Verizon Business recently made a big splash with plans to offer free access and usage of their Medical Data Exchange system to over two million US healthcare providers. Sounds like a pretty generous offer, right? On first pass, I’d certainly have to agree though I have a sneaking suspicion it may not turn out to be quite as altruistic as many of the headlines I saw make it sound. As one report described,

The credentials will allow doctors and clinicians to access medical data via the Verizon Medical Data Exchange through a secure, private inbox. The inbox is part of Verizon’s Healthcare Provider Portal, which it has added to the exchange.

The data exchange system itself is primarily designed to enable exchange of information between different electronic medical record platforms, with this personal inbox component added later. What this offer focuses on is individual healthcare providers and that’s precisely what makes it both interesting and disappointing.

The potential for benefit to the healthcare community here is in engaging individual and small private practices, not yet using an electronic health record or lacking in sufficient scale to be able to integrate into a healthcare information exchange, in some sort of electronic data exchange. Larger practices, hospitals, and health systems will already have dedicated staff or departments for medical records. The Verizon system, much like those proposed in recent reform legislation, is merely a conduit rather than a repository of information – no information will actually be stored centrally here. So what this offering really does is give many physicians the opportunity to transmit information in safe and legal ways.

The fundamental flaw in this system however is that it requires an extra step. When I admit a patient to the hospital, I go through all the records we have on them in our EHR. When I need records from elsewhere, it requires that the patient sign some forms, either I or other medical staff call the relevant office to request information, fax the forms, and then wait – a wait that can be critical when it comes to deciding on procedures, imaging, and so on. What we really need is central storage of information.

While this may seem like a bit of let down, its worth remembering that the healthcare industry is currently in the midst of a continuing consolidation trend into large healthcare systems. According one href=”http://www.nihcm.org/pdf/EV-Vogt_FINAL.pdf”>report, in 2008 there were nearly 1400 merger/acquisition deals in the industry in the prior two decades, with particular concentration in urban markets. The EHR’s that these new systems have or will soon have will therefore cover a large portion of the American population, all potential sources of data for information exchanges.

So what I see in this offer is (1) a promotional offer that is really meant to attract (paying) hospitals/healthcare organizations to its core “conduit” business in the long term and (2) a temporary help in reducing barriers to information exchange when it comes to smaller healthcare practices especially. Verizon’s MDE is certainly bound to be an important and prominent feature of future healthcare IT systems and its user-to-user data exchange system will be helpful. But the real gains are with more centrally stored information and hopefully all of these systems are just a step in that direction.