Later this month my daughter will have her first virtual dentist appointment.
Let that sink in.
The days of sitting in the orthodontic chair for hours cementing metal braces, tooth by tooth, are almost over. Instead, they’ve been replaced by an incredibly simple process of getting Invisalign retainers in the mail, sending photos to the dentist to track progress, and asking questions via text message every step of the way—all from the comfort of your living room couch.
While virtual care is changing the way clinicians deliver and patients receive care in ways we didn’t previously think possible, this is, unfortunately, just another example of when digital disruptors have innovated in pockets without accelerate true industry-wide transformation. The details of my daughter’s dental care – like all details of patient care – are bound to stay in their current silo; other clinical providers will not know unless the information is manually entered, faxed, or verbally transmitted by a patient to a clinician.
In healthcare, we tend to confuse “virtual” or “innovative” with “transformative,” when in fact building shiny new digital tools often forces us to deprioritize strengthening healthcare’s biggest building blocks. As an industry, our biggest failure is to assume that interoperability will inherently make data actionable, enable field collaboration, and enable new business models to transform the space. The last decade of trying—and struggling—to get point solutions and siled platforms to interoperate well has proven this fallacy. In reality, digital health innovators must build—and healthcare organizations must adopt—foundational operating systems that unite new solutions with legacy systems so that clinicians are not left alone to connect all these dots.
There are three key areas where interoperability often stalls, but where fundamentally collaborative innovation started from the inside out can open new doors.
1. Traditional workflows lack actionable insights
When it comes to the patient data needed to improve the healthcare experience, the bare basics of interoperability exist today – piecemeal tools that lack the fundamental ability to securely share and structure this data at scale between hospital systems and EHRs to patients, both providers and payers. The data as it exists is not readily available or actionable; in fact, even though it has one of the fastest growing data sets in the industries, stunningly 97% of healthcare data remains unused.
In a healthcare ecosystem where data sharing is becoming table stakes, the clarity that will cut through the data noise—and what will drive our industry forward—is meaningful data activation through open collaboration. Insights emerging at the point of care and trend lines woven together over time have the power to improve the care experience for clinicians and, as a result, lead to increased operational efficiency (the right care at the right time) and financial stability ( concluding care gaps across the continuum of care). And for the patient, it will create a more personalized and seamless care experience and enable individualized and improved outcomes.
2. Clinical systems do not account for broader data entry
The conversation around interoperability often starts with building data pipelines between different EHRs – and often ends there too. Yet clinicians and care providers know firsthand that when patients take the time to directly engage with their health beyond their annual medical exam, it often happens outside of the EHR in places like diagnostic labs, insurance systems, or their own Fitbit or Apple Watch.
When people identify themselves to friends, colleagues, loved ones, they very rarely say, I am a patient or I am a user. More often they think I’m a parent I’m a partner I am a human. If healthcare organizations collect information about patients only when they are perceived as patients, care delivery and outcomes will always be inherently limited.
Interoperability is not a technology issue; if it was, healthcare would have solved it by now. Ultimately, this is a boundary issue, with each entity across the continuum of care having its own parameters of technology engagement with doors that open only to a select few partner platforms—or none at all. The four walls of the clinic must be broken down to truly care for people. Value-based care, social determinants of health, and other models and settings for personalized care will be an essential component of building a holistic view of the whole person.
3. Innovation is too often technology first and clinician second
Our industry’s valiant efforts to improve the quality of care and patient experience through digital innovation have inadvertently created an environment where people serve technology—not the other way around. Too often, clinicians are placed in positions where they must compromise the care they provide: input into clinical technology or interaction with patients; prioritize quality of results or quantity of visits; document in the EHR after hours or focus on work-life balance at the risk of missing valuable information.
Just as healthcare organizations are collectively beginning to embrace patients as consumers of health outcomes, digital health innovators must begin to view clinicians as consumers of healthcare technology. Clinicians know best what they need, so—as US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently pointed out in an tips for burnout in healthcare — health technology companies must design solutions to serve their needs.
A good starting point is enabling clinicians to have smart technology at their disposal, such as workflow creation tools, that can be customized to meet individual clinical needs while being standardized enough to adhere to operational requirements . Additionally, startups and digital innovators need to be aware to prioritize clinician leadership and robust feedback from early adopters to ensure the challenges we face in the industry are fixed from the inside out.
Gone are the days of trying to find silver bullet solutions. Radical collaboration—rather than disruptive innovation—is the key to untangling clinicians from technology and empowering them to deliver care without compromise. By bringing together an army of responsible innovators and connected technologies in the healthcare ecosystem, I believe our collective healthcare industry can finally achieve true interoperability and begin to advance people-first care through meaningful transformation.
Photo: LeoWolfert, Getty Images