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By: Stephen O'Connor

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May 30th, 2017

What Is Interoperability, and Why Is it Important?

Healthcare Advice

The world is getting smaller and smaller as more people connect with one another over networked computerized systems. Enhanced connections speed up reaction times as people can communicate more easily, but there are also gains being made as various software and computer systems link up with one another for automated data sharing.

With so many complex systems being networked together, issues of interoperability should be on the minds of people working in all types of industries, with healthcare being no exception.

Interoperability refers to the basic ability of computerized systems to connect and communicate with one another readily, even if they were developed by widely different manufacturers in different industries. Being able to exchange information between applications, databases, and other computer systems is crucial for the modern economy.


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According to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (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 subsequently present that data such that it can be understood by a user.”

When it comes to the healthcare industry, interoperability has to do with the capability of disparate computer and software systems to exchange and share data from a range of vital sources, including laboratories, clinics, pharmacies, hospitals, and medical practices.

Imagine, for example, a family doctor who sends a patient to a radiology practice to address a complex fracture. The physician can transmit the patient’s records to the radiologist, and the radiologist’s team can later quickly send over the results from the imaging department, even if the two practices are using different software systems internally.

The United States plays a role in interoperability in the healthcare industry by developing standards for how computer systems communicate and promulgating specific standardized terms to describe the systems and their connections. The government also establishes protocols for networking data, transmitting email, and improving other security and encryption schemes designed to safeguard confidential and sensitive patient information.

You’ll get a better sense of interoperability in healthcare when you become acquainted with the three levels of health IT interoperability and learn more about the importance of this enhanced connectivity.

Three Levels of Health Information Technology Interoperability

The HIMSS board established definitions for three levels of health information technology interoperability in 2013:

Foundational Interoperability

Foundational interoperability enables one information system to exchange data with another information system. The system receiving this information does not need to have to interpret the data. It will be instantly available for use.

Structural Interoperability

At an intermediate level, structural interoperability defines the format of the data exchange. This has to do with standards that govern the format of messages being sent from one system to another, so that the operational or clinical purpose of the information is evident and passes through without alteration.

We are talking about information at the level of data fields, as in a database of patient records.

Semantic Interoperability

Semantic interoperability is the highest level of connection. Two or more different systems or parts of systems can exchange and use information readily. Here, the very structure of the exchange of data and how the data itself is codified lets medical providers share patient data even when using completely different EHR software solutions from different vendors.

It has implications not just for cooperation amongst health care providers, but also for researchers and scientists who need large amounts of aggregated data to conduct studies on emerging diseases and other public health concerns.

Why Is Interoperability Important?

It’s useful to think of interoperability as a philosophy instead of just a “standards-based interaction between computer systems,” noted a report from the Electronic Health Reporter quoting Information Advantage Group’s CEO Jim Bloedau. So on the technical side of things, interoperability helps reduce the time it takes to have useful conversations between providers as well as between doctors and their patients.

This leads to increased patient engagement and better outcomes, since more time can be spent on the details of the illness or injury as the medical professionals devise a treatment plan.

Interoperability in health care results in easier access to things such as details in patients’ electronic health records, but it will only work to the extent that various medical software vendors will agree to share what often can be proprietary system information, noted a report from SearchHealthIT. What’s more, stakeholders in medical practices and other healthcare organizations must be willing to share patient details over networks for access by different databases.

Improved Efficiency

Interoperability in healthcare is designed to boost efficiency. When data is presented on a consistent basis no matter what the source, it’s easier for practitioners to quickly get to the heart of the matter as they make decisions about treatment.

Safer Transitions of Care

Continuity of care is crucial for patients, whether for chronic conditions or taking care of an acute situation with multiple health service providers. Interoperability enables safer transitions of care, which leads to better patient outcomes over all.

For example, a patient who is on vacation and falls ill may not be able to provide all details of his medical history, which can make all the difference to the doctor charged with his care.

A recent article at Medical Economics highlighted a case where a heart patient from out of town was in the emergency room. He was only able to describe that he had undergone “some procedure” without any useful details. The doctor would have been able to treat him faster and more comprehensively, if data from the patient’s electronic health record at his home state of North Carolina was accessible in New York.

Can Help Lower Costs

Interoperability means that more useful information can be shared in a timely manner. So, the data from a patient who had a blood test last week at his doctor’s office can be used today during a trip to the emergency room, saving the time and cost of doing more (and unneeded tests) at the hospital.

Improved efficiency through greater information sharing saves time and effort for staffers, leading to more cost savings.

Key Takeaways:

  • Interoperability has to do with the way computer and software systems can connect and communicate with one another.
  • Standards established by government and industry help foster better communication between disparate systems.
  • Interoperability in terms of healthcare makes it easier for medical services providers to share patient information with one another.
  • Interoperability makes healthcare more efficient, from avoiding orders for redundant patient tests to helping specialists communicate quickly with referring doctors.
  • Safety and the protection of confidential patient data is a central part of interoperability standards.
  • Lowered costs are a natural result of improved interoperability in healthcare, given improved efficiency in data sharing.

Recognizing the importance of interoperability is crucial for any professional working in the healthcare industry. Given that so many of our systems and pieces of equipment are connected with one another over wired and wireless networks, we all need to stay on top of interoperability developments in government and industry. You can stay in the loop by reading our updates. To make sure you don’t miss a thing, we invite you to subscribe to our blog by clicking here.

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About Stephen O'Connor

As a Director of Digital Marketing at Advanced Data Systems Corporation, Stephen spends his days planning, writing, & designing resources for the modern healthcare professional. He has a strong affinity for snow crab legs, the ocean and Rutgers Football.

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