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What is Healthcare Interoperability and Why Should You Care?


As technology in healthcare continues to improve, facilities have access to better tools and more data. Though the benefits that come with digitization are unquestionable, some challenges negate them. With different technologies being incorporated and data flowing from multiple directions, archaic health record systems are now becoming a hindrance. 

This is why the concept of interoperability in healthcare has become a key talking point among both public and private healthcare providers. The general consensus is that increasing interoperability is the key to achieving continuity of medical care. This will help reduce costs, improve efficiency, and enhance patient outcomes. 

However, interoperability in healthcare remains to be a quagmire of sorts. There needs to be a highly structured medical record system geared towards resolving the present challenges to achieve it. Interestingly, it’s not that the technology to achieve it is unavailable, but the commitment to achieve interoperability in healthcare that’s lacking. Data from a survey conducted by the Center for Connected Medicine (CCM) suggests that a third of health systems providers and hospitals report that they have not put sufficient effort into achieving interoperability, even internally.  

One crucial step for achieving interoperability is by adopting a modern electronic health record (EHR) solution. For maximum interoperability to be achieved, stakeholders such as providers, software vendors, and health tech companies must have concerted efforts. This article explores interoperability in healthcare and how practice management software can assist.  

What Is Interoperability in Healthcare?  

According to the Healthcare Information and Management System Society (HIMSS), interoperability is the level at which devices and systems can exchange data and interpret shared data.  

As easy as it sounds, it’s not quite so. The healthcare ecosystem is diverse and dynamic, with multiple systems assisting in different areas. A key element of delivering care is coordination and sharing information between different healthcare departments—these range from laboratories, clinics, pharmacies, medical clinics, hospitals, etc. 

Even within a facility, achieving interoperability is challenging. More issues arise when adding such disparate elements that generally rely on complex systems that are often conflicting. Though there are barriers to achieving interoperability in healthcare, various steps have been taken to assist. One key step is the move by the US government to standardize communication between computer systems.  

Levels of Interoperability in Healthcare 

In 2013, the HIMSS board established three levels of health information technology interoperability:

Foundational Interoperability

This is the basic level of interoperability. It enables data sharing between information systems, but the receiving system does not need to interpret the data. Therefore, data will be available for use immediately after it is received. 

Structural Interoperability

At this level of interoperability, the structure or format of data exchange is defined. It occurs where there is uniform movement of data from one system to another to ensure the data’s clinical or operational purpose and meaning are preserved during the exchange. Structural interoperability ensures that information at the level of data fields can be interpreted. 

Semantic Interoperability

Semantic interoperability offers healthcare institutions the highest level of connection. It facilitates the exchange and use of information between two or more different systems or parts. The structure and the codification of the data are controlled- including vocabulary- to ensure the receiving system can interpret it. 

Along with health care providers, it is also beneficial to scientists and researchers as they rely on large sets of aggregated data for their research on emerging diseases and other public health concerns.

How to Achieve Interoperability in Healthcare  

Beyond the benefits that interoperability in healthcare offers providers, there is a great need to achieve it. Today, patients expect that their personal health information to be readily available even when they switch providers. Failure to meet such expectations will affect the patient experience. However, delivering interoperability requires a holistic approach within the sector. 

Standardization of Patient Identification Methods

For interoperability across the healthcare system to work, patients must be easily identified. Since there is no consistent method of identifying patients across the health industry, accessing patient records on multiple systems is challenging.  

Some of the most common methods of identifying patients include the date of birth, names, and social security numbers. With each, data is stored differently, increasing the likelihood of patient identification errors.  

As suggested by various patient advocacy groups, an ideal solution is the creation of a national unique patient identifier. Each individual will have a unique identifier that will be used throughout their lives at every point of care. Regardless of the system or provider, the code will sort, categorize, and identify patients.  

