In the past decade, the healthcare industry has changed dramatically in important ways. After the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, healthcare providers were provided with resources to make the switch from paper records to digital records.
This move has been instrumental in pushing the healthcare industry towards greater interoperability and a larger, more holistic view of patient health. So what is interoperability in healthcare and why does it matter for us?
Here, we will explore interoperability and one of the important tools that helps it work: application programming interfaces (APIs).
What Is Interoperability?
Let’s begin with a definition of interoperability as it relates to the healthcare industry. In its most basic form, interoperability is simply the ability of different types of healthcare information technologies (HITs) to share, use, and interpret data effectively.
What this means is that different healthcare systems, applications, and other types of devices need to be able to share the data they collect and be able to interpret that information correctly in order to best serve patients. In this way, healthcare providers can get a more holistic picture of their patients, using all the knowledge available to them from many different sources.
There are four main levels of interoperability in the healthcare field. Level one is the foundational level, in which interconnectivity requirements are established so that different systems are able to exchange data securely in both directions.
The second level, the structural level, defines the information necessary for data exchange and interpretation, like the format, organization, and syntax of the data. On the third level, the semantic level, provisions are made for common underlying models and the data used is codified, providing shared understanding for the users of the systems.
On the fourth level, or the “New” organizational level, issues of governance, social, legal, organizational, and policy considerations come into play. This helps facilitate the speed and security of data exchanges between different systems.
Why Is Interoperability Important?
Interoperability in healthcare is aimed at improving patient care and safety, as well as lowering costs, improving patient experiences, and generating better and more robust patient data. How does interoperability help with these issues?
In today’s healthcare industry, the patient experience is still quite inefficient. It often requires patients to fill out multiple forms, figure out insurance issues, and constantly re-explain symptoms and medical history to different providers. Especially in the case of a patient who has multiple providers, the patient’s care is not truly a collaborative effort.
This effort to improve communication across different hospitals and systems can also help improve patient safety. A 2016 Johns Hopkins study suggests that around 44 percent of patient deaths caused by medical errors could have been preventable. In fact, their study shows that medical errors might be the third leading cause of patient deaths.
This isn’t necessarily due to provider negligence. These errors are sometimes caused by just the types of problems interoperability can help to correct. Examples of problems that can be ameliorated through interoperability include poor communication between healthcare providers, issues with insurance, and lack of coordination between multiple doctors for the same patient.
Interoperability can also help lead to better patient data security overall. Systems that cannot communicate with each other make it more difficult to track PHI (protected health information) and comply with HIPAA privacy rules. With increased interoperability, it will be much easier to track and identify the users of different systems and manage the access rights.
Increased productivity and significant savings will also result from improving interoperability in hospitals and other health care systems. Several years ago, the West Health Institute (WHI) found that improving interoperability could save healthcare systems upwards of $30 billion dollars each year.
Improved public health data is also a side effect of interoperability improvements. Tracking public health data can give providers more accurate and complete patient information, helping to prevent and predict potential outbreaks, like the opioid crisis. Shared information can always improve the quality of care.
How Can APIs Help?
So now we come to applied programming interfaces (APIs). How can this technology help? Application program interfaces help different information systems with communication and data transfer. They can send information from one system to another, enabling systems to update patient records and generate reports.
APIs are like bridges between unrelated systems, allowing communication to occur even if systems have a different basic design. Because of the nature of the healthcare system, there will likely always be different sources of data and information. Using APIs can help to simplify interoperability, helping varied healthcare system communicate efficiently and effectively.
In order to take full advantage of many new developments in digital health, it is essential that different sources of data are standardized. That way, they can easily be shared between different types of information systems. APIs will be essential for healthcare systems to improve their interoperability, thereby leading to improved patient care and safety in the long run.