Tag Archive for 'ihe'

Dreaming of Flexible, Simple, Sloppy, Tolerant in Healthcare IT

I was recently browsing in the computer (nerd) section of the bookstore and ran across an old Joel Spolsky edited book: The Best Software Writing I.  Even though it’s been about four years, good writing is good writing, and there is still a lot of insightful material there.

One of the pieces that struck a cord for me was Adam Bosworth’s ISCOC04 Talk (fortunately posted on his Weblog).  He was promoting the use of simple user and programmer models (KISS — simple and sloppy for him) over complex ones for Internet development.  I think his jeremiad is just as relevant to the current state of  EMR and interoperability.  Please read the whole thing, but for me the statement that get’s to the point is this:

That software which is flexible, simple, sloppy, tolerant, and altogether forgiving of human foibles and weaknesses turns out to be actually the most steel cored, able to survive and grow while that software which is demanding, abstract, rich but systematized, turns out to collapse in on itself in a slow and grim implosion.

Why is it that when I read “demanding, abstract, rich but systematized” the first thing that comes to mind is HL7?  I’m not suggesting that some sort of open ad hoc system is the solution to The EMR-Medical Devices Mess.  But it’s painfully obvious that what has been built so far closely resemble “great creaking rotten oak trees”.

The challenge for the future of Healthcare interoperability is really no different than that of the Internet as a whole (emphasis mine):

It is in the content and the software’s ability to find and filter content and in the software’s ability to enable people to collaborate and communicate about content (and each other).

I would contend that the same is true for medical device interoperability. Rigid (and often times proprietary) systems are what keep devices from being able to communicate with one another.  IHE has created a process to try to bridge this gap, but the complexity of becoming a member, creating an IHE profile, and having it certified is a also a significant barrier.

Understanding how and why some software systems have grown and succeeded while others have failed may give us some insights. Flexible, Simple, Sloppy, Tolerant may be a dream, but it also might not be a bad place to start looking for future innovations.

Adam also had this vision while he was at Google: Thoughts on health care, continued (see the speech pdf):

… we have heard people say that it is too hard to build consistent standards and to define interoperable ways to move the information. It is not! … When we all make this vision real for health care, suddenly everyone will figure out how to deliver the information about medicines and prescriptions, about labs, about EKGs and CAT scans, and about diagnoses in ways that are standard enough to work.

Also see the Bosworth AMIA May07 Speech (pdf) for how this vision evolved, at least for Google’s PHR.

UPDATE (2/9/09): Here’s a  related article: The Truth About Health IT Standards – There’s No Good Reason to Delay Data Liquidity and Information Sharing that furthers this vision:

We don’t have to wait for new standards to make data accessible—we can do a ton now without standards.  What we need more than anything else is for people to demand that their personal health data are separated from the software applications that are used to collect and store the data.

UPDATE (4/17/09): John Zaleski’s Medical Device Open Source Frameworks post is also related.

Use of an open-source framework approach is probably as good as any. As a management model, I don’t see it as being that much different from the way traditional standards have been developed. Open-source just provides a more ad-hoc method for building consensus. Less bureaucracy is a good thing though. It may also allow for the introduction and sharing of more innovative solutions. In any case, I like visions.

USB plug-n-play (plug-n-pray to some) may be a reasonable connectivity goal, but it does not deal at all with system interoperability. Sure, you can connect a device to one or more monolithic (and stable) operating systems, but what about the plethora of applications software and other devices?  This just emphasizes the need to get out of the “data port” (and even “device driver”) mind-set when envisioning communication requirements and solutions.

Healthcare Un-Interoperability

Or maybe that should be “non-interoperability”? Anyway, I have ranted in the past about the state of the EMR industry. I thought I’d add a little meat to the bone so you could better appreciate the hurdles facing device interoperability in healthcare today.

