What is Interoperability?

Interoperability has been a growing buzzword in healthcare in recent years, but what it means and how it works for clinical organizations is still relatively unknown. 

Interoperability refers to the ability of two or more technology systems to exchange and process data that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of hospital operations.

Interoperability equips key healthcare decision makers with the information they need to continually measure and mange their operations, document protocol, mitigate risk, and provides staff and physicians with pertinent data that allows them to make intelligent assessments on how to optimize workflow and improve customer satisfaction. The end result is an enhanced delivery of quality patient care, and a thorough understanding of how certain processes and procedures function conjointly.

There are three levels of information interoperability that let healthcare facilities measure the success of their systems: foundational, structural, and semantic. 


Interoperability at the foundational level is establishing the basic ability for two or more systems to exchange data. According to HIMMS, this level “allows data exchange from one information technology system to be received by another and does not require the ability for the receiving information technology system to interpret the data.” An example of foundational interoperability would be sending laboratory results from one facility to another. The information would be correct and delivered securely, but would require manual data entry and interpretation. 

If we think of interoperability in terms of a three tiered pyramid, foundational interoperability would be the bottom level of information sharing. The data is being exchanged, but the processing and interpretation of the information between the systems has not been established.


Structural interoperability takes the automation of data sharing between systems to the next level. HIMMS explains that structural interoperability “defines the syntax of the data exchange. It ensures that data exchanges between information technology systems can be interpreted at the data field level.” This means if two clinics were using similar software applications, they could quickly and efficiently share patient information by auto-populating the system with pertinent medical history, test results, and findings to facilitate referrals between facilities. The structural level of interoperability helps automate the delivery and presentation of information between systems to improve both cost and labor efficiency, and reduce human error.


At the foundational and structural level, we are able to see the benefits of integrating systems and providers to effectively communicate information with one another. But there are glaring challenges in regards to the redundancy, security, accuracy and speed in which these systems share data. The true value of interoperability in the healthcare environment lies at the highest level, which is semantic interoperability. 

At it’s core, semantic interoperability is the ability for two or more systems to effectively exchange, interpret and use data and information. To revisit our previous example through semantic lenses, a clinic would be able to send lab results to another facility, the system could then verify the contents, identify the records, match a patient, advise the appropriate physician, schedule alert notifications, and save any and all information regarding the case including appointments, updates, findings, prescriptions etc.


There are very obvious benefits to healthcare IT networks with advancements in interoperability. But IO is something that should be carefully considered and integrated in all facets of a healthcare organization. From access control to mass notification alarm systems to real-time location solutions – interoperability ensures that the use of innovative technology has the ability to work in tandem, and provide tangible data that influence positive changes in how a staff and their facility function.

Studies have shown that 80 percent of providers reported electronic data exchanges increase their practice's efficiency, and 89 percent of providers said electronic data exchanges improve the patient's quality of care. If you are interested in finding out more about how the interoperability of security and communication solutions can help drive noticeable change in your practice, contact info@swc.net or call us at 1-800-333-4792 and we will help identify areas where you can enhance your technology solutions.