What is interoperability in healthcare? (With benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 4 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Providing patients with optimal care is a key priority for medical practices, hospitals and clinics. Using technology that allows different systems to communicate helps to reduce administration and ensure patient information updates in real-time effectively. Interoperability is one tool that medical professionals can use to combine medical information quickly, providing a streamlined solution for patients. In this article, we cover what this technology is, the different types and the benefits of systems that combine patient information.

What is interoperability?

Interoperability is a technique used to combine health information data from a range of different systems, consolidating all that information to appear across all systems simultaneously. Many hospitals, clinics and specialists use different systems to record patient data, provide prescriptions and offer necessary care. Using interoperable technology allows those systems to talk directly to each other, ensuring information is freely accessible when required.

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What is data sharing?

The process that systems use to transfer data between systems is data sharing. By sharing data with different tools and technology, each method that medical professionals use updates with details sourced from other specialists or experts. For example, if a GP prescribes a patient some painkillers for a pulled muscle and then goes to a specialist for their back pain, the specialist doctor can see their prescribed medications even if the systems they use are different.

Different types of interoperability

Interconnected systems are interoperable at different levels depending on the specific requirements and application of that data. For example, systems connected on a semantic level allow for the free flow of information both ways, while the foundation level provides simple connectivity for data to move from one place to another. The different levels available for these systems include:

Foundation (level one)

Foundation connectivity allows for the exchange of one-way data from one system to another. This data remains untransformed without adaptation in any way to suit the requirements of the new system. In systems with similar designs and functionality, foundation interconnectivity may be a suitable choice, particularly when data only has to travel one way.

Structural (level two)

Structural connectivity allows the transfer of data in a standardised format. This method allows for uniform movement of information while retaining the purpose and meaning of the data. Structural systems are a common choice where multiple systems are required to feed into one particular programme or service for accessibility.

Semantic (level three)

Semantic connectivity allows for exchanging data and using that information following transfer. This level involves structural rules placed on data and codifying information to allow for full interpretation. Semantic-level operability enables data to be consistent and usable across various systems and services.

Organisational (level four)

Organisations connectivity is the top level, providing seamless and timely communication between multiple sources. Organisational-level systems include integrated workflows and processes to allow different departments and systems to work effectively. For example, a hospital could use level four connectivity to ensure systems across every department work in sync.

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How does this technology work?

Interoperable technology works by connecting different systems and helping them to communicate. Unlike integration, where technology includes multiple systems, interoperable processes keep systems separate while creating a real-time exchange of information. The ways in which medical practices and hospitals could implement this technology include:

Professionals choosing or listing suitable systems for inclusion

Selecting the systems where data transfer is necessary is the first step to implementing an interoperable approach. Medical and health practices may use existing legacy systems or invest in new specialist systems that can communicate most effectively. Defining the methods for use can help provide a roadmap of what data is necessary and how to transfer that data effectively.

Each system connecting into a technology solution

For multiple systems, using a framework or central hub provides an effective way to transfer data from one place to another. This central process allows data to be input from one system and output to multiples in real-time, keeping information consistent across all system sources. For example, if a neurological specialist provides details of an EEG, these results transfer as part of the patient's general medical record to all other systems.

Medical professionals enter data through existing systems

Following implementation, medical professionals can use existing systems to provide information. Depending on the integration of the system itself, hospitals and medical facilities can choose to send data manually or automatically update patient records as professionals edit or add to them. Typically, this data updates in real-time, making it instantly accessible to other professionals and the patient.

Other professionals can access data and information in real-time

Once the information has been transferred to different systems, it is accessible to anyone with the necessary access requirements. This real-time update system allows professionals to have insight into medical information and appointments over time. For example, a patient moving from intensive care to another ward has already up-to-date information, allowing for appropriate, informed medical care.

Output services allow information to be sent to other locations

In addition to direct communication, interoperable systems can also support output-only data sending. This system is helpful in cases where specific information or details has one-time use rather than providing repeated access. For example, sending prescriptions to a pharmacy service or providing medical information to an insurance company.

The benefits of this technology

Interoperable systems benefit medical professionals and patients by optimising and streamlining processes. As interoperable connectivity doesn't require active participation, it is easy to use by medical professionals and typically doesn't require a change in systems. Some of the benefits of this technology in a healthcare or medical setting include:

Efficient and practical patient care

Providing patient details and information across a range of services can improve the efficiency of inpatient care. For example, instant access to patient records can save time and effort in sourcing information from other specialists. This efficiency saves time gathering medical histories and details from patients, allowing for prompt treatment and more appointments in a day. As medical professionals aren't relying on patient memory, there is also less chance of error.

Easier transfer of care and information

Transfer of care happens when a patient goes from one service to another to receive treatment or ongoing care. With systems able to communicate with each other, less handover is necessary to ensure patients receive the same standard of care when looked after by different teams. For example, nurses can access up-to-date information about recent doctor's prescriptions and can support them in caring for that patient as effectively as possible.

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Instant record availability

Instant record availability is crucial for complex medical records or for multiple appointments within a short space of time. By offering real-time updates on patient records, information, diagnoses and prescriptions, medical professionals have all the information necessary to care for that patient without having to learn new systems. This availability can prevent duplicate prescriptions or repeated tests, saving patients and professionals time.

Single repository of information

Having all the information in one place is valuable in providing an entire overview of a patient's health and history. Making that information readily available provides professionals with all the data available to find accurate answers or diagnoses based on everything in that patient's history. By offering access to information, professionals can use the knowledge of other trained specialists to make critical medical decisions.

Enhanced patient experience

Providing a positive patient experience is a key priority for medical facilities and clinics. Utilising interoperable technology can effectively enhance patient care, reduce waiting times and ensure each patient receives the care they require. Patients with complex conditions and multiple diagnoses can benefit from an interoperable system. This allows each specialist to treat them based on existing information and knowledge to improve their comfort or provide ongoing treatment.

Reduced hospital admissions

Comprehensive and accessible patient data can help GPs, care homes and community services to prevent individuals from being admitted to hospital when it's unnecessary. This process can enable the coordination of care in their own home or in familiar surroundings, allowing them to receive treatment in a suitable environment that is less stressful. Community specialists and nurses in care homes can also benefit from interoperable systems in gaining information about the patients under their care.

Accessible by outside professionals

Interoperable systems are valuable within hospitals and clinics, but this technology can also apply to the broader support team surrounding an individual. For example, an adult in care that requires medical treatment may also have a social work team or community specialist. Providing accurate and prompt medical information can support them in advocating for that individual and providing them with the care they require.

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