Interoperability: An overlooked solution to staffing challenges

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Interoperability is needed now more than ever.

Doing less with more seems to be the way every provider must operate. Dealing with increasingly thin margins, regulatory pressures, changes in reimbursement, increasing patient loads and pandemic challenges all amidst a staffing shortage can feel like the house is on fire. It’s unreasonable to expect providers to apply focus to an eight-syllable word (interoperability) that is still not widely understood and expect them to execute on it. Yet we are quickly approaching a demographic turning point that, if not anticipated, will be catastrophic to an already overburdened healthcare industry.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2030, ALL baby boomers will be older than age 65 and for the first time in U.S. history, seniors will outnumber children. This impending historical milestone could very well be just as important as the devastation around COVID-19 and cannot be overlooked. With age often comes medical complications and comorbidities taxing in time, dollars, and emotions.

This situation requires a set of policies, tools, and procedures which enable the recovery or continuation of vital technology that enables the communication necessary so that the level of care provided is not compromised.

Can your business survive today to see an increased elderly population tomorrow?

We are constantly reading messages on how the path to precision medicine is right around the corner to save us all. In a perfect world, these innovations can take us to a new future of thriving healthcare for all. However, providers and other stakeholders in the healthcare community have not bought into it. Many post-acute providers are simply trying to keep the doors open and the lights on.

We tend to focus on semantic and advanced interoperability, albeit critically important, but meanwhile we have 66% of the transactions appearing on a paper fax machine in post-acute provider offices. Somewhere in the middle, we’ve got something missing.

The key to our survival is a code we have been trying to crack for nearly two decades — interoperability. Interoperability and all that is promised stands to improve care for all through effective data sharing. So many organizations are left behind because the industry has made it prohibitively difficult to understand and to afford the path forward - making effective data sharing feel unattainable. Yet in reality, electronic communication is ubiquitous and continues to be overlooked as a powerful solution that can offer much needed relief to many of the challenges post-acute care providers are experiencing and can ensure their business survives, not only today, but to the year 2030 and beyond.

Interoperability checks all the boxes for post-acute providers

Post-acute care providers will be better equipped to meet the needs of a growing senior population if they embrace interoperability. How do we meet them where they are and help them prepare? Financial incentives will likely not come for the post-acute sector even though the pandemic has shown us that this sector probably has the greatest need for interoperability. Therefore, we need to provide a strong business justification for providers to want to transition to a digitally enabled healthcare organization now.

If I walked into the average provider's office and said becoming more interoperable addresses all of their business issues and more, their ears would perk up. If they become digitally enabled and embrace electronic data sharing, providers will be able to:

  • Do more with less staff because data can now be quickly reviewed and added to the patient record
  • Implement patient matching to automate the filing of patient information to their chart
  • Have visibility into the data and analytics needed to participate with ACOs, thus providing the opportunity for higher reimbursement
  • Eliminate the expense of paper and toner, as well as the time spent performing manual processes when sorting, scanning, attaching, and shredding patient information
  • Improve performance ratings for your organization because you are now equipped with the knowledge about a patient upon arrival, rather than documents getting reconciled days after
  • Attract talent by using technology that fits today’s generational shift towards a millennial and gen z workforce that isn't interested in fax, and more importantly, doesn't even know how to use it

Connectivity is necessary to achieve interoperability

According to a recent KLAS survey, the success rate of interoperability in acute care and ambulatory settings far outweighs that in post-acute care. But does that mean they are complacent with doing things the old-fashioned way? One may think so, but that is not necessarily true. The survey also concluded that when propositioned with the idea of interoperability, they requested help to get them connected.

Many electronic health record (EHR) systems have interoperable data sharing capabilities, yet providers simply don’t realize they are connected and just need to enable electronic communication. It doesn’t help that we use a language of acronyms and tech talk that is foreign to providers. Many EHRs rename the functionality, using terminology specific to their product and unfamiliar to others, creating a barrier to the universal use of data sharing outside of their particular institution.

We need to use language they understand and meet them where they are. People don’t care how they communicate; they just want it to happen. Let’s use the mobile phone as an example. Many don’t care how it works, what network they’re using, where it goes, or what wireless protocols are used. They just want to make sure they have it, it sticks and stays, and they can communicate.

5 Simple steps to add electronic data sharing to your survival tool kit

We touched on a simple, pragmatic way to share data that can help them keep the doors open for businesses to take care of our ever-increasing aging population and here it is. To close this gap in interoperability here are five simple steps post-acute care providers can take now:

  1. Find out what you have: Contact your EHR to understand what electronic communication capabilities are available. More specifically, find out if you have Direct Secure Messaging, an encrypted “email-like” message with attachments.
  2. Get a Direct address: You will not be able to receive messages until you have an address. Allow the information to show up in an inbox rather than your fax machine.
  3. Learn how to use Direct: Have your EHR account rep point you to a knowledge-based article or video on how to use Direct messaging. Ensure all personnel receive training and are clear about your goal to transition off of fax over to Direct.
  4. Publish your address: Be sure others can find your organization in the National Provider Directory by making sure your Direct address(es) are published.
  5. Notify others in your community: Call or email the providers you exchange with the most to notify them that you’d like to transition away from fax to Direct Secure Messaging. Provide your Direct address and see if they know theirs.

Providers don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach. Start with the largest concentration or highest volume. Fifty percent of a provider’s volume in post-acute may be with organizations who use a specific EHR, or 40% of their referrals may come from a single entity. Transitioning off of fax, over time, will bring tremendous relief to providers right now.