The future of interoperability

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Greg Nicholas, Optimize Health
Greg Nicholas, Optimize Health

In the previous two articles of this three-part series, I have endeavored to make the case for interoperability with long-term care owner-operators – from the basics of what it is and why it's so important, to the risks and rewards of taking action now, rather than later.

Make no mistake: Interoperability (which essentially is the seamless two-way transmission of data between information systems) is not just something nice to have or shoot for. It is an absolute necessity for doing business and surviving in this new healthcare world order. Delay implementation, and you could easily find yourself pressing your nose against the window separating you from valuable partnerships between your competitors and other providers.

Interoperability has literally transformed entire industries. In healthcare, interoperability is in its infancy. But as we've seen in everything from manufacturing to financial services, change – and its accompanying efficiencies and progress – comes quickly. Following is a glimpse of what lies ahead in the healthcare world.

The link between data access and patient-centered care

Interoperability is an indispensable component of patient-centered care, which is at the matrix of current and future healthcare reform. Therefore, the imperative to make vital data of all kinds – from business operations to clinical care – accessible has never been greater than it is today.

The most immediate interoperability task at hand is ensuring the myriad of providers that interact with every patient are connected. This is the road we find ourselves on today as we sort through mountains of disparate data from seemingly infinite sources. The beauty and the strength of interoperability is the ability to push and pull information from all of these sources seamlessly and effortlessly. We must remember that patient-centered care relies on patient control, which means making it easy for all patients to access their own medical records much like some do now through patient and member portals.

We are just getting started connecting all of those dots in healthcare, but here is a glimpse of where we're headed in the near future: 

  • At some point, interoperability will result in a critical mass of providers nationwide, and eventually, worldwide, and exchanging and uploading individual to population-level health data.
  • This rich milieu of data, surrounded by massive research libraries, will allow providers from bedside nurses and primary care doctors to global health monitoring organizations to compare vast amounts of information – from diseases to DNA.
  • Using machine learning engines, this data could actually enable clinicians to compare their patient's condition to thousands of similar people across the world, enabling better, more well-informed decisions around treatment and even cures. This is patient-centered care at a very global, very scalable level.
  • Interoperability will eventually fully enable meaningful patient engagement with the healthcare system. And technology will be the key enabler. Wearables like fitness trackers are an example. But the near future could see providers linked and sharing every patient's unique lifetime of healthcare information – from childhood to adulthood diseases and injuries, to diet regimens and medication histories.
  • True patient-centered care will happen when people and their doctors collaborate on their care. Interoperability and the real-time availability of data across the entire provider spectrum will make this a reality.

Predictive analytics

Healthcare is a data driven industry not unlike financial services. There are vast amounts of data residing in places untouched, unexplored and unused. Interoperability will remove the veil concealing it.

All of the data in the world is useless unless you have the ability to compare key pieces of accurate and validated information with one another. Such comparisons will one day make it possible to predict outcomes, and thus, avoid complications and even prevent disease and premature death.

Predictive analytics are the clinical decision support backbone that interoperability provides.

Clinicians and operations personnel look at data in different ways. Clinicians are passionate about collecting data like vital signs and medications, but without the tools interoperability provide, are handicapped when it comes to trending and analyzing those metrics. You've all heard the adage, “you can't manage something if you don't measure it.”

There are a ton of variables that go into patient care. Through interoperability, when we can pull all of the data sets together and line them up, all of that data will tell a powerful and compelling story. That story will come in the form of longitudinal care that begins at birth to present.

The possibilities are simply endless. For example, imagine linking data like staffing levels to clinical care and outcomes, and drawing valid conclusions that result in better patient outcomes.

Efficiency begets efficacy, lower costs

Advanced interoperability will facilitate a host of efficiencies for providers – from standalone facilities to large networks. Data gathering, once virtually automated and effortless, will free clinical staff to focus on patient care. The resulting efficiencies will lead to infinitely more efficacious operations. The best news of all: lower operating costs.

But none of this happens in a vacuum, or overnight. It will require careful planning, diligent research and passionate devotion to achieving results. Facilities on a journey toward complete interoperability have the greatest success planning for the outcomes they need to reduce costs in specific areas in greatest need for improvement. If it's conducted in a thoroughly planned and well-executed fashion, interoperability will position your long-term care business for future success in innumerable ways. There is a direct correlation between the quality of data and its ability to lead to cost reductions.

And remember: Measure your results at key benchmarks along the way to ensure you are on track with your overall goals and strategic plan.

Of machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence

Actually, interoperability is artificial intelligence on a massive scale. It's not a stretch to realize that such things are no longer the distant future. IBM's Watson project has definitively shown the power of artificial intelligence. Robotics is being used at this moment in hospitals to deliver medications, meals and linens. The savings realized by interoperability will facilitate the use of these kinds of tools that will invariably lead to even greater efficiencies, better clinical care and improved patient outcomes.

Machine-learning systems are being designed as you read this that will absorb data inputs and adapt, not unlike people, becoming valuable resources for every facet of your operations – from the front office to housekeeping and foodservice to the bedside.

There is a brave new world coming, and embracing these kinds of technologies will require a leap of faith because they aren't yet being widely used. But brace yourself: things like artificial intelligence, voice recognition and robotics, when linked together through interoperability, are poised to revolutionize the business and clinical aspects of healthcare.

Imagine if your resident decides to order her lunch at 11 a.m. instead of 12:30 p.m. today at the push of a button or voice request. Your electronic medical record system will notify the dietary system, which notifies the kitchen to prepare a meal based on the resident meal plan, which a robot then delivers to the resident. The next day, the robot calls the resident at 11 a.m. to see if they would like their meal early again today or wait for their normal 12:30 p.m. time.  All of this occurs seamlessly with no human interaction. This is the kind of technological intelligence and interaction we will see in the near future.

Change and progress is inevitable, we must not forget what happened to the horse, which literally was put out to pasture when the automobile was invented.  Nowadays, everyone has a car, and we still have horses, with better lives. Technology and innovation will bring new opportunities for everyone. Looking back 30 years on the technology industry, IT people have advanced systems and technologies every 12-18 months with greater degrees of automation than ever seen in history, yet, we have more technology jobs than we can fill worldwide.  Change is coming so we need to embrace it. Technology will drive shifts in the workforce and advances in patient care that will free overburden staff of mundane tasks to focus on improving the lives of the patients we serve.

Greg Nicholas is managing partner of OptimizeHealth in Dallas, which works with long-term care customers on IT solutions. 

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