Morris Panner is CEO of Ambra Health, makers of the leading cloud-based, medical image management suite.
It’s not unusual for patients to feel powerless in the domain of health care. Records, charts, imaging, test results and other health data have often been kept at arm’s length, with the main way to get this information being through a doctor or nurse’s explanation of it. While more persistent patients may find a way to get their hands on the information they want, it’s frequently with some difficulty.
However, I’ve noticed that health care is rapidly becoming a much more consumer-driven enterprise, as patients — especially millennials and younger patients who are used to having easy digital access to information — have begun to desire more access to their health information. In response, many health care providers are wisely prioritizing interoperability as a way of connecting different health care systems and delivering patients’ data to them with greater ease.
How Interoperability Benefits Patients
For the consumer — and that’s every one of us, at one point or another — health care is multi-faceted. We don’t just go to the “health care store” to get all our health needs met. Effectively managing our health means interfacing with pharmacies, doctors’ offices, radiology suites, health clinics, labs, insurance companies, fitness centers and more.
Many of these separate entities need to communicate the patients’ information amongst themselves and then back to the patient. But there’s nothing more frustrating for a patient than to have to talk individually to each of them and sometimes even having to serve as an intermediary. On certain occasions, patients may even find themselves acting literally as a courier by picking up a CD loaded with x-rays or scans from one specialist to take over to another.
However, if these organizations are using interoperable systems that are capable of interacting with one another, they can access and share patient information more effortlessly. What’s more, the patient might be able to log in to an online “dashboard” and see emails with their doctors, current prescriptions, appointment reminders, recent test results, imaging records and so on.
Health care providers who offer this level of convenience are positioning themselves to be at a distinct advantage with health care consumers who are looking for better service than they are used to getting from an often confusing health care establishment.
How Interoperability Benefits Providers
Even if patients were completely indifferent, providers would find that it was well worth the effort for their own benefit and bottom line.
Currently, a great deal of staff resources are spent just on exchanging information with insurance companies, labs, pharmacies and other health care providers. These time-consuming ways of passing data back and forth are unwieldy and can invite errors. Even some of the more common digitized methods of exchanging records (through PDFs, for instance) are actually quite cumbersome because they require manually opening the file and locating the relevant information therein.
As data sharing becomes more standardized, I expect interoperable systems to make it easier to search, share and find precise, relevant patient information on demand. Simply put, that means greater efficiency for the business’s operations — and it allows health care professionals to focus their time on actual care rather than “paperwork.” It also leaves less room for medical errors that might result from a mistake in manual data entry or simply from a failure to have a critical piece of information.
Furthermore, the embrace of interoperability is already opening some interesting new doors for health care organizations. For instance, one great aspect of interoperability is having medical devices communicate with each other — this can include patients who are using wearables or monitoring equipment at home. There are also exciting possibilities in how AI and machine learning could also manage and utilize the data in interoperable systems to ultimately provide better health care.
Unlocking all these possibilities requires innovation and effort, and there are many organizations, including my own (Ambra Health) tackling different aspects of interoperability. For example, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are working on a patient platform specifically designed to be more inclusive of historically underserved populations. And startup Bridge Connector is working on a major interoperability project that not only includes health records but also includes the integration of other aspects of health care, like billing, scheduling and even marketing platforms.
Everybody In Alignment
Interoperability is about opening up avenues of communication between health care organizations — not just so they can send a file, but so that they can more easily access, share and read the data in that file. Of course, implementation may present certain challenges for each organization. Cost can be a significant factor as can the technical complexities involved in establishing new systems and aligning them with existing ones. Staff must be trained to understand the new systems, and providers have to get comfortable using them. Despite such challenges, the endeavor can offer numerous advantages for the business, and it is an integral part of making patients feel more like valued customers.
Some medical professionals may feel a little uncomfortable with discussing health care in consumer terms, but it’s worth remembering that in this case, the “product” is a person’s health — one of the most precious things they have. It’s only right that patients should want to be able to manage it carefully. Interoperability allows for a more patient-centered form of care, which is better for patients and providers alike.
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