Achieving interoperability in healthcare

In recent years, the concept of healthcare interoperability has been widely discussed – both in the public sector and among private healthcare networks and providers.

Most industry experts agree that we must move closer to the ideal of interoperability in order to maximize efficiency, reduce costs and achieve better patient outcomes. Yet, we still do not have a clear path forward. How can we work toward achieving this goal?

First, we must all acknowledge and understand the definition of interoperability. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) defines interoperability as the extent to which systems and devices can exchange data and interpret that shared data. For two systems to be interoperable, they must be able to exchange data and subsequently present that data such that it can be understood by a user.

Sounds simple enough. However, as we begin to look at integrating operations across a wide range of disparate, complex and sometimes conflicting systems – we run into some issues. The healthcare marketplace is comprised of countless data sources including clinics, laboratories, medical practices, pharmacies, hospitals, and more. Even with the efforts of the U.S. government in recent years to standardize computer systems’ communications, we’re still up against numerous barriers to full interoperability – and the benefits it brings.

Before we delve into the barriers to interoperability and the best path forward, let’s explore some of the benefits of achieving interoperability. What positive outcomes would a truly interoperable healthcare system offer?

Financial: Better information storage and sharing leads to improved efficiency which saves time and money for patients and streamlines the time of staffers which cuts down on office administrative costs.
Clinical: A safer transition of patient care is guaranteed when disparate systems communicate efficiently about appointments, medical histories and treatments. Better, more accurate continuity of care leads to improved patient outcomes.
Operational: When data is accessible in real-time across the healthcare system, practitioners can make operational decisions faster and more efficiently. There’s no question that one of the key benefits of interoperability is significantly streamlined operations.
Visibility: Better access to accurate and timely data ensures that providers and practitioners are able to review their patient records, outcomes and treatments on a regular basis, which leads to better clinical and business decision-making over time. Moreover, patients are given insight and control over their own care, which empowers them to make informed care decisions.

While these potential benefits can be a reality, our industry faces some significant barriers to implementing solutions and systems that support interoperability. Chief among them is the fact that the vast majority of healthcare providers are still using a closed-model system for tracking patient records and appointments. Even those that utilize EHR and scheduling modules are not equipped to transmit and share their data with the systems of their peers, nor do they necessarily understand the benefits of doing so. Many are also unsure about the efficacy of proposed solutions and platforms, and are hesitant to invest the necessary funds into new systems. Finally, many providers are simply reluctant to make their data and systems accessible to others, for fear of losing control of their autonomy in scheduling, care coordination, referrals and data tracking.

These objections are valid, and should not be glossed over. They speak to the need for more conversations about interoperability, and deeper exploration of the promised benefits of such a system. Only when all healthcare networks and providers understand the critical need for interoperability will we be able to work together to achieve it, and then reap the subsequent rewards.

But what can be done now, by your organization, to make incremental progress?

As a first step toward interoperability, I recommend evaluating your current systems and determining whether your existing technical footprint can support some initial use cases. Do your practitioners have full visibility of their patients’ experiences across the continuum of care? Do your patients have the ability to schedule, reschedule and cancel their own appointments? Do your in-network doctors have a process for communicating with each other? How do you manage your referral system? Do you have a centralized call center or multiple disjointed call centers?

If you find the answers to these questions lacking, consider seeking out and implementing a cross-platform and cross-application solution that features a robust suite of self-scheduling, data transparency and referral management capabilities. The focus should be on using technology to connect the disparate pieces of your care delivery network to improve the patient experience and business operations. As more and more providers implement these kinds of sophisticated technical solutions, we will be better situated to eventually connect with each other and achieve interoperability in healthcare.

Chris Yager is Vice President of Technology at MyHealthDirect, a leader in online scheduling and digital care coordination solutions.

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