What is Interoperability?

You may have heard administrators discussing the importance of promoting interoperability between legacy systems. But what is interoperability? Why should you care about it, and how does the interoperability of systems impact your business?

This functionality is relevant to a number of different industries, but it’s especially important for healthcare systems. By focusing on cross-communication, healthcare providers can improve patient care and organizational efficiency.

Interoperability 101

What is interoperability? If you’re new to this term, it can feel a bit technical. As you break it down, it becomes easier to understand what interoperability is and why it’s relevant in today’s technological age.

Interoperability Definition

The term interoperability refers to how well two different systems can communicate with each other and exchange information.

Healthcare interoperability, for example, facilitates health information exchange between two different medical providers. This can be to enable continuity of care for a patient or to provide information so healthcare providers can learn from one another.

Systems may be interoperable in different ways. Data transmission, data access, and collaboration between systems are all examples of this.

Interoperability Standards

Interoperability standards are a set of rules that industries agree on to improve information exchange between their systems. These standards are essential in the fields of technology, healthcare, and telecommunications, as well as in many other industries. 

The standards are designed and maintained by different international standards organizations. The most popular of these organizations is the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO.

Having a set of common standards is one of the key things that makes businesses interoperable. 

Imagine, for example, trying to send a Word document to a person with no ability to open .Doc file types. This experience would be frustrating for both parties. You might be forced to re-type your document into a file format the other person could open, which would slow down your business practice and also force the other party to wait longer to receive that information. The Rich Text Format (RTF) file type was developed specifically to promote information exchange across different word-processing platforms, and it serves as an early example of interoperability.

Today, technology is more complicated, and so is cross-system communication. Different industries use different interoperability standards for this reason. Knowing which ones your industry uses is the first step to developing software systems that can communicate and exchange information efficiently with others in your field.

Examples include:

  • The Healthcare Industry:Healthcare Level Seven (HL7) and Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM)
  • Telecommunications: Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM)  and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
  • IT: Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP)

Data Exchange

For separate systems and software to properly integrate with one another, they must be able to send and receive usable data.

Consider a PCP trying to transfer medical records to an ER physician, for example. Health information exchanges need to happen quickly and seamlessly, which is why interoperability in healthcare is such a big deal.

This follows closely with the idea of interoperability standards. Standardization tells organizations how to structure, format, transfer, and receive information. By updating operating systems to meet these standards, organizations are able to exchange data much more efficiently than if every system were to operate by its own set of rules.

Without interoperability, organizations are forced to exchange data manually. Think of the small mom-and-pop healthcare offices that still send medical records by mail, for example. Exchanging data in this way is time-consuming, leading to inefficient business practices and a lower standard of care. The right technology solutions can eliminate these barriers, making data interoperability accessible to more organizations.

APIs (Application Programming Interfaces)

APIs make it possible for a system, product, or digital service to communicate with other systems, products, and services. In short, APIs make solutions interoperable. These programming interfaces create the standardization needed for organizations to exchange information efficiently with one another. Healthcare organizations can use Consensus Harmony, for example, to connect all of their networks with a single set of RESTful APIs.

Without these interfaces, business owners would have to update their operating systems manually to adhere to core ISO standards. You’d have to not only fully understand these formulas, but also know enough about programming to implement them.

APIs serve as an intermediary, saving your team from manual legwork. And when your system interacts with others, an API lets each one remain isolated at the code level.

HL7 (Health Level Seven)

HL7 is a specific set of standards within the healthcare industry. It was developed in 1987 by a group of healthcare experts who recognized the need for standardized data exchange in the healthcare sector and has been updated throughout the years to keep up with the demands of newer technology. Today, HL7 remains one of the most common sets of core interoperability standards in healthcare and is used in a variety of scenarios, including: 

  • Clinical data exchange (e.g., lab results, radiology reports)
  • Medication orders and administration
  • Electronic prescribing
  • Public health reporting

HL7 standards help healthcare organizations streamline operations, improve patient care, reduce errors, and enable better decision-making by ensuring that data can be accurately and securely exchanged between different healthcare systems and providers.

