The Path to Interoperability

The following is a guest blog post by Dave Boerner, Solutions Consultant at Orion Health.

Since the inception of electronic medical records (EMR), interoperability has been a recurrent topic of discussion in our industry, as it is critical to the needs of quality care delivery. With all of the disparate technology systems that healthcare organizations use, it can be hard to assemble all of the information needed to understand a patient’s health profile and coordinate their care. It’s clear that we’re all working hard at achieving this goal, but with new systems, business models and technology developments, the perennial problem of interoperability is significantly heightened.  With the industry transition from fee-for-service to a value-oriented model, the lack of interoperability is a stumbling block for such initiatives as Patient Center Medical Home (PCMH) and Accountable Care Organization (ACO), which rely heavily on accurate, comprehensive data being readily accessible to disparate parties and systems.

In a PCMH, the team of providers that are collaborating need to share timely and accurate information in order to achieve the best care possible for their patient. Enhanced interoperability allows them access to real-time data that is consistently reliable, helping them make more informed clinical decisions. In the same vein, in an ACO, a patient’s different levels of care – from their primary care physician, to surgeon to pharmacist, all need to be bundled together to understand the cost of a treatment. A reliable method is needed to connect these networks and provide a comprehensive view of a patient’s interaction with the system. It’s clear that interoperability is essential in making value-based care a reality.

Of course, interoperability can take many forms and there are many possible paths to the desired outcome of distributed access to comprehensive and accurate patient information.  Standards efforts over the years have taken on the challenge of improving interoperability, and while achievements such as HL7, HIPAA and C-CDA have been fundamental to recent progress, standards alone fall far short of the goal.  After all, even with good intentions all around, standard-making is a fraught process, especially for vendors coming to the table with such a diversity of development cycles, foundational technologies and development priorities.  Not to mention the perverse incentives to limit interoperability and portability to retain market share.  So, despite the historic progress we have made and current initiatives such as the Office of the National Coordinator’s JASON task force, standards initiatives are likely to provide useful foundational support for interoperability, but individual organizations and larger systems will at least for the time being continue to require significant additional technology and effort dedicated to interoperability to meet their needs.

So what is a responsible health system to do? To achieve robust, real-time data exchange amongst its critical systems, organizations need something stronger than just standards. More and more healthcare executives are realizing that direct integration is the more successful approach to taking on their need for interoperability amongst systems. For simpler IT infrastructures, one to one integration of systems can work well. However, given the complexity of larger health systems and networks, the challenge of developing and managing an escalating number interfaces is untenable. This applies not only to instances of connecting systems within an organization, but also connecting systems and organizations throughout a state and region. For these more complex scenarios, utilizing an integration engine is the best practice. Rather than multiple point-to-point connections, which requires costly development, management and maintenance, the integration engine acts as a central hub, allowing all of the healthcare organization’s systems from clinical to claims to radiology to speak to each other in one universal language, no matter the vendor or the version of the technology.  Integration engines provide comprehensive support for an extensive range of communication protocols and message formats, and help interface analysts and hospital IT administrators reduce their workload while meeting complex technical challenges. Organizations can track and document patient interactions in real-time, and can proactively identify at-risk patients and deliver comprehensive intervention and ongoing care. This is the next level of care that organizations are working to achieve.

Interoperability allows for enhanced care coordination, which ultimately helps improve care quality and patient outcomes. At Orion Health, we understand that an open integration engine platform with an all access API is critical for success. Vendors, public health agencies and other health IT stakeholders are all out there fighting the good fight – working together to make complete interoperability among systems a reality. That said, past experience proves that it’s the users that will truly drive this change. Hospital and health system CIOs need to demand solutions that help enhance interoperability, and it will happen. Only with this sustained effort will complete coordination and collaboration across the continuum of care will become a reality.

About David Boerner
David Boerner works as a Solutions Consultant (pre-sales) for Orion Health where he provides technical consultation and specializes in the design and integration of EHR/HIE solutions involving Rhapsody Integration Engine.