Originally published by The Journal of mHealth


Successful mental health care requires large-scale collaboration between a whole host of different services. But the current paper-based systems can make this a near-impossible task.

By their very nature, these systems throw up an array of inhibitive barriers which act as blockers to effective communication and secure data sharing. The result is a risk of error and delay which slows down access to treatment. For those in need of acute mental health care, this can be life-threatening.

To achieve the joined-up, patient-centred care called for by the Mental Health Act Reform Bill and to support the growing demand for acute care, overcoming these barriers and facilitating wider collaboration is paramount. We desperately need the tools to enable simpler, streamlined and more secure cross-service communication. The answer? In a single word: interoperability.

Why is interoperability so important?

The baseline maturity of systems and quality of accessible data is much lower in acute mental health care than in other areas. With standard practice for arranging patient care still largely paper-based, broader digital transformation is also yet to be widely adopted. Paper-based forms have to be manually transferred across geographical boundaries, risking both loss and delay. Meanwhile, existing digital systems are inherently siloed, meaning they are unable to effectively share information or data with one another.

Interoperable systems, on the other hand, are able to speak directly to other systems. Information can be shared safely and seamlessly, without the need for additional manual input or intermediary data translation. Simply put, they can bypass the obstacles presented by the current paper-based and siloed digital systems, all while strengthening security and compliance.

Arming mental health services with fully interoperable digital tools helps:

  • Speed up access to treatment – by reducing admin time and speeding up the transfer of patient information;
  • Reduce the risk of errors and delays – by enabling safer, more secure data sharing; and
  • Provide more collaborative, joined-up care – by making it easier for services to communicate and share essential information

Using interoperable systems also gives us a clearer, more complete picture of care through improved access to data. This can help more accurately identify areas where improvement is needed, inform impactful policy change, and enable services to establish best practice by learning from one another.

How can we successfully introduce interoperable systems?

Making interoperability a priority is essential for ensuring that we’re heading towards the goals outlined by the Mental Health Act Reform Bill. As services begin to migrate from paper-based processes to new digital systems, the aim must be for interoperability to be made standard from the start.

So how can we put this into practice? While developing our platform for supporting care delivery under the Mental Health Act, my team at Thalamos have found the following steps crucial to achieving genuine interoperability:

Start small and simple

While widespread interoperability is the ultimate aim, we won’t achieve this overnight. Building any kind of interoperability, however small, into new and existing systems will have a huge payoff and positive impact on patient care. Making it easier for data to be shared at any stage of the care pathway will ultimately help reduce delays and speed up access to treatment.

Start by identifying the areas where these systems can most easily and effectively be introduced, and use these as a springboard for encouraging wider change.

Build broad communities

Interoperable systems make it easier and quicker for data to be shared, but they also require collective agreement on data standardisation. Any new systems introduced must be able to work together effectively while maintaining compliance and keeping patient data safe.

By building strong relationships with other services and providers, you can ensure that standards are agreed upon and instituted at every stage of system development.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Most importantly, don’t feel as though you have to start from square one. Pre-existing standards for data creation and sharing, such as FHIR and Open EHR, and systems for data standardisation, like SNOMED, are a strong foundation on which to build safe, effective and compliant interoperability.

Lean on these to guide and inform each stage of system development. Then collaborate and share both your successes and failures with other services and providers. This will not only help encourage wider interoperable development, but will drive up standards across the board.

There’s no doubt that interoperability is the key to unlocking genuine mental health care reform. Without it, there are simply too many barriers to providing quicker, safer and more-joined up patient care. We will only overcome these barriers by introducing tools which enable the multitude of services involved in acute mental health care to work more closely together. Ultimately, interoperability is the essential foundation for making this large-scale collaboration a reality.