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NHIN Direct prescribes SOAP and REST for health information exchange

The folks at NHIN (National Health Information Network) Direct believe the surest path to health information exchange is the one that’s already been traveled — by the builders of the Internet. According to Arien Malec, coordinator for NHIN Direct, “One of the architectural approaches we would like to see for NHIN Direct is to shamelessly copy the architectural consideration that have made the Internet successful.”

Malec would like to see health information exchange systems achieve the same scalability seen by the Internet. “This property, of being able to add new nodes to the network without requiring explicit configuration, is a desirable attribute we should look for in NHIN Direct so that enabling organizations…and providers…do not have to individually configure access to simple, direct services,” he said.

Though the NHIN Direct team has only just begun the work of defining basic specifications for health information exchange, SOAP and REST may be possible avenues for development. But what exactly are they?

SOAP, or Simple Object Access Protocol, is a way for two programs using different operating systems to talk to each other over the Internet. It uses the Web’s Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and the Extensible Markup Language (XML) to exchange data. This SOAP Tutorial provides a more in-depth look at the standard.

REST, which stands for Representational State Transfer, is an architectural style that uses core Internet technologies to exchange data. This article from an IBM software engineer is an excellent primer. REST, often considered a simpler alternative to SOAP, is gaining in popularity.

Whichever style or standard is used to set the specifications for NHIN Direct, it will be in keeping with that project’s goal to create a “health Internet” by “leverag[ing] the Web for transport whenever possible to decrease complexity and the implementers’ learning curve.”

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