Successful EHR interoperability starts locally

Advisory Board Senior Vice President Rob Barras discusses the need for providers to start locally to spark interoperability while recognizing there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
By Rob Barras
03:14 PM
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EHR interoperability

Interoperability is one of the most difficult challenges with electronic health record optimization: The ability to share clinical data across health systems and respective EHRs. Sometimes it takes a personal experience to drive home the meaning of interoperability, not only to the healthcare professionals who regularly interface with the EHR, but the patients.

When EHR interoperability hits home

For those that read my last post, you know that I lost my 40-year-old brother to a heart attack in 2015.  I had a physical about two months after my brother died, but due to my family history of heart disease, I also made a long-overdue appointment to see a cardiologist. Both my primary care physician and cardiologist work within the same system and use the same ‘integrated’ EHR. And yet the scheduler for the cardiologist requested I fax my EKG and history, including labs, to the office prior to my appointment.

Needless to say, we know interoperability will doubtlessly improve patient care and experience. But it can often feel like a mammoth, unachievable task. Some staff are accustomed to jumping through hoops to access data, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The secret is to approach interoperability on a smaller scale and address the changes you can make more locally to move the needle forward. Interoperability is a spectrum, and the right answer for one health system may not be the same for another. 

Small steps toward interoperability

Every health system executive has interoperability on their priority list these days, with exciting strides in personalized medicine, the day-to-day demands of care management and reducing unwarranted care variation.

So where should you start?

First, as leaders in this industry, we need to recognize interoperability isn’t just a technology problem. Opening up access to clinical data across different care settings must be a strategic priority that starts with an honest assessment of a health system’s technical capabilities against the imperative to deliver better patient care. Health systems can’t afford to be left behind here, but can’t do it alone. In an industry rife with mergers and acquisitions, health systems should work from the inside out. While that might seem obvious, many systems struggle to make sure internal stakeholders have access to data on the system in some way or another. 

Second, there’s more than one right technique to achieve some level of interoperability. While a truly integrated EHR is the ultimate goal, it’s typically more costly, time-intensive and organizationally disruptive than other options. There is a myriad of interface engines/brokers, health information exchange tools, APIs and custom-built options that can be implemented much more quickly and provide real value, at the point-of-care, now.

Most health system executives assume that to achieve interoperability, they need to implement or migrate every provider in their system onto the same EHR. And often this course of action is advised. However, I’ve seen clients use some innovative methods to tackle interoperability.

One of my favorite examples is a large health system in the northeast that explored different methods to standardize access to data without moving to the same EHR platform.

As the health system acquired new physician practices, it faced limitations that made an integrated EHR financially and operationally prohibitive. After exploring its options, the health system opted to create an HIE, a safe way to send and standardize patient records between EHRs. While the data are not truly in one single place, HIEs give clinicians access to data across separate systems within a couple clicks.

Achieving interoperability will be a long journey that will only grow in importance as healthcare shifts from a volume to value mindset. When possible, health systems should move to an enterprise EHR architecture and go beyond minimally meeting regulations. There’s no such thing as true, complete interoperability: There will always be a new source of data with a different set of access issues. But in the interim, work with community partners to craft solutions to affect patient care now.

Rob Barras is Senior Vice President of Consulting at Advisory Board.