Understanding Interoperability and Health Information Systems

Social Solutions Blog

Understanding Interoperability and Health Information Systems


Of all the social service sectors that are affected by the new trends towards interoperability (hint: all of them), healthcare is the one in which interoperable systems are most visible and have received the most publicity and public attention. This is largely because health information systems, specifically electronic health records (EHR), affect the public at large, not just any specific underserved population, and so interoperability in healthcare is being watched and discussed among a wide variety of stakeholders.

In many ways, this is a benefit for social service organizations operating in the healthcare sector.  Widespread EHR implementation will inevitably trickle down to social service organizations as it becomes accepted practice. However, every healthcare service provider, and particularly those in the social sector, can improve outcomes by taking the time now to understand interoperability in healthcare, the importance of integrated services and how we can use these new technologies to improve outcomes for the patients and communities we serve.

Read on for more information on how your organization can begin to understand interoperability in healthcare and how to conceptualize its use in your own work.

What is Interoperability?

The Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a global non-profit focused on better health through information technology (IT), defines interoperability in healthcare as:

“The ability of different information technology systems and software applications to communicate, exchange data, and use the information that has been exchanged.1 Data exchange schema and standards should permit data to be shared across clinicians, lab, hospital, pharmacy, and patient….” (source)

In the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services is leading the charge towards widespread implementation of EHR technology.  Through their Health IT website, they provide information on how to implement EHRs, relevant information about privacy and security, and case studies from organizations who have successfully made the switch to EHRs.

That being said, not all EHR systems are equal. The Office of Standards & Interoperability is hard at work attempting to create guidelines to ensure that new health IT products are interoperable, that is, that they can communicate effectively with other platforms. The Direct Project, which enables providers to securely transmit health information over the internet, is another important step towards creating the interoperability we seek.

How Interoperability Benefits the Social Sector

Interoperability in healthcare sounds all well and good for the private sector, but it is also costly and time-consuming to implement, which may be a deterrent for organizations working in maternal and child health or providing accessible healthcare to underserved populations.  That being said, the benefits of implementing interoperable systems far outweigh the costs:

  1. Integration – Systems that can speak to one other are an important first step towards providing integrated services. When a care provider can access information about other services a patient has received, other medications they may be on, etc. they can provide better care. These trends also help us move towards a more holistic view of patients and constituents, a position which has been repeatedly proven to improve outcomes.
  2. Collaboration – We all know there is no point reinventing the wheel, and yet, in the social service sector, we do it all the time.  Interoperable systems are one step towards solving this problem. When we can communicate and share, we all benefit. Interoperability enables sharing of data and analysis in new ways that will help us stop duplicating efforts and be able to take more actions towards collaborative solutions.
  3. Funding – It’s no secret that funders want to see collaboration, and they want to see solutions that involve multiple stakeholders. But more and more, they are also looking for solutions that take a holistic view, addressing more than one social problem and working with collaborators across sectors. The ability to share an analyze data in partnership will become an increasingly important prerequisite for obtaining funding in the future.


Interoperability in healthcare is here to stay, and it affects the social sector just as much as any other. By focusing on collaborative solutions, integrated services and interoperable systems, we can help take charge of this trend and use it for our benefit, and the benefit of those we serve.

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