Category Archives: Standards

Open Digital Platform Challenge Fund

Many  will be aware of the proposal that Tony Shannon and I have been promoting to persuade the decking to allocate 1% of the money they plan to spend on an “Open Digital  Platform Challenge Fund” to stimulate the development of an open digital ecosystem based on open standards.

We have had a positive response so far and will shortly be presenting out plans to the NHS CIO and CCIO. We want to be able tell them that there are enough people and projects committed to an Open Digital Ecosystems to make good use of the money we are asking for and give then a good idea of the projects that might come forward if they take up our suggestion.

To this end we have been asking people for expressions of interest via this link . We are looking for expressions of interests from people who support the approach and the specific standards laid out in our document. In not onerous to fill in the form which does not imply a fixed commitment just a general indication of interest.

If you have not already done so I’d urge you to let us have your ideas

Full details below

 

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1) Executive Summary

An NHS open digital platform challenge fund will stimulate the development of an open platform in the NHS. Open digital platforms are independently forecast by McKinsey and Co to reduce the delivery of care costs across the NHS by 11%. They will support widescale entry and growth of suppliers into the market, injecting innovation at all levels of service delivery to support improved care outcomes for our patients.

In the context of an NHS struggling through a perpetual winter, open digital platforms present a realisable opportunity to massively stimulate new ways of working, process innovation and a new digital health and care market, based around services. This is independently forecast by McKinsey and Co who predict a positive financial impact in excess of 11% across the whole of health and social care.

By creating an open digital platform and a move towards a services market, the NHS opens up the market to innovative commercial and social enterprises who presently have great difficulty breaching the significant barriers to entry. At the same time it creates an environment where health and care professionals can readily create, contribute and share new digital tools to support transformational new models of care, radically improving the care outcomes of our patients and building a sustainable care ecosystem that is fit for the future.

There is little disagreement that platforms represent the future for digital health. Rather the present debate is about who should own them, and how and when they will emerge. The “status quo” retains the closed platform frameworks, introducing open interfaces for exchange of information. This provides a short term stimulus, supporting improvements in patient care and operational efficiencies. However in the longer term, by seeking to control the rules of engagement and restricting the mobility of data, the retention of closed platform frameworks will stifle competition, impede innovation, and continue to drive-up costs.

Open digital platforms are a radical alternative that overcome the serious shortcomings of closed platforms.
They present the most assured approach to achieve consistent, long term and affordable growth in innovation-led service transformation across the complexities of health and social care. They will enable the full competitive aspects of market supply to be exploited, with associated benefits of the injection of innovations on a massive scale. For this reason, open digital platforms are manifestly in the interest of both the NHS and its patients.

The purpose of the proposed Open Digital Platform Challenge Fund is to stimulate the development of an open platform ecosystem through kick-starting the creation of open platforms, building on work already well underway, and the development of exemplar applications to exploit them.

We propose that the fund is created through diverting 1% of the investment each year in NHS digitisation into the challenge fund. This fund would be made available via an annual open competition in the form of relatively small awards to innovative organisations (public, private and third sector). The selection of projects will be balanced to stimulate and develop an open ecosystem of shareable and reusable applications to service across health and social care. We are inviting submissions of expressions of interest into this Open Platform Fund. In so doing, we will gauge the wider interest in this Open Platform fund proposal to then quickly bring these related responses to the attention of both NHS Digital and NHS England by the end of February 2017 and seek the related funding.

2) Current Situation

To introduce this bid for funding we need to review the current situation with important context on the bigger picture issues that are at play. We need to acknowledge and understand the current mediocre state of health IT, as an immature and problematic market with mixed/relatively poor value for money and results seen from billions of £ and $ of investment from the UK to the US and elsewhere.

We also need to recognise the related digitisation of the NHS has been over promised and under delivered for some considerable time. Compounding this people/process/technology problem is the ongoing and perpetual winter faced by the frontline in the NHS that is in the news.

