Why interoperability is now an essential part of digital health – and how to prepare for an interoperable future

May 9, 2022 Hany Mina

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Why interoperability is now an essential part of digital health – and how to prepare for an interoperable future

Interoperability is a capability that’s been discussed for some time but, until now, a lack of precision in the way the term is used has clouded what it actually means and what it can enable for companies in the healthcare ecosystem.

This is changing rapidly, however. Developments both in technology and in technical standardization over the past four years mean the value of interoperability is coming clearly into view, and there are significant opportunities to be capitalized upon.

In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at how interoperability has evolved, why it’s becoming so important right now, and the promises it can deliver to stakeholders in digital health.

How is interoperability changing?

The introduction of electronic health records (EHRs) can be seen as something of a landmark in the evolution of interoperability, really bringing to the fore the importance of connecting disparate systems, devices, and data in a multifaceted digital ecosystem. In recent years, a surge in the use of wearables and remote monitoring systems has built on this momentum as healthcare professionals (HCPs) and even end consumers are increasingly seeing the value in getting better access to health and social care data.

This result is in an increased drive for standardization, not least following the release of HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), the latest version of the HL7 interoperability standards which govern the formats and definitions for exchanging and developing electronic health records (EHRs) between various health information systems.

FHIR employs RESTful web services and open web technologies and evolved with a state-of-the-art API called “SMART on FHIR” which outlines clear specifications for developers interested in integrating digital health complementary products with EHRs. The new route of deployment represents a self-service model where EHR administrators can access various third-party products and install them onto EHRs acting as a Platform-as-a-service. This is similar to installing a mobile app from AppStore or Google Play but requires a different certification route for approving and maintaining solutions from 3rd parties by EHR vendors.

All in all, this push for standardization is making it both easier and more worthwhile for anyone involved in digital health to contribute – and receive – data between different devices, including to and from tools like EHRs, if operators are compliant with the requisite rules and standards.

This is a huge benefit for digital health stakeholders. First and foremost, hospitals and clinicians can benefit from increased standardization to access app galleries featuring more niche applications that may not already exist natively in EHRs (like, for example, clinical risk calculators, clinical decision support systems that enhance diagnostic accuracy, aid therapeutic decisions, and improve patient safety.)

For medtech and pharma companies, it’s far easier to connect devices to bigger ecosystems in order to exchange data, not least as maintaining plug-ins is far simpler than entire systems within the very restrictive confines of an EHR.


The importance of interoperability for medtech and pharma

Until now, the benefits of interoperability have been overshadowed by the potential challenges. Cost is one of these, as upfront investment to secure interoperability can be significant, and the question of who exactly pays for the technology is not always clear. There’s also the need to ensure that security is paramount whenever multiple organizations connect their networks together, whatever format that may take.

The thing is, interoperability is increasingly not a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s a necessity. Medtech has been aware of the value of data for some time, but the real value of data is not in just collecting data, but doing something with it, and very rarely can this happen all in one system. If medtech can’t guarantee a sufficient level of interoperability, any data collected is essentially trapped in a silo offering no benefits to anyone.

Not only does this limit the potential utilization of this data for healthcare professionals, it also prevents businesses from founding the kinds of partnerships that are essential to remaining competitive today. No business can do it all themselves, and any business that wants to find a partner or exist in a greater ecosystem more generally needs to be able to retrieve data from third-party products and contribute to systems like EHRs.

What’s more, the quality of the data your business can access – or, alternatively, the cost of bringing it up to scratch – is a crucial contributing factor in potential acquisitions.

The fundamental point is, sooner or later, medtech and pharma businesses will have to address the question of interoperability. The sooner they can do it, the faster they can secure value out of their data, and the more they can avoid the difficulties of implementing it retroactively.


How to seize the benefits of interoperability

The good news is that achieving interoperability, or preparing your software product and/or devices for interoperability in the future doesn’t actually cost much with the right input. It’s a case of focusing on the minimum essential requirements, not the maximum possible tech you could use.

The rule of thumb is always that anything you conceptualize should be standardized enough to enable interoperability, if not now, then in the future. It’s a case of setting a common denominator, such as using datasets that allow you to collect data in line with industry standards for clinical and technical purposes.

It might be as simple as:

  1. Ensuring your device or software is able to share data in standard formats like XML/JSON-based documents or exchange PDF documents in line with the appropriate profiles from the IHE technical framework so that other providers and/or HCPs are able to receive and use that data, even if ‘manually’ for the time being.

  2. Implementing OpenEHR technology that provides open platform specifications, clinical models, and software that together define a domain-driven information systems platform for healthcare and medical research. This makes interoperability the automatic outcome of the platform architecture, rather than an ad hoc case-by-case problem.

  3. Another example is to ensure you have adequate IT infrastructure that’s scalable and cloud-based to support future initiatives towards collaboration and partnership opportunities. An example is setting up a data warehousing solution that can handle data on an exabytes scale when your business grows which can help in processing real-time analytics, combining multiple data sources, log analysis or more.

If you follow these standards, not only will you save yourself the effort of refactoring and formatting applications down the road, you can be sure it will line up with other software from other operators in the future, too.


Creating your own path to interoperability

Interoperability is becoming more and more important for life sciences companies in digital health. But while there’s always an element of complexity to making your applications and devices interoperable, it doesn’t have to be overly complex.

An expert digital health provider can help build interoperability into your solution right from the start, saving money in the long-run, and increasing value right from the start.


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