Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) in Healthcare Ecosystem

Nilesh Patkar, CIO Navi & CTO, THOUGHTi
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Nilesh Patkar, CIO Navi & CTO, THOUGHTi

All over the globe, healthcare organizations and all participants in the healthcare ecosystem are increasingly making IT investments to improve their care delivery, efficiency, capabilities and at the same time to optimize their operational costs. The path is not straight and easy for them due to extensive existing investments in hardware, software, and medical devices that they must continue to support. They are facing increasing pressure to modernize their systems as technologies are constantly evolving and at the same time user expectations are increasing. While one need not be overly confused, or deviated by so-called "hyped best practices", they should not ignore what is the best for them.

Task of CIOs becomes challenging here because they have to serve two competing interests. They need to package the entire system into a cohesive whole with minimal ins and outs to make sure that it passes through the rigorous compliance criteria. The more open a system is, the harder it is to control the potential variables, which is a truism also in the security industry. Even simple upgrades or applying patch requires running over stringent validations because of the compliance and high security requirements. The best way to manage this is to close up the system as much as reasonably possible. While healthcare industry has benefited some from standardization efforts, systems are still islands of data connected by custom bridges. CIO has to see how system can be interconnectible without compromising on security or conflicting commercial interests.

I am working healthcare domain since last 15 years, and frankly, this situation does not surprise me; health care has all of the elements the lead to the perfect storm of IT complications. If there is one sector that could surely benefit from adopting SOA, it is health care.

 The more open a system is, the harder it is to control the potential variables 

Connecting health care systems cannot be done in centralized way i.e. one cannot build a system that does all the work. It has to be system of systems. The only way to do is build many systems based on common standards. The standards should allow easy connection of these systems. Service oriented architecture provides all the necessary features to connect systems and exchange data in secure and robust way.

SOA is constituted of following components

Service: The contract defined between one or more published interfaces exposing well- defined functionalities.

Service provider: The software entity that implements a service specification.

Clients: The software entity that requests the services.

Service locator: A specific kind of service provider that acts as a registry and allows for the lookup of service provider interfaces and service locations.

Service Broker: A special service provider that can pass on service requests to one or more additional service providers.

In Healthcare, typical examples of Services are medical billing, claims, medical vocabulary translation, master-person index, lab result services, ePrescription service and so on. At public level, service locator component is in very limited existence. However, various clearing-house and gateways are performing this role.

I consider following four key features of the architecture very critical and how industry has taken positive steps:

1. Service-orientation–a modular approach that reduces dependencies between systems, using open standards and protocols to promote data application and interoperability. We have now reached to HL7 standards, which encompasses X12, ADT, CDA. This is really a great groundwork that we can leverage.

2. Federated data–given the local nature of healthcare delivery, data should reside as close as possible to where it is created and administered, caching information at different levels within the system (departmental, regional, national) to allow for different levels of service. This is achieved by HIEs and we need to do lot of data deidentification of filtering whenever required so t minimize any unnecessary data compromises.

3. Federated security–allowing easier management of identities and security credentials by delegating aspects of authentication and role assignment to trusted parties. The Health Information Trust Alliance (HITRUST) was born out of this need.

4. Trustworthiness–reliable, fault tolerant systems. We have been using security trust agent (STA) in blue button initiative.

SOA do not have a smooth path in the health care domain. There are realistic problems that may become the bottleneck of such architecture.

1. While designing SOA system it requires a high expertise and need to spend significant amount of time. This step would significant time and various public private organization must come together. Although we have seen very good initiative on this front but we still have miles to go.

2. The standard in representing data in health care is evolving and must be given high priority. It is very important for services to know that semantics of the data being passed back and forth from it. Standards would also play an important role in making the systems interoperable. Today there are a number of data standards in various fields of heath care and therefore there is a need to determine whether they are sufficient and comprehensive.

3. As I mentioned important feature of SOA is that services can be discovered but this is complex process. One has to describe service with precision so that one can choose correct service.

4. Services must be comprehensive so we need to identify the gaps and build those services.

5. SOA system should give a fail over mechanism as it would be really needed in emergency where fast response is very critical.

6. Most of healthcare organizations are reluctant to share their data due to both organizational and legal constraints.

I will summarize this as SOA is the way for healthcare to go for; we have walked really well till now but still miles to go till we reach our destination.

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