We restate the need to continue the critical push towards more personalised, integrated care at home and in the community to meet the 2020 vision. This clearly requires an underpinning patient centred infrastructure to do so. Last February Jeremy Hunt announced £4.2 billion for NHS Health IT. In the last 18-24 months while there have been plans in the form of Integration Pioneers, Vanguards, Local Digital Roadmaps (LDRs), Sustainability Transformation Plans (STPs), there has been little/no allocated funding to date to make these happen.

In Autumn 2016 we were able to read and digest the latest review of the NHS IT, authored by US physician Dr Bob Wachter. Dr Wachter built his reputation as establishing the hospitalist as a medical specialty in the US. In recent years he has become a fearless and honest critic of the state of Healthcare IT in the US, with his book “Digital Doctor : Hope, Hype & Harm at the Dawn of Medicines Computer Age” (2015) exposing the real mediocre state of the health IT market in the US. The book and related opinion pieces on the state of health IT industry he explains some of the real problems with the current supplier market is clear. In a New York Times Op Ed piece on “Why Health Care Tech Is Still So Bad” (2015) he highlights that

“In today’s digital era, a modern hospital deemed the absence of an electronic medical record system to be a premier selling point…That hospital is not alone. A 2013 RAND survey of physicians found mixed reactions to electronic health record systems, including widespread dissatisfaction. Many respondents cited poor usability, time-consuming data entry, needless alerts and poor work flows”.

However in the NHS, Dr Wachter’s recent review led to funding being provided to “digital exemplars” all of which are a small group of hospital trusts in the NHS who will invest in those very same health IT monoliths. While understandable as a means to “do something”, rather than nothing, given the state of affairs is understood, it is sadly limited in its thinking and perpetuates the usual tactics that we have seen in the NHS IT for years, i.e. investing in the same 20th Century monoliths of old. We know that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is futile.

Simply put, if a small elite are getting the focus of funding for investments in 20th Century health IT monoliths over the next years then inequity within the system will increase, while original ideas in the sector to bring care into the modern era will decrease.

We have been left asking where has the requirement for integrated person centred care gone, that is ingrained in the other plans that NHS and local authorities have been working towards with STPs and LDRs etc.

What is sorely missing is the open patient centric platform that Dr Wachter looks forward to and that healthcare awaits. As this is a glaring omission, our paper recommends a focussed investment towards that end as part of a bimodal strategy for NHS IT at this challenging time.

3) What can be done

The changes required are radical, if we are to simply survive, yet alone thrive in the years ahead. We know we need a mix of people + process + technology changes. We know too that the leaders of the NHS understand and value the role of innovation and the crucial role of information technology in achieving same.

3.1) The role of an open platform

For some time now leading thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, in the NHS and indeed the US has been calling for a move towards a more open platform approach. From within the US market, the establishment of Healthcare Services Platform Consortium aims to address the mediocrity of the “big 6” monoliths and the concurrent problem of the thousands of small unrelated vendors.

“EHRs are becoming commodity platforms. The winner will be the EHR vendor that provides the best platform for innovation – the most open and most extensible platform.”

In this we wholeheartedly agree and concur with our US colleagues.

We believe there is now a compelling case for a small but useful investment in Health IT from the bottom up, to the princely sum of 1% of the planned £4 Billion NHS IT expenditure, aimed deliberately at the integrated, patient centred care vision of Personalised Care 2020, based on the principle that all projects should aim to leverage elements of a common open platform.

4) 1% Case for an open platform

We are making a case for an investment of just 1% of available NHS IT funds to offer a way forward to improve the care of 99% of the population. To do so we have highlighted Dr Watchers analysis and writings to focus on the key problems and issues we seek to address;

Usability

“This principle of user-centered design is part of aviation’s DNA, yet has been woefully lacking in health care software design.

Interoperability

“[There are] Political obstacles to overcome, put in place mostly by vendors and healthcare systems that remain reluctant to share.”

Vision for patient centred care

“In essence, there will no longer be an EHR in the traditional sense, an institution-centric record whose patient portal is a small tip of the hat to patient-centeredness. Rather, there will be one digital patient-centered health record that combines clinician-generated notes and data with patient-generated information and preferences. Its locus of control will be, unambiguously, with the patient.”

