I know — you’re thinking that using “geek” and “wisdom” in the same sentence is an oxymoron. Bear with me — I’m trying to make a really important point in today’s posting.
Interoperability has multiple dimensions — and I’d bet that most of us have never thought of interoperabilty as involving “process” — people working together and collaborating; I know I hadn’t.
The Interoperability Work Group of HL7’s Electronic Health Record (EHR) Technical Committee was formed in April 2005 to attempt to define the concept of interoperability. The group examined 100+ definitions of interoperabilty. Their work is summarized in their report: Coming to Terms: Scoping Interoperability for Health Care, February 2007.
3 Types of Interoperability: Technical, Semantic, Process
Through work group consensus, three principal types of interoperability were identified: technical interoperability, semantic interoperability, and process interoperability. Here’s an overview:
Type 1: Technical Interoperability
The most basic, hardware-based form of interoperability. IEEE-90 defines interoperability as, “The ability of two different systems to exchange data so that it is useful”
The focus of technical interoperability is on the conveyance of data, not on its meaning. Were it not for the fact that computers tend to use written language, this would be similar to the level of interoperability provided by voice communications, e.g., via a telephone.
Type 2: Semantic Interoperability
the ability of information shared by systems to be understood… so that non-numeric data can be processed by the receiving system.
HL7 also defined a quality that is necessary for optimal semantic interoperability to exist. The quality-based rationale of the HL7 semantic interoperability messaging standard asserts that health information systems will communicate information in a form that will be understood in exactly the same way by both sender and recipient.
Type 3: Process Interoperability
Process interoperability is an emerging concept that has been identified as a requirement for successful system implementation into actual work settings. It was identified during the project by its inclusion in academic papers, mainly from Europe, and by its being highlighted by an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report issued in July 2005 which identified this social or workflow engineering as key to improving safety and quality in health care settings, and for improving benefits realization.8 It deals primarily with methods for the optimal integration of computer systems into actual work settings and includes the following:
- Explicit user role specification
- Useful, friendly, and efficient human-machine interface
- Data presentation/flow supports work setting
- Engineered work design
- Explicit user role specification
- Proven effectiveness in actual use
Here’s another helpful angle on the three types of interoperabilty:
Technical interoperability neutralizes the effects of distance.
Semantic interoperability communicates meaning.
Process interoperability coordinates work processes.
Together, these three types of interoperability are all required to the consistent and timely achievement of what has come to be called “Best Practice.”
More About Process Interoperability
The authors provide more detailed explanations that are useful in better understanding process interoperability:
The third type of interoperability which emerged from the analysis is “process/social” interoperability. Although it was cited infrequently, it was remarkable that it was cited by a number of cutting-edge organizations, including caBIG and the Federal CIO Council, Canada’s CanCore and the CEN (Committee European Normalization) community.
In the United States, this type of interoperability has emerged from the management engineering field where it beenreferred to as “workflow management” or “systems engineering,” both established terms having to do with the design of and implementation of human work processes, which increasingly include interaction with computer systems.
There is certainly no question that process interoperability places requirements and constraints on how information is provided for use in real-life settings, as a commonly cited example will show. The continuous improvement movement, popular in health care in the early 1990s, based on the work of W. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran, and others is primarily concerned with process interoperability as the term is used in this paper.
This report changed my thinking about interoperability. Prior to reading it, I thought of “interoperability” as encompassing only technical and semantic components.
For me the description of the third element of process interoperabilty was a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious). Once you see it, it’s evident and clear.
Technical and semantic interoperabilty are necessary to advance health care reform, but not sufficient.
Over time, the definition of “meaningful use” must encompass concepts of process, workflow and collaboration among members of the patient’s care team.
In many real life patient care contexts, process interoperabilty should optimize (not maximize) data. The authors provide an example of an emergency room physician treating a patient; the physician needs actionable data presented in a highly usable way — the data must be put into context, e.g., time (past vs. now vs. future) and presentation (filtering, summarization, alerts). Access and quantity of data are only parts of the equation.
Optimizing care collaboration will be advanced by achieving technical and semantic interoperabilty…but getting started on improving process interoperabilty should not be dependent on achieving technical and semantic interoperability.
After the geeks’ work is done and technical and semantic interoperabilty is achieved, there is still much to do in achieving process interoperability. We have to collaborate.