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Interoperability in Healthcare – What Is It and Why Is It Important?

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      9 June 2022 by  Patrycja Paterska Patrycja Paterska

      Healthcare interoperability is a hot topic, but it's definitely a marathon not a sprint for the industry. Learn why interoperability is important, benefits, challenges, and more. 

      Being able to access and share data efficiently within the healthcare space is a challenging task. Conflicts commonly arise because health data is confidential and bound by stringent state and federal laws. However, it’s vital to be able to share accurate information between appropriate agencies and organizations.

      At its core, healthcare interoperability allows health organizations to share information efficiently and, most importantly, avoid errors. It allows medical organizations to provide a more patient-centered and data-driven approach that improves health outcomes.

      What is interoperability in healthcare?

      Healthcare interoperability, also known as EHR interoperability, is the process of two or more systems working together to integrate and exchange information, which leads to better patient care, higher performance, and a more effective workflow for health providers and staff.

      The importance of data interoperability in healthcare

      The absence of data interoperability in healthcare can lead to a misunderstanding of patient needs, as well as the population.

      According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2030, 1 in 6 people will be 60 years of age or older. In fact, every country worldwide is seeing an increase in the number of elderly individuals. It’s important to consider these statistics because the elderly make up a large proportion of the “at risk” population.

      In other words, they are more likely to get infections, diseases, or die from illnesses that the common person wouldn’t, so they make up a large percentage of the patient population. This makes healthcare interoperability critical for the future.

      The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) has reported that the use of electronic health records (EHRs) is on the rise within the United States. This allows more hospitals and clinical settings to share data with outside providers. Yet, there is still quite a bit of work to be done to better optimize these processes because less than half of hospitals are using the data for individual patient records.

      Healthcare interoperability standards

      Interoperability standards in healthcare are always subject to change. That’s why it’s important to know what resources are out there in order to stay up to date. Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), focused on improving healthcare through IT (information technology) and management systems, groups health data standards as follows:

      • Vocabulary/terminology - this standard helps improve communication by simplifying concepts between senders and recipients.
      • Content – pertains to the structure and content of a message or contents of a document when exchanging information.
      • Transport – relates to the format of messages and uses “push” and “pull” methods when swapping information.
      • Privacy and security – privacy standards allow an individual or organization to determine who gets their information, when they get it, and what information gets sent. Security standards are made up of admin, physical, and technical actions to protect healthcare information.
      • Identifiers – used to identify patients and/or providers.

      Some of the most common standards today are FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) and the above-mentioned HIPPA regulations. While HIPPA regulations pertain both to information that’s shared electronically and in-person, FHIR focuses on data that is exchanged through computer systems. Furthermore, FHIR has been added as a "nationwide interoperability roadmap". These standards are essential for data interoperability in healthcare.

      Interoperability standards in healthcare are important to secure data and ensure sound information exchange between partiesSource: Unsplash

      Healthcare app builders need to consider the standards that apply to the app they’re building, in which countries the data will be transmitted, and all local and global regulations that apply to the app(s). 100% compliance with interoperability standards in healthcare is necessary to avoid any future legal headaches.

      The different tiers of healthcare interoperability

      Healthcare software interoperability has four primary tiers that build around it. These are as follows:

      • Foundational – foundational interoperability is the simplest, most basic form. It is commonly referred to as “simple transport.” It takes place when moving information from one software to another. This can be via both digital and non-digital transfer. For example, a healthcare provider is downloading lab results into a PDF file and then manually puts the results into a patient's health record.
      • Structural – this is where all healthcare data is organized into a common format, which makes it easier to recognize among multiple systems or devices. Overall, it’s a good option for consistency and easy transfer between systems.
      • Organizational – this one is a little more controversial among experts because some argue that it should be the highest tier while others agree that semantic (mentioned below) is the highest. Whatever the case may be, this tier provides seamless transfers between organizations that have different requirements and regulations.
      • Semantic – is part of a complex, digital data exchange of healthcare information. It exchanges data between multiple systems that have entirely different makeups.

      Take DICOM and non-DICOM images, for example. These images come in several different specialized formats. This tier would allow images to be transferred from one system to another. Then, it would interpret and incorporate the transferred images to comply with the new system irrespective of the original format.

      Healthcare interoperability – the main challenges

      While it can be very beneficial for healthcare, EHR interoperability does face some challenges. The primary issues are discussed below.

      Data overload

      Transferring data from one system to another can sometimes result in a data overload, or overwhelm caused by the amount of data being sent over for processing. It’s not a simple task to prevent data from essentially overflowing.

      EHR interoperability, data from loT sources, and internal hospital systems must be properly dealt with to avoid disrupting healthcare organizations’ processes. The simple answer to this issue is to integrate proper data tools and analytics solutions.

      Budget limitations

      Many healthcare organizations run on limited means making it incredibly difficult to integrate an interoperable system. In fact, some organizations rely heavily on donations to fund essential things like patient care, medical research, and education.

      Fortunately, some are eligible for government grants aimed to update healthcare systems, so it’s important to check for eligibility. In addition, many vendors allow pay-as-you-go options to help alleviate some of the financial burdens.

      healthcare-interoperability-budget-limitationsSource: Unsplash

      Old legacy systems

      Organizations that rely on old legacy systems commonly run into challenges when trying to meet EHR interoperability requirements. Old legacy systems are those that are “old” and considered outdated. Unfortunately, they do not interact well with modern-day systems.
      A hybrid cloud approach would be the best option for organizations running on these systems. This method would extract data from the old system and allow it to be more accessible to the new system.

      Unwillingness to share data

      Integrating data interoperability in healthcare can prove to be a challenging task when some facilities are unwilling to share information with each other. This is partially due to the fact that many urgent care clinics compete against each other for bringing in new patients. In turn, this makes the motivation to share data very low.
      There are, however, laws in place that require health data to be readily available across organizations and to patients.

      Poor coordination

      Regulators, leaders, and healthcare organizations alike need to have strong coordination with each other to prosper with data interoperability in healthcare. To be proactive, leaders must set aside ample time to formulate an interoperability strategy and prioritize interoperability planning.

      Interoperability in healthcare – what does the future hold?

      Healthcare interoperability is a sure-fire way to make healthcare data more accessible and efficiently transmitted across organizations while maintaining best practices with privacy and security.

      The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more people requesting in-home care, and more organizations and insurance companies are happy to oblige. Interoperability will make in-home care more efficient and help avoid serious errors.

      Not only will interoperability support technology, but it will also go one step further to help researchers through data extraction.

      The COVID-19 vaccine is one primary example of how critical timely research and development efforts are. Interoperability is expected to help lower communication barriers between countries and allow data to be transmitted faster than ever before.

      With data interoperability in healthcare, there is much optimism surrounding the future of public health worldwide.

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