Over the last several years, patients have been increasingly seeking healthcare from alternative places of service. From urgent care centers, walk-in clinics, ambulatory surgery centers to receiving care at home via telehealth, patients are now able to receive care outside the traditional doctor’s office or emergency department. However, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, alternative care has been growing at an exponential rate.
When the first wave of COVID-19 cases hit, many hospitals and health systems dealt with overwhelming patient numbers. Hospitals and health systems quickly implemented emergency plans, which included deploying alternative care sites, to meet demand and care for patients.
Many parking lots, convention centers, and decommissioned hospitals have been transformed into triage centers to deal with increased capacity, emphasizing the need to effectively share data. This requires additional technological resources that have the capabilities to integrate each patient’s data from the testing site to the proper destinations— such as the EHR, public health officials, and the CDC.
Why Interoperability Matters
The unexpected acceleration of alternative care settings has exposed some severe shortcomings in health systems’ ability to support bidirectional data exchange, critical to sharing patient data to necessary locations. The amount of IT and communications systems being deployed to alternative care locations is further highlighting the interoperability challenges many organizations already struggled to meet before COVID-19.
Interoperability limitations have persisted for decades, and while many organizations have prioritized the adoption of integration tools, others have pursued the minimum levels of interoperability to meet data sharing requirements. Because of COVID-19, some new data – such as COVID-19 deaths and number of positive viral tests – is now in demand, and the volume and frequency of data exchange are increasing rapidly. Healthcare organizations that failed to adopt minimal interoperability initiatives prior to the pandemic are now struggling to aggregate and share data.
In March, ONC and CMS finalized a set of interoperability rules that focus on propelling interoperability forward and giving patients better access to their healthcare data. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, CMS extended the implementation timeline to give providers working on the frontlines additional time so they can focus on treating patients.
However, even with the timeline relaxed for providers, they can still begin to take action now. Providers need the support of a strong IT infrastructure to accurately access and share patient health information from alternative care settings to other healthcare organizations, public health entities, and IT systems.
To start, healthcare organizations should consider looking into implementing an interoperability layer. Integration engines, like Corepoint and Rhapsody, enable seamless data exchange among disparate healthcare organizations, including health systems, telehealth platforms, EHRs, and health IT vendors.
Likewise, health IT vendors focused on supporting their provider-organization customers should stick to the original CMS/ONC timeline and consider incorporating enhanced data integration capabilities into their products.
As we adapt to the new normal and evaluate technology’s role in healthcare, interoperability will remain a critical capability. To achieve interoperability, now and in the future, healthcare systems and health IT vendors need to collectively work together and determine where they can strengthen their organizations and products. By doing this, the healthcare industry will be better equipped to handle the next pandemic.
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