Aug 02 2019

Can Cloud-Based Healthcare Operating Systems Solve the Problem of Interoperability?

The potential of seamless, cross-platform communication is great, but logistical challenges remain.

The global market for cloud computing in healthcare is expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 11.6 percent and reach a value of $35 billion by 2022, according to BCC Research. Despite that progress, many organizations and providers struggle to implement cloud technologies to their fullest potential. 

One major roadblock: ensuring interoperability in multicloud environments so operations can run smoothly and effectively.

Interoperability, HIMSS notes, is the capacity of multiple information systems, devices or applications to exchange information in a collaborative manner, and to cooperatively use that information to optimize the health of individuals and populations.

In theory, interoperability establishes connections and integrations across systems, regardless of where data originates, its destination or the application in use. As a result, data becomes readily available for use and distribution without additional support from the end user.

But the concept isn’t always easy to implement. Without seamless communication between cloud systems, the divide can cause critical delays during an emergency or routine appointment.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Interoperability starts with common data standards.

What Is Interoperability in Cloud Computing?

In cloud computing, interoperability means that all cloud services — public, private or hybrid — are able to comprehend each other’s configuration, data formats and application and service interfaces in order to work together.

“The ideal of interoperability is that the interfaces are standardized in some way,” states a 2017 Cloud Standards Customer Council white paper, “so that the customer can switch to another cloud service provider with minimal impact on the customer’s components.”

Nearly two-thirds of businesses use a combination of cloud tools such as Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud simultaneously, according to a Kentik report

“Multicloud is about enabling choice — to be able to pick and choose components from multiple vendors — allowing organizations and application developers to use the best fit for their intended purpose,” says TechRepublic.

Although organizations seeking to establish multicloud environments can select their preferred vendors, these settings don’t necessarily solve the problem of network interoperability.

Challenges of Interoperability in Healthcare

A mix of cloud APIs and interfaces poses the main challenge to organizations attempting cloud computing interoperability, the Cloud Standards Customer Council white paper states. They aren’t standardized, and cloud service providers each use different ones.

“Right now, interoperability is being done on an ad hoc basis,” Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst for ZK Research, tells HealthTech. “What we need are some government regulations around cloud. The technology is there for interoperability, we just need to decide on some standards.”

Without those standards, cloud environments aren’t guaranteed to be interoperable — and data sharing between different cloud tools can be limited.

Such restricted access can evoke frustration and unease in providers and patients, both of whom acknowledge that insufficient data representation contributes to poor quality of care and engagement, Kerravala notes.

Another obstacle holding the healthcare industry back from interoperability is its own manual processes, says Kerravala. He explains that the outdated mentality of taking notes by hand and sharing them via fax or email holds the industry back from fully utilizing technologies such as artificial intelligence to achieve interoperability.

Partial data only leads to partial insights,” says Kerravala. “What would help is if we started using more digital technologies in hospitals. By giving doctors tablets, these devices would automatically upload files, removing human latency from the equation.”

By introducing technologies that deliver providers the data they need in a seamless fashion across organizational boundaries, interoperability empowers healthcare providers to effectively address the health of the individuals in their communities.


University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Puts Interoperability in Action

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center recently made interoperability a greater focus.

It has invested in a cloud-based healthcare operating system designed for quick and easy development of software solutions that work across all UPMC facilities, not just in one building.

By definition, hcOS is a Platform as a Service that provides IT infrastructure via downloadable cloud-based software that makes healthcare data available to providers and their customers.

The IT problem we are trying to solve is interoperability,” Tal Heppenstall, president of UPMC Enterprises, the hospital’s commercialization arm, tells HIT Infrastructure. “We are trying to get data out of the silos so it can be used in a variety of applications.”

The hcOS functionality brings particular value when it comes to freeing up data from UPMC legacy systems. Now, data released from electronic health record silos can be repurposed for technology such as a natural language processing tool that could enable a physician’s EHR to cross-reference a new clinical note with relevant (yet deidentified) data from other patients to guide treatment. 

“This would enable the physician to do his or her job better,” Heppenstall explains.

DISCOVER: Why healthcare organizations need strategies for effective multicloud management.

The Future of Interoperability in Healthcare

The notion of interoperability isn’t new. Many failed attempts have been made to standardize cloud, but that doesn’t mean the ideal is impractical. 

The push by healthcare providers to build application program interfaces intended for improved data sharing might be a panacea for the industry’s interoperability woes, says David Betts, principal and national leader for customer transformation in healthcare for Deloitte Consulting.

“This is where we’re going to see a lot of interesting opportunities to convene, collect and secure different types of health data — environmental, social, financial — so we can direct insight about all the correlating factors that go into someone’s social determinants of health and better enable them to take control of their journey,” Betts tells HealthTech.

But while standardizing APIs on a provider’s network might create interoperability within its system, it still takes place on an ad-hoc basis and doesn’t answer the question of how to achieve it across the industry. However, technology giants Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce are hoping to tackle that problem.

The tech companies recently announced their commitment to interoperability in healthcare, investing their own products and open source tools to help developers implement API standards. Their announcement came in response to proposed policy changes from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology to advance interoperability and patient access to health data.

“As a technology community, we believe that a forward-thinking API strategy as outlined in the proposed rules will advance the ability for all organizations to build and deploy novel applications to the benefit of patients, care providers and administrators alike,” the tech companies stated in a joint press release. “ONC and CMS’s continued leadership, thoughtful rules, and embrace of open standards help move us decisively in that direction.”

The push for improved data sharing and standardization among cloud services will ultimately be a source of improved patient care. By having unhindered access to data, providers will be able perform their jobs better and faster and paint fuller pictures of their patients, leading to even more personalized care.

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