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ONC to create industry data standard for patient addresses

HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology on Tuesday unveiled plans to develop an industrywide data standard for documenting addresses in healthcare.

The project, dubbed Project [email protected], will launch early next year. ONC plans to issue the standard for documenting patient addresses in 2021.

“This a completable project within the year,” Steve Posnack, ONC’s deputy national coordinator for health IT, said at a virtual event spotlighting application programming interface projects Tuesday, where the agency announced the new project.

Posnack said ONC is working with such standards development organizations as Health Level 7, the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs and X12 for Project [email protected]

HL7, which oversees the popular Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources framework, will head up project management.

“As mundane as address may seem it is often one of the key elements used for the purposes of patient matching and linking records,” Posnack wrote in a blog post. “Project [email protected] is reflective of how subtle improvements in health IT can have a big impact when implemented at a national scale.”

Today, healthcare organizations aren’t required to use a specific format when collecting patient addresses.

Instead, the format for documenting addresses is typically decided by healthcare organizations and software developers on an individual basis. But subtle inconsistencies in the way addresses are written can make it challenging to link up records between organizations that are related to the same patient, contributing to the healthcare industry’s ongoing patient-matching problem.

“This initiative from ONC represents a significant step towards better patient matching, one that builds on research that shows that standardizing addresses could help link thousands of records a day that otherwise wouldn’t be,” wrote Ben Moscovitch, project director for health IT at the Pew Charitable Trusts, in an emailed statement.

Moscovitch cited a 2019 study that found standardizing last names and addresses—specifically to the format used by the U.S. Postal Service—has proved helpful for improving matching sensitivity.

The ONC in its information-blocking rule—a regulation it released in March, but has since pushed back compliance deadlines for amid COVID-19—added patients’ current and previous addresses to the list of data elements that healthcare providers are required to exchange, but stopped short of requiring organizations to use a specific format when collecting patient addresses.

That’s despite growing interest in applying the address format used by the Postal Service to the healthcare industry.

Several healthcare stakeholders submitted public comments last year requesting for ONC to make it easier for organizations to use the Postal Service standard as part of the agency’s information-blocking rule. Two senators in August introduced a bill to make the Postal Service address-formatting tool used by online retailers available to healthcare providers.

However, Posnack in his blog post Tuesday wrote that while the Postal Service format is “often a starting point for this kind of normalization” it “has its limits.”

In March, ONC in its final rule wrote that while the Postal Service format “may be useful guidance for health IT developers,” the agency had concerns that led it to not adopt the standard as part of the rule—such as how the Postal Service format allows for variation in some data elements and would sometimes require manual reconciliation.


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