HHS Secretary Azar touts Trump admin’s digital health response to COVID-19

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar this week praised the Trump administration’s technology response to the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting its efforts on data collection, telehealth expansion and more.

During a brief speech Tuesday evening at the HLTH VRTL 2020 conference, Azar highlighted the efforts of HHS to collect data concerning COVID-19 patients and predicted that patients will see telehealth as “a durable and desirable part of their healthcare” in the long term.

In July, HHS triggered concerns among public health experts and “chaos” at hospitals when it directed health systems to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when reporting COVID-19 patient information.

The existing data collection systems at the CDC and state public health departments, said Azar on Tuesday, “have played incredibly important roles … but they couldn’t provide the kind of flexible reporting we needed.”

Azar explained that HHS Protect – the system to which hospitals now report data – stemmed from an effort to take advantage of existing data sets and improve the quality of data in use.

HHS Protect “includes a secure hub for sharing, parsing, housing, tracking and accessing COVID-19 data,” said Azar, and draws on more than 4.5 billion data elements. 

He noted that this past week, HHS had announced new reporting modifications for hospitals that included information about seasonal influenza patients. 

Those requirements came alongside an announcement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that hospitals deemed “noncompliant” with data reporting requirements could eventually put their reimbursements from the federal programs at risk.

American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack has called the approach “heavy-handed” and said it “could jeopardize access to hospital care for all Americans.”

Azar, meanwhile, pointed out that HHS is working with state and local health information exchanges to encourage reporting to and use of data resources. 

“The long-term vision isn’t just about aggregation and ease of reporting,” he said. “It’s about eliminating reporting entirely by using the data that’s already being generated as part of providers’ clinical workflow.” 

He noted that such a system is feasible, in part, because of the interoperability rules finalized earlier this year – “creating unprecedented opportunities to equip patients with data,” he said.

“Bold thinking that puts patients at the center can feed innovation, from both a provider and system-wide perspective,” said Azar. 

He also cited HHS’ shipment of 150 million rapid coronavirus tests to at-risk communities such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Users can link their test results with an app, and “we’re now working with Abbott and state public health leaders to use this app to facilitate reporting of cases, too.”

Azar pointed to the regulatory flexibilities around telehealth that have eased the way for massive adoption of virtual care across the country.

“We believe patients will start to see [telehealth] as a durable and desirable part of their healthcare experience,” he said.

“The future gold standard of care will integrate both in-person services and telehealth, customized around the patient’s needs and their doctor’s advice, and we’ll need lots of digital health innovation to make that possible,” he added.

Azar pointed to the advancements the digital health industry has made amid – and sometimes in response to – the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Amidst all the pain caused by this pandemic, we’ve seen how innovative American healthcare can be,” he said.

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.

Twitter: @kjercich

Email: [email protected]

Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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