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It's time for health care providers to stop faxing

Estimated read time: 4 minutes

by Sandra Sentner-White | Kristian Feterik, MD, MBA

Published on 7/27/2020

It’s hard to imagine using floppy disks, typewriters and rotary phones in today’s workplace. These obsolete technologies have been replaced by cloud storage, tablets and smartphones. Yet, fax machines ─ seemingly relics of the 1990s ─ are still being used by 89% of health care organizations and an estimated 75% of all health care communications are still processed by fax.

Faxing costs hospitals time and money, compromises patient privacy

These are surprising statistics considering that more than 95 percent of hospitals and nearly 90 percent of office-based physicians have an electronic health record (EHR). But care providers can’t exchange information with different EHR platforms that don’t communicate with each other. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) 40 hospitals and emergency departments use interoperable EHRs, which allows information access across systems and entities. For this to really be optimized, the entire health care landscape must be open and collaborative.

While some see faxing as an easy and safe way to send and receive health records, in reality, the antiquated approach costs providers money and time, and the method compromises patient privacy. Clinicians often deal with missing pages, busy signals and blurry printouts. And, when faxes go to the wrong place, it’s a HIPAA violation that can result in massive fines and a loss of patient trust.

As hospitals and public health organizations around the world collect and exchange COVID-19 data to help battle the pandemic ─ often in busy and high-stress environments ─ it’s especially critical that the industry stops relying on the fax machine.

Replacing faxing with efficient, secure patient record exchange

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma called for the end of fax machine use in 2020. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) is pushing for nationwide EHR interoperability by 2024. With the majority of health care organizations still relying on faxes, how can the industry meet these goals?

UPMC has moved beyond faxing, and as a result, improved interoperability and workflows for our providers. We’re using methods like these to help our clinicians exchange data with patients and other care venues:

  • Direct messaging: A technical standard, and a simple, secure and scalable way to send authenticated and encrypted health information such as lab results, EHR data and referral and discharge documents. Direct messaging goes beyond traditional email by sending data in a format that can be easily processed by an EHR. It also has additional security measures that ensure messages can only be accessed by the intended recipient and prevent care providers from receiving spam. The growth of direct messaging is rapid. In the United States, there are 240,000 healthcare organizations using the technology which is a 44% year-on-year increase. Cumulatively, more than 1.5 billion direct messages have been exchanged since 2014. ONC is a major proponent of direct messages. Its Direct Project, which is developing the standards and services for securely pushing content from a sender to a receiver, has more than 200 participants from over 60 health care organizations.
  • CommonWell: UPMC leverages services from CommonWell Health Alliance, a not-for-profit organization that empowers health care data exchange between providers that use different EHRs. The nationwide interoperability network includes health IT vendors, government agencies, health systems and more. Through CommonWell, participating providers can manage patient identity, link patients across organizations, and securely access and exchange an individual’s health data in near-real-time.
  • Health information exchanges: Regional and national health information exchanges (HIEs) give providers quick and secure access to EHRs in a specific geographic area. For example, ClinicalConnect is western Pennsylvania’s first HIE, and as a member, UPMC helps providers save time and enhance care coordination.

The urgency of the global pandemic shed light on the limits of the outdated technology the health care industry has relied on for far too long. We’ve let go of answering machines, VCRs and camcorders. In order to provide better outcomes and health care value, it’s time for the industry to move from faxing to a seamless, connected and secure exchange of data.

Sharing data is foundational to Cerner's patient-centric interoperability. Learn more here.

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