As awful as it’s been, the COVID-19 pandemic might long be remembered as the mother of innovation in healthcare. It didn’t just light a fire under health IT; it ignited a sweeping inferno that catapulted telehealth and interoperability to the fore of healthcare consciousness.
PRACTICES FORCED TO ADAPT OR ELSE
While the pandemic has been catastrophic to the physical and emotional health of the nation, it's also been catalytic in the way healthcare is now being delivered – and seems certain to influence that delivery going forward.
Innovation in healthcare technology that seemed to be creeping along at a “glacial pace” prior to the pandemic, according to a report by the Center for Connected Medicine (CMM) and KLAS Research, has since accelerated with extraordinary speed.
For many healthcare leaders and providers, it came down to this: Adapt and survive or stagnate and succumb. Many chose to adapt, especially at larger practices and healthcare systems, as evidenced in the steep spike in telehealth utilization.
Call it trial by fire.
It’s not that telehealth wasn’t on anyone’s radar prior to the pandemic. It was. In fact, a pre-pandemic survey of 117 healthcare leaders indicated that 26% rated telehealth and virtual care as a top innovation priority at their organization, according to survey results from the CCM/KLAS “Top of Mind 2021” research project.
Those numbers nearly doubled to 49% in a subsequent summer survey.
“Demand for telehealth went from a trickle of appointments to a flood," says the report. "Organizations made rapid changes to get systems up and running to meet the exponential growth in how many patients providers could see virtually.”
Enabled by relaxed regulations and increased reimbursements inspired by the pandemic, two questions surrounding telehealth’s future have emerged:
Will these relaxed regulations continue after the pandemic—and will reimbursements from private and government payers continue at current levels?
If so, how can practices best manage and leverage telehealth growth and capabilities?
The answer begins with interoperability.
In simplest terms, interoperability is the secure, electronic sharing of patient information across platforms. On an intimate level, that sharing might occur between a patient’s doctors. On national or global scales, that information is shared with a database in order to identify demographic health trends.
In either case, never has the marriage of telehealth with interoperability been more apparent or relevant than during the current COVID-19 pandemic, when remote healthcare evolved into something much more than just a convenient care-at-home option for patients.
INTEROPERABILITY: A VIRTUAL SAFETY NET FOR VACCINES
At the same time, health systems are reporting exponential rises in the interoperable sharing of patient records, numbering in the hundreds of millions since the onset of the pandemic.
"In the case of infectious disease outbreaks and other health crises, interoperability is an essential tool for treating patients and coordinating care across providers,” the office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology reported in October. “Inability to effectively exchange electronic health information can have significant implications on patient outcomes and public health."
The benefits of interoperable capabilities include:
Seamless and timely exchange or retrieval of EHR.
More comprehensive patient profiles lead to better-informed decisions by patients and providers, which lead to improved health outcomes.
Fewer medical errors caused by communication barriers.
Lower healthcare costs (fewer unplanned readmissions; less duplicate testing).
Less time wasted re-ordering tests.
Provides massive, invaluable database for use in population health initiatives.
How do these benefits translate to the COVID-19 pandemic? Certainly, there are lessons to be learned from data that’s traced the spread of the virus but consider the vital role of interoperability in tracking the distribution and effectiveness of the two-dose vaccines.
The recommended scheduling for Pfizer vaccine, for example, is 21 days between the first and second shots for maximum effectiveness. For the Moderna vaccine, it’s 28 days. The concern is that not all patients will remember when they got their first shot, when they’re supposed to get their second shot—or even whether they already got their second shot.
And “you don’t want to give them an extra dose,” cautioned Steve Wretling, chief technology and innovation officer for the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society during an October podcast with Becker’s Healthcare.
If an individual gets their first shot from their PCP and their second shot at a pharmacy, for example, interoperability will allow the pharmacist to determine whether enough time has passed between the first and second shots.
"Sometimes people forget or don't remember," he said, "so being able to access that data and make sure it's included in the care process and being reported out … will be very important from a public health perspective."
From a safety standpoint, interoperability expedites the gathering and reporting of potential adverse reactions to certain batches of the vaccine, or by a certain maker, "even though it's gone through all the trials or conditions," Wretling said. "Being able to record…share and report that data to the state and other types of health authorities is going to be important."
OBSTACLES HINDER INTEROPERABILITY, BUT HELP IS ON THE WAY
Despite its many benefits, less than 30 percent of EHRs qualify as “fully interoperable”, and less than 20 percent actually use data transferred from another provider, all of which contribute to the difficulty of achieving optimal interoperability efficiencies. This is especially true for hospitals, of which about 37 percent report "rarely" or "never" using outside data for patient care, according to data from the American Hospital Association’s 2014-2015 annual survey.
Conversely, nearly half of hospitals report using this information “often” or “sometimes” to improve patient care, especially at larger, privately-owned hospitals.
Roadblocks impeding interoperability progress include the following:
Lack of standardization among disparate EHR systems.
Information blocking practices that impede the secure exchange and use of electronic health information by patients, physicians and healthcare organizations.
For physicians, information blocking limits or prevents their access to patient information from other providers, restricts their ability to connect their EHR systems to local health information exchanges, to migrate between EHR systems, and to link their EHR system with clinical data registries.
For patients, information blocking prevents access to their own medical records, or their ability to electronically share those records to another provider.
Much of this changes beginning April 5, 2021, however, when health information networks and exchanges, EHR vendors, and healthcare providers must comply with 21st Century Cures Act regulations that prohibit information blocking, increase patient access to their records and promote health information interoperability.
The proper program makes all the difference
Compliant with current Cures Act provisions, InSync Healthcare Solutions facilitates all the benefits of efficient interoperability through its HL7 software.
HL7, or Health Level 7, is one of the most commonly used healthcare standards worldwide, providing framework that helps administer the retrieval, sharing, exchange and integration of EHR information. Moreover, it improves workflows and facilitates increased efficiency and accuracy in order to achieve quality care and optimal health outcomes for patients.
To learn how this system can increase the interoperable capacity of your practice, schedule a demo today and a specialist will create a demonstration for your particular practice.