So in order to address these real issues and support the national ambitions – usability, interoperability and patient centred care we will use the investment fund available to benefit the broader public. We wish to draw attention to that part of the population who could be better served by the NHS with an improved patient centric platform today. We are also mindful of the need to support;

  • Prevention, Self care and management
  • GP patients
  • Community Care Patients
  • Mental Health Patients
  • Social Care

We look to the leadership provided by the Gov UK Digital Service standard to highlight the principles to underpin the approach we commend.

Pursue User Centred Design & Agile Development

Leverage Open Source & Open Standards

In our work to date (on the Ripple programme and Code4Health platform based on openEHR) we have deliberately pursued these principles to useful effect and recommend them to others who wish to transform healthcare with information technology. We welcome wider scrutiny of our open platform work to date. Our work and the leading work of others (such as the Endeavour Foundation and the INTEROPen CareConnect API Collaborative) in this field, leads us to believe there is now a real, significant appetite for wider and deeper moves towards an open digital platform in the NHS.

By creating an open digital platform ecosystem, the NHS opens up the market to innovative commercial and social enterprises who presently have great difficulty breaching the significant barriers to entry. At the same time it creates an environment where health and care professionals can readily create, contribute and share new digital tools to support innovative new models of care.

We firmly believe that a small but focussed 1% investment can deliver against some of the key challenges in Personalised Health and Care 2020 on an open service oriented platform- to stimulate the public & private sector. An open healthcare platform fit for the 21st Century.

 

5) What is an Open Platform?

Platform based architectures power the internet, with the platform providing the plumbing (the infrastructure, data and services) that applications need, freeing the application developer to focus their efforts on their application without the need to build the infrastructure it needs to operate. Platform approaches speed development, make applications more robust and interoperable and open up a new services market in healthcare IT, where suppliers compete on services and the value they add rather than on the proprietary nature of their software.

An Open Platform is based on freely available open standards, so that anyone can play. As no one party can control the platform – they must collaborate – just like the Internet.

An Open Platform has the following characteristics:

  • Open Standards Based – The implementation should be based on wholly open standards. Any willing party should be able to use these standards without charge to build an independent, compliant instance of the complete platform;
  • Share Common Information Models – There should be a set of common information models in use by all instances of the open platform, independent of any given technical implementation;
  • Support Application Portability – Applications written to run on one platform implementation should be able to run with either trivial or no change on another, independently developed;
  • Federatable – It should be possible to connect any implementation of the open platform to all others independently developed, in a federated structure to allow the sharing of appropriate information and workflows between them;
  • Vendor and Technology Neutral – The standards should not depend on particular technologies or require components from particular vendors. Anyone building an implementation of the open platform may elect to use any available technology and may choose to include or exclude proprietary components;
  • Support Open Data – Data should be exposed as needed (subject to good information governance practice) in an open, shareable, computable format in near to real-time. Implementors may choose to use this format natively in their persistence (storage) layer of the open platform itself or meet this requirement by using mappings and transformations from some other open or proprietary format;
  • Provision of Open APIs – The full specification of the APIs (the means by which applications connected to the platform a should be freely available.

The key to an open platform is the definition of a set of standard interfaces (APIs) to the range of services that might be provided on a platform defined by an open process that all interested parties can participate in (like Internet standards) and that are freely available for all to use.

While it may be encouraged, not all elements in an open platform need to be open sourced. We believe that “infrastructural” components that are generic, reusable and utility like (e.g see Appendix 1 below) should be open sourced, while the overlying applications do not necessarily need to be open sourced, as long as they leverage open data models and offer open APIs.

6) Why an open digital platform?

