If you run a healthcare-related business, you’ve probably noticed that any medical software provider can’t help but mention interoperability as one of the main perks of their solution. But what does interoperability even mean? Is it that important, how you achieve it, and what are the benefits for the business? Keep reading to find out all about it!
- What is interoperability in healthcare?
- Why is interoperability important in healthcare?
- 5 Main Benefits for Business
- Standards and Most Popular Practices
- How theory Translates into Action
What is interoperability in healthcare?
In outline, it’s the capability of various devices, pieces of software or information systems to gain access, process and exchange plus collectively use data with maximum efficiency.
HITECH Act was introduced back in 2009. From then on, the US was forced to adopt electronic health records (EHR) instead of outdated paper records.
No doubt, it changed the face of the whole industry and brought numerous benefits both for medics and patients, but it also put some challenges on the map. From that moment, any health information technology (HIT) had to exchange and transfer data via the electronic channels, and it’s not easy to do that without let or hindrance when every hospital, research lab, clinic, or care center has its own unique piece of software.
Interoperability eliminates any possible conflicts or/and errors during data exchange regardless of the tech divergence across the healthcare industry.
Fairly simple, right? There are some levels to it. Interoperability is just like a nesting doll; it has some more complex pieces hidden within.
Foundational interoperability is the basics. It’s a system’s capability to transfer data to another system and get data from it correspondingly. The receiving end doesn’t have to interpret the info it got.
Structural Interoperability counts as a “middle level”, which is aimed to keep the meaning of the transferred data preserved, unaltered. It is achieved by standardizing data exchange syntax and format.
Note! Structural interoperability standardizes the message’s structure, not the content.
Semantic interoperability is by far the most complex, allowing several systems not only to exchange data but also to interpret and use the transmitted info providing the most efficient system-to-system interaction.
Advanced interoperability brings many benefits for the modern healthcare business, therefore the demand for suitable solutions will significantly grow over the next few years.
E.g., the market size for structural interoperability solutions will almost double by 2025, as Global Market Insights reports.
Why is interoperability important in healthcare?
Timely-delivered, transparent, and accurate information in healthcare is so important that human lives depend on it. And even the slightest barrier separating the links of the medical environment puts someone’s life and health at risk.
Lack of interoperability in healthcare IT means that there will be numerous delays, malfunctions, data losses, and other troubles neither med staff nor patients want to deal with.
From the business perspective, it means poor quality of service, loss of revenue, higher medical error rate, and a significant downswing in customer loyalty.
In real life, it would work like this: a patient is transferred from hospital A to hospital B. So the related information should be transferred as well. And if the health info technology at both or even one of the facilities lacks interoperability, there might be severe complications during the data transfer. The reason for the possible conflict is the difference in the data format (something structural interoperability takes care of).
Interoperability in the medical industry streamlines the workflow, eliminates possible barriers in cooperation not only within one organization but also on the regional, national, and even global levels. Moreover, it brings several huge benefits every entrepreneur will appreciate. Let’s take a closer look!
5 Main Benefits for Business
So what are the actual perks of interoperability? There are actually quite many. We’ll list five of the most compelling.
Fewer errors and malfunctions, more efficient workflow
Health IT Interoperability allows any medical facility to get and operate real-time data effortlessly in a matter of minutes. And we’re talking about all the info staff may need: from pharmacies, labs, specialists, all EHR data, and more! The manual data entry is minimized, which saves time while also lowering the risks of possible errors.
Improved service quality
Even if the patient has chosen one clinic and has never changed it in a lifetime (s)he still may receive consultations from independent physicians, clinics, and hospitals. Every individual interaction adds up to the individual’s medical history and, of course, the customer expects from his/her healthcare provider to deliver and have all that information at all times. Interoperability ensures just that, providing the medics with full access to all the data required. And when you’re prepared, you can significantly boost the quality of service and increase customer satisfaction.
A higher level of protection for the sensitive data
This one is obvious: medical info stored in electronic form and transferred via the protected digital channels is far more secure in comparison to the protected health information saved on paper.
Ensured privacy for the patients
To run a healthcare business in the US, you need to make sure your software is HIPAA compliant, and the sensitive health info is secure. This includes (but is not limited to) tracking all systems that touch the patient’s sensitive data. And that’s nearly impossible when operating systems that lack interoperability and can’t interact with one another.
Healthcare interoperability is a perfect way to control and manage the access rights plus keep the protected info private and secure.
Positive influence on public health
The more providers are interoperable, the more control over the public health data the industry will receive. In this regard, interoperability becomes a tool that allows collecting, interpreting, and/or sharing public health data, which is especially important during the pandemic.
By applying interoperability, healthcare facilities can track, predict, and even prevent the spread of various diseases on the national level.
