Weathering the Storm: Interoperability’s Role in Shaping a Better Future

As I’m sure was the case for nearly everyone in our country and beyond, watching the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey provided a chilling reminder of how vulnerable we all can be to forces beyond our control. At the same time, seeing the concerted — and often heroic — efforts to help the people of Texas affirmed something very positive: When push comes to shove, most people’s instincts are simply to help one another, without asking where they come from, what political party they belong to, or how they feel about any of the divisive issues that this weather disaster briefly swept off the front pages.

Because I’m a technology and policy wonk, a question also entered my mind in the last few days, too, and it has to do with the potential impact of contaminated water, toxic releases from chemical plants and other consequences of the devastation that has taken place in Texas. Those are the critically important human issues that local, state and federal officials will have to turn to in earnest, even as they make progress on immediate concerns such as helping people rebuild their homes and their lives.

So, my question is this: Can the U.S. do more to address emergencies, such as hurricanes, that strongly impact public health? I believe there is, and it’s through an approach that would not only apply to addressing natural disasters, but also to man-made ones such as the nation’s heroin/opioid epidemic. This approach is called the Health Emergency Linkages and Preparedness (HELP) model; it basically operationalizes what Stewards of Change Institute (SOCI) has been promoting since its inception, which is that the improved use of interoperability, information-sharing and modern technology can enable us to more-effectively deal with a wide range of challenges in health, human services and related domains.

The idea for HELP grows out of research that SOCI has conducted over the past year with the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). I’ve written about HELP in previous blogs, and we’ll provide more details in a Guidance Document and Action Plan that HIMSS and SOCI is planning to publish this fall. In short, we are recommending the building and testing of this community-based model to enhance coordination, communication and collaboration within and among five of the primary domains that operate across the spectrum of care to address health emergencies in our country; they are: public health, health information technology, public safety, social and human services, and emergency services.

The principal ways HELP could do would be derived from the Information Sharing Environment (ISE), which was formed by the federal government after 9/11 to expedite responsible data-exchange and cooperation among agencies, organizations and individuals that deal with national security. Our recommendation is to adopt and adapt the best elements of ISE to improve connections among the domains listed above, while incorporating the Social Determinants of Health and Well-Being, to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

It’s important to acknowledge that many initiatives and technologies have already contributed to considerable progress in preventing, detecting, surveilling and responding to public health-related crises, in particular since the national catastrophe on 9/11 led to the creation of ISE in the public safety domain and of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (Department of Health and Human Services) in the public health domain, among others.

Nevertheless, SOCI and HIMSS are proposing the creation and testing of HELP-ISE in our upcoming Guidance Document, along with other recommendations, because it is clear from our research, which included a literature review, examinations of public health emergencies such as the Flint water crisis and the opioid epidemic, and extensive interviews with experts nationwide, that some systems still operate in silos or are not fully connected with others that could improve overall efficacy. As the concerns in Texas turn from short-term rescue and survival to longer-term issues such as public health, making our systems better and better should be a priority, which brings me back to the question I raised near the start of this blog. I believe the answer is “yes.”

On behalf of all of us at Stewards of Change Institute, our partners and supporters, I send our sincerest best wishes to the people of Texas as they progress toward better times.



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