With Interoperability on Pause, It’s Time for a New Strategy

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Photo credit: Depositphotos

By David Lareau

For care teams committed to high quality and cost-effective patient care, the lack of interoperability between clinical systems creates a host of challenges. Throw in a worldwide pandemic, and it’s no wonder that clinician burnout is reaching epic levels

Despite decades of regulatory actions and private sector initiatives, clinicians often lack ready access to critical medical information for effective decision making at the point of care. EHRs contain a wealth of patient information, but typically the data is siloed and cannot be easily shared across platforms and providers. Instead of sending patient information in a secure, electronic format, providers regularly rely on manual fax machines or paper documents when sharing medical histories and test results. Such methods are inefficient in the best of times – but amidst a public health crisis the lack of interoperability increases the risk for poorer outcomes for individuals and populations. 

Interoperability relief appeared imminent with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016. The legislation included provisions to improve EHR interoperability between clinical systems and healthcare organizations so that clinicians could improve care coordination and spend less time on regulatory and administrative tasks that took time away from direct patient care. 

The interoperability rules were finalized in March 2020 – but a month later HHS announced that it would not enforce the rules for six additional months to provide relief to organizations facing the many unforeseen challenges of COVID-19. In October, HHS announced yet another delay “to provide additional time to allow everyone in the healthcare ecosystem to focus on COVID-19 response.” While predictable – and likely welcomed by many providers – the postponement means that clinicians must keep waiting for changes that prevent information blocking and facilitate data sharing between providers. 

Will another official delay be forthcoming? No one really knows, but an additional delay would not be a surprise given the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases that are overwhelming many providers and leaving IT teams scrambling to support telehealth platforms and pop-up locations. But is a further delay in interoperability really the right strategy at this time? 

I believe that now is the time to push forward with interoperability – with or without government mandates. Here’s why.

Better patient care

Especially while fighting COVID-19, clinicians need complete and accurate patient data to support clinical decision making and the delivery of appropriate care. Consider a patient who presents at an ER with COVID symptoms. To accurately assess and treat the patient, a clinician needs ready access to the medical history, including details on any underlying conditions that might compromise the patient’s health; medication history; previous lab test results; and more. If the ER staff must wait on faxes from other providers or follow-up with pharmacies, care may be delayed, and outcomes compromised. 

Relief for clinicians

Well before COVID-19, clinicians were frustrated with the inefficiencies of EHRs, which are a leading cause of burnout. Clinicians have long suffered with inefficient systems that interfere with clinical decision making, decrease their productivity, and diminish the quality of patient care. Without interoperability improvements, clinicians will continue to waste time scrolling through screens to find the patient and problem specific information they need at the point of care. Clinicians – and their patients – deserve better.

Solutions exist now

Healthcare leaders do not need to wait for the implementation of government-mandated changes to fix inoperability. Solutions exist today that work with legacy EHRs to facilitate data-sharing, streamline clinician workflows, and deliver clinicians the key information they need, when they need it. 

Instead of replacing existing EHRs, healthcare organizations can optimize their existing IT investments with technologies that integrate with legacy solutions to enhance usability and facilitate the transfer and exchange of clinical information across systems. For example, by adding mapping tools that link relevant clinical concepts, users can quickly view relevant diagnoses, procedures, medications and more, regardless of where the concept originated. This allows users to immediately identify and interpret the precise information they need for the patient in front of them, which enhances patient care and reduces clinician frustration. 

The pandemic will eventually end, and one day the government will mandate and enforce interoperability. Rather than wait for unclear endpoints, however, healthcare leaders can embrace a different strategy and take action now to relieve clinician frustration by fixing interoperability and usability gaps in their current systems. 

David Lareau is the chief executive officer of Medicomp Systems, which provides physician-driven, point-of-care solutions that fix EHRs. 

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