Integration vs. interoperability: What’s the difference?

Search the term “healthcare interoperability” in Google, and you’ll receive well over 10 million results. Interoperability has become a lasting buzzword in the industry, yet somewhat maddeningly, there seem to be many definitions.

While the word interoperability and integration have the same prefix that means “between” and both refer to a level of data connectivity, they actually have distinct definitions. Let’s unpack the differences.

Defining integration

Integration is the process of combining multiple applications to function together as a unified whole. When available, an integrated solution is a powerful thing. A good example of this is a company combining multiple purchased technologies into a singular application that solves a focused problem or set of problems. Spok and others have been doing this for years to improve our applications with the goal of providing a complete communication and collaboration suite to our customers.

Integration is the ideal that many organizations search for. The concept of a “completely integrated solution offering” from a single company that just does it all would make life simple for everyone, right? However, with such a broad focus in the healthcare space that includes records keeping, analytics, connectivity, communications, inpatient or outpatient workflows, personal health practices, and many more functions, one solution to rule them all is impossible to deliver with quality.

Additionally, a more integrated application environment with proprietary methods of connectivity or data sharing can slow the proliferation of the many innovative, disruptive point technologies we see produced from new vendors without a clear and easy path to connect them with other systems.

In the real world, deploying multiple applications to do focused jobs in the enterprise is the norm, but in order to solve the complex problems facing organizations today, these solutions need to work together in an efficient and cost effective manner for proper adoption. Enter interoperability.


Defining interoperability

Interoperability is more advanced and meaningful than integration. Interoperability incorporates content from multiple disparate and entirely independent systems to advance the effective delivery of solutions to the market. With standards-based interoperability, vendors can provide solutions in an efficient and repeatable manner without deep customization efforts between the connecting vendor systems. It’s a way of connecting key systems, people, and information in a way that brings about new meaning, context, and clinical insights through a combination of multiple diverse sources of data. Examples of interoperability include:

  • Bidirectionally sharing contact information between a clinical communication platform and a third-party scheduling solution or the EHR to ensure both solutions have the most up-to-date information via a standardized method
  • Incorporating location content from a location services device attached to an ambulatory monitor to more accurately track location information in an event or data capture
  • An alert management system combining important patient information—such as fall indicators or procedures from the EHR—into a nurse call message going to a clinician on any device, while still allowing responses to be passed back to the nurse call system for call escalations or reporting

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT , the IHE, and many participating vendors are constantly working toward a higher level of interoperability, which includes the exchange of historical or actionable data electronically among disparate hospitals and health systems, patients, health plans, pharmacies, and labs.


The value of interoperability

Interoperability is critical for the efficiency and predictability to drive improved patient care and safety. Hospitals and health systems benefit greatly from a more interoperable environment. The first and most important benefit is trust. When the healthcare IT vendors that a hospital relies on can all conform to the same standards of interoperability, it gives hospital leaders a sense of assurance that these systems can work together simply and reliably with all vendors speaking the same language.

Another benefit is faster and lower-cost implementations. Interoperability supports more predictable methods of implementation with multiple vendors, and shortens the time and decreases the cost of initial ownership for the overall solutions being deployed. In the clinical communications arena, interoperability between Spok and our partners is the engine that drives real-time clinical communications to its next level with an entire suite of functions and meaning to a user’s mobile device.

A key benefit of interoperability for healthcare IT companies like Spok is speed to market and the ability to spend more time focusing on new innovations. For example, as Spok uses standards in interoperability to qualify or certify our conforming partners, we can deploy new interoperable solutions with little to no impact on development resources. This leaves us with much more time for executing on what our solutions can do for our customers with data.

Our commitment to interoperability

Spok is deeply committed to advancing interoperability. Not only do we dedicate significant internal resources to enhancing the interoperability of our solutions, but we also work closely with our partners and participate in international initiatives to improve the way computer systems in healthcare share information.

Each year at the HIMSS conference, Spok is a key player in the Interoperability Showcase™, where we demonstrate the power of interoperability among our clinical communication platform, EHR systems like Epic and Cerner, and partners like Bernoulli Health, Philips Healthcare, and STANLEY Healthcare. We take real, common medical use cases, such as cardiovascular and diabetes risk and transplant care, and exchange and use data in real time to showcase how interoperability can improve care and outcomes.

We’re also proud to actively participate in Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise (IHE), an international organization committed to “enabling seamless and secure access to health information whenever and wherever needed.” I’m honored to serve as the IHE PCD (patient care devices) planning committee co-chair and IHE PCD ACM (alert communication management) working group co-lead.

While these groups meet virtually on a routine basis, the highlight of the year is the healthcare industry’s largest, most rigorous interoperability testing event: The IHE North American Connectathon, held in January each year. At Connecathon, our solutions are tested against a wide variety of enterprise healthcare companies for alert management, including EHR, patient monitoring, infusion, ventilator, and OR workflow. Each year the possibilities expand and become more exciting.

Interoperability is the future

You can have a much easier, longer, and more complex conversation with someone who fluently speaks the same language as you. Similarly, when healthcare systems speak the same language, you can share more data and create new meaning. Interoperability is vital to connecting the dots along the continuum of care faster, and as a result, improving patient safety and satisfaction.

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