Standards and Most Popular Practices
The number of interoperable healthcare providers grows every year. In 2019 the global interoperability solutions market was 2,3 USD billion worth, and by 2024 it will reach approximately 4,2 billion.
That’s why interoperability standards are more important than ever. Without the common tools and the set of certain expectations, every single health provider will feel “lost in the woods”, knowing that interoperability is vital but having no clue how to achieve it.
For now, the array of interoperability standards is truly impressive and may seem intimidating as there are more than 40 of them in the US, and all are organized into five categories.
Help to: unambiguously identify the patient or the provider in the system
Examples: EMPI, NCSBN ID, OID
Help to: standardize the UI, document architecture, homogenize the format of data exchanged electronically
Examples: FHIR, Direct, DICOM
Help to: eliminate the ambiguity in concepts and terminology both the sender and the receiver use
Examples: LOINC, CPT, NDC, RxNorm
Privacy & Security Standards
Help to: protect the sensitive information from uncontrolled use, disclosure, and access; define precise measures to protect the patient’s confidentiality
Examples: HIPAA, FERPA
Help to: determine the content structure for every message or document exchanged electronically
Examples: V2, CDA
And now, let’s break down the best-known interoperability standards out there.
Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR)
FHIR is on everyone's lips when it comes to the healthcare industry. This standard implies structural/semantic levels and is aimed to establish a secure data exchange process using JSON, OAuth, HTTP, and other internet standards.
While all of the data are shared in a consistent format (which is a great thing as it is), one of the main perks that make FHIR so popular is its adaptability. FHIR can be used not only for complex EHR-based solutions but also for mobile apps, cloud platforms, etc.
It’s hard to believe that these days anyone willingly uses fax. However, it’s true. Fax transactions are still common for the healthcare industry even though those embody everything interoperability is aimed to vanquish: paperwork, time expenditures, malfunctions, miscommunication.
Cloud Fax eliminates all the risks that come with physical fax transactions via the cloud faxing technology. TLS and AES encryption guarantee HIPAA-compliant transactions, provide a high level of access control (via unique IDs) and audit control.
Direct is a transport interoperability standard that is aimed to streamline the health information transactions via the Internet. Digital signing and data encryption for the transferred messages and files are carried out by HISP (health information service provider) approved by Direct.
Direct works for any kind of messaging you may need for the healthcare business. It includes doctor — patient chats, various push notifications, referrals, etc.
Challenges of interoperability
At this point, you may wonder: if interoperability is so important and so beneficial, why haven’t all healthcare providers adopted it yet? Unfortunately, there are some challenges healthcare business owners need to overcome to achieve interoperability.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find out about over 40 interoperability standards and not to feel overwhelmed. The business owner is expected not only to know about each standard but also to make balanced decisions based on the company’s needs.
The struggle is real, not only in the US. For example, according to Statista, European healthcare providers consider interoperability standards the second most common challenge they are forced to face right after the problems with funding!
Is it illegal? Yes! Does it still happen? Also yes! The most common ways of information blocking include:
- forcing to adopt particular technology for health information exchange or EHR
- unexpected fees for the data transferring outside the particular system
This challenge is probably the most disturbing one as information blocking is something interoperability is aimed to get rid of. However, for now, this war is far from being over.
Managing a large amount of miscellaneous data
Most health workers are doomed to wander through the sea of miscellaneous data. Chunk of the information is in electronic format, some things are still on paper, some pieces are patient-generated, and the other part is received from the partners.
Even for the IT experts, it may be challenging to figure out such a puzzle and provide the facility with an efficient solution that will unify all of the heterogeneous data. But the good news is, it’s definitely possible!
Problems with medical records
How many times in your life you had to fill out a specific form sharing personal and health-related information? Are you sure you’ve never made an unfortunate mistake?
Mistakes do happen, and that’s ok. The sad thing is that they happen and stay uncorrected, which leads to numerous inconsistencies within the medical records.
Adopting interoperability is a lot of work. It definitely will be time-consuming and confusing for a newcomer, but it’s also pricey. Yes, interoperability has extremely high ROI, it’s all worth it. Still, you need a significant amount of cash to make it happen, and for many providers, this challenge is by far the most complicated.
How theory Translates into Action
One of the best examples will be HIPAA compliance. That’s something every single one of the healthcare business owners is well-versed in because using the non-compliant software these days can lead to dire consequences like penalties or prison sentences.
Light IT team has already studied the subject of HIPAA compliance to the fullest while implementing Simpatra project, as well as gained experience with electronic health records.
Another example of interoperability as well as digital transformation in healthcare is Apple's willingness to turn the iPhone into a medical device tracking the owner’s health. The company has already filed more than 50 patents in this regard, and it’s just the beginning!