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What is interoperability?

Interoperability is the characteristic of a system to work with and share data and resources with other disparate systems by using local area networks (LANs) or wide area networks (WANs).

In order for systems to be considered interoperable, it must be possible for the systems to share, interpret, and present data in a manner that other systems can understand. The systems must be able to connect and communicate with each other effectively, even if they were built by different manufacturers.

Interoperability is of great importance in private companies as well as public organizations. It helps handle issues like the existence of various independently operating information systems, the duplication of information across systems and areas, etc. It helps bring efficiency and control into the organization.

If there are standards that are set by government and the industry as a whole, communication between differing computer systems becomes easier.

Source: Jelvix

There are two levels of interoperability:

1. Semantic interoperability

In semantic interoperability, the data needs to be very useful. The data that is transferred across systems is understood by each of the systems involved in the transfer or exchange. It goes beyond the ability to simply exchange information. Semantic interoperability refers to the ability of two or more computer systems to automatically and accurately interpret the information that is exchanged so as to generate useful results as defined by the end users of both the systems involved. 

2. Technical interoperability

Technical interoperability allows different software components to communicate and exchange data, even if they use different interfaces and programming languages.

Cross-domain interoperability

Cross-domain interoperability is where several social, organizational, political, or legal entities work together with each other for a mutual goal or interest and/or for the exchange of information.

What are the advantages of Interoperability?

What are the advantages of Interoperability?

Here are the most significant advantages of interoperability:

Increased productivity

Staff can save time that would be spent hunting for information across multiple systems if the systems could communicate effectively with each other. This time could be dedicated towards higher-level tasks. When data is presented in a consistent manner irrespective of the source of data, it speeds up the decision making process and increases productivity as well as efficiency in the work that has to be performed.

Better decision-making

Access to data that is shared easily across systems helps people make informed decisions.

Lower scope for error

Having access to more information means that the chances of errors occurring reduce. 

Better experiences

When you have access to customer data across devices and systems, you can create better, personalized experiences.

Reduction in costs

When there is interoperability, valuable and actionable information can be shared quickly and even reduces the amount of work that needs to be done, also leading to significant reductions in costs.

These benefits are important across domains and industries, but they are exceptionally important in healthcare. Better decisions and lower error rates in this domain could really save lives. 

Which domains are Interoperability essential in?

Interoperability is extremely important in a range of domains. It is vital in private companies, but that is nothing compared to how critical it is in domains that deal with emergency response.

These include:

  • Healthcare
  • Government
  • Public Safety (law enforcement, firefighting, EMS, etc.)
  • Defense

There are many more spheres where interoperability is crucial.

What are the levels of Interoperability in healthcare?

What are the levels of Interoperability in healthcare?

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) board defined three levels of interoperability for health information technology in 2013. They are:

Foundational Interoperability

When systems have foundational interoperablity, it is possible for one information system to exchange data with another information system. The system that receives this information does not even need to bother interpreting the data, the data will immediately be available for use.

Structural Interoperability

Structural interoperability is essentially an intermediate level of interoperability. It proceeds to define the format of the data exchange. Structural interoperability is concerned with the standards which regulate the format of messages that are sent from one system to another, to ensure that the operational or clinical purpose of the information is evident and is passed through without needing to be altered.

This has to do with information at the level of data fields like that in a database of patient records.

Semantic Interoperability

Semantic interoperability is the ultimate level of connection and interoperability. This is when two or more disparate systems or parts of systems have the ability to exchange and use information easily and readily. 

When there is semantic interoperability, structure of the exchange of data and how the data itself is codified allows medical providers to share patient data even when they are making use of entirely different EHR software solutions from different vendors.

In order for systems to achieve semantic interoperability, both the sytems in question should refer to a common information exchange model. The content of the information exchange requests shoud be defined in an unambiguous manner. There should not be any difference between what is sent and what is understood.

Interoperability impacts cooperation amongst health care providers and even has implications for researchers and scientists who require particularly vast volumes of aggregated data for the purpose of conducting studies on emerging diseases as well as other public health concerns.

How is Interoperability testing done?

Interoperability testing makes sure that the software application can communicate with other components or devices seamlessly. If interoperability testing is not conducted properly, it could result in a loss of data. The systems could end up operating unreliably and may even face issues in maintenance.

Here are the steps involved in testing for interoperability:

  • First, you need to identify every system and application that is a part of the network.
  • After identifying the applications, you need to figure out their functionalities.
  • You also need to identify the inputs that the systems process and the outputs that they return.
  • Next, you need to identify the data that is being transferred across the systems.
  • Compare the expected behavior of every combination of application and data with the actual behavior.
  • Document your results.

Interoperability testing does have some limitations and disadvantages.

  • The interoperability testing process may not be scalable.
  • The measurements may be inaccurate.
  • The testing equipment itself should be tested.
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