Why experts say healthcare needs to extend the interoperability conversation to public health

3D illustration of interoperability
Health IT experts say the conversation around interoperability needs to include public health organizations. (Profit_Image/Shutterstock)

Interoperability has been a buzzword in healthcare for some time. But experts say it's critical to look beyond medical care when thinking about sharing data.

Jacob Reider, M.D., CEO of the Alliance for Better Health and former acting national coordinator for health IT, said during an event hosted by Fierce Healthcare that public health organizations need to be a part of the conversation, but it's crucial to be cognizant of where they are in terms of ability to share data.

And for most, that's not very far down the path to data sharing, he said.

"We need to be sensitive to the lack of sophistication," he said.

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Bringing these groups into the fold is beneficial both to providers' work but also to their own efforts, he said. For example, a food pantry would benefit from having data on people's allergies, and a homeless shelter should have access to information on medication regimens for people staying there.

Reider was joined on the panel by Claudia Williams, CEO of Manifest MedEx; Julia Adler-Milstein, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Clinical Informatics and Improvement Research at the University of California, San Francisco; and Edwin Miller, chief product officer at Audacious Inquiry.

Williams said "there's a lot of creative work to do" in bringing these social services organizations up to speed on interoperability.

For one, it's unclear what kind of workflow is in place for this type of data sharing, she said. There should be a defined point person who will take in information from public health organizations and incorporate it into an individual patient's data so that it can be used.

It's unlikely, she said, that doctors will take up that mantle, so establishing a workflow remains a key challenge.

"I feel like there needs to be a lot of experimentation and discussion," she said.

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Reider said in some cases local players have taken this challenge into their own hands and created platforms that work in their regions to carry data between touchpoints and better coordinate social needs.

However, the siloed nature of the healthcare industry as a whole and the narrowness of the provider network model still pose huge barriers to that work, he said.

"I think it's important that we think about this more globally," he said. "We really need to be intentional about remembering the other domains."

Providers and health plans are under the gun to comply with federal regulations on interoperability, though these rules have been delayed twice due to COVID-19. Despite the extra time, a recent survey found both are struggling to keep up.

About 80% of providers surveyed said the pandemic had slowed their march toward interoperability and hindered their ability to invest in the necessary technology.