Defining Interoperability

Defining InteroperabilityEvery organization and industry defines interoperability differently.  While almost all sectors agree that interoperability means that different systems must work together, each focuses on a different key aspect of the definition and emphasizes certain features over others. In the healthcare technology sector, interoperability must take into account IT requirements, healthcare standards, and the need to interface with other software as well as the end users.

AHIMA identifies the need for interoperability very clearly. “Interoperability is at the very center of health IT’s promises. It is fundamental to the success of EHRs. Interoperability is the ability of different information technology systems and software applications to communicate, to exchange data accurately, effectively, and consistently, and to use the information that has been exchanged.”

HL7 stresses the human interaction component by asserting that interoperability is “the ability of two parties, either human or machine, to exchange data or information.”

On the technical side, one of the organizations that has been working on the concept of interoperability for the longest time is the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE).  The IEEE Standard Computer Dictionary defines interoperability as “the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged.” In an article explaining the need for interoperability, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) likened the electronic health record to the “central nervous system” of family practice. Interoperability would then be the “body’s” way for different systems to communicate with each other. Their formal definition of interoperability was “the ability to share information across different software.”

The Healthcare and Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) defines interoperability as “the ability of different information technology systems and software applications to communicate, exchange data, and use the information that has been exchanged.” The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) supports this definition by stating that, “data exchange schema and standards should permit data to be shared across clinicians, lab, hospital, pharmacy, and patient regardless of the application or application vendor.” However, interoperability is not just limited to technology. In a company-sponsored white paper, RAND Corporation explains that interoperability is “a measure of the degree to which various organizations or individuals are able to operate together to achieve a common goal” and requires overtones of “standardization, integration, cooperation, and synergy.”

In the LTPAC industry, it is essential that everyone understand all of the various perspectives on interoperability so that they can be as educated and informed as possible when purchasing and implementing software as well as training their staff and other end users.