Why using HIT standards fails to achieve interoperability

I started working in the Health IT area in 1994, on a major European Commission funded project. I attended years of standards meetings at HL7, CEN and occasionally OMG and ISO from 1999 to about 2012. And I’ve observed the constant failure of standards (through inappropriate hopes and expectations) to provide anything like a sustainable solution for interoperability. Here are the lessons I draw from this.

  • Premise #1: interoperability is an outcome (i.e. an emergent quality), not a created input. You can’t achieve true (automatic) interoperability by trying to engineer for it. Why? Because interoperability happens at the touchpoints between parts of a system. To achieve it, you have to have a) knowledge of and b) some say in the architecture of those components – only then will you understand how to create interoperability at the interfaces in question.
  • Premise #2: de jure standards should not be mistaken for architecture. Today’s HIT standards are attempts to engineer interoperability with no knowledge of the system components – they are essentially various forms of message on the wire. The result is O(10,000) mutually inconsistent interoperability points, not an interoperability-enabled architecture. Bureaucrats routinely mistake standards for architecture, saying things like ‘we must base our system on standards x, y, z’, or ‘we’ll design the system based on standards’. Only do that if you want to repeat the cycle of death.
  • Conclusion #1: any large healthcare delivery organisation or environment has no choice but to define its own architecture, which means thinking about its own data, processes and knowledge assets – in depth. The outline of how interoperability will be achieved at any interface point must be part of that architecture. Only then can any published standard be considered for use, if it truly fits and provides a language of interchange that will be in wide use for the same purpose.
  • Conclusion #2: the only way to engineer standards that will result in sustainable interoperability is to define an open architecture. ‘Standards’ will just be pieces of that specification that apply at interface points.

There is a hidden requirement for success, which is as follows:

  • Requirement: to achieve interoperability, common knowledge resources must be defined and used across the entire domain – i.e. ontologies, terminologies, definitions and models of higher-level artefacts such as data sets and guidelines.

With respect to this point, the Health IT domain has already achieved quite a lot at the terminology level; has good de facto standards for shared data sets (openEHR archetypes, Intermountain Healthcare Clinical Element Models, although the SDOs still struggle with the approach); is only just starting to understand ontology; and is making some initial progress in the process and guideline domain. Most of these are still poorly integrated, but the direction is clear.

The details of how to engineer for sustainable interoperability are mostly outlined in this previous post.

The underlying lesson is to recognise that any environment in which interoperability is desired is a complex system, operating on multiple hierarchical levels, with emergent properties at each. Interoperability is one of those properties.

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About wolandscat

I work on semantic architectures for interoperability of information systems. Much of my time is spent studying data, ideas, and knowledge, and using methods from philosophy, particularly ontology and epistemology.
This entry was posted in Computing, openehr, Philosophy, standards and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why using HIT standards fails to achieve interoperability

  1. Ian Colclough says:

    I find the direction of your reasoning compelling and your comments about SDOs pertinent. Notwithstanding the complexity of the wicked problems I have for many years wrestled with how to overcome the barriers, distractions and impediments to solid long-term progress arising from the combination of technologists’ enthusiasm, excessive sales and marketing hype, multiple confused political imperatives to deliver on promises, and the impatience of vendors and consultants to achieve excessive revenue goals and high margins.

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