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Interoperability: A Quick Guide to Software Integration

At Sigmund Software, we understand that knowing software is key to making an informed decision on the best EHR software. Learn about Interoperability here.

Interoperability is something we probably take for granted in the behavioral health software space. It’s is one of the foundational elements, if not the foundation itself, for the modern EHR (electronic health record) experience.

Let’s dig into the importance and history of this core functionality.

What is Interoperability?

In our space, interoperability describes the ability to securely exchange electronic health information between two software systems, “without special effort on the part of the user.”

In simpler terms, interoperability opened up a secure, automated path between two systems that needed to share information.

Before this concept was established as an industry standard, there was no real path at all. Patients’ health information was siloed in each provider’s custom, closed software.

For example, if a patient was being treated by a psychiatrist and their primary care physician, any overlapping treatment or records could not be shared between the two practices. As a result, the patient’s care is segmented in a way that can detract from their overall treatment.

Interoperability changed that. It unlocked the free flow of information between systems for the patient’s benefit. In this way, interoperability was the prerequisite for putting the patient in the center of their care.

Interoperability, the ONC, and the 21st Century CURES Act

We’ve got two federal elements to examine here.

First is The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC). With the passing of the HITECH Act (2009), the ONC was federally mandated to coordinate a nationwide effort to:

  1. Leverage the most advanced health information technology for patient care
  2. Implement the secure electronic exchange of health information

The ONC established interoperability guidelines that were designed to improve patient care.

One of the most necessary improvements at the time was the need to share health information seamlessly and securely. In this way, the ONC has been largely responsible for advancing and standardizing the interoperability of health IT.

These were the first firm standards that required providers to build software processes that best served the patient, which included giving patients secure access to all of their health information.

Then, in 2016, the 21st Century CURES Act was passed. This is an extensive piece of legislation that focuses on the, “… seamless and secure access, exchange and use of electronic health information.” It expanded the focus on and definition of modern interoperability.

The CURES Act established 3 tenets of interoperable technology. Any health IT had to:

  1. Enable the secure exchange of electronic health info from one system to another in a way that is easy and accessible for the user
  2. Support the full access, exchange, and use of any authorized electronic health information
  3. Comply with information blocking rules

Now, that may seem a little complicated, but that’s a good thing in this case! When it comes to legislation requiring EHR software to serve the user, the more fine print the better.

As technology advances in the world around us, we expect to see further updates to the CURES Act. After all, the ONC is tasked with leveraging the most advanced software. It’s likely that their standards will expand as those advances emerge.

Interoperability and Open APIs

So, now you have the abbreviated history of EHR interoperability. But what makes interoperability possible from a software perspective?

As a software company ourselves, we’d be remiss to not shout out the unsung functional hero of interoperability: the open API.

Short for Application Programming Interface, it’s the electronic interface where software applications interact.

In other words, the open API is the secure path that health information takes from system to system.

Open APIs make it possible for EHRs to seamlessly plug into other proprietary systems, which is a vital aspect of any EHR experience. The best behavioral health software can integrate with any system it must to deliver the best service to its users and their patients.

Behavioral Health Software: Further Education

We hope you have a better understanding, and appreciation, of interoperability.

Even the best behavioral health software doesn’t contain everything. Third-party integrations are a necessary aspect of any truly comprehensive software environment.

How seamless those integrations depend on the quality of the EHR. And, ideally, your software solution doesn’t require an abundance of external integrations.

However, for those times when integration is unavoidable, users deserve a seamless experience.

EHRs come in all shapes, sizes, and functionalities. Depending on a provider’s system, they may need a variety of integrations via open APIs.

For example, some platforms don’t contain the proper finance solutions to support a provider’s financial needs. It’s common for behavioral health software to integrate with external revenue cycle management services so that the treatment and business sides are linked.

In addition to that, there’s MAR and laboratory integrations, proprietary CRM platforms, telehealth tools – the list goes on and on.

Check out this blog post for more info on the good, the bad, and the ugly of third-party integrations for behavioral health software.