The Four Fundamental Functions of Interoperability in Healthcare

By: on March 27, 2019

“By 2023, interoperability will become a cornerstone of the EHR value proposition and business model.”

That’s what Gartner has to say about the massive importance of interoperability in healthcare, and they’re absolutely right.

Confirming Gartner’s prediction for small practices is the fact that patients are interested in the benefits of interoperability in healthcare, with 47 percent preferring doctors share their patient information directly with other providers.

Software Advice Survey: patient preference for methods of sharing medical information between providers

Despite Gartner’s prediction and patient sentiment, plenty of providers are still on the fence about interoperability. In our HITECH Act retrospective survey, 47 percent of providers said it had a negative impact on interoperability at their practice.

In fact, many doctors claim to be disappointed by the slow progress of EHR software when it comes to interoperability functionality, and the perception that technology has limited their ability to become an interoperable practice is keeping most small offices from looking very hard at their options.

That’s a mistake.

The truth is Gartner’s right about the future of EHRs, and interoperability will be crucial to the success of any size practice in the coming years. And while most EHRs are still perfecting interoperability functionality, physicians must learn as much as possible about interoperable EHRs in order to demand the right features from their software providers.

What Is EHR Interoperability?

The official definition of interoperability in healthcare, according to the 21st Century Cures Act, is health information technology that:

  1. Enables the secure exchange of electronic information with, and use of electronic health information from, other health information technology without special effort on the part of the user;
  2. Allows for complete access, exchange, and use of all electronically accessible health information for authorized use under applicable State or Federal law

That’s a fancy way of saying it’s an EHR that lets users securely send and receive health information to and from other EHRs.

The government has recognized the potential value of interoperable medicine for a while now and has worked to incentivize providers to adopt interoperable practices through legislation and programs like the HITECH Act, Meaningful Use and MACRA.

The benefits of interoperability in healthcare are pretty great for physicians and patients, too:

  • Time saved no longer having to wait for paper records or test results to be faxed or scanned.
  • Collaboration between specialists means easier and better care coordination with fewer mistakes and misunderstandings.
  • Better communication means better outcomes and a reduced risk of malpractice lawsuits.

But how do you know your EHR is interoperable? And if it is, how can you start taking advantage of these features to see the benefits today?

The first step is to understand what an interoperable EHR does. Then you’ll want to speak to EHR vendors about the specific features they offer to accomplish these things.

The Four Fundamental Functions of Interoperable EHRs

Interoperability is kind of a vague term, and while it has a clear definition, it’s hard to pin down what it looks like in terms of specific EHR functionality. Instead of trying to do that, approach it by trying to understand what the crucial aspects of an interoperable EHR are.

In order to be interoperable, your EHR must allow you to do the following:

1. Access patient data created by and stored in other EHR systems.

This generally translates to security-based features like user logins and role-based access controls to manage who has permission to view and acquire patient data. You’ll also want auditing functionality to help keep track of who saw what data and when in order to protect your practice from HIPAA violations.

2. Share patient data created and stored in your own EHR with another system.

This goes hand-in-hand with the first function, as interoperability means systems must be able to communicate with one another in both directions. Look for data selection options that let you how much of a patient’s records to send to other systems as well as standardized data entry.

For example, when sharing information with other practices, you need to make sure you’re both using the same vocabulary and units of measurement to ensure there are no miscommunications.

Direct messaging is another great feature that enables exchange of information between providers. It’s a great tool for simplifying these exchanges, so make sure it’s definitely on your interoperability feature list.

3. Participate in health information exchange (HIE) programs.

HIEs are programs that help facilitate the secure exchange of patient information in one of three ways:

  • Direct exchange, when providers are able to send and receive secure patient information directly and electronically to improve care coordination.
  • Query-based exchange, when providers request secure patient information from one another.
  • Consumer mediated exchange, when patients are able to collect and control the use of their health information.

An interoperable EHR will, naturally, allow you to participate in these programs as they will be equipped to send and receive information to and from other systems. They should also be able to receive queries at any time of day and offer a record locator option to make finding and sending the requested information a simple and automated task.

4. Switch to a different EHR system without losing any patient data.

This is a big one. In order for an EHR to be truly interoperable, the patient information collected and stored on it must be vendor-agnostic. By that I mean access to the information simply cannot depend on what EHR software you use.

To ensure this is the case, go back to the standardization of information. You need to make sure every piece of data collected on one system will look and read the same on another system.

How to Talk to Your EHR Vendor about Interoperability

After dipping your toes in the proverbial interoperability pool, you may find the benefits to be worth more of an investment, and that’s going to mean talking to your EHR vendor to find out more about the interoperability features they offer in their software (as well as talking to other vendors to compare features and prices).

To help hospitals and large practices do that, Gartner compiled a list of questions for their administrators to ask EHR vendors. According to Gartner:

A vendor can participate in every standard development organization, implement every industry protocol and participate in every interoperability initiative and network—and it still won’t be interoperable in a manner that most benefits the patient and the provider.

Barry Runyon, VP Analyst, and Mike Jones, Sr. Director Analyst

They have a good point, and so we’ve created this list of questions for small and mid-size practices to ask their independent EHR providers in order to learn the same information:

interoperability questions to ask your ehr vendor

If you’re looking for help narrowing down a list of vendors that offer interoperability, reach out to our team of medical software advisors. They’ll ask a few questions to learn about your needs, then provide a list of EHR systems that you know will work for you.

You may also like:

EHR Security Measures, Explained (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Software)

The Benefits of Direct Messaging for EHR Interoperability

Are Patients Ready for EHR Interoperability?

Learn more about interoperable EHRs