In this week’s blog Hetty Simmonds calls on us all to embrace interoperability to advance the digital health agenda.

Healthcare technology in the UK is rapidly becoming seen as a key to the success of a sustainable, efficient and safer health and social care industry. The government is increasingly supporting ehealth with expanding initiatives and, as a result, many hospitals are now equipped with multiple health IT systems, software and electronic devices.

These systems most often do their jobs extremely well, and sometimes in isolation. This can lead to a common, complicated and frustrating issue that could be simple to overcome, the lack of interoperable software.

Yes, interoperability, a word used to describe the extent to which systems and devices can exchange data, and interpret that shared data. For two systems to be interoperable, they must be able to exchange data and subsequently present that data so that it can be understood by a user. Put simply, it is when two or more systems are able to speak and interact with each other.

This term has become more and more common within the industry because it represents a fundamental building block to unlocking digital opportunities in healthcare.

Interoperability was originally given a definition by the HIMSS Integration and Interoperability Steering Committee (I&I) that was formed in September 2004. It read: “Interoperability means the ability of health information systems to work together within and across organizational boundaries in order to advance the effective delivery of healthcare for individuals and communities.” Nearly ten years later, the HIMSS Board approved an official definition that included three levels of health information technology interoperability: foundational, structural, semantic.

Now, there is an emerging working group of suppliers, called INTEROPen, that is dedicated to accelerating the formation and validation of standardised approaches to interoperability in the health and social care system.

This group was created within techUK, who also created the first interoperability charter that now has 103 signatures. It is refreshing to know that there are people willing to be committed to a cause that has the potential to transform digital technology and create a safer, more efficient healthcare environment.

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In my view, there are three points that are crucial to continuing towards the goal of interoperable systems.

1. Firstly, change must be embraced. All healthcare organisations, whether a supplier or hospital, have to understand the benefits that interoperability have to the industry and nation as a whole. Embracing the change is the first step towards the development of digital health. However, for people to understand the benefits they must know what they are.

2. Secondly, we must educate and inform all healthcare personnel, including the suppliers, of the value that interoperability has to healthcare organisations. This could include more webinars, events and networks such INTEROPen.

3. My last point is that we should take responsibility and invest in the future of healthcare in the UK. Stand up and get on board the interoperability band wagon. It is an open invitation to be part of an initiative that is working towards a sustainable future for healthcare.

Interoperability is an incredibly complex subject and I think it is great to see this movement taking shape. But ultimately it comes down to people to keep the momentum. Working together will get the ball rolling faster and stronger, and that is what we are striving to achieve. Embrace the change, take note of its benefits and take responsibility for the future of UK healthcare.

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