As data sharing needs in health care increase, so does the need for a more consistent and accurate method for identifying PHI. Sadly, this requires political involvement, which has been frustrating at best. This is despite a strong push for years by advocacy groups such as CHIME and HIMSS, along with other organizations, for the establishment of a national patient identifier system.

Establishment of a Standard for Sharing and Managing Information Between Health Systems

Technology vendors have a crucial role to play in achieving interoperability in healthcare. One of the primary challenges is that it is difficult to copy or share data from one healthcare technology or EHR solution to another. The barriers to this include proprietary formats, external data fields, and mismatched fonts, meaning that data has to be manipulated before it is transferred.  

The establishment of standards to govern data storage and sharing is the foundation of achieving interoperability in healthcare. Such standards will determine how different systems are connected and may touch on data structure, format, security, and transport.  

There have been efforts by various standards development organizations (SDOs) to create methods for updating and maintaining health data. However, none has yet to be adopted collectively by the healthcare industry. Before this is done, vendors must develop solutions with high integration capabilities and join the efforts to standardize sharing and management of Information between health systems. 

Developing a System for Measuring Interoperability in Healthcare

The need for increased interoperability in healthcare is undeniable. But, to what extent does it need to improve, and at which pace? Determining this is difficult as there is no method for measuring interoperability and the challenges and effects brought about by its absence.  

For interoperability in healthcare to improve, healthcare organizations must be able to track and measure the impact of interoperability delays and failure. This will provide a base for analyzing the problem’s magnitude across the healthcare chain and determining appropriate steps. 

Behavioral and substance use professional using interoperable practice management software.
Though it may seem like an esoteric tech concepot, all healthcare organizations should have a functional knowledge of interoperability and how it affects their agency.

How Will Interoperability Improve Healthcare? 

Interoperability in healthcare comes with a ton of benefits for both providers and patients. For patients, it comes in the form of improved and increased access to care. As a provider, it offers financial and administrative benefits that make your facility more efficient and productive. 

Improved Care Coordination and Patient Experience

For patients, a lot of the time spent in pursuit of care is used to perform repetitive actions. These include filling out forms, searching for documents, sorting out insurance, and even giving their medical history and explaining symptoms. In addition to being redundant, this makes the process highly inefficient.  

Interoperability in healthcare will serve as a vessel to streamline such processes. Regardless of the facility or provider a patient visits, their information will be readily available. Access to faster, coordinated, and more accurate treatment will significantly improve the patient experience.

Increased Productivity and Lower Healthcare Costs

A lot of time is wasted when patients and providers manually sort and fill out forms and reports. This reduces the number of patients a provider can handle while increasing the cost of care. Interoperability enables providers to access and update data quickly and accurately, which then increases productivity. According to the West Health Institute (WHI), the US healthcare system can save more than $30 billion annually with system interoperability.

Enhanced Patient Health Information Privacy and Security

Efforts to improve patient data access should be accompanied by heightened privacy and security measures. Any breach of a patient’s medical, personal, or financial information will put them at risk of threats such as identity thefts. Such incidences will also expose your clinic to unnecessary lawsuits and noncompliance fines. 

Considering that healthcare cyberattacks doubled in 2020, there is great urgency to bolster security protocols and systems. Along with easing access to and sharing of information, interoperability in healthcare also helps to protect data.  

First, it reduces the number of people and the number of times they access patient data. With this comes a reduced risk of data going into the hands of hackers. Interoperability also comes with the need for organizations to assess where PHI is stored, who can access it, and with whom it can be shared. 

What Role Does Practice Management Software Play? 

Another key restriction to interoperability in healthcare is the use of archaic systems designed to operate independently. To unlock the full potential of interoperability, you must adopt modern practice management software with integration capabilities. 

At TenEleven, we offer practice management software designed to offer mental, behavioral, and chemical health providers maximum integration and efficiency. Reach out to us today to learn more about TenEleven’s eCR and our solutions for behavioral healthcare agencies.  

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