Healthcare Interoperability: What the Dental Space Can Learn From the Medical Field

Interoperability is the capability of computer systems or software to seamlessly exchange and use information. It’s incredibly important for systems of all kinds to be able talk to each other, especially in healthcare. 

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Keith (Bo) Bucklen, VP of Interoperability at Membersy, has over 21 years of experience in integrating healthcare systems. He is certified in HL7, which is dedicated to developing standards for the exchange and integration of electronic health information. He’s worked on interoperability solutions for both medical and dental systems and has seen how integration in the medical and dental spaces have some key differences. And, there may be an opportunity for developers of dental software to learn from the medical side.

Unique opportunities of interoperability in healthcare

Integrating systems within healthcare disciplines can bring many benefits. First and foremost, there are immediate time and cost savings.

“Anytime you're entering healthcare data in one system, and then you go to an ancillary system and have to enter the same data again, there's time savings with being able to do that automatically,” explains Bo. “Also, anytime you're entering data redundantly, there's more opportunity that you're going to enter something incorrectly. With integration, all of this translates to time savings, and therefore cost savings.”

Bo sees integration as an opportunity to streamline a patient’s care by having all of their need-to-know information easily accessible in one place. And, there may be consequences if  there’s not a single source of truth.

“If you’re not integrating, not only are you having to enter that data twice, but you also have a disconnected patient record. Linking the patient records is the foundational building block for any other meaningful integration between systems. Not only is there confusion around the source-of-truth with disconnected records, but it almost always means that one system will have outdated information about a patient when a patient record is updated.”

When it comes to information like drug or allergy interactions and lab tests, outdated information can lead to redundant and unnecessary medical tests or procedures, or worse, patient safety issues.

Beyond the impact to workflows and critical recordkeeping, there is an opportunity to empower patients with their own healthcare data.

“With the advent of some of the newer standards and mobile healthcare apps, there are a lot of opportunities out there to put the data in the patient's hands, like allowing them to plug it into an app that might help them tailor an exercise plan or a diet. So once you've gotten to the point where data is widely available using a standard, you can create that open marketplace where a lot of really creative solutions to healthcare problems can emerge,” says Bo.

Key differences between interoperability in medical and dental

One of the biggest differences between integrating systems in the medical and dental spaces is standardization.Whereas the medical field began creating standards in the 1980s with HL7, and later with FHIR, the dental space hasn’t embraced a unified approach.

“The dental space is lacking in comprehensive data standardization. There are some data standards when you look at CDT codes for dental procedures. But, many other common dental data elements lack standardization, such as diagnostic data, specific patient demographics, and appointment data elements,” explains Bo.

"This all results in a lack of uniformity, where each system is creating their own definitions for these data elements and the format and method of exchange. It makes it much more challenging to build integrated solutions.”

Currently, some dental systems have quality Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs. While this option provides a great way to exchange data, not every system has one, and they may operate slightly differently. Many dental softwares are actually on-premise systems, which poses some challenges with accessing the data. 

To get to the point where applications are leveraging modern web standards to exchange data may prove challenging.  Although dental hasn't broadly adopted these standards, Bo sees a trend that may challenge that.

“There are a couple dental systems that are trying to leverage the FHIR standard that is gaining traction in the medical space. For example, Open Dental’s API specs list some FHIR capabilities. That would be huge for the dental industry if it learned from what medical is doing and started to leverage FHIR to exchange data.”

Another key difference between interoperability in the medical and dental spaces is the lack of standards around the security of data access.  Unique accessibility to data in dental requires a responsible approach.  Interoperability standards should govern this approach, including requirements around authentication and authorization, securing data in transit and at rest, and the application of HIPAA guidelines to data access.

Streamlining the integration process in dental systems

Anytime a dental group chooses to pursue an integration solution, they’re likely looking to gain the time and cost savings. That means starting the integration process should be straightforward. Integration partners should provide the expertise and support to get their product connected to the systems that their teams use every day.

Integrating with systems that have an API should require little to no support from a dental group’s IT team. Those with on-premise systems shouldn’t take more than a few minutes and one or two clicks at each location.

Opportunities abound with interoperability in dental

Just as interoperability has the potential to transform the way that dental teams provide care to their patients, dental membership plans have the power to transform the revenue model for growing practices. Patients gain an accessible option for dental care, and practices grow recurring revenue independent of insurance reimbursement.

Membersy provides the strategy, services, support, and software your practice needs to realize your goals through membership. To learn more about our forward-facing approach, book a consultation with our experienced team today.