Here’s a list of the standards and organizations that make up the many components of health information systems. I’m sure that I’ve missed a few, but these are the major ones:

Medical Coding

  • SNOMED (Standardized Nomenclature for Medicine)
  • LOINC (Logical Observation Identifiers Names and Codes)
  • ICD9/10 (The International Classification of Diseases)
  • CPT (Current Procedural Terminology)

Organizations

  • FDA CDRH (Food and Drug Administration Center for Devices and Radiological Health)
  • NHIH (National Health Information Network)
  • HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society)
  • CCHIT (Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology)
  • PHIN (Public Health Information Network)
  • VISTA (Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture)

Standards

  • HL7 (Health Level Seven: v2 and v3)
  • HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996)
  • 21 CFR Part 11 (FDA/HHS Electronic Records and Signatures)
  • IEEE-1073 (Point of Care Medical Device Communications)
  • IHE (Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise)
  • DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine)
  • HITSP (Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel)
  • EHRVA (HIMSS Electronic Health Record Vendors’ Association)
  • NCPDP (National Council for Prescription Drug Programs)
  • openEHR (International Foundation that promotes Electronic Health Records)
  • CEN (European Committee for Standardization)
  • CCR (Continuity of Care Record)
  • ANSI X12 (Electronic Data Interchange)
  • MLLP (Minimal Lower Layer Protocol)
  • ebXML (Electronic Business using eXtensible Markup Language)

This list does not include any of the underlying transport or security protocols. They are either data formatting (many based on XML) or specialized messaging systems.

The diagram below gives an overview of how many of these standards are related (from an IEEE-USA purchased e-book — copying granted for non-commercial purposes):

Taxonomy of Core Standards for the NHIN

I don’t know about you, but trying to make sense of all these standards and protocols is not an easy task. A discussion of next generation PHRs summarizes the situation well:

… not only is information scattered, but standards for defining and sharing the data are still evolving; where standards exist, many of them predate the Internet. Standards about how to define consistently the information (clinical standards) and to transmit and exchange the information (technical standards) are not yet formalized and agreed upon.

The point about predating the Internet is an important one. This particularly pertains to HL7 v2.x which still uses ASCII delimited messages for transmission over serial lines. For all you 21st century programmers that may have never seen one before, here’s what an HL7 v2.x message looks like:

MSH|^~\&|AcmeHIS|StJohn|ADT|StJohn|20060307110111||ADT^A04
|MSGID20060307110111|P|2.4EVN|A04PID|||12001||Jones^John|
|19670824|M|||123 West St.^^Denver^CO^80020^USAPV1||O
|OP^PAREG^||||2342^Jones^Bob|||OP|||||||||2|||||||||||||||
||||||||||20060307110111|AL1|1||3123^Penicillin
||Produces hives~Rash~Loss of appetite

HL7 v3 uses XML for it’s message format but it has not been widely adopted yet. A good history of HL7 v2 and v3, and an explanation of their differences, can be found here (pdf).

HL7 v2 is commonly used in hospitals to communicate between medical devices and EMR/HIS systems. Even though the communications framework is provided by HL7, new interfaces must still be negotiated, developed, and tested on a case-by-case basis.

Most of the large EMR companies provide HL7 interfaces, but many of the smaller ones do not. This is because hospitals are not their primary market so they don’t generally need device interfaces. These EMRs are essentially clinical document management, patient workflow, and billing systems. The only external data they may deal with are scanned paper documents that can be attached to a patients record. The likelihood that they would conform to any of the standards listed above is low.

I’m not sure things will improve much with the recent PHR offerings from Microsoft (HealthVault) and Google (Google Health — not yet launched) . Microsoft appears to be embracing some of these standards as discussed in Designing HealthVault’s Data Model, but there are a couple of telling comments:

Some of the data types we needed in order to support our partners’ applications where not readily available in the standards community.

Our types also allow each vendor to add “extensions” of their own making to item data – so to the extent that we are missing certain fields, they can be added – and the industry can rally around those extensions if it makes sense.

Microsoft says they are not the “domain experts”, so they’re leaving it to the industry to sort it all out. Great! This is probably the same attitude that got us to where we are today.

Hopefully you can now see why I’ve used the words “mess” and “chaos” to describe the current situation. The challenges facing interoperability in healthcare are immense.

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