What is Interoperability in Healthcare?

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In the wake of what was—hopefully—the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers are returning their focus to critical priorities, including value-based care, population health, and cost containment. One essential key to ensure success in all these initiatives is interoperability in healthcare.

Broadly, interoperability in healthcare is the ability to communicate, share data, and apply insights across different systems, software, and organizations. Put simply, the goal of achieving interoperability is to establish a seamless continuum of healthcare.

Why Interoperability in Healthcare Matters

There is a nearly endless list of significant benefits accompanying an integrated and streamlined method of collecting, exchanging, and utilizing health information and patient data. When built and applied correctly, interoperability:

  • Guides risk stratification and decision-making processes for vulnerable and underserved populations
  • Creates safe, smooth patient experiences
  • Strengthens financial health
  • Helps close preventative and primary care gaps
  • Reduces operational redundancies and augments productivity
  • Improves provider access to evidence-based clinical guidelines
  • Enhances care coordination and patient outcomes
  • Enables rapid disease detection and information dissemination
  • Reduces clinician burnout and minimizes medical errors

In a recent discussion about progress toward interoperability, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma stated:

 

“At the finish line lies a more coordinated, seamless system of care in which patients have electronic access to their health information and providers are offering competitive quality and patient care, providing more evidence-based care with less duplication of testing and errors.”

Given these many advantages, it is clear why nearly 100% of healthcare executives acknowledge that interoperability is important to achieve organizational success. As any healthcare executive or employee knows well, however, it can be very challenging in this industry to move an idea from theory to reality.

 

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State of Healthcare Interoperability

Achievements

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) positioned four distinct levels that must be achieved to have full interoperability:

  • Foundational Interoperability: Establishes the interconnectivity requirements needed to securely, electronically exchange data and messages between systems.
  • Structural Interoperability: Defines the format, syntax, and organization of data exchange.
  • Semantic Interoperability: Sets common models, standardized data codes, and shared definitions to improve understanding and utilization of data.
  • Organizational Interoperability: Includes governance, policy, social, legal, and administrative considerations to ensure secure, seamless, and timely communication and use of data.

The healthcare industry has made significant progress at the Foundational level through increased EMR interoperability. Electronic medical records have saturated the industry in the past decade, with around 98% of health systems now using a government-certified system.

Positive movement has also occurred at the Organizational level, as evidenced by the HL7 Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) under the ONC’s 21st Century Cares Act, CMS’ first dedicated Interoperability and Patient Access final rule in May 2020, and the overhaul of CMS’ Medicare and Medicaid Promoting Interoperability Programs.

Obstacles

Despite these achievements, large chasms still exist within all four of HIMSS’ levels between where healthcare interoperability stands today and where it needs to get. Barriers include:

 

  • Resistance to or fear of change throughout organizations and the overall healthcare industry.
  • Various technical specifications and unique customizations in each organization’s software and EHR systems.
  • Need for additional data analytics and integration tools to augment EHR interoperability capabilities.
  • Disparate and non-standardized terminology, vocabulary, and structures.
  • Technology interface issues and inefficiencies for clinician users.
  • Cost of investment in new systems, positions, and processes.

Though significant, these obstacles are not insurmountable. Importantly, healthcare leaders must keep pressing toward the goal, even when the journey is winding and fraught with headwinds.

The effort and energy are worth it to ultimately achieve a “productive, coordinated, safe and accurate patient experience that enables providers to access data from disparate sources to more holistically understand the patient’s medical history and inform treatment decisions.” (PwC)

Strategies to Advance Interoperability in Healthcare

Healthcare Interoperability

The Center for Connected Medicine found in a recent survey of the healthcare industry that top ways to overcome interoperability challenges are an outspoken commitment by senior leadership to shared goals; financial incentives or penalties for sharing (or not sharing) data between organizations and with individual patients; and technological advancement and adoption.

Additional strategies that healthcare organizations should consider to address issues in interoperability implementation are:

  • Establishing core management to coordinate across organizational teams and interoperability efforts.
  • Creating short- and long-term goals to evaluate and enhance digital tools and strategies.
  • Developing dashboards to track progress, monitor adoption, and demonstrate success in interoperability healthcare initiatives.
  • Facilitating security and procedure training to gain trust and buy-in at all employee and leadership levels.
  • Selecting vendors and technologies that offer ease and automation, not extra work and aggravation, freeing providers to spend more time and energy on patient care.
  • Using machine learning and artificial intelligence to fix data standards and EMR interoperability standards at the source.

Healthcare Interoperability Takes a Village

EMR interoperability standards

Though each organization’s actions make a difference in the overall pursuit of interoperability in the healthcare industry, sustained success will only be found in a coordinated, collaborative effort.

True North brings vast experience in interoperability efforts, successfully implementing 1,000+ healthcare IT projects over the past 14 years. We can manage your hospital’s or clinic’s IT systems, support vendor selection and implementation, consult on your EHR/EMR’s structure and effectiveness, offer cybersecurity guidance and best practices, and more.

Our goal is to protect you from exposure, ensure compliance, and drive data integrity in cost-efficient, goal-oriented ways — allowing you to focus on providing high-quality care to your patients and communities.

 

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