CommonWell Alliance Goals Challenged By ONC

Posted on April 8, 2013 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare branding and communications expert with more than 25 years of industry experience. and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also worked extensively healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or

As virtually everyone in health IT knows, HIMSS saw the dawning of a new EMR vendor alliance which proposes to make health data exchange simpler.  The group, the CommonWell Alliance, includes McKesson, Cerner, Allscripts, Greenway and athenahealth, plus McKesson’s connectivity business RelayHealth.

Now that the PR fairy dust has settled and we’re talking serious business, it’s a good time to consider exactly what these vendors hope to accomplish, as we’re talking about enough vendor muscle to have a serious impact on the way health data is shared.

This week, ONC released a report doing just that, according to a piece in Government Health IT.  At a meeting of the Health IT Policy Committee on April 3, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Farzad Mostashari, MD and other committee members discussed the report, which raised some hard questions about the Alliance.

According to Government Health IT, the report outlined the following as CommonWell’s chief goals:

  • Enabling providers to unambiguously identify patients – but not with a national patient identifier;
  • Providing a way to match patients with their healthcare records as they transition through care facilities;
  • Using existing unique identifiers (salted/hashed) such as cell phone number, email addresses or driver’s licenses for identity management;
  • Enabling patients to manage consent and authorization;
  • Creating a HIPAA-compliant and patient-centered means to simplify management of data-sharing consents and authorizations, focusing initially on the most common treatment situations;
  • Helping providers to find the location of patient records across care locations via a secure nationwide records locator service;
  • Enabling providers, with appropriate authorization, to issue targeted (directed) queries that provide for peer-to-peer (e.g., EHR to EHR) exchange.

Unlike most standards-setting efforts, members of the group are going to have to pay if they want to participate, a nice little detail that wasn’t made clear when CommonWell was announced.

Though it will be at least a year before CommonWell pilots its approach, members of the Committee are quite appropriately wondering now about the impact of such an effort.

Dr. Mostashari argued that the key question is whether the service will work as an optional overlay across a regional exchange, or whether it requires exclusive participation. Other committee members agreed.

The bottom line for committee members, Government Health IT reports, is that they’re willing to take a wait-and-see approach. As for us out here in the peanut gallery, I believe we should challenge the heck out of this thing.

Members of the Health IT Policy Committee are well advised to wonder whether this coming together of powerful HIT vendors could undermine broader efforts to foster interoperability. There’s a lot to look into here, even if the allmighty Epic never joins.