Interoperability is health IT conference s focus

CHICAGO ' An average, medium-sized U.S. hospital operates about 200 interfaces between clinical systems. Every time a vendor significantly tweaks one of those systems, it can cost a hospital $20,000 per change or to up to $50,000 to adapt and manage that interface over the lifetime of the system.

Eliminating such costs is the goal of the 'Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise' or IHE project, which held its annual 'Connectathon' here last week. A technical jamboree of  350 engineers from 77 companies, the event featured teams feverishly debugging the workflow of their products between one or more of 150 different clinical health applications.

IHE is sponsored by multiple healthcare interest groups, including the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS), the Radiological Society of North American, and the American College of Physicians. The Connectathon is the scene of compliance testing for products and systems in several virtual 'use cases' or realistic scenarios. These include patients connecting to a hospital from home, a radiology vignette, and a workflow set in motion by the discovery of an unknown patient.'

Didi Davis, director of the IHE, said the event was, 'truly constructing how applications work together to reduce healthcare costs.' Altogether, she estimated, about 90 percent of all electronic health records systems now available were represented on the testing floor. 'We simulating four of five RHIOs (regional health information organizations) in there,' she said.

Each vendor must demonstrate a working connection to a peer system or systems that passes muster with three official observers or monitors drawn from volunteers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), physicians groups, and independent consultants.

Tom Kuhn, a physician and a senior systems architect with the American College of Physicians, one of the red-shirted observers, said his job 'is to make sure (the workflows) look real ' and we need real live clinicians to do that part of it.' The IHE Connectathon will help physicians and hospitals gain better control over their IT. 'Hospitals are usually (product) guinea pigs,' Kuhn said. 'We want to eliminate that.'

Vendors themselves are tired of the interface wars, according to some. 'The more we get get standard implementation the more we can improve systems that improve patient care,' said Glen Marshall, an executive with Siemens Health Services. 'We don't want to compete on interoperability, we want to compete on features. Those things are measurable.'

Many of the tested solutions will also be demonstrated at the Interoperability Showcase at the HIMSS conference in New Orleans.

About the Author

Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.

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