What is Interoperability and Why Is It Important?

Caitlin ClementMay 05, 20224 minute read

Interoperability. If you're in healthcare, it’s likely you’ve heard it before. But, what does it actually entail and why should it apply to you? To put it simply…it’s complicated. Right now, the United States healthcare system doesn’t have a universal set of standards in place for everyone to follow—which is causing headaches. However, as virtual healthcare continues to grow, interoperability is becoming increasingly important with the management of electronic health records (EHRs).

So, let’s break it down. In this blog you will learn what interoperability is, why it’s important to the future of the telehealth and healthcare industries, and the challenges it currently faces.

What is Interoperability?

Interoperability, put simply, is the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and then use the information that has been exchanged. Its goal is to provide a timely and seamless exchange of information to optimize the health of patients.

As virtual care options continue to increase, greater interoperability in telehealth could set the stage for future medical advancements. According to Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS), there are four levels of interoperability:

  1. Foundational: Establishes the inter-connectivity requirements needed for one system or application to securely communicate data to and receive data from another.

  2. Structural: Defines the format, syntax and organization of data exchange.

  3. Semantic: Providing a domain of medical terminologies, vocabulary, and ontologies to ensure that the meaning of medical concepts can be shared across systems.

  4. Organizational: Includes governance, policy, social, legal and organizational considerations to facilitate secure communication and use of data both within and between systems. These components enable shared consent, trust, and integrated end-user processes and workflows.

The Benefits of Interoperability in Healthcare

Even prior to the recent telehealth boom, the lack of interoperability was becoming a problem for the increasingly virtual and data driven healthcare industry. The lack of cooperative data exchange was and is preventing technology, like RPM devices, from being fully utilized. However, proper integration of interoperability in a few key areas would create more opportunities for data sharing.

EHR Interoperability

For electronic health records, interoperability refers to the ease in which medical information can be transferred from one provider or system to another. While there are other ways data can communicate, EHRs tend to be the most common and secure forms. According to The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), EHRs must integrate four key areas of technology to be considered completely interoperable:

  • Application interaction with users

  • System communication standards

  • Information processing and management

  • Consumer device integration

This stream of communication between clinicians, pharmacists, and patients allows healthcare information to be assessed quickly. Making it easier for the right data to be available to the right people at the right time.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data

Being able to process information from different systems and institutions is crucial to unlocking the full potential of AI technology and “big data''.

For example, a comprehensive analysis of a patient's data could require information from general practitioners, hospitals, laboratories, mobile health apps, and wearable sensors. Having a cooperative system in place would make collecting data not only easier, but more accurate in the long run.

In addition, being able to build more structured and standardized data mitigates the risk of systematic biases. If an AI program is set to identify diabetic patients using a low-quality data set, it may identify those with a family history of diabetes instead. Compromising the validity of the results.

Research

Interoperability’s ability to collect real-world data could advance medical research in addition to improving health at the point of care. If real-world data were interoperable, it could be used in studies at the regional, national, and even global levels! Opening the door to epidemiological questions and potential public health concerns previously unknown. This research could also provide insights into healthcare gaps, incidence of disease, and typical treatment pathways.

Real-world data is a treasure trove for AI and machine learning too. Having access to such high-quality data sets could reveal patterns and correlations that lead to new research hypotheses. All in all, at a larger scale, it can drive evidence-based practices in medicine and accelerate their implementation into public health policies.

Barriers to Interoperability

Due to the variety of systems and standards used today, interoperability is still an illusion for many. Different systems speak different languages and use different vocabulary. Making it harder for information and data to be transferred seamlessly. This only adds to the confusion about what can and can’t be shared legally across systems in regard to patient information. Leaving some stakeholders skeptical of initiating too much communication between them.

Additionally, it can be quite the financial undertaking. Investing in new systems, technology, and the training required to use them effectively can be expensive. For those who do decide to make the investment, it’s going to take some time. In order to properly incorporate that kind of system communication, those four levels of interoperability discussed earlier need to be achieved. With so many stakeholders involved, the coordination can sometimes prove to be difficult.

Powering Telehealth Communication

Sure, interoperability has its barriers, but the expansive benefits are why we need to continue to work towards it. A seamless and universal transfer of information across systems could offer up new discoveries and innovative solutions to patient care.

Speaking of innovative healthcare solutions, we’d like to take a moment to introduce OpenLoop! We provide intuitive telehealth technology customized for your business and your patients. Our whitelabel technology platform offers seamless integrations, comprehensive tools, and HIPPA-compliant functionality built right in!

Interested in what we can do for your organization? Get in touch here!

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