Understanding interoperability in healthcare

In the world of business, time is money. But in the world of healthcare, time equates to something far more important than money lost or saved – it can be the difference between life and death.

In order to drive improvements in patient outcomes and establish an effective delivery model of care for individuals and communities that is future-proof, healthcare providers need to focus on enabling interoperability.

Interoperability has been something high on the agenda of the NHS for a while now.

With digital technology playing an increasingly integral role in patient treatment and new models of care emerging, there’s a clear need for healthcare systems to communicate seamlessly with each other.

In recent years, the NHS has placed a huge amount of resources behind embracing innovative technological solutions, as better connected IT systems will help drive improvements in patient care.

So – what does interoperability actually look like in healthcare? Allow us to explain…

Healthcare interoperability explained

To fully understand what interoperability in healthcare actually means, you need to think about the workflows of the NHS sites you want to partner with and the systems they use.

Take the example of a patient visiting A&E: the clinician treating them needs access to up-to-date medical data that may have been recorded at another site – whether that’s a GP practice or a physiotherapist – in order to deliver the best care possible. The same clinician also needs to be able to record observations and test results in a system that can be accessed by other medical professionals later down the line for a consistent level of care to be achieved.

In short, once these systems become interoperable, these different touchpoints are able to seamlessly send and receive data in real-time, giving staff a single point of truth to make an informed decision from.

Going forward, this ensures that all staff who may be responsible for administering care to this patient on a local or national level, have instant access to the relevant data they need to deliver the best patient outcome.

Although interoperability is a tricky concept to get your head around, there are typically four levels which any interoperability efforts will fall into:

Foundational: this level forms the platform for any interoperability efforts, whereby a direct data exchange channel between two different systems is set up, but the systems can’t yet process the data being exchanged.

Structural: systems can now dig deeper into the data that is being exchanged e.g. a pharmacy using the same exchange format as their provider so they can process prescription lists.

Semantic: this level of interoperability allows data to be exchanged automatically and interpreted in a standardised format so healthcare systems can effectively and efficiently handle and use medical data.

Organisational: for interoperability to be a success within a given healthcare organisation, it needs to follow strict implementation criteria set out in a range of legal processes in order for it to be a working solution.

Healthcare interoperability

Key challenges

The healthcare industry is unlike any other.

Where other industries have been quick to leverage the benefits and potential that technology poses, the healthcare industry has always been hesitant. This can be, at least in part, explained due to concerns around tech not meeting requirements in clinical safety, data protection, technical security, as well as standards in usability and accessibility.

So it goes without saying, that like any large-scale digital transformation in the realm of healthcare, interoperability will bring about its own set of unique challenges and an atmosphere of scepticism.

To overcome the challenges interoperability will bring, you first need to be aware of what the most common ones are…

Misalignment: for interoperability to be a success, you need alignment. To avoid a disjointed and unproductive implementation process across various different sites and locations, you need to establish baseline standards for all sites to follow when it comes to the exchange of information.

Data overload: think of a single patient and the amount of different sites and systems their medical data will touch throughout their lifetime – that’s a hell of a lot of data. To ensure this data is manageable and accessible across IT networks, it’s important to invest in integration and analytics tools that prevent systems from overflowing and can cope with the amount of traffic.

Knowledge gap: digital adoption in healthcare typically means the monumental upheaval of manual-based tasks, therefore it takes a bit of time for staff to get used to this new way of working. If you don’t equip them with the training, tools and resources they need, any efforts to make your systems interoperable will more than likely fail.

Interoperability in practice

Healthcare interoperability enables disparate systems to communicate freely with each other and share data; it’s about establishing the groundwork for the effective delivery of advanced healthcare for individuals and the communities they belong to.

Although there are undoubtedly some key challenges with implementing interoperability in healthcare settings, the benefits of doing so to both staff and patients are endless.

Informed decision making: in order to deliver the best level of care possible, staff need instant access to the most up-to-date patient data – it really is that simple. Interoperability ensures that this information can be gathered, viewed and recorded in real-time, ensuring there is no delay in treatment, avoidable human errors are eradicated, and important information relating to allergies, medication and past procedures that may impact treatment are not missed.

Enhanced patient care: whilst improved patient outcomes should be the ultimate driver of success for any healthcare organisation, improving the overall patient care and experience should be just as high on the list. By embracing interoperability within your various systems, you can help reduce errors and duplication from staff, which ultimately leads to a more efficient level of service and one that isn’t plagued by delays.

Improved transfer of care: it should go without saying that hospitals and other care settings should be reserved for sick patients, not healthy ones. When staff have immediate access to real-time data, it helps facilitate the speedy discharge of patients who are fit enough to return home, helping to reduce unnecessary hospital admissions and smoothen the transfer of care to other departments within your organisation.

Digital health mobile app

The future of interoperability

So far we’ve spoken about the transformative impact that interoperability can have on the current healthcare system, but what does the future of interoperability look like? How will it impact how hospitals and care providers operate?

Interoperability has already proven to be a gamechanger for the healthcare industry, helping providers operate more efficiently, improving patient outcomes and the overall patient experience… and the future represents yet more opportunity, as the exchange of data becomes more sophisticated and seamless.

Here at 6B, our ultimate goal is to help build an open and connected healthcare system that can be accessed by everyone – and interoperability is the way in which we will continue to make this happen for our clients in this industry.

So what do we expect to see in the future?

Firstly, we would expect to see greater levels of standardisation around data transmission and consumption. As this is the core tenet of a fully functioning, interoperable system, we would say that this is pretty much a given.

As enhanced levels of interoperability start to become the industry standard, we no longer expect system incompatibility to be an issue that impacts staff accessing or updating patient medical records.

In addition, as patient data flows more freely and without restriction, we expect trust to build among patients and for them to become less sceptical of their information being shared across different sites.

Secondly, as adoption increases among healthcare organisations and the communities they care for, we anticipate a larger proportion of hospital or GP visits to be either conducted remotely, with remote monitoring increasing too, preventing unnecessary hospital readmissions.

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