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Interoperability in healthcare: Achieving true meaningful use

April 23, 2015
By Karsten Scherer

The impressive numbers for last week’s HIMSS15 in Chicago speak for themselves: five days, more than 42,000 attendees, 1,200 exhibitors and 500+ sessions targeting trends and challenges in the healthcare industry. The one theme that ran like an artery through the entire event? Without a doubt, interoperability. I wrote about the roadblocks many providers face when implementing electronic medical record (EHR) systems last week. The advent of patient-centric and value-based care, however, makes clear that while EHR technology is a major building block in achieving these BHAGs, it’s only one of several.

I spoke to very few people at HIMSS who weren't trying to master interoperability. In a nutshell, systems generate or collect data. The more systems you have, the more you have to make sure they can actually interact with each other toward the ends you want them to. No one at HIMSS complained of having too little data to work with; in fact, most find the magnitude of available information like patient and drug data and care records utterly overwhelming. Actually improving patient care is the brass ring everyone is reaching for; i.e., how to make that information useful.

Given recent year’s heavy mergers and acquisitions activity in healthcare, it surprises no one that integrating disparate health IT systems has become the bane of many a CIO’s existence. For a while now, those CIOs have been looking outside their organizations for solutions. Gartner’s Jennifer Mazzucca (paywalled article here) estimates the healthcare-related outsourcing market will grow by 6.4 percent in 2015.

Simply put, interoperability means different IT systems and applications can interact with each other, exchange information and utilize that information, with, as HIMSS puts it, one goal in mind: ensuring “health information systems ... work together within and across organizational boundaries in order to advance the effective delivery of healthcare for individuals and communities.” (You’ll find more from HIMSS on interoperability here.)

Federal leaders who attended the conference made their expectations crystal clear. While lauding progress made to date during a press briefing, Karen DeSalvo, National Coordinator for Health IT, stated that the scope is larger. "The EHR is one of major drivers to advance care, but the world has evolved and advanced, and now the ecosystem is much broader than EHRs. To provide person-centered care … we need to make certain that we're allowing technology to evolve. EHRs only tell one part of story."

Interoperability takes a village … or at least a partner

As Mazzucca pointed out, attaining interoperability is a complicated endeavor for healthcare delivery organizations (HDOs), and creates high demand for service providers that understand the landscape and can help navigate the complexity. It’s simple: Without the right building blocks in place, the promise of real-time healthcare systems (RTHS) will remain elusive.

Here are three areas Mazzucca sees healthcare delivery organizations actively seeking outside assistance with:

1. Legacy applications: The multitude of legacy applications health systems run are a major stumbling block toward achieving RTHS. Most HDOs employ a hodgepodge of homegrown applications, modern EHR technology and applications much closer to the end of their useful life than the beginning. These applications will require integration, management and sunsetting where appropriate.

2. Enterprise-class architecture: In the words of Mazzucca, “the healthcare sector has been relatively slow to adopt cutting-edge IT.” This has led to unwieldy application infrastructures that can’t scale to growing demands. For some HDOs, developing enterprise-level applications and infrastructures will require significant changes to the guts of their IT structures as well as outside expertise on the path there.

3. Analytics: The “real-time” in RTHS hinges on leveraging data to proactively improve patient care and cut costs. To that end, HDOs continue to make business intelligence and analytics one of their top priorities. Additionally, they have concerns about mobility, security and master data management, among others.

Interoperability will continue to be a massive area of interest, concern and opportunity this year, and I’m certain it will take up at least as much, if not more, collective mindshare a year from now at HIMSS16.

Learn more about TEKsystems' healthcare staffing and services for healthcare provider organizations

Karsten Scherer leads analyst relations globally for TEKsystems. He enjoys exploring the intersections between clients, the analyst community, technology and business analysis. You can reach him @TwoARGuys on Twitter.

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