If you travel to a country where you do not speak the language, you might agree it is easier to learn a few phrases to ease communication with the locals. It is far more efficient to learn ‘thank you’ and ‘black coffee, please’ rather than relying on a translation app. What does learning a language have to do with healthcare interoperability engine? We can apply the question of efficiency to how we manage and exchange healthcare data. The terms ‘integration’ and ‘interoperability’ in healthcare are often used interchangeably. Both terms cover data exchange, but they refer to different processes from a technical perspective. In healthcare, interoperability often works better due to its ability to smoothen communication between organisations. Integration is like relying on your translation app, whereas interoperability is about everyone speaking the same language.

Interoperability in healthcare

How does interoperability in healthcare work?

The term ‘interoperability’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in healthcare, but what does it mean? It refers to how easily different systems communicate and share information. All systems involved need to use the same data standards for interoperability to work effectively. For example, when a hospital discharges a patient, they might send the person’s electronic medical record (EMR) to their GP. The patient’s GP can then reference the patient’s hospital care and follow up with them at their checkup. Interoperability between the hospital’s EMR system and the records in the doctor’s office enables this smooth transition. There are four levels of interoperability when it comes to healthcare:

  • Foundational: This is the basic level of interoperability achieved when two systems can exchange data between themselves.
  • Structural: Ensures data adheres to a specific format.
  • Semantic: Standardises data so that both systems understand it the same way.
  • Organisational: This includes implementation and management at the organisational level, such as enforcing policies around internal and external communication.

Interoperability standards

FHIR is a healthcare interoperability standard created to improve healthcare interoperability. The standard is based on the HL7 v3 reference models and uses a RESTful API to facilitate data transfer between systems. FHIR exchanges information between different health information exchange (HIE) platforms, including EHRs, medical devices, and provider directories.

Healthcare interoperability challenges

True interoperability in healthcare comes with barriers that stand in the way of those involved, from developers to healthcare leaders. The key challenges include:

  • Consolidating different information systems: One of the challenges for interoperability in healthcare is consolidating information systems across an organisation. Some systems may not be compatible, especially when used by different departments in a hospital or healthcare organisation.
  • Maintain privacy and security of patient data: When you consolidate different information systems, it can be challenging to ensure that the data remains private and secure. In addition, when other organisations share patient data, there is a risk that it could be compromised or accessed inappropriately. You can take many steps to protect patient data, including implementing strong security measures and establishing sharing protocols.
  • Costs associated with kickstarting your interoperability play: Many organisations find themselves at a crossroads regarding healthcare interoperability. They can see the potential benefits of increased communication and data sharing among providers. But, for some organisations, the initial cost of starting their interoperability journey becomes a deterrent.

Integration in healthcare

How does integration in healthcare work?

Integration does not operate quite the same as interoperability. Where interoperability ensures each platform speaks the same language, integration acts as a translator between systems. Data integration in healthcare combines data from multiple sources into a single system. You can achieve this through various methods, including software that connects data from different sources in a unified view. By integrating data from other sources, you can improve data accuracy and your ability to make data-based decisions.

What are the challenges of integration in healthcare?

Integration does not focus on leveraging a standardised data format across all documentation. Instead, integration involves leveraging other technology to ‘translate’ the documentation sent between healthcare providers. Rather than creating unity, it is about finding ways to connect disparate systems.

Why healthcare needs interoperability rather than integration

Access to real-time, accurate data makes a significant difference in care delivery in healthcare. For example, if your healthcare provider waits a long time for results from the pathology lab, their ability to provide smooth care declines.  Integration translates data from different systems. Interoperability means that two systems speak the same language. Integration translates data from different systems. It is often a way of adding one system to another because the concept of the systems communicating was not considered at the start. Interoperability means that two systems speak the same language because the exchange of information between them was considered and incorporated into their design from the start. To make data exchange between systems as simple as possible, interoperability is important. For example, if two healthcare providers have different electronic health record (EHR) systems, they will need to be integrated. However, if their systems leverage the same standards they will be interoperable. Interoperability is preferable to integration because integrating systems:

  1. Is a custom, one time, project rather than an overarching solution
  2. Can be very difficult and time-consuming
  3. Can lead to data duplication and inaccuracy
  4. Needs to be maintained and upgraded over time
  5. Usually requires specialised knowledge of both system domains
  6. Makes it difficult to track patients’ progress over time

How Fluffy Spider enables healthcare interoperability

We develop integrated software systems for connected, interoperable digital healthcare. Our solutions manage the electronic health information journey from devices to the cloud and medical record systems. We implement FHIR-based solutions in the cloud and the clinic to make health data secure and available. Our experienced team can bring together your devices, telehealth systems and EHRs so you can deliver frictionless health. High-quality commercial software requires a dedicated team with relevant experience. We can work with you through the entire process, from concept to commercialisation. Visit our Integration Services page to learn more about our capabilities and solutions.