Types of Interoperability

What is interoperability? If you’re new to this term, it can feel a bit technical. As you break it down, it becomes easier to understand what interoperability is and why it’s relevant in today’s technological age.

Technical Interoperability

Technical interoperability refers to the technical components that make it possible for disparate systems to work together. Aspects of technical interoperability include:

Data Formatting:

If one system uses JSON and another uses XML, for example, technical interoperability would involve converting information into compatible file formats.

Data Transportation:

This includes how information moves from one system to another, and it involves elements like data encryption, data routing, and message integrity.

Hardware compatibility:

If separate systems are using different operating systems, technical interoperability would address compatibility between hardware components, drivers, and interfaces.

Organizational Interoperability

Organizational interoperability has to do with the non-technical ways in which businesses interact and collaborate with each other. This includes: 

Organizational cultures:

There’s a reason most hospital waiting rooms look the same. By making cultures, expectations, processes, and communication structures align, similar industries ensure that everyone knows what to expect.

Regulatory compliance:

Different industries have legal regulations they’re required to follow. HIPAA, for example, serves as a legal standard leading to organizational interoperability in the healthcare sector.

Data governance:

This involves elements like standards for data ownership, data sharing policies, and data security measures.

Interoperability in Technology

Organizational interoperability is largely the responsibility of organizations. But achieving technological interoperability means investing in the right electronic systems to support your organization’s needs. You can leverage IoT, cloud computing, and open-source software to improve system interoperability.

Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT involves a network of interconnected devices, sensors, and other objects that collect, exchange, and act on data. Smart homes, for example, operate on IoT. Sensors collect data from a home, exchange that data over a cloud network, and interact with a user’s smartphone. The user can then make adjustments on their smartphone, send information back, and adjust how smart home devices are operating. 

IoT is also used in a variety of settings, including the medical industry. Home monitoring systems may be able to communicate medical information to healthcare providers. Those providers may then be able to connect to patients via patient portals and make adjustments to treatment plans based on the feedback they’re receiving. 

IoT interoperability involves standardizing data formats, managing and controlling devices remotely, and establishing security standards so that private data can’t be accessed outside of authorized systems.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing allows different networks to store and exchange information online.
Data stored in the cloud must be accessible, understandable, and usable by different applications and services, regardless of where they are hosted. Organizations using cloud computing to facilitate interoperability also need to trust the cloud server to follow the same common standards for security as they would follow within the confines of their establishments. 

For example, healthcare organizations exchanging information through a cloud server need to know that the cloud server they’re using protects patient information just as rigorously as any healthcare organization would. Otherwise, by using the cloud, providers could find themselves inadvertently violating HIPAA standards.

Open-Source Software

Open-source software is any computer software that has a code that anyone can inspect, modify, and change. 
Open-source software often follows interoperability principles by adhering to common standards, providing open APIs, using open data formats, and fostering collaboration. Organizations trying to build interoperable solutions and create a more adaptable technology ecosystem often turn to open-source software or open-source middleware solutions as a first step. 

It allows users to verify the trustworthiness of the software themselves rather than relying solely on a company’s reputation to audit the software. The downside, however, is that because open-source software can be modified at any time, it can be open to security breaches if organizations don’t take steps to control who is accessing the software and how it’s being adjusted.

Interoperability in Healthcare

The healthcare industry is one of the leading fields that needs interoperability to function. Healthcare providers have to be able to exchange information in a quick and reliable way without violating HIPAA.

Electronic Health Records (EHRs)

Medical providers rely on interoperability to exchange electronic health records. Whether that means a PCP transferring medical records to a specialist during a referral, or an ER requesting medical records for a patient that just came in, having electronic health records available in a standard format is critical for safe and efficient patient care.

