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Frequently asked questions about interoperability

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Interoperability has become a topic of some significance in the healthcare field. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has emphasized the need for interoperability as it relates to the meaningful use of certified electronic health record (EHR) technology.

In addition, the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology (IT) has published a Proposed Interoperability Standards Measurement Framework “to determine the nation’s progress in implementing interoperability standards in health information technology (health IT) and the use of the standards as a way to measure progress towards nationwide interoperability.”

As much as the topic has been discussed, however, there are still many questions in the minds of independent physicians and other healthcare providers regarding interoperability.

What is interoperability?

Essentially, interoperability enables different electronic health record (EHR) systems to talk to each other. Interoperable EHRs allow the electronic sharing of patient information between different EHR systems and healthcare providers, improving the ease with which doctors can provide care to their patients. Such coordinated care is particularly important for patients with chronic or complex conditions who may see multiple providers for their care.

What are some of the challenges to interoperability?

  • There are often large fees associated with setting up connections between EHR systems
  • A lot of different EHR systems exist, each with different interfaces, technical specifications, and capabilities–this makes it harder to understand how to exchange information in a frictionless way
  • Patient data has traditionally been kept very private, causing confusion as to how to share information safely
  • Additionally, certain stakeholders such as IT companies are incentivized to block the sharing of patient health information

What are some of the benefits of interoperability?

The eHealth Initiative outlines many of the benefits in their Fact Sheet: Health IT Interoperability:

  • Lower healthcare costs
  • Better, coordinated care
  • Improved patient safety
  • Population health

When physicians are able to communicate with each other through interoperable systems, there are fewer duplications, omissions, and errors, resulting in improved healthcare delivery and improved patient outcomes.