5 steps to push healthcare tech innovation now that data interoperability is here

David Beckam

Healthcare technology relies on data from users, but just collecting that data isn’t enough. Ninety-five percent of physicians say that increased data interoperability will improve patient outcomes. To make their products better for their users, healthcare tech companies also need to share their data with other healthcare providers, payers and software companies and create tools that are interoperable with healthcare systems.

For the healthcare industry to experience big change, innovation must take place that truly opens up the data flow between interoperable systems. Healthcare incumbents tend to support the status quo with data siloed in disparate systems, but new Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) regulations promote innovation, interoperability and the free flow of data. Americans have demanded more transparency in healthcare for decades, and finally, there are governing bodies in place to support it.

But taking advantage of new interoperability mandates requires specialized knowledge to make the data usable, secure and compliant with evolving regulations. To push forward with innovative products and solutions, healthcare technology companies can follow these five steps:

1. Find data stores

One of the biggest problems healthcare tech vendors face is that they don’t know what data they have access to, whether it is from a source system or not, what that data means or where it is. Without knowing what data is available, they can’t make informed decisions about new features or innovations. Automatic discovery tools can identify data that vendors may not realize they had and make it easier to get it all into one place.

For example, a digital health and analytics company wanted to be able to create omnichannel medication adherence software to help patients and their healthcare providers track medication use. Before they could do so, they needed more device integrations to access all of the data.

Patients don’t always sit down at their computers to track healthcare data. They’re more likely to enter it on their phone or smartwatch, so they can update it right as they’re thinking about it. By adding these data integrations, the company was able to create helpful software that includes real-time analytics and medicine package tracking.

2. Map data properly

Many organizations, both in and out of healthcare, attempt to circumvent data mapping. They opt instead for “easier” innovations, like buying new technology, only to discover they’re back to having the same problems in a few months. Until these organizations can identify and properly map their data, they have no hope of successful innovation. 

Data mapping is key to supporting interoperability and innovation for healthcare technology vendors. However, innovative tech companies tend not to be run by data experts; they have analytics available because it makes good business sense to do so, but data isn’t the center of their world.

Data interoperability is critical, though, for both innovation and to meet new requirements. So vendors must determine what data they have in which applications and then introduce APIs to connect all their data and pull it into a single FHIR store. This data store needs to be separate from the operational data stores for performance, security and clarity.

3. Figure out where healthcare providers are with interoperability

Healthcare organizations use major EHR and EMR systems that were once closed, meaning healthcare tech vendors couldn’t access that data or incorporate their own to improve patient care. With the new standards, however, those systems are going to start opening up. The problem is, not all healthcare organizations or vendors are in the same place when it comes to enacting FHIR. 

There is also a great deal left to interpretation in the mandate and standards. So while overt data blocking may not be apparent, when beginning to create APIs between the EHR systems and new innovative applications, there are choices the vendor makes that create downstream issues.

For instance, an innovative case management vendor wanted to provide a better user experience. However, something as simple as the EHR vendor’s lack of optional data fields to access rich information, such as a result narrative, meant only the generic name of the results could be communicated to the downstream application. So, the interface didn’t provide enough information in the user interface to be beneficial. Innovation is hard to achieve when necessary and helpful information is blocked. 

Adoption itself takes time, and then there’s a learning curve as organizations determine how to best implement FHIR. However, now that the newest set of FHIR standards has come out, the industry is likely to see more large-scale adoptions. Because of this, healthcare tech companies have to monitor where the hospitals and practices are at in terms of interoperability in order to have the biggest impact. 

4. Stay compliant

Interoperability is also key for compliance. If organizations can’t track their data, how can they control who has access to it? And if they can’t control who has access, they’re more likely to violate HIPAA and other regulatory laws.

Unfortunately, the new regulations can be fairly complicated. For example, the data has to come from within the last 24 hours, be accessible via APIs and come from a source system. Then the organizations also have to cross-reference national regulations with local ones.

Frankly, it’s a mess, and unless admins can see the data all at once, there’s really no way for them to abide by and deal with all of the different compliance regulations. And in order to innovate, vendors have to be able to align their data sets with FHIR standards.

5. Secure the data

Interoperability can lend a certain level of vulnerability to the data, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Healthcare tech vendors have to build their platforms and APIs with security in mind, rather than adding it as an afterthought.

The helpful thing here is that security standards don’t differ much between highly-regulated industries, including healthcare and finance. A typical JSON engineer can handle the coding and provide the same security whether that person has experience in healthcare or not. The key is to have access to healthcare subject matter experts who provide guidance on the business flow, user experience and regulatory requirements so that in the end it is secure by design. 

There is still unchartered territory in front-end applications, headless environments and ecosystem level interoperability when it comes to security. Having a skilled team that has a well-balanced multidisciplinary knowledge is key to designing a secure app with a user experience that delights users and patients.

The need for data experts

Because most healthcare tech vendors don’t specialize in data, they need to lean on professionals who possess a mix of technical and industry knowledge to map their data correctly. It’s the only way they can set themselves up for success in the long run.

New technology won’t help unless it can make use of the data, and tech vendors can’t focus on mapping the data because they’re busy implementing the suite. Data experts, on the other hand, can identify and organize the data in a way that will make future innovation cheaper, easier and compliant.

Photo: Filograph, Getty Images

5 steps to push healthcare tech innovation now that data interoperability is here

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