Examining Healthcare & EHR Interoperability

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The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled the siloed nature of the healthcare industry. With doctors and patients unable to meet in person, the flaws of archaic EHR systems have been brought into public discourse. 

Medical practitioners need to disaster-proof their electronic databases. This article will discuss why interoperability is necessary, the problems with many EHR systems, and how to best overcome the challenges associated with advancement.

What’s Good About Interoperability?

Interoperability, or the ability of computer systems to exchange and make use of information, is something the healthcare industry has struggled to achieve. And the need is at an all-time high, as the pandemic has demonstrated.

COVID-19 restrictions left many people unable to visit their usual practitioners. Whether it was a result of quarantine, travel restrictions, or limits on how many appointments doctors could safely conduct, patients often needed to visit other doctors.

Other doctors needed access to patient data. And many systems were not equipped to seamlessly accept existing patient data because their EHR (Electronic Health Record) systems are siloed from one another.

Various Reasons This is a Problem:

● Without access to existing patient data, patients must add their data into the system. If they forget or misremember minor details, doctors will not have the complete knowledge needed to provide care.

● In high-stakes situations, such as ER visits, the required information as quickly as possible will take longer to obtain than necessary.

● The intake process becomes significantly more complicated, adding additional strain on administrators already strained by new regulations.

These problems do not go away with the pandemic. Concerns about reaching herd immunity or “curing” COVID-19 aside, these concerns are not unique to the current health landscape. They will continue to be a problem after the health sector reaches a semblance of equilibrium.

Per Statista, the worldwide digital health market will have an estimated value of 500 billion by 2025. If one’s system is not connected, it is not meeting market demands or patient needs. That is why we must do everything in our power to achieve interoperability, and that starts with our EHR Systems.

What’s Wrong With Our EHR Systems? 

Most medical practices implement some form of EHR (Electronic Health Record) system. The ability to electronically store patient data is a boon for our industry, but the technology is not advancing to meet modern demands.

The core issue is that these systems are often siloed, which disrupts the ability to transmit patient information. And unfortunately, at this point, it is challenging to connect many of them for two key reasons:

● Many of these systems were not built with the ability to transmit information in mind. Consequently, there is no localized method of getting it from one system to another.

● There is no standardized method for labeling patient data. It isn’t easy to transfer information that is not formatted to match the parameters of the receiving system.

Of course, there are various other hurdles associated with achieving interoperability. The cost of updating EHR systems is prohibitive for many practices, the secure transfer of patient data is sometimes difficult to maintain, and much more. 

However, resolving these two issues is crucial in solving the interoperability crisis. If we get to a point where information is readily accessible, then solutions for the other problems will follow.

What Can We Do?

Start interoperability

Medical professionals are working on numerous ways to work toward achieving healthcare interoperability. While a comprehensive list is not feasible, we have collected three of the most common solutions that are in the works.

Adopt a Common Set of Interoperability Standards:

Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FIHR, is a standard means of data management across various EHR systems. Developed by Health Level Seven International, FIHR is a robust system that supports multiple legacy systems that would otherwise be siloed from another.

FIHR has received increased recognition in the U.S. In 2020, CMS — the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services — issued a ruling stating that certain health agencies must work toward implementing FIHR by 2020.

FIHR supports JSON, XML, and RDF for data representation. If your existing system utilizes these, we recommend reading more about the system.

If FIHR isn’t right for you, additional standards have been developed. DirectStandard allows users to directly send encrypted healthcare information to trusted partners, while DICOM facilitates the transfer and archival of pictures.

Encourage Collaboration Between Healthcare Alliances:

The healthcare industry is a maze of differing agencies whose interests interweave and conflict at different points. However, encouraging these healthcare alliances to work together in a more extensive association is crucial in achieving widespread interoperability.

These alliances vary in scale: local, regional, state, and lots in-between. If these alliances begin communicating and use their authority to achieve interoperability, then the speed at which clinics adopt practices like FIHR will be significantly expedited.

Even the slightest collaboration between alliances is a win for interoperability.

Implement a Master Patient Index:

Master Patient Index is an electronic database that hosts demographic information on patients. It seeks to use this information to provide unique Patient IDs, which can facilitate the rapid transfer of patient data.

The MPI allows users to maintain an up-to-date, central registry of all patients. This helps eliminate duplicate patient registration and reduce treatment errors brought on by misinformation.

While this is just one tool in the belt of interoperability, it is an incredibly efficient way of reducing administrative errors and consolidating patient information. 

Conclusion

COVID-19 may be a once-in-a-century medical crisis, but it’s revealed an underlying concern in our existing medical systems. Patients have suffered because our current systems did not adequately serve their needs, and we must do better for them.

Ultimately, healthcare interoperability is a standard we must continuously strive for. There is no overnight answer to the ongoing problem of siloed patient information, but if we orient our efforts toward solving it will help patients.

You can reach out to us by clicking on this link if you have any questions, concerns, or ideas about Telehealth and EHR.