We have seen across all sectors how platforms are changing the way people lead their everyday lives, from how we communicate and interact, how we travel and where we stay, how we manage our finances to how we shop, to name but a few. Platforms transform. An open digital platform supports:

  • Unconstrained innovation – ideas and ambitions can be shared by people across the office, street or globe
  • Collaboration – clinicians and care professionals inherently want want to share their good work with the rest of the medical world.
  • Alignment to medical science progression, been based on the spread of ideas – health IT can do the same.
  • “Publish or perish” culture of modern medicine demands that healthcare advances are laid open for scrutiny by our peers
  • Grassroots progress – Complex adaptive systems require decentralized control so people can locally innovate. Amendments and improvement can come from the grassroots and bottom up, without the bureaucracy that innovators often face.
  • A shift in the market towards a healthy, commercially sustainable, services oriented marketplace.

7) Open Platform Fund mechanism

The main aim of this Open Platform bid is;

Support the development of services towards Personalised Care 2020 –

support the development of an NHS ecosystem around an open digital platform

To be clear, while we do not currently have any secured funding for an open platform fund, our aim is to gauge interest in this approach and make the evidence based case to NHS Digital.

The fund is intended to support innovative projects that stimulate the creation of an open digital ecosystem and as such aims to support a large number of small projects that are unlikely to be supported as part of “business as usual” investment by health and care organisations. The aims are to driving innovation and transformation that is scalable, shared, flexible and adaptable and ultimately improve health IT for clinicians and improve care outcomes for patients. Winners will show that they will concentrate their efforts on usability, interoperability, patient centred care that meet the vision. To do so we suggest;

7.1) Request for Expressions of Interest

We initially invite the submission of expressions of interest into this Open Platform Fund. In so doing, we wish to gauge the wider interest in this Open Platform fund proposal to then quickly bring these related responses to the attention of both NHS Digital and NHS England by the end of February 2017 and seek the related funding .

Please submit a brief expression of interest (1-3 page) via this Google forms link; https://goo.gl/forms/4SaNvAgkAe2AfLZ82 by Friday 10th February 2017.


We will acknowledge expressions of interest, collate and feedback the results of our findings, pass on related submissions and summary findings to the Apperta Foundation CIC which we believe is ideally placed to independently oversee this process and support the case for funding from NHS Digital and NHS England. The Apperta Foundation is a not-for-profit community interest company supported by NHS England and NHS Digital led by clinicians to promote open systems and standards for digital health and social care.

While the focus of this paper relates to the NHS in England, we know that colleagues in the health systems of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed the Republic of Ireland are facing the same challenges at the frontline, while aware of the same opportunity on offer from an open platform from a 1% investment, particularly if done openly and collaboratively. Therefore we invite related submissions towards an open platform fund on an All Islands basis – which we also will pass onto the Apperta Foundation and the UK and Ireland CCIO Networks.

7.2) Outline of Proposed Allocation

A) Infrastructural component projects

45% of £40m = £18m over 3 years (until 2020)
Open source tooling & infrastructure components – underpinning standards and compliant components that provides services useful in an open ecosystem (See Appendix 1 examples)

B) Personalised Care: Innovation Incubation and Exemplar Implementations

50% of £40m = £20m over 3 years (until 2020)

Open APIs & open data models based projects as showcases of an open platform in action. (e.g. may include open APIs (e.g. INTEROPen CareConnect FHIR based APIs) + open data models +/- open source data repository (e.g. openEHR based). Examples may include Person Held Records/Electronic Patient Record/Integrated Digital Care Record etc. related projects.

C) Oversight/Custodian of process by an independent CIC such as the Apperta Foundation

Along with the CCIO Network and INTEROPen Collaborative to oversee clinical merit and technical connectathons.

5% of £40m = £2m over 3 years (until 2020)

7.3) Eligibility

We suggest that this open platform fund is open to:

  • UK Registered for-profit commercial entities (Companies and LLPs) and
  • UK Registered not-for-profit entities (CICs,Trusts,Companies limited by guarantee and other recognised forms) meeting UK definition of an SME (In the UK a company is defined as being an SME if it meets two out of three criteria: it has a turnover of less than £25m, it has fewer than 250 employees, it has gross assets of less than £12.5m)
  • UK Public Sector bodies (NHS Bodies, Government agencies and local authorities etc.) irrespective of size.

