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What is Healthcare Interoperability and Why Does it Matter?

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With most health records stored and managed electronically these days, healthcare providers often face the problem of sharing them between different systems, a concept known as interoperability. If it’s impossible to transfer data smoothly, the benefits of keeping patient records electronically are minimized. 

The modern health information systems, however, must be designed to interact with each other in the most optimized way possible. Otherwise, healthcare service providers lose precious time transferring the information from one program to another manually. Health information software interoperability is the key to efficient healthcare services, patient satisfaction, and compliance. 

Female doctor working on her interoperable electronic health system to electronically prescribe her patients’ medications.
Maintaining interoperable health information technology is not only a regulatory requirement, but also improves patient care.

What is Interoperability? 

Interoperability is the capability of various information systems, devices, and software to access, share, and integrate data in a systematic manner. When it comes to healthcare, interoperability should allow different programs, like e-prescribe software, to exchange information between organizations, healthcare professionals, and patients. 

IT systems used by healthcare industry players must be interoperable with one another in order to provide a quick and smooth experience for all parties involved. 

Interoperability in the healthcare setting has three main levels: 

  • First level (Foundational) — at this level, two IT systems can communicate clearly and securely with one another. However, it only involves pure data sharing without advanced analysis or interpretation. For example, one system sends a blood test result to another system, which stores it “as is.” 
  • Second level (Structural) — at this level, two IT systems follow a set of requirements for format, syntax, and order of data sharing. It helps the receiving system interpret the data and find an appropriate place for it. For example, if a receiving system gets a prescription from e-prescribe software, it can auto-populate itself with the patient’s personal information, medication use history, etc. 
  • Third level (Semantic) — this highest level of interoperability doesn’t just allow the two systems to communicate information to one another. It gives them an opportunity to interpret and use it. For example, a laboratory sends a blood test result to a clinic. At a semantic level of interoperability, the clinic’s IT system can identify the contents, verify them, match the test to a patient, send a notification to the right physician, and even schedule an appointment. 

Interoperability is the foundation of universal health information exchange (HIE). There is a national HIE strategy supported by the government. 

The easiest way to ensure interoperability is to design a universal EHR software that can be used by all healthcare service providers. However, since this is impossible, plan B is to make high-level interoperability a requirement for each EHR system. 

Files connected by binary code to demonstrate their interconnectedness.
The right software can help maintain the interoperability of your information system.

Interoperability Rules for Healthcare   

In March 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services issued two interoperability rules to improve patient access to electronic health information. In short, these rules allow patients to access healthcare information at no cost. For software developers, it means that the health IT systems should be able to communicate with third-party users seamlessly. 

The rule also established Conditions and Maintenance of Certification requirements for health IT software developers. 

In December 2020, CMS proposed a new interoperability rule, according to which all Medicaid, CHIP, and QHP programs would need to have HL7 FHIR-based APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to support data exchange and prior authorization. The proposal also contains an API standard for healthcare operations across the USA. 

In short, health IT systems must be designed to improve the electronic data exchange between providers, patients, and payers. 

CEHRT 

The office of the National Coordinator for Healthcare Information Technology (ONC) established a voluntary Health IT Certification Program. Together with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), ONC established standards that EHRs must meet to qualify for use in the Promoting Interoperability Programs (ex-Meaningful Use).   

This type of certification allows EHR or module users to be sure that the system they purchase doesn’t just guarantee security and data confidentiality but also ensures interoperability with other health IT systems. 

Opportunities and Incentives 

If your EHR isn’t certified, you can’t participate in certain incentive programs offered by CMS and its innovation center. For example, to participate in the newest CMS Innovation Center initiative, Primary Care First, you need to have 2015 Edition CEHRT. 

CMS has another payment incentive program, the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System, which encourages the use of CEHRT. It could help you attain 25 points allocated to Advancing Care Information reporting.   

With interoperability requirements becoming more and more important for compliance, CEHRT isn’t just an option anymore. It’s a necessity for all healthcare industry players. 

Why Does Interoperability Matter?  

With most medical records moving online and the COVID-19 pandemic calling for contact minimization, the systems’ ability to interact with each other is highly important. 

Besides staying compliant with the latest rules and offering high-quality services to the patients, interoperability allows clinics to optimize their work process and: 

  • Gain access to previous patients’ records to ensure a proper treatment course. 
  • Mitigate physician burnout by minimizing manual work. 
  • Reduce administrative costs associated with manual data exchange coordination. 
  • Provide patients access to their data in compliance with the interoperability rules. 
  • Minimize errors related to manual data exchange. 

As clinics switch to CEHRT to stay on top of their game and take advantage of incentives, ignoring interoperability may put yours ahead of the competition. Meanwhile, EHR providers that don’t ensure proper certification will fail to satisfy users. 

Since information technologies are taking major leaps forward, the quality of digital interoperability is likely to continue increasing. While many challenges still exist, by implementing CEHRT today, you are gaining a competitive edge. 

Taking Interoperability to another Level with the Right Software  

Appropriate interoperability is only possible with CEHRT software. Clinics that don’t use CEHRT software may face compliance issues. Meanwhile, EHR providers that don’t pass the necessary certification lose the opportunity to attract certain buyers. 

In 2021, the focus on interoperability is likely to increase, especially with the remnants of the pandemic still affecting the healthcare playing field. 

At NewCrop, we provide e-prescribe software, which is designed to comply with all related interoperability requirements. If you’d like to learn more, schedule a demo with our knowledgeable team today.