EHRs and healthcare interoperability: The challenges, complexities, opportunities and reality

We need all stakeholders to challenge existing conventions in order to make interoperability a reality.
By Drew Schiller
08:52 AM
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Communication gaps and data-sharing challenges are pervasive in healthcare, persisting between different providers, hospitals and payers, and even various departments within a health system. While technology promises a future of connected networks and free-flowing information, the challenge remains bridging the gap between data silos to improve patient care.

Connecting the plethora of data sources relevant to patient outcomes and care management is overwhelmingly cumbersome. The burdensome task of integrating all of these data sources distracts organizations from their core competency, effectively acting as a blockade to healthcare innovation. Clinical health records, including both primary care and hospital visits; payment information and history; patient-generated health data; pharmacy and prescription information; patient and family-health history; genomics; clinical-trial data; and so on – all of this information needs to be easily accessible digitally for providers as well as patients to realize the full potential and promise of interoperability.

Traditional EHR companies such as Cerner, Meditech, and InterSystems are building patient-management tools that will help coordinate a patient's care beyond the four walls of any one health system. Healthcare technology leaders, like the aforementioned, are taking steps to capture patient-generated health data from outside of the clinical setting and bring it back into the patient's clinical story.

A common misconception is that EHRs are the lone solution to interoperability. EHRs were not designed as open systems that can easily pull in information from outside the clinical setting or connect data across multiple providers. Rather, these tools were created to coordinate patient care within a hospital, replacing paper records and filing cabinets. EHR vendors are unfairly blamed for the fact that healthcare is not more interoperable. Like any technology company, they build what their customers want to buy. EHRs are a part of the overall solution to interoperability; really, all healthcare technology is only part of the means to which we will achieve interoperability. Changes to physician workflow and new models of care – working in parallel with technology such as EHRs, patient portals and care management tools – are necessary for interoperability to be fully achieved.

We need buy-in from physicians and administrators to build care programs utilizing this technology. Too often, care teams are spending their time calling other providers about patient information, faxing paper records and trying to coordinate care efforts across a disjointed and disconnected system. This is a drain on resources that could be better spent with patients on site or remotely monitoring patients with chronic conditions. We need a network connecting this data to create more effective workflows, care coordination, and prevention-based models of care.

Whatever you choose to call it (interoperability, data liquidity or care coordination), we need data to flow easily throughout the healthcare ecosystem to improve the lives of patients. Expecting EHR vendors to solve this challenge alone will further delay an already long-overdue solution. We need all stakeholders – patients, physicians, technology companies, providers and payers – to challenge existing conventions in order to make interoperability a reality.