7.4) Match funding obligations

We suggest that applicants will be required to match fund any award from the fund as follows

  • Social or commercial micro-enterprises 1
    No match funding obligation
  • Social or commercial SMEs 2
    Match funding equal to 50% of the award
  • Public sector bodiesMatch funding equal to 100% of the award

 

1 A business with less than 10 employees and (a turnover < £2 million euro or a balance sheet total of less than £2 million euro)
2 A business with less than 250 employees and (a turnover < £50 million euro or a balance sheet total of less than £43 million euro)
These are the current official definitions applying in the UK

8) Criteria

We suggest that an Open Platform fund is open to projects that stimulate and support both the creation and adoption of an open digital ecosystem which meet the definition in section 5 of What is an Open Platform.

While the main aim of all projects will be to improve NHS services towards personalised health and care 2020, the criteria by which the funding from this fund will be allocated will depend on the concurrent creation of value add in the form of;

  • Collaborative – all projects must establish open channels of communication and means of engagement with other parties in the bid at the time of their application (e.g. INTEROPen Ryver etc).
  • Transparent – all projects must be willing and evidence how they will partake in regular clinical and technical reviews. We suggest these should be in the form of bi-annual CCIO Network led review along with INTEROPen led Connectathons with a minimum of 3 out of 6 Connectathons undertaken.
  • Share Ideas, Knowledge, Experience – i.e. willing and able to openly collaborate with others in this initiative (e.g via online community building via tools such as the Open Health Hub, Ryver etc) and partake in Open Data connectathon against INTEROPen FHIR APIs

9) Judging process

Initial Bid and Review Point Principles

We suggest the related submissions into this fund will need to evidence the following as part of their bids and progress at agreed review points:

  • Clinical merit – against the Personalised Health and Care 2020 Vision
  • Technical merit – against the open platform principles outlined
  • Clinical gap / need / demand
  • Clinical Leadership – all projects need nominated clinical lead
  • User Centred Design – include/demonstrate a commitment to open publish UX design
  • Alignment with Agile Development methodologies
  • Business readiness (preparatory work, governance etc in place)
  • Collaboration with other parties in the open platform bid
  • Open Source track record

10) Conclusion

If public monies are for one purpose, they should be for the common good. Our proposal aims to ensure the efficient and effective allocation of public monies to projects that can impact the health and care of millions of citizens in England, supporting local NHS & Social Care organisations in their hour of need, while leveraging Britain’s long held reputation for industry and innovation to enable a new global open platform fit for the 21st Century.

Our proposal for an open platform technology fund aims to offer a means towards the integrated care vision of Personalised Care 2020 that is in the best interests of the NHS. In aligning patient, clinical and care needs with the investment potential offered by open platforms in healthcare, we believe there is a clear win-win on offer here.

At times of challenge and change the natural instinct may be to withdraw from risk or novel action, yet all our instinct is telling us that now is very time to embrace this challenge and seek the opportunity – which is why we are taking a public lead in getting this Open Digital Platform for Healthcare into action and welcome your interest and support in this effort.

Dr Tony Shannon, Ewan Davis
14th January 2017

Questions or Comments?
Email us at 1percentfund@ripple.foundation or tweet @rippleosi with #1percentfund

11) Declarations of Interest

Both of the authors are unashamedly proponents of an open platform in healthcare for some time. One might argue that this constituents a conflict of interest with the proposed approach. Rather we would suggest that our track record in leading the effort to disrupt the market towards an open platform, equates to a confluence of interest with the approach now required.

