Better Terminology in Healthcare

Information exchange between healthcare organizations has always been a major obstacle when it comes to delivering effective patient care. Patient privacy and EHR formatting are just two of the factors that limit the speed and efficacy of data exchange and the ability of other facilities to interpret and act on patient records. From a population health standpoint, this also hamstrings any efforts to collect data for research and can slow its often already labored pace.

Some of these barriers have been cast aside in the name of combating the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as the disease has come to become better understood by doctors and researchers. Even so, the difficulty in identifying and standardizing COVID’s effects and symptoms create their own hurdles when it comes to forming a working knowledge for treatment or research purposes. The necessity of a fast response to the pandemic has led to more sharing of patient records than ever before, but the novel nature of the virus can obfuscate some relevant findings.

The issue of terminology is not new in the healthcare space; even between comparable hospitals, a diversity of jargon can lead to poor communication or hampered data exchange. Computer systems in hospitals “talk” to each other using codes to relay physician notes, with different standards used for things such as virology specimens, diagnostics, and specimen types. However, in many cases, the technology doesn’t match the user, being ill-equipped to handle the interpretation of a new virus that physicians might refer to in a number of different ways, from COVID-19 to COVID 19 to simply COVID. New codes specific to the virus have been developed by the FDA alongside several other organizations in efforts to create a workable clinical database for healthcare organizations.

The improvement of COVID terminology has positive impacts on the macro and micro levels. When it comes to transitioning from primary to emergency care, the transfer for information can aid in expedient treatment. In these cases, hospitals must also take the time to log EHRs with testing information that can aid in exchange with laboratories. Information semantics need to be consistent across both the care facility and with recent code standards for COVID.

Of course, even when it comes to testing, the slow turnaround means that anything that accelerates delivery of patient results is a boon for them and the overburdened healthcare system looking to manage this crisis. This failure to implement effective testing is compounded by the number of tests with misleading or inaccurate results-but better information exchange can help toward a more nuanced approach to testing and their interpretation.

Really, COVID is just a singular example of how improving terminology can have a positive impact on interoperability. The pandemic has spurred on the more open exchange of information in healthcare and medicine, but we owe it to vulnerable populations to keep this trend going after the pandemic.

Originally published at https://toddberner.com on October 6, 2020.