LAS VEGAS — For years, interoperability — or the ability of disparate health information systems to communicate with one another — has been the talk here at the country’s biggest health IT conference. Such seamless back-and-forth sharing still isn’t a reality, but a huge announcement by the feds’ top health care official Monday could finally bring substantive results from this years-long conversation.

Health IT developers that provide 90 percent of all records services to U.S. hospitals are banding together with the country’s five biggest health systems, alongside a dozen professional associations, to help ease the free flow of information in health care. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell made that big revelation during her opening keynote yesterday at the HIMSS16 conference here in Las Vegas. Major players involved are making promises in three specific areas tied to interoperability, including bolstering consumers’ access to their own records, refusing to block information from other systems and implementing national interoperability standards.

Such information sharing is crucial for hospitals trying to move away from the old siloed way of providing care with wide variation in quality and outcomes. How can a primary care doctor know that his patient visited an independent physician to obtain more pain meds, or a faraway emergency department for a mental health issue, without such sharing of data? Burwell recently paid a visit to Flint, Mich., and saw just how critical data has been to tracking health trends during the water contamination crisis.

“We’re working to create a system that delivers better care, spends our dollars more wisely and supports health care people because, at the heart of our efforts, are doctors and their teams who want to deliver the best possible care, and the patients who get put through the same tests over and over and over again, and the people like the children of Flint who need a doctor who can see the big picture and make changes at the community level,” Burwell told HIMSS attendees Monday evening.

The announcement comprises a who’s who of health care, cutting across all facets of the business — Epic, McKesson, GE on the technology side, to name a few; Kaiser, Catholic Health Initiatives and Ascension, among others, altogether representing providers in 46 states; and professional groups like the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association. You can see the whole list of those involved in this HHS fact sheet.

In HHS’s own words from its announcement, the health care organizations are committing to three promises:

  1. To help consumers easily and securely access their electronic health information, direct it to any desired location, learn how their information can be shared and used, and be assured that this information will be effectively and safely used to benefit their health and that of their community.
  2. To help providers share individuals’ health information for care with other providers and their patients whenever permitted by law, and not block electronic health information (defined as knowingly and unreasonably interfering with information sharing).
  3. [To] implement federally recognized, national interoperability standards, policies, guidance, and practices for electronic health information, and adopt best practices including those related to privacy and security.

Signees of the pact, such as the AHA, expressed optimism going forward, along with frustration with the current state of affairs, following Burwell’s speech.

“Achieving a seamless flow of health information to support care and engage patients will require action from all stakeholders, including vendors, providers and policymakers,” AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement. “Hospitals need the technology of their IT systems to communicate effectively, without having to deploy expensive and cumbersome patches and partial solutions.”

One of the big themes at HIMSS this year is cybersecurity (also the topic of our February cover story), and Burwell believes keeping patients’ data private and secure is the “bedrock of an interoperable health information technology system.” Cyber threats, like the one recently perpetrated in California, endanger the financial security and privacy of millions, Burwell said. That’s why Congress recently enacted legislation creating a task force focused on protecting the health sector from such attacks.

Hitting these ambitious goals in the coming months is going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach from the entire field, and Burwell wants to hear from anyone who needs help along the path toward interoperability.

“As always, we’re committed to listening to all of you,” she told attendees. “Your voices are crucial to this conversation and we want to know what you need from us and how we can support your efforts.”