HIPAA-compliant faxes are one option for exchanging electronic health records near-instantaneously. They rely on data encryption and user authentication to protect the privacy of patients while also allowing for quick information exchange between different medical facilities.

Health Information Exchanges (HIEs)

Data interoperability is crucial for healthcare offices during health information exchanges. HIEs include:

  • Patient demographics
  • Medical records and histories
  • Laboratory results and imaging reports
  • Medication lists and prescription histories
  • Immunization records
  • Discharge summaries
  • Referral information

HIEs make it possible for public health agencies to monitor public health, which is used to uncover health trends and respond to disease outbreaks. HIEs also enhance care coordination by allowing healthcare providers to access trends from other medical facilities and adjust their care procedures accordingly. For example, knowing that certain demographics are more likely to suffer from certain conditions can prompt healthcare providers to ask more in-depth questions when patients of that demographic present with certain symptoms.

FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources)

Developed by HL7, FHIR is a modern, web-based standard for healthcare data exchange that offers flexibility, scalability, and developer-friendly features. It’s designed to address the need for improved healthcare information exchange in a digital and interconnected landscape.

FHIR defines how information can be exchanged between healthcare systems as well as how information can be stored within those systems.

Benefits of Interoperability

The benefits of interoperability are plentiful. Improved efficiency and decision-making power, as well as enhanced user experiences, make interoperability a critical component of success in the modern world.

For the healthcare industry, these benefits empower practitioners to provide top-level patient care.


Without interoperability, businesses are stuck exchanging information manually. This may include emailing documents in incompatible file types, mailing documents the old-fashioned way, or having people bring documents in person. This level of manual information exchange requires significant effort. People have to spend time reviewing data and entering it into computer systems by hand. 

Interoperability simplifies this process. Information moves seamlessly and directly from one system to another with minimal human interference. This allows workers to spend more time on job-related duties rather than tedious administrative details. 

Interoperability also improves efficiency by allowing organizations to communicate more effectively with one another. For example, healthcare providers can chat with one another, exchange patient information, and reply to referrals quickly and easily. 

Improved Decision-Making

Imagine going to an emergency room with a medical emergency, only to find that the physicians can’t access your medical records. In an ER setting, doctors clearly don’t have time to request medical records by mail, and you may not always be in a position to advocate for yourself. If practitioners can’t access data, they may be forced to treat ailments on instinct alone. Best-case scenario, they might simply repeat tests that you’ve already undergone. Worst-case scenario, they may apply treatments that they never would’ve performed if they had access to your personal medical profile.

Interoperability solves these types of problems. Communicating efficiently between systems allows individuals to make decisions informed by all possible data points.


When you’re working in a setting that values interoperability, it becomes much easier to complete your job. Effective communication between systems means that you have the information you need at your fingertips. 

Instead of spending time trying to locate and assimilate data, users can focus exclusively on their work. 

Interoperability also enables multi-platform support and seamless integration across multiple platforms or operating systems. Users who need to move between systems in the workplace could enjoy a consistent user interface and access information wherever they are. This means less friction in the workplace and faster problem resolution.

Share All Health Data From a Single Platform

Ready to embrace interoperability within your healthcare practice? Consensus can help. Our all-in-one solution allows you to share health data from a single platform. Enjoy seamless, HIPAA-compliant faxes, HL7 and FHIR standardization, and flawless communication all in one convenient location. Our stringent ID verification process means that only authorized users can access the platform, improving security and ensuring that your healthcare facility’s interoperability goes off without a hitch. 

Consensus is more than just an online fax service provider. Choose from a variety of services, including secure cloud faxing, HIPAA-compliant e-signatures, NLP/AI document processing, robotic automation, real-time event notifications, and an interoperability platform. Make your experience with Consensus as streamlined or robust as you need while enjoying the benefits of the number one cloud faxing platform around.

Learn more about our healthcare interoperability features today.