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Closer collaboration between HHS, ONC a positive signal for era of standards-based health IT

Enhanced coordination between ONC and HHS will streamline communication and create more efficiencies for health IT stakeholders.
By admin
Aug 16, 2022, 8:00 AM

When the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) was created in 2004, it was tasked with overseeing the development of digital infrastructure across the entire healthcare system. During the nearly two decades since, a series of accomplished National Coordinators have done their utmost to fulfill that mission. 

It hasn’t been easy. From complex incentive programs and uneven adoption of technologies to a widespread lack of data standards and the uncontrollable ups and downs of the free market, ONC has had its hands full trying to close the gaps between what healthcare organizations are doing and what an extensive range of lawmakers and regulators expect.

Federal directives have sometimes been unclear, limited in scope, or simply siloed from each other, making it difficult for the ONC to understand how to best apply the rules. Now, the ONC and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are working to remedy at least some of those concerns.

In a new HealthITBuzz blog post, National Coordinator Micky Tripathi and Deputy National Coordinator Steven Posnack have announced that HHS and ONC are striving for much greater alignment between their offices to better meet shared goals for interoperability and the adoption of standards-based technologies.

Related story: With Epic signing on to TEFCA, does true interoperability have a chance?

Thanks to a department-wide directive from HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the two groups will work much more closely together on continuing to advance the use of health IT tools to improve outcomes and control spending.

“Agencies across HHS are beginning to leverage the data and capabilities available through electronic health records for a broad range of federal activities and programs, including product safety and surveillance, real-world data and real-world evidence for regulatory approvals, research, pandemic response, and social service integration, to name just a few,” said Tripathi and Posnack.

“While this is an exciting development for HHS overall, it does call for more proactive alignment and coordination of health IT activities across the department to ensure that we are operating as efficiently and cohesively as possible.”

As part of the initiative, Secretary Becerra has directed ONC to establish a consistent HHS-wide approach for incorporating standard health IT requirements language in HHS funding announcements, contracts, and policies, the blog post explains. ONC will also provide direct assistance to maximize the use of HHS-approved standards and authorities in their programs, including technical standards such as the US Core Data for Interoperability (USCDI) and HL7 FHIR.

“While it won’t happen overnight, what we expect to see over time is greater consistency in health IT-based activities across HHS, which should result in lower cost and higher effectiveness agency programs, more sharing of data and health IT infrastructure across programs and agencies, and lower burden on health care providers, technology developers, and other stakeholders who engage with multiple HHS agencies,” the officials said.

More robust collaboration between HHS and ONC, both of which share responsibility for health IT adoption and the increased use of technical standards, is good news for healthcare stakeholders.

Related story: Interoperability will play a key role in renewed HHS strategic plan

As the technical, reimbursement, and regulatory environments continue to evolve at a rapid pace, healthcare organizations are in need of clear and timely guidance on how to meet rising expectations and overcome new challenges.

Greater alignment on technical standards and data-driven activities within the federal government will make it easier for authorities to communicate with provider and payer groups, who will, in turn, be more likely to quickly and efficiently make positive changes to their infrastructure and operations.

This will help to accelerate transformation and, as Posnack and Tripati point out, assist the healthcare system with meeting key federal goals, including improvements to health equity, patient experiences, and fair competition in the marketplace.

While the blog doesn’t go into too many additional specifics about the department’s plans going forward, the action does reinforce HHS’s firm commitment to creating a continually learning system through the development of an interoperable, standards-based, data-driven health IT ecosystem.

The fact that HHS is embracing more active engagement across offices is an important step toward retooling internal processes to better reflect the same type of collaboration that federal officials hope to see in the private sector.


Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry.  Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system.

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