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If you’ve ever heard the Johnny Cash song “One Piece at a Time,” you know it’s about two assembly line coworkers absconding with Cadillac parts over a span of 25 years. They’ve compiled all the necessary components to build their automobile — only to find that not all the parts fit well together because the style of that Cadillac changed over the two plus decades of their scheme. 

This song, of course, details a situation not likely to occur in real life — only in a country song. It does, however, point out the importance of interoperability. Most products consist of pieces designed to work together for optimal performance. Typically, when pieces are missing or the wrong ones are used, the product doesn’t work to top capacity. 

A lack of interoperability has been a problem for more than a decade in the healthcare industry. Technology developed to streamline workflows and improve provider-patient communication fails to reach its full potential because it doesn’t enable full data sharing. 

When healthcare technology is interoperable, it allows for communication between disparate systems, multiple devices and software systems and enables data to be exchanged and interpreted by hospitals, physician practices, laboratories, pharmacies and other healthcare providers — in a user-friendly way. This interoperability is especially important in producing many of the advantages available through the use of electronic medical records (EMRs), digital health applications and other healthcare tools. 

Government Interoperability Initiatives 

Efforts have been made by the United States government to address this issue. Recent legislation includes the 21st Century Cures Act and its Interoperability and Patient Access final rule, the goals of which are to:

  • Advance interoperability for improved patient and provider access to data
  • Expand the data elements
  • Enhance communication between various health IT systems and mobile applications used to store and maintain health information
  • Spur patient access to data via personal devices and promote patient control of their electronic health information (EHI) to enable apps to provide patient-specific price and product transparency. 

This mandate also requires the use of FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), an HL7® standard for exchanging healthcare information electronically.  

Challenges to Healthcare Interoperability — and Consequences for Not Achieving It 

Why is healthcare interoperability so difficult to achieve? There are numerous challenges, ranging from a lack of industry-wide operational and technical standards and concerns about data security and privacy to inconsistent clinical terminology and the use of outdated legacy systems. Smaller healthcare provider organizations often don’t have the financial resources available to connect multiple systems and data sources or invest in customized system interfaces. 

A lack of operability between healthcare technologies can be costly in more ways than one. In addition to the financial consequences — contributing to the $760 billion to $935 billion annually due to healthcare waste and squandering an average of 45 minutes per day per clinician through using outdated communication technologies — it can increase the likelihood of physician burnout. 

The complexity of achieving interoperability is one of the primary reasons not more medical groups, hospitals, health systems and other providers have done so. Although the rate of provider organizations achieving deep interoperability has doubled since 2017 and 75 percent of providers have reached at least the most basic level, most still don’t have the capability to seamlessly exchange patient data. 

A recently-published study of hospital interoperability found that fewer than half of hospitals were engaged in all 4 domains of interoperability in 2018. According to this study, if progress continued at the same rate, it would take until 2027 to achieve nationwide interoperability. 

Merits of Healthcare Interoperability 

When healthcare providers are able to overcome barriers to adoption, they’re able to realize a multitude of advantages, perhaps the most important of which is improved quality of care and outcomes. There is research that suggests countries that prioritize interoperability and data sharing rank higher in measures of healthcare quality. 

Interoperability also gives providers easier and real-time access to complete electronic health records. The result is real-time, up-to-date patient data, which enables physicians to make more informed decisions about a patient’s care, reduces duplicate testing and procedures, mitigates adverse health events and decreases unnecessary medication errors. These clinicians also benefit from healthcare interoperability because it enhances care coordination. 

For patients, the seamless exchange of data through healthcare interoperability meets their expectation for convenience — a crucial component of healthcare consumerism by giving them easy access to their full medical history, including medication lists, laboratory test results, hospital admissions and other records. Physicians are also better able to support them in their management of chronic disease, a benefit for both patient and provider. 

Did we mention cost savings? Overall, interoperability could save the U.S. healthcare system more than $30 billion per year. 

Additional rewards for providers that achieve healthcare interoperability include:

The Importance of Implementing Interoperable Healthcare Solutions 

Maybe your healthcare organization hasn’t put technology interoperability at the top of your list of priorities. Perhaps you want to procure a higher level of interoperability but have had difficulty doing so. 

Know that a well-designed healthcare technology solution must address privacy and security concerns while promoting interoperability with other systems and tools. It must enable communication between disparate systems, multiple devices and software systems while allowing data to be exchanged and interpreted by healthcare providers. This is especially true for digital health tools, which comprise a large part of the overall healthcare IT landscape. 

Schedule a meeting with a member of our team to find out how our vendor- and standards-agnostic technology solves interoperability problems by easily integrating with most EHRs and powering standardized health data exchange.