A Guide to Interoperability in Health Care (With Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 10, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Health care providers use various secure communication systems to streamline operations and give personalized attention to patients. Regardless of the area of health care you work in, interoperability can provide important benefits to improve communication between providers. Understanding the benefits of this data exchange system can help you ensure patients receive the highest level of care and advance your career in this field. In this article, we define interoperability, discuss the different types, and explore the benefits of using it professionally to communicate patient data and information.

What is interoperability?

Interoperability is the ability to exchange data and information between different health information technology (HIT) systems. When various parts of a health care system are interoperable, they can communicate with each other seamlessly. Health care providers may choose to use this connective communication system to help share patient data securely across organizational, regional, or provincial boundaries. Here are some examples of how health providers may use this process:

  • sending prescriptions to a pharmacy

  • sending patient results to a clinic where their general physician works

  • sharing patient records with a specialist for review prior to the patient's appointment

  • sharing lab results from a clinic to the doctor for review

Typically, this secure exchange of data between systems follows standards that allow the seamless sharing of information between systems. This set of standards provides providers with the capability to move clinical information electronically between systems and user interfaces while maintaining the value and meaning of the information.

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Types of interoperability

Here are the different types and levels of this data exchange method:

Foundational

The foundational level establishes inter-connectively requirements that allow one information system to exchange data efficiently with another system. The primary feature of this level is usually that the receiving information system doesn't require the manual interpretation of the data it receives. Health care providers typically use this type of communication for more basic transfers of data and information.

For example, when a hospital discharges a patient, the attending physician might transfer a PDF with the information about the patient's stay and recommended follow up to their clinician. Once the clinician receives the transfer, they can review the document. If a clinician wants to alter the discharge care, they may do so manually because they can't alter the document as a recipient. This may require the clinician to make an updated document themselves.

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Structural

The structural level involves moving health data from one HIT system to another while maintaining the data's original meaning or purpose and ensuring its unaltered in the receiving system. Specifically, the structural type defines the exchange of data and ensures systems can interpret it at the data field level. Interpretation at this level refers to the ability of both systems to understand any encrypted data in the exchange.

Many health care providers use this level of secure data exchange with digital prescribing, or e-prescribing, when a clinician or physician sends a patient's prescription information to their pharmacy. For these transfers, the HIT systems usually use the same accepted data standards to ensure all the information transfers without alteration. Typically, health care providers use the structural level for more complex transfers of data and information.

Semantic

The semantic level focuses on the exchange of data between two or more HIT systems. A primary function of these exchanges is the ability of all receiving systems to codify the data to interpret it completely. This level can help with the authorized transfers of patient information among caregivers through electronic health record (EHR) systems. Health care providers can typically use this type to improve the security of transferred information and increase information delivery efficiency.

For these detailed and complex data transfers to work effectively, the HIT systems require a comprehensive understanding of relevant vocabulary. For example, it's important for systems to recognize specifications, such as medication milligram amount and frequency of medication use. The specific vocabulary may depend on the specific functions of the individual health care providers. The semantic level can be the most complex and its specific software may continuously change or update to meet or address new health care needs.

Organizational

The organizational level focuses on the legal and ethical electronic exchange of confidential data and information. The effective organization and monitoring of exchanges throughout these processes are important for both patient and provider protection. This level addresses many of the health insurance portability and accountability regulations, including:

  • patient medical record confidentiality

  • patient access to medical records

  • patient control over personal health information

  • patient opt-in for information sharing

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Benefits of using interoperability

In health care, providers can benefit from using these data exchange systems, as it helps them streamline and advance communications. Here are six specific benefits of using this data exchange process:

Consistent care quality

Many patients receive care from different health providers at various locations, such as clinics or hospitals. The smooth transfer of health information can help patients receive a consistent quality of care because their providers document and store detailed histories of each visit or interaction. For example, when a patient visits a hospital's emergency room, their general care provider receives a notification with details of the visit and recommended next steps or follow-up. Health professionals usually refer to these documentations as a patient's Continuum of Care. Here are some examples of what providers might include in these files:

  • previous procedures

  • past illness symptoms

  • medical conditions

  • known allergies

  • current prescriptions

Integrated HIT systems help prevent the possibility of limited access to this information and streamline the care process for both patients and providers. For example, when a care provider has access to a patient's Continuum of Care, they can see what treatments a patient has tried in the past based on previous records.

Increased efficiency

When health providers can communicate data results or care information more easily and rapidly, they may experience increased efficiency during patient visits. Secure data sharing systems can save patients' time when picking up medical prescriptions because physicians can send prescriptions directly to the pharmacy before patients leave their appointment. This might mean that medications are ready within hours of their appointment and can allow physicians to renew prescriptions on the phone, if needed.

Connecting all members of a patient's health care team with shared resources may also increase the efficiency of a diagnosis. For example, the physician can upload a MRI scan to a patient's file at one hospital and a specialist can review the scans immediately afterward at another location.

Reduced medical errors

The consistency of documentation shared with HIT systems may decrease the instance of medical errors, as physicians don't alter the original messaging. Using disconnected systems may cause manual errors if a provider has to re-enter information by hand or if they view an incomplete patient file. Here are some examples of errors health teams can avoid by using these regulated exchanges:

  • misinterpreted patient care data

  • wrongly coded health insurance information

  • out-of-date patient care data

When dealing with illnesses, incorrect information can cause patients to receive incorrect diagnoses. The ability of HIT systems to decrease medical errors may help improve the care patients receive and the ability of providers to give them higher quality care.

Enhanced patient care experiences

Integrated HIT systems issue providers with efficient access to individual medical histories, which can help to advance patient care experiences or treatment. Providers might use this information to personalize the treatment of individual patients and offer them unique solutions. While this may allow patients to be more active throughout their health journey, it may also prevent patients with complex histories from repeating their history with each provider. This can be important for patients who cannot advocate for themselves effectively, or those who have sensitive histories.

For example, if an ambulance brings an unconscious patient to the hospital, the HIT systems allow physicians to access important information, such as allergies or the instance of a pacemaker. Further, an expectant mother with pregnancy complications may not want to share her history or explain the complications at every appointment. With seamless information exchange systems, it allows doctors to review records objectively without requiring the patient to share. This may increase the satisfaction level patients have with their medical care.

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Strengthened security of patient data and information

Another benefit of using integrated HIT systems is the strengthened security of patient data and information. The seamless communication between systems reduces the amount of manual data input by health care providers into various systems. The decrease in inputs of confidential data and information can help strengthen the security of patient records with each record exchange and limit duplicated information. Further, these systems protect sensitive health information from unauthorized access, use, or modification.

Reduced health care costs

The lack of coordinated information sharing among doctors, labs, or specialists may create a redundancy of tests or diagnoses. When providers perform multiple tests, not only does this increase associated health care costs, but it may also increase the time to make a diagnosis. The seamless transfer of information between providers reduces unnecessary health care costs, saving time and resources for both the patient and the provider.

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