Why Interoperability Has Growing Importance in the Healthcare Industry

By Sumayya Mahin / 25 November 2019

Interoperability, the practice of connecting various systems to communicate disparate data, is growing in popularity and becoming more vital in certain industries. The healthcare industry can take advantage of interoperability to become better overall providers and contribute to global health needs at large.

Interoperability is becoming a frequently used word in the health ecosystem, as it accelerates the goal of optimizing healthcare facilities. Through interoperability, different healthcare information technology (HIT) solutions can interpret, exchange, share and use data cohesively.

Also, there was a very important change in requirements in the field of healthcare. As per the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), enacted in 2009, healthcare providers were required to shift from paper records to electronic health records (EHR), or EMR, as it is popularly called.

Why Interoperability is Important Within the Healthcare Industry

  1. Provides a Thorough Level of Care
  2. Increases Overall Efficiency
  3. Reduces Medical Errors
  4. Collects Public Health Data

Why EMR and ARRA Matter for Interoperability

ARRA is all about the mandates for healthcare providers regarding the adoption and use of digital medical records. ARRA, enacted on February 17, 2009 talks about the different measures that would help modernize the country’s infrastructure. The HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) Act is one such measure, laid out below.

hitech act

Seen above, there are four main goals of the HITECH bill, primarily working to strengthen HIT across the US. The HITECH Act included EMR and the importance of interoperability throughout the entire United States health care delivery system.

This grew into a critical national goal, with the aim being the improvement of the quality of care. Electronic transmission of patient care summaries, lab reports across unaffiliated providers, EMR systems, etc. will ensure accurate care and diagnosis of patients irrespective of where they are located.

When health records became available in the electronic format, the ability to share patient data among healthcare providers also became possible. And they were able to avoid the long phone calls and faxes that were used when providers had to share information regarding patients. 

The start of interoperability thus saves tons of money, paper and time, but there were problems that arose with that as well. Most of the software was developed as silos, and when the disjointed communication entities were brought together, there were problems. Integrations did work to an extent, not completely.

According to Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), data must be shared seamlessly across hospitals, clinicians, labs and pharmacies irrespective of the applications and the application vendors. The data exchange schema and standards must comply with this, they insisted. And this must happen in three levels of interoperability:

Foundational - Foundational interoperability happens when one information system interacts with another one to exchange or share information/data. There is no data interpretation in this scenario, just sharing.

Structural - According to HIMSS, the structural data must be preserved and unaltered. This is more of a standardized individual field-level exchange, because the interpretation is done at the individual level. Hence, this is more of a medium complexity data exchange.

Semantic - Semantic interoperability is the most complex of the three, and this complexity makes it the most sought after one too. The data sharing on this level calls for interpretation among the multiple, disparate systems, all laid out below.

semantic interoperability

Labs, pharmacies, hospitals, specialists, and the others listed above all communicate and interpret the data shared within this level of interoperability.

This brings us to the biggest idea - the need for interoperability in the healthcare sector. Now, let’s examine the different reasons why healthcare providers must adopt interoperability in order to treat their patients.

1. Provide a Thorough Level of Care

Patients may receive care and treatment from a variety of places, whether it be clinics, hospitals, individual practitioners, or others. A patient visiting all of these places would have a medical history consisting of illnesses, symptoms, phobias, allergies, procedures, complications, etc. 

All this data is vital, so it should be available at every point of care. Without access to this information, a patient would likely feel uncared for and the manual process to gather this information would take time. This could spell trouble, especially if the information is needed quickly. 

Interoperability allows for seamless access to data, and this, in turn, ensures that the patient gets timely care and treatment without losing any time.

2. Increase Overall Efficiency

When repetitive tasks are removed, it by far increases the efficiency levels of the healthcare providers. They can provide care without worrying about its accuracy or validity, since it’s no longer a manual collection process. There is control over data and very little administration issues concerning since the content is familiar. 

3. Reduce Medical Errors

According to a John Hopkins study, many patient deaths were caused by errors. Through advanced interoperability, it is possible to analyze the data in a more intelligent manner so they can provide accurate information to the care providers. 

Through interoperability, providers receive the patient’s vital signs and medical history, so there will be no room for errors. When all the devices from which the data is derived work in tandem, this risk can be completely eliminated. 

4. Collect Public Health Data

Interoperability works to improve public health, and through that, puts a tab on contagious outbreaks before they become serious. Through data mining and analytics, it would be possible to spot diseases that appear during different seasons. 

By collecting data, sharing and analyzing them, healthcare organizations can take predictive and preventive measures through interoperability. 

However, there are experts that voice concern over the problems that might arise with collecting public health data through interoperability. For example, adhering to cybersecurity protocols is one. Another would be sourcing data available in the clinical systems and EHRs, because third-party organizations are involved. 

One consolation that all governments, industry participants, and non-governmental organizations are making progress in eliminating the barriers and protecting data. They focus using the flow of information to improve care coordination, diagnosis, and treatment. 

Seen below, recent research shows that almost 75% of respondents have moved beyond the foundational level of interoperability.

foundational level of interoperability

With nearly 74% of respondents in the graph above, excluding those who aren’t sure, using structural or semantic inoperability, this raises the bar for other healthcare organizations worldwide.

Interoperability is Necessary to Provide All-Around Exceptional Care

Interoperability is becoming vitally important in this modern age of countless devices and cloud-based technology solutions, making it crucial for healthcare providers to adopt this technology immediately

Between patient recorded data (through wearables and health monitors) and hospital systems, there is so much data that need to be properly analyzed and without friction. 

Once the minor glitches are solved, interoperability will work even more like a charm.

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