As healthcare shifts almost totally to digitized information, “interoperability” has become a major buzz term. You’ve probably heard it—but what does it actually mean?
In simple terms, interoperability means that your healthcare information technology system can exchange patient data across other information systems. This allows for patient information to be accessible by other providers and payers, even if they are outside of your organization or serviced by different application venders.
There are three types of interoperability. The include:
- Foundational, where the information is simply transferred to other systems, but can’t be interpreted by the receiving systems.
- Structural, where the data is transferred in the same message structure, although lacks the standardization to be interpreted by the receiving system.
- Semantic, where the message is transferred, kept structurally sound, and coded so that the receiving system can interpret and use the data.
The real benefit lies in semantic interoperability.
The value of interoperability
Why is there a need for systems that can transfer and interpret healthcare data?
Well, the answer to that is simple, and it comes in two parts: the benefit to patients, and the benefit to healthcare providers.
With interoperability, patient data can be transferred easily across different providers. This means a patient receives seamless and informed treatment no matter where he or she is. As of now, information transfers between hospitals and providers can be messy and frustrating, and hurt patient care.
Interoperability would also be helpful to patients because they would finally be able to access their full healthcare records, no matter where they are. In a world where people can check their bank account with the swipe of a finger, healthcare needs to catch up.
The benefit to providers is much the same. If healthcare providers can seamlessly receive patient information, they can make smarter, more informed decisions on patient care. They can also avoid the complications that arise when trying to access and interpret patient information from other providers.
Providers can also become more efficient. For example, a hospital won’t have to waste time re-administering a test because they’ll be able to access the original results from another provider.
Barriers to interoperability
So we know the goal, and we know why interoperability is useful. But if it were easy, every hospital, office and facility would already have achieved it. So what’s stopping us?
Unfortunately, Meaningful Use and other federal guidelines have encouraged providers to switch over to Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), but the transition hasn’t focused on interoperability. Right now, digitized health data is chaotic at best, with hundreds of different EMR application vendors.
What’s more, these software and systems vendors haven’t been encouraged to embrace interoperability—and some won’t. Sometimes this is due to the competitive market; vendors want to keep their products isolated and unique, or keep the data untransferrable so they can charge exchange fees. But it can also be due to the complexity of large EMR systems. Because regulators didn’t work interoperability into the original framework of electronic records management, adding it in retroactively could prove difficult.
Despite that, the upcoming Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) will put a higher focus on interoperability. Under MACRA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will release on July 1, 2016 metrics that measure progress toward interoperability. If the evaluation shows that systems haven’t moved toward interoperability, then HHS will make recommendations on how to achieve this goal (likely through incentives and penalties) by the end of 2018.
This greater focus on interoperability is necessary for EHRs to reach their full potential. It’s not just having an electronic record of patient health—it’s being able to effectively access that information, no matter where the patient goes for treatment.
As with everything else, the focus should always come back to effective patient care.