Defining True Interoperability in Healthcare: It’s More Than Just Sharing Data


Guest post by Kristin Russel, senior director product development and marketing, Omnicell, Inc.

Interoperability, one of the most commonly heard terms in the healthcare IT landscape today, is essential to the success of any modern healthcare facility. New federal interoperability rules and the growing need to share disparate pieces of information outside a hospital’s four walls have made the ability to leverage information between separate health IT systems a critical success factor.

Today’s healthcare providers must share information regarding everything from nursing notes to financial data to medication and supply inventory across the continuum of care. This translates to both a tremendous opportunity and need for improved interoperability. It is estimated that 90 percent of hospitals use at least three different devices that could be integrated with electronic health records (EHRs) [1]. The efficiencies healthcare systems are looking to obtain through integration primarily relate to efficiency improvements in the clinician workflow. Large health systems that maintain a variety of points of care (e.g. long-term care facilities or walk-in clinics) are becoming more prevalent and the need for technologies that do more than pass flat files back and forth is becoming more critical.

Recognizing the rising need for interoperability, many vendors tend to overstate their level of interoperability, when in fact they are doing no more than passing data between basic interfaces. This standard exchange of data back and forth from one system to another is important, but this connection does not help solve the advanced workflow and efficiency challenges that end users are increasingly facing. This bare minimum level of interoperability still requires the end user to take multiple steps between systems and is not the true interoperability that they should be looking for. Users may still be required to call up patient information and check it in one application, and then manually input the information into their primary application.

How can providers distinguish between the different types of interoperability and identify true interoperability over empty interoperability promises? Several models exist to distinguish between the different levels of interoperability. The general industry consensus is that all hospitals and health systems will eventually demand a dynamic system that recognizes not only the state of the data but also the system’s needs.

One model, developed by the Health Level Seven (HL7) International community, describes the three types of interoperability as technical, semantic and process.[2] Technical interoperability delivers data from point A to point B, while semantic interoperability also enables points A and B to understand data in the same way. Technical and semantic interoperability will not deliver the benefits most users are looking for. 

The truest, most comprehensive form of interoperability available to today’s hospitals delivers value at the process or workflow level. It allows hospitals to access cohesive data that enables them to function as unified organizations at a systems level. True interoperability also decreases the risk for human error and saves clinician time by decreasing the burden of repeated manual data entry into multiple systems. As providers shop for health IT solutions, it is in their best interest to strive to partner with vendors that can offer truly interoperable solutions at the workflow level as well as ongoing support that will benefit their entire facility.

At Omnicell, we developed the G4 Unity platform as a cohesive system of medication, controlled substance, and supply dispensing automation connected through a single database. By making our own systems interoperable, we help eliminate the need for our customers to duplicate entry of drug formularies and rules in multiple locations, and enable more comprehensive tracking of medications throughout the healthcare facility. Omnicell is also collaborating with electronic health record vendors on process-level interoperability, which will facilitate improved care coordination and further reduce the potential for medical errors.

The quest for interoperability that delivers value at the highest process levels can be challenging, but most hospitals will find that the benefits are worth the effort. While the task of finding truly interoperable vendors can feel daunting, it is an effort that will have a lasting, positive impact if made a top priority among providers.


[1]  HIMSS Analytics. Medical devices landscape: current and future adoption, integration with

EMRs, and connectivity [Internet]. Chicago: HIMSS Analytics; 2010 [cited 2012 Oct 25].

Available from: .

[2] Health Level Seven International. “Standards for Interoperability.” PowerPoint. December 11, 2012. <  >

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