Readers Write 4/30/10

Setting Your Data Free

By the UI Guy

As its nomination for “Most Overrated Technology” at HIStalk’s 2010 HISsie Awards demonstrates, Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is a term too often bandied about by healthcare IT vendors. It’s not the nomenclature itself that’s the problem, but rather its misuse and the unwillingness of many of these vendors to do anything more than pay it lip service.

This shortsighted approach is reflected in products that require too much local functionality, time-consuming client-side data management and restrictive allegiances to pre-defined operating systems and form factors. The latter limits the advance of healthcare mobility, as the form factor of choice remains desktop applications that tie clinicians down. When companies do create mobile apps, users often face similar limitations – they’re only for one device – such as the iPhone – and rely on functionality that does not make the best use of the device’s attributes.

Another challenge is that the data collected by many applications is housed in silos – it’s unusable across the 30, 40, 50 or more disparate systems that hospitals typically have. It seems like many vendors are developing in a vacuum and then slapping an SOA badge of honor on their technology, without meeting the key criteria of true SOA – collecting data from numerous device types, via any operating system and platform and making this data usable by other systems.

Developing high-impact products involves a commitment to SOA at the conceptual level. Part of this is versioning HIT applications to take advantage of certain form factors, rather than trying to cram features into the device, come what may. For example, a product versioned for the iPad would make the most of of the large screen, light bodyweight and long battery life, and also multi-touch. If a vendor can’t apply its products across multiple device types, getting the most from the merits of each, this should be a red flag that the product is not really embracing SOA.

The next step to developing SOA-focused software is to create a simple and intuitive UI that makes it easy to capture data. By embracing industry standard web services methodologies and universal exchange approaches like XML and HL7, this data can be made usable across multiple systems and databases.

Patient information should be accessible from mobile devices, so that it has maximum impact on clinical floors. This in turn extends data retrieval and management capabilities to a wide user group. For example, if patient data is captured at the point of admission by an enterprise forms management system, the application should be able to pre-populate clinical forms with this information on a tablet carried by a nurse. Such synchronization eliminates delays and redundant effort.

If captured data is stored or managed at a server level – rather than locally as is the problem with a lot of SOA impostors – users will have a more focused interaction experience and will be freed from unnecessarily top-heavy interfaces. By separating data from the UI once it has been captured, developers can free clinicians to perform tasks quickly and get back to focusing on what really counts – delivering timely and informed patient care. Without such a switch in design philosophy, SOA is just another ingredient in the revolting acronym soup that HIT vendors have been serving to hospitals in recent years.

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