Interoperable electronic health records (EHR) allow the electronic sharing of patient information between different EHR systems and healthcare providers. Healthcare interoperability improves the ease with which doctors provide care to their patients, and can help their patients traverse the healthcare ecosystem. Interoperability may be central to electronic health records, but there are varying degrees to how a healthcare organization can interact with those in the care spectrum.
Interoperability is important because healthcare facilities must interact with each other to share and exchange patient information, but EHRs are not the only way to accomplish this communication. However, a variety of technologies and data silos make information exchange difficult. In regard to EHRs, most healthcare organization use different EHR systems, making it difficult to share information between practices and health systems.
According to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), interoperability is the ability of different information systems, devices, or applications to connect, in a coordinated manner, within and across organizational boundaries. Interoperability allows for access to, exchange, and cooperatively use data — the goal being to optimize the health of individuals and populations.
Likewise, per the 21st Century Cures Act, “interoperability” is facilitated by health information technology that: (A) enables the secure exchange of electronic information from other health IT without special effort on the part of the user; (B) allows for access, exchange, and use of all electronically accessible health information for authorized use; and (C) does not lead to information blocking.
As defined by HIMSS, healthcare interoperability occurs at three levels. Foundationally, which includes “data exchange from one information technology system to another, but doesn’t require the ability for the receiving information technology system to interpret the data.” Structurally, which “defines the structure or format of data exchange where there is a uniform movement of healthcare data from one system to another. This exchange of data does not impede clinical or operational purposes, and the meaning of the data is preserved and unaltered.” And semantically, which HIMMS describes as the pinnacle of health data exchange. Semantic interoperability “takes advantage of both the structuring of the data exchange and the codification of the data, including vocabulary so that the receiving information technology systems can interpret the data.” Semantic interoperability means health IT systems speak the same language. They don’t need interpretation to make patient health information actionable.
Interoperability standards are designed to make health data electronic and in a shareable format, and eliminate communication taking place via paper, faxing, and phone calls. Increased interoperability between electronic health record systems makes health data universally sharable. Interoperability efforts facilitate better patient care and allow for ease of referrals, communications, and transitions between health providers.