From Fragmentation To Collaboration: Interoperability In Healthcare

As CEO, I help CitiusTech realize its vision of inspiring new possibilities for the health ecosystem with technology and human ingenuity.

Two doctors looking at patient data on  digital tablet



Data is the heartbeat of any business, but it is a different beast altogether when it comes to healthcare. Every heartbeat tracked by an Apple Watch, every patient symptom logged in an EHR and every AI-powered diagnosis has the potential to revolutionize care delivery.

However, this torrent of data is a complex web, currently trapped in disparate, disconnected systems. As the CEO of a company that aims to accelerate digital innovation in healthcare, I see effective data management and interoperability as two of the biggest challenges for Healthcare 3.0.

Healthcare players pay an astronomical price for disconnected systems. For instance, duplicate records directly affect patient safety, medical service, data accuracy and reimbursement. It also costs healthcare institutions money, which includes the wasted hours doctors spend on electronic health records.

In an era when a tap on a smartphone can hail a ride or a check can be deposited with a snap of a picture, why are we still grappling with disconnected data in healthcare? I believe the crux of the problem lies in interoperability, or rather, the lack thereof.

Building Bridges Through Interoperability

One needs only to look at the seismic shift within the financial industry to appreciate the power of interoperability. For years, banks operated in silos. If you banked with a particular bank, your data was locked there. Fast forward to today and we have open banking. With the secure sharing of financial data, we've seen the creation of seamless consumer experiences and innovative offerings. Now imagine applying this concept to healthcare.

I believe that healthcare interoperability is the linchpin of a patient-centric ecosystem. But interoperability alone isn't enough. There is also a need to ensure transparency when it comes to accessing, understanding and controlling health data for well-informed, cost-effective health decisions. Together they can help enable personalized, affordable and accessible care with improved patient outcomes, charting a path to faster medical innovation.

1. Choice And Safety

Interoperability has the potential to get the right data in the right hands at the right time, creating a paradigm shift in care. It can enable real-time disease tracking, instantaneous access to patient medical history and the ability for AI models to crunch large datasets for life-saving insights. Armed with accurate and timely information, providers can make better care decisions and minimize medical errors and adverse events. At the same time, patients can have greater autonomy over their data and can make informed decisions about their health, where they want to get care and how much they want to pay for it.

2. Collaborative Care

In an era of value-based care, I see collaboration as a requirement for better, safer and cost-efficient patient outcomes. For instance, managing chronic conditions such as heart problems, cancer and diabetes requires a multi-disciplinary approach to care involving doctors, nurses, coordinators, rehabilitative specialists, dieticians, hospitals, labs and payers. Interoperable systems and transparent data access can facilitate real-time collaboration between these entities for better decision-making, real-time monitoring and alerts.

3. Innovation At Speed

Interoperability also has applications in clinical trials where the availability of real-world evidence fosters innovation and faster medical product development. A larger data pool can enable the training of AI models for healthcare insights such as reading radiologic imaging or pathology slides. It can also lay the groundwork for the evolution of next-gen digital health applications and solutions.

However, the road to interoperability and transparency is not easy.

Overcoming The Hurdles

1. Standardization. To be able to share data, it must first be standardized. Yet doing so for the multiple health data formats—from structured electronic health records to unstructured doctor's notes—is a Herculean task. In addition, the U.S. healthcare system is highly fragmented, with different payers and providers using different systems to maintain EHRs and run processes such as billing, claims, scheduling, etc.

2. Data quality. On top of this, the data is often of poor quality. I commonly see incomplete forms, incorrect or conflicting information and other data quality issues that can lead to confusion about a patient’s medical history.

3. Security and privacy concerns. Increased data sharing also increases the risk of data breaches. The healthcare sector faces a significant cybersecurity threat, and interoperability could aggravate this issue.

4. Accessibility. Finally, there is the challenge of making health data accessible and understandable to patients for informed consent.

The ability to overcome many of these challenges already exists and the technology behind these solutions is evolving rapidly. For example, data can be protected with encryption, secure transfer protocols, Blockchain-based decentralized ledgers and AI-powered threat detection.

From an infrastructure standpoint, the cloud can provide a unified data storage and exchange platform. For example, Google's Cloud Healthcare API is one option that could help standardize data exchange between healthcare applications as well as allow scalable data storage and real-time analytics.

When it comes to patient consent, robust and user-friendly digital consent platforms are making it easy for patients to manage their preferences. (Full disclosure: my company operates a consent management system.) For instance, Apple’s Health Records API gives patients unprecedented access and control over their health information to make informed choices.

Bringing this all together are protocols that healthcare organizations are adopting like the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) for standardizing the exchange of healthcare data electronically. This flexible and adaptable standard can be used in a wide range of settings and with different health information systems.

Making Interoperability A Reality Will Need Collective Action

To lay the foundation of a connected healthcare utopia, we have to break down data silos and utilize a digital-first approach that prioritizes data privacy, consent and patient centricity. However, technology alone won't cut it. Interoperability requires a group effort with providers, patients, medical device makers, life sciences organizations, regulators and technology players all pulling together towards a common goal.

Remember the warp-speed problem-solving during the Covid-19 pandemic? We did that once; I believe it’s time to apply the same audacity to a new frontier.

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