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Treating Healthcare IT's Interoperability Problem


Why interoperability, not money, is healthcare IT’s greatest roadblock.

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The idea that healthcare IT departments are overworked and underfunded is an unpleasantly familiar one. Thankfully, it’s also one that’s slowly fading away — primarily because more and more health organizations are realizing the importance of digital enablement. To wit, 90 percent of healthcare IT professionals planned to increase their cybersecurity budgets this year. But what about healthcare’s interoperability problem?

In short, I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the point where budget and financing are no longer the chief concerns facing healthcare IT. That isn’t to say the road ahead is entirely clear, mind you. It’s anything but.

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See, now that IT professionals in the health industry are (mostly) past struggling to make ends meet within their departments, they’ve been able to set their sights on a problem that’s become increasingly pervasive of late. I’m speaking, of course, about interoperability.

The problem within larger health organizations, hospitals especially, is that most departments still operate in isolation from one another. They, and their systems and data, exist in isolated silos. Collaboration between these silos — between different care departments — is incredibly difficult.

Patient care suffers as wait times increase due to communication bottlenecks. Visibility into how and where protected health information is stored and used becomes increasingly difficult and complicated. And this lack of visibility and connectivity in turn translate to a lack of accountability.

At best, this can result in a tide of dissatisfied, frustrated patients, doctors and nurses. At worst, it can lead to an upturn in sentinel events. But the solution, given the strict framework established by HIPAA and other data security regulations, is far from a simple one.

To be frank, even looking at the issue in isolation from any other challenges is overwhelming.

The most effective approach, according to KLAS Research Director Julie Beard, is to start small. Instead of trying to boil the ocean, focus on promoting interoperability for individual use cases and workflows first. Breaking down the silos that exist within healthcare is a step-by-step process — it’s not something that will happen overnight.

The first step, as with any major technological disruption, is to bring about a cultural shift within the organization.

“Many of the discussions around interoperability are too time-consuming, too slow and lose sight of the provider perspective,” notes Deloitte’s Rick Swanson. “There seems to be a lack of clinical involvement in interoperability initiatives — providers often view these discussions as too technical or philosophical. Clinicians are an important stakeholder to include when creating a sustainable culture of interoperability.”

In other words, engaging hospital staff in the pursuit of interoperability — working with them to establish precisely why it’s important and how it can make their lives easier — is critical. Beyond that, another step you could take is the implementation of an organization-wide secure communications platform. A standardized, HIPAA-compliant instant messaging tool that will allow staff to easily communicate both within their department and without.

Incorporating such a platform alongside attempts to gently nudge your organization’s culture toward a more collaborative approach can go a long way towards breaking down the silos that have for too long plagued the health industry.

Cost concerns will continue to be a thorn in the side of many healthcare IT departments. But such a challenge is far from insurmountable, and it’s one that’s gradually fading into the past. The real issue, moving forward, will be interoperability — creating a culture of more effective communication, greater collaboration and, ultimately, better patient outcomes.

Tim Mullahy is the executive vice president and managing director at Liberty Center One, a new breed of data center located in Royal Oak, Michigan. Tim has a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and services industry.

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