In health information technology circles, interoperability has become quite the buzzword. A Google search for “Interoperability in Healthcare” yielded 28 million results. Given its pervasiveness, it’s not surprising that the precise meaning of the term is often obscured. The 21st Century Cures Act defined three key components of interoperability: “(A)… the secure exchange of electronic health information with, and use of electronic health information from, other health information technology without special effort on the part of the user; (B) … complete access, exchange, and use of all electronically accessible health information for authorized use under applicable State or Federal law; and (C) [technology that] does not constitute information blocking as defined in section 3022(a).”
To understand what all of this means in practice, consider use cases in three arenas: clinical, social services, and administrative.
1. Better care in clinical settings. When a patient is receiving services from a provider, interoperability means that all relevant information is readily available at the point of service to both the patient and the provider. In an ideal world, that means that no matter where other services were received, the provider has all past history, diagnostic tests, treatments, and even social determinants of health (SDOH) at their fingertips. Similarly, appropriate information is readily available for both staff and patients as needed.
2. Coordination of health care and social services is enhanced. Our most vulnerable populations generally face an alphabet soup of service organizations that support their housing, transportation, educational, financial, and other social needs. The impact of these issues on health outcomes cannot be overemphasized. It is estimated that socioeconomic and behavioral factors drive over 80 percent of health outcomes. Interoperability among social service organizations as well as between social services and health care services will be critical to reducing health disparities across our communities. With appropriate information available no matter where, how, or when an individual seeks assistance, we could truly achieve a vision of “no wrong door”—seamlessly matching services to each person’s needs. This may sound like a pipe dream, but efforts are ongoing in communities across the country to create these linkages, and many health information exchanges (HIEs) are driving the flow of information across the landscape of health care and social services.
3. Driving efficiency in administrative function. A study published in Academic Medicine in 2017 revealed that physicians were spending 24 percent of their working hours on administrative tasks. Often these tasks relate to requirements for specific information from regulators and insurance companies. The burden of supplying clinical justification for prior authorizations is a relevant example. In a fully interoperable environment, clinical information would be available to the payer without the need to fill out forms or make phone calls. Many of today’s manual administrative processes could be fully automated. This would drive waste from the system and expedite patients’ care by reducing information-flow delays.
Foundation for success
Interoperability will not solve the lack of coordination and cohesion in our current health care system. There are other critical gaps in health care infrastructure, such as a lack of transparency and the primitive nature of current quality measures. That said, achieving true interoperability will be a critical and foundational component of success in our collective efforts to achieve improved outcomes for patients and communities, reduced cost trends, and improved provider morale.
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