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Ambulatory Interoperability: Paving the Way for Improved Health
By Rob Newman
The health IT industry is buzzing with talk of interoperability – a gap those of us in the market have long recognized and worked to overcome. Consumers and the media are now taking notice and discussing how healthcare delivery, costs, and outcomes could be improved if physicians and other care providers and their patients were better connected.
What does interoperability really mean to you and your practice? And in the digital age, where information flows quickly and freely, why is healthcare interoperability such a challenge?
Setting the Stage
If interoperability goes in one of your ears and out the other like any other buzzword, I’d like to take some time to set the stage. We define interoperability as the exchange and communication of health data across information technology systems with the goal of advancing effective delivery of healthcare. These systems may reside within an ambulatory practice, a hospital, a government agency or even with healthcare consumers through their mobile devices or wearables. When interoperability is working correctly, data flows seamlessly from one system to the other in a meaningful way, and with checks and balances in place to protect sensitive information. When interoperability fails, a patient’s data sits siloed with individual providers, or it is passed along in a way that is heavy on volume and low on actionable insight.
In the ambulatory space, interoperability ensures both the patient and provider gain access to the right information, at the right time, in the right place. Health outcomes can be improved for whole populations – making it possible to achieve success in a value-based model – when doctors treat more than an immediate health need by looking across the patient’s health record and medical history. This connectedness ensures physicians can see where, when, and how the person has been treated; what has worked versus what hasn’t … and can even keep tabs on patient compliance along the way.
The convenience of having this information available before a physician even encounters a patient in the office is also a game changer. Physicians want to manage their time wisely to ensure all patient needs are met in a timely manner. When data is well-connected, office visits become more streamlined and efficient with fewer introductory questions and less guessing. Actual visits to the office can even be prevented entirely … either through provider-patient communications and proactive care coordination, or early telemedicine or other online communications and interventions.
Through these linkages, providers also have access to the right information to make a proper diagnosis, care coordinators know how to follow up, and patients are empowered to be better healthcare consumers with access to their medical information and care plan. All of this helps facilitate ongoing, proactive care and better health.
There are Benefits, But …
Despite the benefits of interoperability, there are always hurdles with new technology solutions— particularly when those solutions contain data as sensitive as medical information. Currently, there’s no streamlined method in place to identify patients across offices and systems, and no national appetite for a unique patient identifier that would enable physicians to track a person in this way. Without such an identifier, data is mismatched when multiple people share names, dates of birth, or addresses because individual healthcare providers are using their own unique way to identify patients within their systems.
Headway at the KLAS Keystone Summit
Is there any good news about interoperability? The answer is a resounding yes. In recent years, interoperability has made significant strides forward in the ambulatory space with increased EHR adoption and collaborative efforts by EHR vendors to more effectively share data between their systems. While the aforementioned pain points around patient identity remain, solution providers are coming together to solve these issues as an industry. Greenway Health is a member of the Ehealth Exchange, Surescripts, and CommonWell Health Alliance, each of which is pushing to eliminate lost pockets of data. In fact, we recently convened with other key EHR solution executives and healthcare provider organizations at the KLAS Keystone Summit, where the group agreed to adopt a standard interoperability measurement tool. The vision is to link everyone together, regardless of EHR solution they’re on. We are all committed to building tools to bridge providers and patients, focusing on translating immense data into useful nuggets of actionable information to improve care coordination and health outcomes.
Let the Data Flow
If data sharing becomes seamless, the information will be a utility. As an example, we don’t think about the water getting to our faucet; we just expect that if we turn the faucet, water will come. But there was a time this wasn’t the case. Pipes had to be laid connecting a water source to a treatment plant to your house and back again. In the same respect, we’re currently building out the health data interoperability infrastructure. We have to figure out what size pipes to use and how to refine the data into actionable information that supports providers in most effectively determining how and when to take action. Along the way, the data must be protected and accurate, not corrupted or lost in transit.
I trust we will take down the barriers to clinical information and get to a place where providers don’t think about interoperability — not because it’s a buzzword, but because it’s so seamless they don’t have to worry what will happen when they turn on the faucet. When this data becomes more than information, it becomes powerful. It is the fuel necessary for efficiency, productivity, conversation and, ultimately, for improved health.
Rob Newman is vice president of interoperability at Greenway Health in Carrollton, GA.