The Interoperability Battle: It’s Time to Explore New Solutions

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By Curtis Gattis

Industry discussions about interoperability aren’t going to slow down any time soon, especially with HHS’ recently announced and finalized interoperability rules. Interoperability, or the ability of different HIT systems to access and exchange information fluidly, is a crucial component to providing better healthcare, especially as value-based care models continue to take center stage for provider organizations.

When patients transition from their primary care physician (PCP), to a specialist, hospital or rehab facility – their medical records should travel with them, or at the very least, be readily accessible along the way. In today’s world where technology is advanced enough to replace loss of limb or self-drive automobiles, this should be a given, right? But it’s still one of the industry’s biggest challenges – one that will never be solved by EHR giants, open APIs or government policies alone. To truly improve and enable the flow of data and communication in the U.S.healthcare system, we need to complement the HHS’ interoperability framework by overhauling our technological approach entirely.

The Inherently Flawed Nature of the EHR

EHR giants are notorious for holding patient information under lock and key – so much so that patients themselves have long struggled to access their own health data. Regardless of how many EHRs adopt or become compliant with FHIR or an open API policy, the fact remains that these systems weren’t built to communicate or share data with other platforms (and with around 1,100+ vendors in the industry – you can see why this poses a major problem). It’s time to move healthcare towards a collaboration over competition mindset, dismiss the notion that EHRs are the solution and adopt communication-based technology strategically built to transcend data-blocking barriers.  

Federal Policies Are a First Major Step to Solve Interoperability, but Gaps Remain

After over a year of review, the final interoperability rules from HHS, CMS and the ONC have finally been finalized. While CMS’ rule will give patients access to their records and ONC’s will help extract data from EHRs more easily, regulation alone will not solve the industry’s lack of streamlined communication, care coordination, or transparency challenges that feed our interoperability issue. 

To effectively care for patients, it is absolutely imperative that every care team involved with a patient has visibility into the patient journey and can easily communicate and share patient data. So, even if we could send health records between EHRs via an API, the fact remains there’s no way for providers in different offices to communicate in real-time, request follow-up information, or simply check on the status of their patient. No matter how you tell them to behave or how you require them to function- EHRs are simply not the answer to seamless data-sharing. Like LinkedIn for the professional world, we need a platform that was designed for the purpose of secure, provider-to-provider communication and patient data sharing.

Additionally, the final ONC rule doesn’t hold third-party apps to the same standard as larger healthcare IT tools in terms of protecting patient information exchange, because not all third-party apps are required to be HIPAA-compliant. With gaps in responsible, safe data-sharing restrictions, reputable HIT vendors should, and must, make the conscious choice to go above and beyond to ensure patient data is fully secure and HIPAA compliant in order to protect patients.

The lack of streamlined communication across healthcare is a foundational void across the industry, and yet it’s crucial that providers have a reliable, secure communication platform to talk and share updates about their patients as they receive care across the continuum. With rising responsibilities and regulatory pressures being put on providers to deliver high value care, it’s clear that providers still need an HIT platform that actually enables full, seamless, actionable communication.

The Next Step Toward Complete Interoperability is a New Technological Approach

The solution to interoperability is solving healthcare’s communication issue. Choosing technology that functions in tandem with EHRs is key to achieving cross-continuum communication and interoperable data-sharing capabilities. It isn’t realistic to think providers will rip-and-replace their million dollar EHR systems, but by adopting platforms that essentially sit on top of those systems- providers can transcend all the complex requirements and usability issues stunting information sharing practices and prevent restrictions and information blocking. Additionally, network-based tools are uniquely positioned for healthcare communication, as this methodology can effectively connect providers across different settings to reduce communication barriers and enable collaborative, strategic care through an easy-to-use, social media-style platform model. This kind of seamless user experience for an instant and traceable communication tool has the proven ability to improve quality of care, patient outcomes, increase revenue, reduce patient leakage and more.

Having API standards in place is a step in the right direction and it will help communication and network-based tools that have created functional and safe workarounds to enable interoperability even more seamlessly. With a universal API, document sharing will be a lot easier, and might even enable native document sharing within such tools. However, once again – data sharing isn’t the same as informed, real-time communication. Even if records are shared more fully, in terms of effective patient care, providers will still need a means for timely communication around the documents shared, something that simply cannot be done in EHRs.

At the end of the day, healthcare technology is meant to be configurable, and this ongoing interoperability battle is taking up way too much space and money. Care coordination and provider communication networks are built to do what EHRs can’t and can essentially bypass the technological complexities prohibiting data-sharing and communication on legacy platforms to overcome disparate HIT restrictions and information blocking in a safe, seamless manner. By using this kind of network-based technology, provider organizations can easily and freely share data, helping them to avoid data blocking fines while leveraging secure communication tactics.”

HHS took monumental steps by finalizing the interoperability rules, and it will be interesting to see how things play out once they’re put in action come 2021. For now, we must continue to drive wider adoption of interoperable HIT infrastructure that will ultimately fix the foundational challenges that still lie ahead with legacy EHR solutions.

Curtis Gattis is CEO and co-founder of LeadingReach. 

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