As IT rises in importance for the entire health care sector, care providers must inevitably develop new approaches to how they utilize these resources. Without an optimized strategy, care providers will run into compliance and cybersecurity issues, and will be unable to fully take advantage of health IT’s potential.

That makes health care interoperability a top-level priority throughout the health care sector. Notably, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced a strategy developed by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and aimed toward helping health care providers share information across a wide network.

Interoperability Goals
One of the biggest advantages of the health care sector’s broad shift toward electronic medical records (EMRs) is the greater ability for hospitals and other care providers to share patients’ data with each other quickly and easily, improving the quality of care across the board. Not only can this cut down on avoidable errors – such as unknowingly administering medicine to a patient who is allergic to that particular remedy – but it also generally improves the efficiency and insight available to medical professionals.

Additionally, the rise of EMRs makes it more possible than ever before for patients to access their own medical information, allowing them to play a bigger role in their own health care decisions.

Improved health IT can lead to better care in the emergency room and beyond.
Improved health IT can lead to better care in the emergency room and beyond.

Yet all of these potential advantages are irrelevant if health care providers are unable to view and share these digital records. By focusing on interoperability, the HHS hopes to alleviate these issues, improving results across the industry.

According to Sylvia Burwell, HHS Secretary, the health care sector has already made significant progress in this area, and the new strategy will further improve matters.

“We have made important progress in making health records available to patients and shareable among their doctors,” said Burwell in a statement. “Today, we are taking another important step forward by releasing a comprehensive strategy to engage government partners and the private sector to develop a network where health information can be safely and securely accessed from different sources. This shift will put patients at the center of their health care, improve the quality of the services they receive and advance safety overall.”

More specifically, the strategy focuses on improving technical standards, offering implementation guidance, clarifying government compliance regulations for sensitive data, and coordinating stakeholders to achieve consistent policies and practices.

Patient Portals
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Questions remain as to how health care providers should go about approaching interoperability to maximize both internal effectiveness and patient satisfaction.

“Patients are strongly inclined toward password-protected portals.”

A recent survey from the Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) provided some insight into how the health care industry may best be able to satisfy these requirements. The survey involved more than 400 participants, asking them to identify their preferences for non-in-person communication with health care providers. The available choices included were password-protected patient portal or website, voicemail, personal email, text message, letter, and fax.

According to this study, patients are strongly inclined toward password-protected portals and websites. This preference was especially pronounced when it came to particularly sensitive health-related tests.

“With these highly sensitive medical results such as genetic test results, patients may not trust the privacy of methods such as personal voicemail or email, whereas password-protected websites provide an added level of security, which may be necessary as these tests become more prevalent in primary care practices,” said Jeannine LaRocque, assistant professor of human science in the School of Nursing & Health Studies at GUMC.

These findings are significant because secure, easy-to-use patient portals will pose a major challenge in the realm of health care IT interoperability. After all, these channels will only function to their fullest potential if patients can visit a single portal for all of their health care needs, and that in turn is only possible if health care providers and networks are on the same page, using the same technology.

To this end, two factors will be critical. First, health care providers will need to coordinate their efforts – a point reinforced by the HHS Roadmap. Second, these organizations will need IT personnel with the skills and experience necessary to develop sufficiently secure, easy-to-use, interoperable portals and other health IT systems.