The open source quest to standardise healthcare data

The open source quest to standardise healthcare data

HL7 FHIR seeks to unify systems for storing and sharing patient data

The Healthcare industry faces a big problem, data. The sheer volume of information collected about patients by modern medicine is nothing short of immense.

Add to this the differing and, at times, non communicative platforms healthcare institutions use to collect and disseminate patient data, and you have a real problem for patients and clinicians alike.

A community of developers has made it their mission to rationalise these systems and make it easier for healthcare professionals to access patient data.

An Australian-based HL7 team lead by Grahame Grieve realised the problems within healthcare were not confined to healthcare.

The team looked at the ways other industries were sharing information and came up with the idea of using RESTful interfaces, these are a relatively simple way for developers to exchange information.

The team then looked at the structure and format of the information and came up with the idea of using resources to represent a medication, a problem or an allergy. The team then defined what each of these resources would look like in a standardised way.

“As a result we now have a way of moving resources between systems that works across a number of different Health care paradigms,” explained Orion Health product strategist, David Hay.

“This combined with a predefined way to represent that data, enables professionals in health to share information safely across different systems.

“We have taken a giant leap forward because all of this has been done on top of standards that developers are used to.

“There is now a certification that developers from outside the healthcare industry can understand.”

While still in the development stage, FHIR is garnering a lot of interest from healthcare professionals and regulators around the world.

The New Zealand Health Information Standards Organisation has recommended that it be a national standard and there has also been significant interest in Europe and Africa, Hay said.

The biggest take up so far has been in the US, where vendors have contributed to the cost of developing the standard called standard project Argonaut.

“The concept is that the standard can be used any way it is needed to be used. It doesn’t dictate a way of doing things, it works within existing systems and supports the way people want or need to do things.

Hay said HL7 had undergone a bit of a transformation through the whole open source process. It was now at the stage where developers are not the only ones contributing to the project, healthcare professionals are having their say.

“FHIR is organised is around the concept of a fixed set of core data and the ability to extend that data for specific purposes, because people can see it and understand it they feel that they can comment on it. Those comments will, very frequently, result in change to the base specification itself or the extensions around it,” he said

“Anybody can access it and contribute to it and that way we get a much better, much more fit for purpose product.”

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