Interoperable electronic health records (also known as Health Information Exchange, or HIE) have been identified by many industry experts as one of the most important ways to reduce costs and inefficiencies in today’s overburdened health care system. Read on to learn more about this new digital frontier in health care delivery.
The future of health information is interoperable
Electronic charting and electronic medical records are a prevalent trend in health care today. However, in many cases, records remain fragmented and scattered. Patients moving to a new state, for example, may have difficulty in accessing records from their previous health care network. Similarly, in a situation where multiple providers are delivering care to a single patient, the same up-to-date information and records are rarely available to all providers.
Interoperability is the key to overcoming these challenges: that is, health records that are not only electronic, but that contain clinical data in a standardized, structured format that can be sent and shared between different systems. In other words, interoperability is about creating electronic health records (EHRs) that can talk and listen to each other in the same language.
Consider the example of a patient with a musculoskeletal injury. The patient initially goes to an urgent care center for immediate treatment and then to a primary care provider for follow-up care, at which time the patient receives a referral to an orthopedist. Without interoperability, each of these provider visits will be charted separately using different codes, and even if subsequent providers have access to information about treatment that the patient previously received for this injury, they may not be able to understand or interpret them effectively. However, in an interoperable system with shared EHRs, all providers would be able to access complete, real-time clinical summaries based on standardized data directly from their own office or facility.
The banking industry and the ATM network provide a useful analogy to better understand the dramatic impact that interoperable EHRs could have on health care. ATMs leverage standardized data to be able to provide any customer at any time with access to information from their own bank, regardless of which bank it is or what ATM they are using to access their information. Similarly, an effective HIE network will standardize the codes and languages spoken by different health care providers to facilitate the sharing of critical information. And, like banks that are unable to connect to an ATM network, providers that are not part of a nationwide HIE will find themselves becoming increasingly isolated.
The many benefits of interoperability
The US Department of Health and Human Services wants interoperability implemented as a common capability by all providers by the year 2024. It’s not difficult to see why such an ambitious goal has been set when interoperability offers such noticeable benefits. They include:
Time savings: Significant delays in care delivery can occur when providers must wait for patients’ paper records to be sent via fax or scan. Interoperability would give providers real-time access to up-to-date patient records, eliminating waiting time.
Reduced administrative burden: Interoperability would drastically reduce the administrative burden formerly associated with managing paper, or even isolated electronic records. Staff will no longer have to manually enter or scan referral notes from other providers, but instead will be able to exchange standardized data electronically.
Better care coordination—When clear and legible patient data is accessible to all authorized providers, it becomes much easier to provide effective, coordinated care because decisions can be based on accurate and complete health information.
Fewer risks and errors—The Institute of Medicine previously estimated that approximately 7,000 deaths every year are caused by adverse drug events that result from medical errors. Interoperability greatly reduces the chance of error (and, consequently, the associated risk of malpractice lawsuits) by ensuring that all providers have access to clear information about a patient’s previous drug responses and other current medication.
More agency for patients—In addition to reducing the time wasted by patients in filling out medical history paperwork multiple times, interoperable health records offer patients greater access to their own health information, which can help them to make more informed decisions and choices about their care.
Fewer unnecessary tests—Redundant testing and inapplicable procedures are unfortunately a common occurrence when providers do not know what tests or procedures patients may have already undergone elsewhere. When providers have a more complete medical history, they are able to eliminate duplicate tests and care, thus significantly reducing time wasted and costs.
Better research support—While greater sharing of health data most visibly benefits patients and providers, there are also wider societal benefits that come with the implementation of a health information exchange. The increased availability of comprehensive digital health data can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of public health monitoring and reporting activities, and it can help to provide a clear and accurate picture of the current state of specific health outcomes of a particular region or population.