Health IT Standards – The “Secret Sauce” that Brings Electronic Health Information to the Patient and their Care Team

Matthew Rahn | April 3, 2023

Matt is the deputy director for the standards division in the office of technology at ONC. The standards division is responsible for providing technical subject matter expertise to ONC and health IT partners to encourage the adoption and use of health IT standards.

Tell us about some of the projects or initiatives that you lead.

It is important for providers and patients to have access and share health data because it allows for improved health care outcomes. When two or more systems are able to exchange and access information with each other this is called interoperability. Improving interoperability in healthcare enhances patient care, ultimately leading to better outcomes. When patients and providers have secure access to their data it can be used to optimize health experiences. For this to happen, there is a need for common standards in the health IT ecosystem that allows for exchange to take place. ONC has established specific content and transport standards, which can allow for exchange of communication between systems.  When health IT vendors implement the same standards in a consistent format then interoperability can occur and allow for health data to be exchanged, accessed, and used to improve health outcomes.

My team works to improve the implementation and adoption of standards, which allows for access to health data. We work directly with standards development organizations and the health IT community to develop, test, and update standards with the goal of secure and interoperable exchange of health data between health providers. The “coordinator” part of our role is a big reason why I enjoy working at ONC. I’m an extrovert so the opportunity to engage with people working towards the same goal is energizing. Currently, we work with internationally recognized organizations to develop standards that allow for the adoption and implementation of US mandates and recommendations such as those in United States Core Data for Interoperability (USCDI), which allows for data to be accessed, exchanged, and used by providers and patients. Seeing the technology and standards evolve and working directly with industry with the common goal of secure access and use of health data to improve health outcomes for patients is exciting.

What led you to your career here at ONC?

I joke around that I owe my career to Kate Tipping (Deputy Director in the regulatory and policy affairs division in the office of policy) – but I’m only half kidding. After earning my degree in public health at the University of Arizona, I came to DC after a short stint in Boston. While couch-surfing for a few weeks, I met Kate and we became instant friends. She already worked at HHS and encouraged me to apply for a job at HRSA’s Office of Legislation. I ‘learned the ropes’ in my four years there, when once again, Kate alerted me to a position at ONC. I applied and have been here since.

Beyond Kate’s mentorship, I am here because I’ve always felt called to help people, and healthcare is a common thread of humanity. Everyone deserves quality healthcare. The protection of health information is of utmost concern. I believe everyone has the right to privacy and that their health information should be protected. This concept is the north star that keeps me going. ONC is at the forefront of this ever-evolving field, and it’s exciting to play a daily role in the evolution of health IT.

What are some skills or strengths that you contribute to your work at ONC?

My skills and strengths are complex and somewhat difficult to quantify. My education in public health speaks for itself.  As a textbook extrovert, I quickly connect with people and create lasting relationships. I try to connect the dots between two individuals or organizations that may have similar ideas but speak different languages. I ask a lot of questions which helps me better understand the work but also helps the team think through our overall strategies.  I’ve always been eager to dive into a project or tackle a problem without being intimidated – I enjoy a challenge and work to encourage my colleagues to challenge each other too.

What is something you’ve accomplished at ONC that you’re most proud of, and why?

I’m very proud of the release of the ONC Cures Act Final Rule. This rule creates requirements for HIT vendors to have the information necessary to meet the health IT product certification requirements. Our team had to update all the certification requirements, which we refer to as the 2015 Edition Cures Update Test Method. The Test Method provides the criteria for evaluating conformance of the Health IT Module to the certification criteria defined in the ONC Cures Act Final Rule and helps vendors when they are implementing the certification requirements into their health IT products. Releasing the ONC Cures Act Final Rule in the uncertain early stages of the pandemic with a small team was a true challenge. As a lifelong athlete, teamwork has always been important to me, and this project was no exception. Our ability to work together in tough circumstances to develop important technical requirements to advance health IT is something I’ll always look back on fondly.

What would you say is the best or most interesting part of working for ONC?

Health IT is always changing. There’s always a new challenge that needs to be addressed and the technology is constantly developing. Taking on the unknown with talented, dedicated colleagues makes for an environment that is always exciting and rewarding ONC is the best place to work in the government and one of the major reasons why I’ve stayed. You learn something new every day!

How would you characterize ONC’s success?

Success is knowing that, even on our hardest days, our work has helped improve the healthcare people receive.  ONC works to improve the access, exchange, and use of electronic health information for patients and providers. The access to the data will help providers and patient make the best possible decisions through the health care journey. Informed individuals offer great potential for a healthier community.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on and how it fits into ONC’s mission.

One of the recent projects I’ve helped lead is the USCDI+ Initiative. This is one of ONC’s most important projects as we strive to align all the different health IT initiatives in the government.  The ONC Cures Act Final Rule set a baseline for data that is accessible through certified electronic health record technology guided by USCDI   version 1. This has become the minimum data set for the US healthcare delivery system. ONC has established an expansion process for updating USCDI versions, and we regularly receive input from our federal partners to add additional data into USCDI. Based on this feedback and need for constant alignment across the different projects throughout the government, USCDI+ project specifically supports our federal partners who have use cases that require data sets that go beyond the USCDI. ONC leadership and staff have been working collaboratively with federal agencies and their partners to identify and establish different domains (e.g. USCDI+ for Quality) and create data sets within those domains, utilizing a similar governance process as USCDI. While this is a big undertaking it is very rewarding to expand our working relationships with our federal agencies and their partners to ensure alignment of similar data needs across agency programs. This project touches on multiple divisions so it requires a lot of coordination and teamwork.

What are the core values of ONC that are important to you?

The mission of the ONC resonates with me because health IT impacts everyone. Every person deserves safe and secure access to their own healthcare data. The ONC mission, “To create systemic improvements in health and care through the access, exchange, and use of data,” is intertwined in the work we do in the standards division. Working on a wide range of technical detailed projects to high level policy projects, keeps me engaged, informed and enthusiastic to continue to strive for advancing healthcare improvements for everyone.