EHRs adoption and usage has grown within the healthcare industry. The results of EHR deployment so far have been mixed at best – some practices have positive results but others do not. Still almost everyone remains positive about the future and very few people can argue that the old systems are better than what we have now.
That doesn’t mean the going has been smooth for EHR developers, doctors, industry associations and regulatory bodies. One of the biggest issues that crops up is data sharing and interoperability. When everyone used paper, data sharing meant faxing records or sending them by mail. Now that the data has been digitized, interoperability is a much bigger issue.
The Importance of Common Data Standards
To understand why standardized data sharing is important, let us take a look at what will happen in its absence. There are currently numerous EHR applications and services on the market. Some vendors focus on specific medical specialties like dentistry or cardiology. Other providers cater to large hospitals or small practices exclusively.
Without any common standards for the industry to adhere to, doctors will find it difficult to share data with one another. Suppose a patient has been referred by their general physician to a specialist. Now the practice has to send their files and medical history in electronic format. The EHR system might export the data in a particular format which cannot be read by any other EHR service. It will take time to convert the data into a readable format which will delay treatment, diagnosis or other medical decisions.
Interoperability – the Bone of Contention
While everyone agrees that interoperability is necessary, it is hard to gain a consensus on the best way to achieve and promote this goal. Regulatory bodies have already included interoperability as statutory requirements for the EHR developers. End-users like doctors, nurses and other professionals have expressed their frustration at the inability to share data. Progress is being made on this front but it can be slow.
Some media outlets have even accused the EHR providers of data blocking practices. Such activities can include actively preventing practices from exporting data. Sometimes the efforts are more subtle – developers can make it difficult for users to share data by using uncommon standards, unconventional formats etc. However it is unlikely that reputable vendors will engage in such shady practices, especially when there is a strong business case for interoperability.
The Business Case for Interoperability
Growth for most businesses comes from new clients and orders. The EHR industry is no different. This means vendors try to promote their product but there is no better marketing than word-of-mouth. In a scenario where data sharing is still more difficult than it needs to be, any EHR service that makes it easy will be welcomed by the market. Nothing can help any EHR service grow faster than good reviews by its current users.
Part of that is certainly interoperability. Doctors and nurses who use EHR services that follow interoperability standards are more likely to have positive experiences. In fact, they don’t even have to say anything to their colleagues. These users will share data more frequently than their counterparts. Such data sharing will positively influence patient outcomes as well due to fewer delays in receiving relevant information.
The important thing to remember is that interoperability will not happen overnight. Software development is a long and complex process especially when it is concerned with medical data. Since there are already penalties and incentives for providers to interoperability standards, it is only a matter of time before easy data sharing becomes the norm.