The healthcare IT ecosystem has grown and evolved in recent years. Healthcare organizations have become more motivated to improve patient care through more efficient systems, greater access to information, more advanced technologies, and new ways of collecting and analyzing data and risk. As a result, hospitals have, on average, more than 100 systems that must communicate with one another. This means that healthcare IT systems need to become more adept to exchanging, processing, and interpreting shared data between many devices, applications, and other systems to provide the best care possible to patients.

What is Interoperability in Healthcare?

According to HIMSS, interoperability describes the extent to which systems and devices can exchange data and interpret that shared data. For two systems to be interoperable, they must be able to exchange data and present that data so a user understands it.

HIMSS defines three specific levels of health information technology interoperability:

  1. “Foundational” interoperability allows one information technology system to receive a data exchange from another and does not require the ability for the receiving information technology system to interpret the data. It is the most basic type of interoperability.
  2. “Structural” interoperability is more intermediate, and defines the structure or format of the data exchange (i.e., the message format standards) where there is uniform movement of healthcare data from one system to another. Structural interoperability ensures that data exchanges between information technology systems can be interpreted at the data field level.
  3. “Semantic” interoperability is the highest level, where two or more systems or elements can exchange and use information. Semantic interoperability takes advantage of both the data exchange structure and the codification of the data. This level of interoperability supports the electronic exchange of patient summary information among caregivers and other authorized parties via potentially disconnected electronic health record (EHR) systems and other systems to improve quality, safety, efficiency, and efficacy of healthcare delivery.

As you can see, interoperability involves more than just information exchange. To be fully effective, it must also encompass data processing and interpretation, with the goal of delivering actionable information to the end user.

Benefits of Interoperability: Patient and Care Provider

Improved patient care is the ultimate goal of interoperability. So how, exactly, does it accomplish that? Here are the five key benefits of healthcare system interoperability through better information data exchange:

Interoperability benefit #1: Reduce medical errors

Forty-four percent of medical error deaths were preventable, according to a Johns Hopkins study. By creating and implementing advanced interoperability, with the aim to capture and interpret data across systems and applications, healthcare organizations can better prevent errors and pinpoint their cause if they do occur.

Even though healthcare organizations may have excellent interoperability within their own enterprise, they may be unable to communicate with external affiliates and systems. Lacking data on a patient’s vital signs and history – including allergies, medications, or pre-existing conditions — healthcare organizations may be prone to fatal errors.

And with interoperability, care providers can analyze the exact cause of a medical error to detect the trends in the decision-making leading up to the error. Once a pattern has been identified, healthcare organizations can begin remediating these issues to prevent future errors.

Interoperability benefit #2: Improve patient privacy and security

Patient privacy and security should be a major consideration for any CIO or CISO who is actively looking to improve interoperability within their health system.

There are some challenges to achieving interoperability with proper privacy and security, but many examples show how it can help enhance the privacy and security of patient data. When organizations enter data into systems that can’t communicate with one another, for example, it becomes difficult to track all systems that touch PHI, as required by the HIPAA Security Rule. It can be even tougher to track the users with access to an EHR or affiliated applications: In a study of 1 million FairWarning users, 26 percent of users were found to be poorly known or unknown to the care provider.

By promoting interoperability of HR systems such as Lawson or Peoplesoft with your EHR, however, you can better identify users, track their access, and more effectively manage access rights. When PHI is entered into secure, interoperable systems, organizations can gain a better idea of where their data is located and who has access to it, helping them secure patient data and protect privacy.

Interoperability benefit #3: Improve public health data

Interoperability encourages faster and more accurate collection and interpretation of public health data. This can help organizations answer pressing questions for both patients and providers. Would you want to know, for example, more about the latest contagious outbreaks and how they spreading? Or maybe you need to know more about reducing the long-term health trends so that you can take preventive measures? By facilitating the sharing and interpretation of such data, interoperability allows healthcare organizations to collectively educate one another on predicting and preventing outbreaks.

Interoperability benefit #4: Increase productivity and reduce costs

The West Health Institute (WHI), which recently testified in front of U.S. Congress, released an estimate that system interoperability could save the U.S. healthcare system over $30 billion a year. It can also improve care and hospital safety. Interoperability gives organizations the opportunity to save time with every patient encounter by getting the right data to the patient, the provider, and affiliate at the right time, every time.

Interoperability benefit #5: Enhance the patient experience

The patient experience can be full of delays. Patients must often waste precious time on administrative tasks like searching for documents, filling out multiple forms, re-explaining their symptoms or medical history, and sorting out insurance (both before and, often, after receiving care). In fact, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology revealed research that shows only 46 percent of hospitals had electronic access at the point of care to the patient information they required from outside providers or sources.

Through interoperability, organizations can reduce or eliminate overlapping workflows, giving patients faster and more accurate treatment, and enhancing their overall experience.

Achieving true interoperability in healthcare will be an ongoing journey. However, it is a worthwhile venture as the benefits have the potential to improve patient care to unprecedented levels. With a comprehensive understanding of true interoperability within your healthcare system and a vision for patient care, you can begin your path to interoperability — with the ultimate goal of improving patient care.