By Balu Nair is chief technology officer at Gray Matter Analytics.
America’s healthcare system is notoriously disjointed, with patchwork information technology and disparate data. The quest for interoperability as an answer – the ability to easily share health records between sites of care – has had varying levels of success. But it’s a solution that is crucial to healthcare’s value-based transformation and can’t be allowed to fail, especially by going too slow to be meaningful.
The challenges associated with interoperability – from fragmented sources of patient information to data being kept in varied formats, to difficulties using an electronic health record (EHR) as a secure central “home” for a patient’s data – were highlighted in a recent American Hospital Association (AHA) report on “The Hospital Agenda for Interoperability.”
The report highlighted challenges for providers and underscored that a collaborative approach is necessary for improving the lives of families and their caregivers for the long-term. The AHA report not only represents frustrations with EHR and Health Information Exchange (HIE) but calls for extending efforts at digital transformation that logically layer on top of that.
As the debate and progress inches forward to 2020, it is vital to return to what hospitals are telling us.
Beyond technical challenges
The difficulty in interoperability goes beyond technicalities. For example, while healthcare providers generate clinical data and payers create claims data, their current structures are not conducive for synchronization and insight generation. Payers and providers have different objectives (whether it’s clinical notetaking, billing, clinical decision support, etc.) so there’s more to the underlying friction than just a variety of data formats.
The AHA calls out additional reasons for issues with interoperability and the high costs that result. That includes expensive workarounds, overcomplicated user interface design, lack of documentation consistency, unrealistic expectations for technical solutions, issues with regulatory compliance for data security, privacy and use, and pricing models that “toll” information sharing. It’s also clear that business and technical challenges with interoperability should not be conflated – each technology Band-Aid further burdens healthcare organizations with ad hoc, un-intuitive technology that will cost more over time and fail to solve interoperability challenges.
In the quest to use technology to save money, improving interoperability between healthcare systems and using powerful data analytics to extract insights from systems working in concert appears to be an expensive and elusive goal. But the cost of not committing to a more universal approach is far greater, because it prevents clear and effective insights on where improvements are needed. Insights are only ever as good as the data that feeds them, and if there isn’t a clearly defined data analytics and data governance strategy aligned with industry best practices, the results will be half-baked.
The need for leadership
Leaders who may have not been exposed to technology outside of healthcare may not be aware of open source, cloud-based tools to rapidly and more cost effectively meet interoperability needs. As they implement piecemeal or outdated, point-to-point solutions, technology costs rise significantly, while perception of technology’s efficacy goes out the window. Worse, paying to ship data to third-party vendors instead of focusing on an internal and overarching connectivity strategies involving every vertical means opportunities to maximize their data’s potential will be lost.
In other words, healthcare organizations might find that they are ironically spending immense amounts of money on technology intended to reduce costs under a value-based payment system. But they might not be spending it wisely. And as other industries steam ahead with movements akin to interoperability on a national scale, leaders in healthcare need to stay focused on the larger task of consistency as not to fall even further behind. Unlike industries like retail, the quality of lives for patients and their caregivers are at stake.
Technology – and business – challenge
As the AHA report emphasizes, the challenges involved go beyond technology and land firmly in the realm of business. Healthcare organizations need to be open to making health data available, whether it’s a secure transfer to another provider, or to the patients. CMS recently renamed “meaningful use” to “promoting interoperability” in efforts to provide a model and further incentives for “advancing care information.”