In the world of health care, data standards are the key to increasing interoperability— a term you’ve probably heard before, which refers to the ability of health-related technology to exchange medical data seamlessly across distances and systems. Data standards existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic has only brought to light the pressing need for wider implementation. We’ve put together an overview of data standardization and why it’s important.
What Does Patient Data Standardization Involve?
At its base level, data standardization is the act of storing data in an agreed-upon format that allows for collaborative research, large-scale analytics, and sharing of tools and methods. This is important because sharing knowledge is a well-documented way of improving healthcare practices and patient outcomes. To avoid ambiguity and enhance understanding among all parties, healthcare systems have adopted classification systems and codes for diagnoses, medications, procedures, and other facets of patient care.
Patient data can be collected for many reasons, whether it’s insurance reimbursement, clinical research, or for use in patient care. Without data standards in place, sharing that data with other providers and organizations can get tricky— it can be stored in formats that are incompatible with another provider’s systems, or use a different database that the other provider doesn’t have access to. And without a standardized list of terminologies adopted by all providers, the same condition or treatment might be referred to by any number of different abbreviations or codes.
What Do Data Standards Cover and Who Creates Them?
There are several different types of data that it’s important to ensure organizations can all receive, read, and understand. One is terminology, possibly the most dangerous not to have standardized. Providers can exchange patient data without a common vocabulary, but if three systems call the same condition or treatment by a different name— or the opposite, if each of the three use the same term to describe three different things— the miscommunication can be fatal.
There are also content standards that outline the structure of patient records and other documents, the types of data they contain, and how they are organized; transport standards, which define the formats, data elements, methods, and APIs that should be used to optimize interoperability; and privacy/security standards, which are administrative and technical guidelines to protect patients’ health data and ensure HIPAA compliance.
These standards are all created by the various standards development organizations (SDOs) in the healthcare field. These organizations work to identify what factors should fall under patient data standardization and how, and work with health IT users to keep the standards up-to-date and relevant.
What Are the Benefits of Standardization?
While these SDOs have been hard at work defining and updating these standards in the hope of increasing interoperability, there has been a lack of organizations adopting and using them. With slow rollouts and a lack of widespread use, they’re much less effective.
But the downside isn’t just to the healthcare industry as a whole. A lack of patient data standardization can result in incomplete data collection, inaccurate reporting, missteps in patient matching, and slower workflows— no one in healthcare is a stranger to the backlog of paperwork. For patients to receive the best care from their providers, those providers will need access to current, accurate, and comprehensive patient information. Access to this exchange of information can also lower readmission rates, improve treatment coordination, and save hospitals both time and money in the long run.
If you’re a provider and your hospital or organization isn’t actively participating in using standardized data collecting methods, it’s never too late to start. Organizations can improve their level of standardization to improve the flow of information between them and other systems, facilities, and practices. The Interoperability Standards Advisory and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology are considered the authority on interoperability standards for American medicine; their website has more information here: https://www.healthit.gov/isa/.