The following is a guest post written by Alex Tate, a Health IT writer providing perceptive, engaging and informative consultancy on industry-wide topics.
With the healthcare technology revolution brought in by Electronic Health Record systems, healthcare data is now more digital and more shareable than ever. Until less than a decade ago, hospitals and private practices were making use of EMR systems – digitized versions of patient charts that improved accessibility, monitoring, and care delivery. Since then, most have transitioned onto EHRs, which offer everything that EMRs do, but more; they support interoperability. EHRs have effectively removed geographical and technical boundaries that previously held patient information within one medical facility, making it accessible to different programs, providers and practices across the country. Experts argue that this revolution is essentially giving way to truly open healthcare in the NHS.
An ideal open healthcare system, which experts define as a system where every component actively interacts and shares information with its environment as well as other systems, is a coveted milestone in the healthcare ecosystem. The only way it can be achieved in the long run is through true interoperability. Right now, healthcare professionals are torn on whether this will ever be possible. According to the findings of a recent study, 30% hospitals as of now meet “the four primary metrics needed for interoperability: data integration, reception, distribution, and finding.”
The Significance of Interoperability
Without seamless interoperability, the true purpose of EHRs, which is to enable coordinated care delivery across the healthcare continuum, can never possibly be achieved. Even if all medical practices and hospitals in the US were to adopt EHRs, their potential will never be unlocked if different physicians from different practices can’t access the same patient information. The importance of this is signified by the fact that the HHS department has regarded interoperability as one of the most essential requirements for Meaningful Stage 2 attestation.
Better information exchange is expected to offer several benefits:
Better Patient Experience – With interoperability, it is possible to achieve better coordinate care, which means patients will not have to deal with administrative hassle like refilling forms and providing information for every provider that they go to. This is bound to enhance the overall patient experience.
Improved Patient Safety – Better coordination also translates into fewer errors. Statistics suggest that about 44% of all deaths caused by medical errors were preventable. With shared access to patient data, physicians can ensure they have complete information on a patient’s history, vitals, allergies, medication, etc.
Decrease Medical Costs – It is estimated that the ability to freely exchange data may save over $30 billion a year! Organizations are expected to reduce costs and save time while increasing productivity.
Enriched Public Health Data – With better-interacting systems, healthcare data that is collected is more accurate. This can help healthcare researchers find answers to questions, and devise better preventive methods by studying healthcare trends.
Challenges to Achieving True Healthcare Interoperability
While true interoperability, and open healthcare through it, is the ideal, it currently faces unavoidable challenges. Data sharing has become possible after years of data exchange frameworks and health IT initiatives, but it cannot be regarded as seamless as of now.
Optimal care delivery and patient outcomes are still hindered by some considerable hurdles:
Standard Patient Identification – While HIMSS has been encouraging a national patient identifier for nearly two decades, nothing much has transpired. Since all EMR software identifies patients differently, it is only by assigning a national identification to every individual patient that true interoperability can be realized.
Inconsistent Interoperability Standards – Not all healthcare organizations enforce health IT standards in the same way. Poorly enforced standards can interfere with health data exchange, which is why it is important to promote standardization across care settings.
Information Sharing Criteria – Currently, patient information cannot always simply be copied from one EHR to another. This is because of technical errors like different fonts, mismatched data fields, and other formatting discrepancies. Information sharing standards must be created, defined and regularly updated for data capturing, sharing, storing, and managing.
Information Blocking – Currently, there are several data sharing impediments that hinder true interoperability. Research has revealed that information blocking is still common, even though it has been declared illegal. Some EHR vendors entirely block some information being sent out to other vendors, while others charge fees for data being sent outside the system. While there are policies in place to curb this, there is a dire need to enforce and monitor.
Interoperability Measures – It is impossible to improve unless progress is measured. Right now, there are no measures to quantify costs, errors, outcomes, and other trends in data sharing. What is needed is a standardizes way to measure outcomes, which all vendors can employ and then report on to overcome the challenges interoperability is facing right now.
Stakeholder Coordination – One of the primary objectives of ONC is to coordinate stakeholders by developing consistent policies across the industry. Only once this is done can seamless data access and improved population health management is achieved.
Simplifying Interoperability in Healthcare
To simplify interoperability in healthcare and make progress towards truly achieving it, some key steps need to be taken.
The wide adoption of data standards where vendors work on ‘data sharing’ over ‘data ownership’
Adequate advanced technology usage by all vendors to avoid outdated platforms
Optimal EHR integration to avoid delays and errors at the clinician end
Updated patient matching technologies and a national patient identifier system
More uniformity in state laws on privacy for secure data sharing
While it currently may seem like true interoperability has a long way to go, there is no denying that it is the key to attaining an open healthcare system. With strategic investments and standardized laws, interoperability can be unlocked shortly and can transform and innovate health services, provider throughput, and patient experience. While it would certainly take work to achieve this target, healthcare visionaries believe it is truly worth the effort.