HIMSS '16: Progress on Interoperability

Topics: Healthcare IT Management

In order for healthcare interoperability to happen, organizations and the industry must address information governance - including the standards, technology, and workflow that will enable a seamless, shared environment. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry has not been able to attain this kind of interoperability yet. In fact, there are several factors delaying these efforts: education and training, semantics and customized technology.

According to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, healthcare interoperability is "the ability of different information technology systems and software applications to communicate, exchange data and use the information that has been exchanged." This interoperability provides healthcare organizations with an efficient way for technology systems and applications to receive and share patient data, which would then allow staff members to make better healthcare decisions.

However, in order for healthcare interoperability to happen, organizations must address information governance, including the standards, technology, and workflow that will enable a seamless, shared environment. The good news is that recent announcements at HIMSS '16 furthered the interoperability cause; HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell revealed that companies providing 90 percent of electronic health records used by hospitals nationwide - as well as the top five largest private healthcare systems in the country, have agreed to improve interoperability through better consumer access, no information blocking, and federally recognized, national interoperability standards.

To make forward progress, there are some additional considerations for health systems to be interoparable:

1. Semantics

Many technology solutions on the market today are not semantically interoperable with each other. For example, one product might call a stroke a cerebrovascular accident in its electronic health records system, while another might call it a stroke. Though most clinicians understand the two terms mean the same thing, this is not the case for the underlying software applications unless they were programmed accordingly.

Semantic interoperability is at the highest level of interoperability because it involves the structure and codification of the data. With this move toward risk-based models and increased populations, it is becoming more and more crucial to integrate this type of technology into a healthcare organization's environment.

2. Customized Technology

Healthcare interoperability depends heavily on customized solutions so that disparate systems can communicate. If a solution cannot integrate with an organization's existing infrastructure, it will not be possible to exchange data between hospitals. Therefore, a solution provider should keep the healthcare industry's operational requirements in mind when developing new products. This will speed up the integration process, which will help organizations avoid major obstacles. The HIMSS 16 announcements should help with these efforts.

3. Education and Training

Healthcare providers and vendors need to increase their education and awareness of the variety of systems and products involved with achieving interoperability. If they do not, they run the risk of implementing a product or solution that does not offer the functional requirements necessary to reach their long-term goals. This could subsequently lead organizations to waste their time and financial resources. Though this type of education and training will take time, it is worth the effort.

Healthcare interoperability will likely continue to mature with every passing year. If healthcare organizations properly govern their information, leverage common semantic technology as they create new applications and implement workflow, and educate their staff and vendors, they will be on the road to interoperability success.