Interoperability? It’s all about sharing information

I was very excited about getting a new role last year. When my colleagues asked me what I was doing, I would reply with a smile ‘I have joined the Interoperability Programme.’ More often than not, I was met with a reply of ‘interop…what?’ or ‘what’s that?’

It seemed I had joined a team that has one of the hardest words in health technology to pronounce let alone understand.

We know that in healthcare, data sharing is vital for safe, high quality and integrated care. However, clinicians every day experience the frustrations of not being able to access patient information, as it is often stored in complex and fragmented ways across the different health and social care sectors.


Interoperability is the ability of two or more systems, devices and/or products exchanging information and then using the information that has been exchanged.

In healthcare, interoperability is all about getting different systems to share data to ensure we have the most up-to-date information to use in daily practice. Click here to watch a short YouTube clip that explains interoperability (apologies the source is American, some of the facts and figures are not so useful).


NHS England together with Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) and Adass has published a handbook to help organisations implement interoperable solutions. The paper is pretty heavy reading, but there are some good case studies to help to further explain interoperability. 

Interoperability has been recognised by our governing bodies as an essential component to improving health care services. In the National Information Board’s framework ‘Personalise Health and Care 2020’ the NHS was issued with a deadline to ensure that all patient and care records are digital, real-time and interoperable by 2020. These goals are driving forward the potential to get different computer systems to 'talk to each other' and therefore join up patient information across healthcare organisations. 


Here are some of the examples of some of the interoperability projects in a community healthcare setting:

Child Health Data

Child Health Information Hubs receive large volumes of different notifications from sources including acute hospitals, other child health record departments, GPs, Social Services and schools every year. At present these important notifications can be received via email, fax and the post and are manually scanned or typed into a clinical record system. This takes a lot of time and personnel. One interoperable example may be an Immunisation Upload Tool, which extracts standardised children’s immunisation information from a GP practice using one clinical system and securely transfers and automatically uploads it to different system in a community setting.

Sharing information between community and primary care

A significant barrier to delivering integrated care is the many different clinical record systems organisations use. Again, in order to share relevant patient information we rely on making telephone calls or sending information via the post, fax or email. These communication methods can be time consuming, unreliable and slow. Two of the UK’s leading suppliers EMIS and TPP announced last year their plans to enable direct sharing. For example, from one system you could launch a portal to view the patient record held in a different system and then send information to that system directly. This would ensure there is greater visibility of treatment provided despite using a different patient record system. The EMIS-TPP programme has commenced with piloting at key sites and then they plan to rollout nationally.

Let the data flow

One of our biggest digital challenges is to simply enable patient data to flow in meaningful and secure ways. These innovative examples demonstrate how new interoperable technologies can improve the sharing of essential information between acute, primary care and community health services. These projects are a huge step forward in providing clinical staff with access to accurate and up-to-date information and enhance the timely communication about the interventions provided to help co-ordinate patient care.


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