Would it be wrong to say that our ability to seamlessly exchange information has been one of the primary reasons for growth today? Think back to the time when exchanging information meant digging through mountains of documents and physically sharing them. Seems unreal today.

As the seamless exchange of data becomes mainstream, can we imagine running a successful business in its absence? And if smooth data exchange and interoperability are so essential to run a business, why are we still lagging behind in healthcare?

The case for data interoperability in healthcare

For those who came in late, here’s what interoperability in healthcare means.

There have been rising applications of technology, information systems, and devices in the healthcare ecosystem. This new technology-driven network generates a huge volume of data that helps us, the healthcare professionals and the stakeholders of healthcare, make data-driven decisions.

Interoperability also helps healthcare become more proactive and value-driven. The health data generated has to be circulated and shared across the spectrum of care seamlessly, correctly and securely. Now without interoperability, this data will reside in isolation. It will not talk to the other data to create conversations that help in optimizing the health of individuals and populations. But with interoperability, this data-driven network can exchange and use the data cooperatively amongst the relevant stakeholders.

Interoperability thus enables connections and integrations across the technology ecosystem to occur irrespective of the data’s origin, destination or employed applications. It ensures that the data is available and usable without any additional interventions by end-users.

Why is this important? Because unless you achieve this, the goal of optimizing health outcomes by understanding and addressing the health needs of populations and individuals cannot be achieved. Unless you create an ecosystem that provides and allows seamless information access and exchange, all your technology investments will not deliver on their promise.

Roy Beveridge, MD, Humana’s Chief Medical Officer summarizes this quite succinctly,“Interoperability has the challenge of collecting fragmented health data and exchanging the information across multiple systems. In addition, it must provide physicians access to comprehensible patient health information at the right time for informed decision making and better efficiencies.”

In my experience, I have seen so many cases where hospitals have implemented IT systems and solutions meant to not only improve the delivery of care but also improve patient outcomes and patient experience, especially when care continues across a spectrum of practices.

And often I have found myself asking, “Why don’t these systems talk to one another?” “Why don’t these systems have interoperability?”

As healthcare undergoes a fundamental change in its approach to deliver care complete interoperability offers the following benefits:

Easy access to patient records

Healthcare organizations typically store patient information in proprietary heterogeneous systems. This information usually cannot be accessed easily to present a clear and complete picture of the patient. Information is also often non-standard, non-structured and non-coded that makes information exchange a challenge and lead to poor information exchange.

With interoperability, clinicians can have access to longitudinal patients’ records stored in these proprietary heterogeneous systems in a timely and easy manner. It also enables patients’ access to their own health information anywhere, anytime

Reduced medical errors

Healthcare delivery often involves moving the locus of care across diverse providers. Patient’s records lie scattered in labs, physician’s offices, and hospitals. The absence of access to complete health information can lead to poor health outcomes, and sometimes even death. Complete data interoperability ensures that health-related data is formatted in a manner that allows disparate computer systems to understand the structure and content of the information exchange without any information slipping through the cracks.

Integration of health records

The healthcare ecosystem produces enormous data from its diverse subsystems. These could be operating theatres, wearable and wireless devices, the IoT network, laboratories, wards etc. Integrating information from autonomously developed applications can be a huge challenge as these are not designed to cooperate and talk to one another.

However, interoperability fixes this and helps the different applications within diverse healthcare facility the capability to talk to and understand each other. Not only does interoperability integrate information from disparate applications, but it also enables the healthcare system to seamlessly integrate with other healthcare vendors, organizations, providers to achieve better health outcomes.

Improved Chronic Disease Management

Chronic disease management and support are not easy. This is especially so because it has to often involve multiple physicians and healthcare providers. According toThe World Health Report, major “chronic diseases currently account for almost 60% of all deaths”. The report further goes on to say that by 2020, chronic disease prevalence is to rise by 57%.

Overcoming the interoperability barrier becomes even more important for treating people with chronic diseases as an aging population and changing societal behavior contribute to its increase. There has been a rise of technology-driven new health delivery models to address the needs of chronic care and data is helping greatly here. The focus on personalized treatment is also increasing here. Interoperability will play a huge role in the success of such initiatives. As without it, you don’t get the full picture.

Of course, there are barriers to interoperability. After all, the healthcare system is anything but simple. There are too many stakeholders and there are standardization problems. There is the challenge of incompatible clinical technologies, which can be equated to talking in German to a Japanese who knows no German.

We also have to address the resistance to change… the ‘why fix it unless it’s broken syndrome’ and resolve challenges brought about by legacy systemswith limited interoperability capabilities. And of course, there is the chasm of privacy, security, and compliance to navigate.

The good news is that we now recognize that for better health outcomes we will need interoperability. Without it, even the most advanced technology, system, solution or device fails.

And while we can see a convergence of Health IT systems towards a common standard, CXO’s need to evaluate what they can do at an organizational level, how they can make their own improvements in cognizance with the larger industry trends to address the interoperability challenge.