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Unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, and… Interoperability?

Have you ever wondered what unicorns, the Loch Ness monster, and interoperability have in common?

For each, there’s some serious skepticism about whether it exists or not. No, this blog doesn’t include final proof on the Loch Ness monster’s existence, nor are we going to wax poetic about unicorns. Instead, we’re diving into the existence and importance of the third issue – interoperability.

This topic was recently explored at Health:Further, which held its inaugural event in August and drew more than 600 executives and experts from national health systems, provider organizations, health plans, and start-ups. ReviveHealth was a leading content partner in identifying compelling topics, speakers, and tracks, and I was privileged to convene some of the nation’s experts on data exchange and health IT communications.

Interoperability may sound like nerdy technology jargon, but it’s actually the biggest infrastructure challenge facing healthcare today. HIMSS has a fancy definition of it here, but at its heart, interoperability is about the ability to exchange and meaningfully use information shared across dozens (hundreds, thousands?) of health IT systems. It’s about communications, about dialogue, and ultimately about outcomes.

Imagine a meeting at the UN – people speaking hundreds of languages – without the headphones that translate between those languages. A world without interoperability is like the UN without headphones: a messy place where action is paused, messages are lost, and improvement made impossible.

So, why does this matter so much? It’s hard to overstate the importance. Without interoperability, patients may die, and our entire healthcare system is stalled.

The patient safety issue is at the level of an epidemic. Dan Munro of Forbes recently hinted that a lack of interoperability could be considered criminal negligence. While that may seem dramatic, I’m inclined to agree. Studies show that 400,000 Americans die every year because of medical errors, including 80,000 because doctors don’t have in hand the information they need.

At a business level, the prognosis is similarly dire. Coordinated and accountable care is impossible if systems don’t communicate. And as hospitals and health systems are increasingly measured on new data-driven quality metrics, a lack of interoperability means a lack of data integrity – and a lack of reimbursement.

So, whose fault exactly is this lack of interoperability? That was one of the core issues discussed at Health:Further. While it’s easy to point fingers at the technology companies themselves, we all have a shared responsibility.

Kerry McDermott of the Center for Medical Interoperability discussed how health systems are already working to address interoperability across both health IT systems and medical devices – and why it’s so important for providers to demand interoperable technologies from their vendor partners. Bob Robke, VP of Interoperability for Cerner and Board Chairman for the Commonwell Health Alliance, explored the role of a voluntary patient identifier and patient-centered interoperability that ties each patient into healthcare systems to overcome many of today’s barriers. And Dr. Robert Hitchcock, CMIO for T-System and practicing emergency physician, emphasized the importance of raising patient expectations, and how we can help patients become better consumers of healthcare by making them good stewards of their health information.

No matter your opinion on what it will take to get to true interoperability, there’s a clear communications opportunity for health IT marketing leaders. With more events looking at this topic, and the biggest healthcare publications regularly reporting on it, you need a point of view.

That’s usually far easier said than done when consumed (distracted, even) with so many day-to-day deliverables. Time and again, our clients say what they need most from their agency is a partner that can help them find that white space, bring smart, strategic counsel to the table, and execute against a plan that makes their unique point of view known.

Chances are, if you have a clear business strategy and distinct value in the interoperability ecosystem, there is a messaging unicorn in your midst just waiting to make an appearance.

September 11, 2015
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