Interoperability refers to the ability of computer systems or software to communicate, exchange, and make use of information. In order for two systems to be interoperable, they must be able to exchange data and then present that data in a manner that can be understood by the user.
Nowadays, being able to exchange data across databases, platforms and other computer-based information systems is vital to the economic sector. And the healthcare sector is no exception to this rule.
Distinguishing between exchange and use
In healthcare, interoperability defines the ability of health information systems to collaborate more easily with one another within and across organizational boundaries. Data exchange should be permitted for use across a wide range of sources, including clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories, and medical practices. The main objective of this approach is to advance the effectiveness of healthcare delivery for patients and communities.
As described by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), there are three levels of health information technology interoperability:
- Foundational interoperability, which allows data exchange from one IT system to another. It does not require the receiver of the data to interpret it. The data will be instantly available for use;
- Structural interoperability, which defines the structure or format of data exchange. It ensures that the data exchanged between IT systems passes through without modification. Such an example includes a database of patient records;
- Semantic interoperability, which defines the ability of two or more IT systems to be able to exchange data and to use the data. It supports electronic health record systems and several others designed to improve the quality, safety, and efficiency of healthcare delivery;
Growing in importance
Today, 96% of hospitals and 87% of medical practices are using electronic health records. EHR interoperability supports collaboration among healthcare providers. It helps to reduce medical errors, misdiagnoses, as well as unnecessary, costly diagnostic tests.
From an improvement perspective, interoperability results in:
- Enhanced efficiency
Interoperability provides healthcare providers with timely access to data. This, in turn, helps to improve the decision-making process, resulting in increased patient engagement and better outcomes. For instance, consider a family doctor who sends a patient with a complex fracture to see a radiologist. The doctor can send the patient’s records to the radiologist, even if the two practices are using different software systems. With more details on the injury, it is easier to get to the heart of the matter and to devise a fully-informed treatment plan.
- Continued care
Whether a patient has an acute or chronic condition, continuity of care is imperative. Interoperability enables safer transitions of care, which leads to better patient outcomes. For instance, consider a patient who is admitted to the hospital after falling ill. If he or she is unable to provide a detailed description of their medical history, accessing their electronic health records can make a difference to the doctor in charge.
- Lower medical costs
Interoperability enables timelier access to data, thereby facilitating data sharing. As a result, greater data sharing has the ability to save time, energy, and costs associated with unnecessary medical services. This is especially true for patients who are chronically ill and are sent to visit with multiple medical specialists.
Laying the foundation for future investments in healthcare delivery
Interoperability allows any professional working in the healthcare industry to access data on specific patient populations. This, in turn, gives them a better overview of a patient’s medical history, symptoms, and condition. Providing better access to health data helps to develop best practices that are guaranteed to improve outcomes.
This is why healthcare leaders and providers must continuously work together. They must be able to drive the adoption of standards that enable big data exchange across the healthcare industry. This includes addressing the technological, financial, and clinical aspects that are needed to implement and to maintain meaningful data-sharing. Doing so will identify and address the gaps in healthcare, benefiting patients, payers, and healthcare organizations.