By David Botero, Systems Integrations Director at CareCloud, Inc.
The healthcare industry’s interoperability issue is nothing new, and neither are efforts to address it. The government’s Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) program first rolled out nearly a decade ago. That said, the pandemic and the strain it put on the healthcare system has underscored the urgency of the situation in new ways. Lack of interoperability resulting in inefficiency and limited visibility was among the many systemic stresses spotlighted by the current public health crisis.
As new spending drives data modernization initiatives, and federal rules like the 21st Century Cures Act kick in to encourage more data sharing from payers and care providers, there’s a real opportunity to make up lost ground. But according to PwC analysis, less than 25% of healthcare organizations surveyed view the push for greater interoperability as a strategic opportunity. Those that don’t seize the moment now are at risk of being left behind as competitors and peer organizations make the transition.
Interoperability at a Crossroads: Four Persistent Challenges
There’s consensus that interoperability needs to be improved, but only 44% of payer and provider organization executives have appointed someone to spearhead interoperability initiatives, according to research cited by PwC. Interoperability is at a crossroads, so it’s a good idea to make it and data integrity more broadly a top priority. Organizations that do so can solve several persistent challenges:
- Siloed data creates barriers to collaboration: When there’s a disconnect between healthcare organizations due to lack of interoperability, there’s a negative effect on data integrity, and that has alarming downstream implications for patient and population health outcomes. When different healthcare organizations have disparate versions of documents such as patient charts, it puts collaborative efforts at risk. For example, outdated versions of charts can cause unnecessary repetitions of tests and other diagnostic procedures, wasting healthcare dollars and clinicians’ time.
- Migration without interoperability results in degraded data: Lack of interoperability can also result in degraded data when healthcare organizations move data from one platform or system to another. If the interface isn’t compatible, healthcare organizations that are moving data from a core system to another platform have to find manual data migration workarounds, which can introduce errors. In smaller organizations like a doctor’s office, data entry work is often done by entry level employees without the appropriate experience.
- Too much emphasis on speed, not enough focus on quality: A related issue arises when healthcare organizations deploy new technology assets and platforms that require moving data and don’t pay enough attention to quality in the data migration process, opting instead for the fastest solution. People who are choosing a surgeon for a medical procedure look at quality, not speed, and the same rule should be applied in data migration projects because it has an effect on care quality.
- Difficulty getting smaller organizations on board: The industry has made significant progress on improving interoperability, helped by the government-funded push for modernization. Even though challenges remain, the drive toward interoperability has already made a difference as patient registry data is aggregated by larger organizations and analyzed to identify and address population health trends. But getting smaller organizations on board is still a challenge — and ultimately the key to success.
An Opportunity to Improve Data Standards — and Patient Outcomes
These challenges are ongoing, but the pandemic is serving as a catalyst. As a recent CDC data modernization initiative summary put it, the public health crisis demonstrated an unacceptable status quo in which “public health data are ‘moving slower than disease,’” driving additional support for and investment in interoperability and other data modernization efforts.
The challenges the industry has faced over the last two years have added to the already overwhelming evidence that the health system needs data standards at all points on the care continuum. This acknowledgement is related to a growing realization that data is a core component of patient care. Organizations that understand this and take action now to upgrade data standards have a real opportunity to improve care and gain a competitive advantage in the post-pandemic period.
The traditional approach, where systems don’t have compatible interfaces and organizations operate in silos, makes sharing data incredibly challenging. Healthcare organizations must instead choose to unlock systems and use tools that enable free communication of data. That’s the only way forward — the use of standardized, integrated systems that increase visibility and improve data flow.
With a centralized, vendor-agnostic solution that can be deployed across the entire healthcare ecosystem — from large medical groups to solo physician practices to billing departments — the healthcare industry can truly realize the benefits of interoperability, both in terms of efficiency in the healthcare delivery system but also true collaboration across the care team to better serve patients. That’s why now is the time to finally solve healthcare’s interoperability problem.