nation could reach that 2014 goal?

Kathryn Mackenzie

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