Professor promotes HL7 for interoperability issues

Lixin Tao of Pace University, speaking at the mHealth + Telehealth conference, urged providers to standardize around HL7 data-exchange standards.

BOSTON -- While interoperability may be one of the toughest challenges facing healthcare IT, providers struggling with how to port electronic health data from one system or platform to another shouldn't feel all alone -- exchanging digital information has long bedeviled various businesses.

"As computer professionals, we've been dealing with these problems for more than two decades," said Lixin Tao, chair of the computer science department at Pace University's Westchester, New York, campus, during a presentation on overcoming interoperability issues at the mHealth + Telehealth World 2014 conference in Boston.

Nonetheless, healthcare lags considerably behind other sectors when it comes to solving those problems, Tao said.

The professor's tips hewed to the technical side, but his roadmap was vendor-agnostic, instead relying on solidifying interoperability efforts around versions 2 and 3 of Health Level Seven (HL7), the international computer protocol for exchanging clinical and administrative healthcare data.

According to Tao, HL7's interoperability standards can help improve healthcare delivery by optimizing workflows, reducing ambiguity and enhancing knowledge transfer between providers, government agencies, standards organizations, vendors and patients.

There are some issues to be aware of, though. Tao noted that HL7 v2 is the most popular interoperability standard in healthcare IT, with advantages including backward compatibility, so messages based on older version 2.x releases can be understood by later ones. But, the 26-year-old specification is aging.

We need a [standard] that can embrace the diversity and allow different data formats to co-exist.
Lixin Taochair of the computer science department, Pace University

HL7 v3 is more powerful, based on a model-driven methodology designed to streamline implementation planning and better support conformance testing. But, it is still evolving and isn't backward compatible with v2, Tao said.

In addition, shifting to the new version of the standard "is a major migration" that is likely to be "very expensive" for hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, he said. As a result, most organizations are still using the more familiar v2 protocol.

More generally, Tao expressed impatience with the pace of electronic health records technology implementation, which he attributed in large part to a lack of standards.

"We lack a solid semantic foundation for a lot of these technologies," he said. "We need a [standard] that can embrace the diversity and allow different data formats to co-exist."

In a brief interview with SearchHealthIT after his presentation, Tao said the biggest step healthcare organizations could take still is moving away from paper records and handwritten notes. And, he said the government's role in providing incentives is critical to the shift.

One attendee, a physician and CIO, joked that he'd love to take advantage of the research expertise of Tao and his Pace colleagues. "But it's too expensive," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shaun Sutner, news and features writeror contact @SSutner on Twitter.

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