Many healthcare IT areas view interoperability and integration as similar and use the terms interchangeably. In reality, though, they describe vastly different levels of systemic sophistication and data sharing. Data integration, more than interoperability, is the ultimate goal and brings the most benefits. 

Understanding interoperability versus integration

Here are two more detailed descriptions of the two concepts. 

Interoperability is a process that enables data from disparate or independent systems to flow from one to the other. For interoperability to work, different systems must use the same data standards for data exchange. An example might be when a hospital discharges a patient and sends their electronic medical record to the patient’s doctor for follow up. The hospital and the doctor’s office may have different medical record systems, but the systems can exchange data.

Integration, on the other hand, combines multiple applications in such a way that they act together as a unified whole and in a single system. An example might be combining data from electronic health records software, remote patient monitoring systems, and wearable medical devices into one system that presents a broader and unified view of the patient. That system, with the combined data, might better predict hospital readmission rates or identify patients likely to develop new conditions. The integrated systems predictions will be more accurate than predictions from any of the single data systems alone.

Further, integration leads to self-sufficiency. Integration is not dependent on other organizations, user intervention, separate policies and, most importantly, separate objectives. 

Today, 30% of the world’s data volume is generated by the healthcare industry. Yet, about 38% of healthcare organizations have 31 or more disparate systems where data is not integrated.

Sources: RBC, IDS

The advantages of integration over interoperability 

Interoperability and integration are both important concepts in healthcare, but they serve different purposes. Although interoperability is essential for enabling data exchange between different healthcare organizations and systems, integration offers several additional advantages as outlined below. 

Seamless data flow: Integration involves combining different sources and applications into a single unified ecosystem. This ensures a seamless flow of data between various healthcare applications, devices, and systems without the need for manual intervention. In contrast, interoperability focuses on the exchange of data from different systems, where the two systems may not speak exactly the same language and do not necessarily speak to each other automatically.

Improved efficiency: Integration streamlines processes by eliminating duplicate data entry and manual data transfers between disparate systems. By comparison, interoperability may require additional steps to convert and transfer data between different formats.

Data analytics and insights: Integration facilitates the aggregation of data from various sources, enabling robust analytics and insights. Interoperability, on the other hand, may limit the ability to leverage data effectively for analytics due to inconsistencies in data formats and quality.

Comprehensive patient care:  Integrated healthcare systems allow healthcare providers to access comprehensive patient information from various sources into one place, providing for a holistic view of the patient. In turn, integration allows for more informed decision-making and better outcomes. Interoperability alone may challenge timeliness and gaps with regards to available information.

Another way to look at the difference between interoperability and integration is around data transformation and extraction. An integrated system avoids errors in data processing due to differences in data maturity, structure, format, mapping, and intervention. In an integrated system, all the data is in one place, allowing for intelligent data extraction without distortion.

In short, with system integration, as opposed to system interoperability, no manual intervention is needed to realize improved customer information management, greater productivity, fewer costly errors, more scalability, and lower administrative costs for such activities as purchasing and inventory management.

Innovative Consulting Group