Interoperability should be priority for healthcare IT experts
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Interoperability should be priority for healthcare IT experts

For the healthcare sector, one of the biggest industry-wide initiatives in recent years has been the implementation of electronic health records. With more doctors collecting patient information in an online format, the question arises of how practices may be able to harness this information in new and innovative ways to improve outcomes. The more obvious answers, which many clinicians are already aware of, include the ability to track patient health indicators more closely and minimize costs by reducing the time and resources it takes to keep tabs on essential data. Recently, West Health Institute (WHI) chief medical and science officer Joseph Smith testified before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health about a new study, which indicates that interoperability should be the next major area of focus for healthcare professionals.

Interoperability in the context of healthcare refers to the idea of enabling medical devices to communicate with electronic health records through better integrated IT systems. The WHI's most recent study found that interoperability may be key to hospitals making the most out of their digitized records management systems, as the U.S. healthcare industry could save as much $30 billion per year in unnecessary expenses through more unified strategies.

"We see an enormous opportunity to use information technology, device innovation, and smart/learning systems to transform healthcare delivery and create empowered, informed consumers of healthcare," Smith said in his testimony, according to MobiHealthNews.

West explained that interoperability would allow hospitals to save money through "safety interlocks" that would allow the facility's IT system to detect problems and communicate discrepancies directly to medical devices. This could possibly include issues like waste stemming from inaccurate dosages.

While this technology would certainly have its uses in the hospital setting, it could also play into the field of telemedicine, which allows fewer mobile patients and those living in remote areas to receive adequate healthcare without needing to make frequent face-to-face appointments with their clinicians. Telemedicine extends beyond the idea of the video medical consultation, as advanced blood glucose meters, blood pressure monitors and other devices can often be connected to the Internet to provide doctors with updates about their patients' health.

While being able to transmit medical data straight to a physician is good, professionals being able to take that data and more quickly assess it would be better, and interoperability could potential make this happen. With devices and electronic health records communicating effectively, better decisions could be made about remote patients. If Smith's intuitions are correct, patients might even be able to be outfitted with equipment that responds to their test results and adjusts accordingly.

According to InformationWeek, interoperability was also a big topic at the most recent Health Information Management and Systems Society (HIMSS) conference in New Orleans. At HIMSS, experts focused more heavily on the idea of communication among different electronic health records systems. Currently, doctors may face problems with sharing medical information with fellow professionals who are working at hospitals that operate different software. This potentially stifles collaboration and patient outcomes.

Doug Fridsma, director of the office of science and technology in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, told Information Week that while this problem stems from the lack of a single electronic health record solution across all practices, he does not necessarily advocate healthcare professionals solving the problem by all switching to the same system. Interoperability should not depend on everyone using the same software for Fridsma. Instead, vendors should focus on helping medical facilities share information effectively through their current solutions.