Dr Tony Shannon, Director – Ripple Foundation C.I.C
Director – Frectal Ltd

Ewan Davis, Director – Synapta C.I.C
Director – Handi Health C.I.C
Director – Open Health Hub C.I.C
Director – Operon Ltd
Director – Woodcote Consulting Ltd

12) Related Links

Ripple Foundation Community Interest Company http://rippleosi.org/
HANDI Health Community Interest Company http://handihealth.org/
Synapta Community Interest Company http://synapta.org.uk/
Endeavour Health Charitable Trust http://www.endeavourhealth.org/
Apperta Foundation Community Interest Company http://www.apperta.org/
INTEROPen Collaborative http://www.interopen.org/
openEHR Foundation http://openehr.org/
HL7 FHIR https://www.hl7.org/fhir

Appendix 1 – Open Platform Infrastructural Component Candidates

The aim here is to initially outline examples/suggestions of a “top 10” set of federated service components in a Service Oriented Architectural world that would be useful to in healthcare. In doing so we welcome further suggestions and related expressions of interest that would aim to provide open source solutions to plug gaps / provide enhancements towards the open digital platform movement. The fund may support the open sourcing of existing components or their development.

Identification & Authorisation
Master Patient Index
User Interface framework
Integration technologies
Clinical Data Repository
Terminology services
Workflow services
Rules engine
Scheduling
Business intelligence
Clinical content collaboration/authoring tools (i.e. openEHR/FHIR etc)

Applications for these open source infrastructure projects are encouraged to state their preferred OS license (weighting towards non copyleft (Apache 2/MIT/BSD) or AGPL licensing)

 



 

Hiding the Onions – Interop and Open Platforms


With McKinsey telling us that open platforms can save more that 11% of total health care costs, we really have to sweep away the barriers and make it happen. This means moving to an open platform architecure meeting the principles I described in my last blog, which require open standards, open data and open APIs. While most in the vendor community understand this and some actively promote it for others asking them to open up their systems and data and adopt open standards is like asking the turkey’s to help make the stuffing – They might help you find the sage, but they are  going to hide the onions.

Many existing vendors recognise the need to move open standards, open data and open interfaces (APIs) but while some are moving in the right direction, they are not there yet Others drag their feet knowing their current success relies on existing proprietary solutions, customer lock and their pseudo-ownership of customer data. Getting to the tipping point at which open platforms can really take off is going to require new players challenging the status qou and a willingness from the health and care community to help them successfully engage.

The objective is to move towards what is now being described as a Post Modern EHR  this is an architecture that separates data (describing both record content and work-flows) from the applications that create and process it storing it in an open computable format available to all authorised applications.

There are almost certainly no vendors who think interoperability is a bad thing and this is exemplified by the techUK Interoperabity Charter, to which many vendors have signed up . While some have described this as “Motherhood and Apple Pie” in nonetheless contains some specific commitments and there is certainly no justification for any health or care organisation to do business with companies that are not signatories (it is not necessary to be a member of techUK to sign up to the charter). Having  signed the Charter should be a mandatory condition in the PQQ of any IT procurement in Health and Care.

However, vendors commitment to interoperability is not always what it seems and varies between companies and within companies depending on what particular aspect of interoperability at issue.

Most vendors are keen to facilitate interoperability that enhances the range and quality of data in their systems or which adds functionality that they don’t and and have no desire or ability to provide. Vendors are less keen to support interoperability that allows competitors products more easily to replace some or all of their system or which loosens their peusdo-ownership of their customers data – True interoperability does both of these things.

For a system to be fully interoperable the following needs to be true:

  • It should be possible to access all of the data in a system in an open, shareable and computable format, either for an individual patient or any cohort of patients (include all patients). Interfaces should be provided to efficiently access data and where the customer wishes to maintain a near real-time replica of the data in a parallel system.
  • It should be possible to upload to a system any data that could otherwise be manually entered into a system, subject to relevant  user defined work-flows and quality assurance.
  • All business functions that can be executed using a system should be exposed via an appropriate API to allow them to be executed by an authorised external application.

Looking at the API’s than vendors are now providing, few come close to meeting the criteria above. For some systems and to some extent there are real technical barriers to opening up systems and making the data they hold available in an open format, but there can also be pressing commercial reason for not opening up systems and it can be very difficult for customers to determine the extent to which vendors have genuine technical challenges to overcome or are simple looking for excuses to hang on the commercial benefits of limiting what can be done through their APIs.

Customers need to push vendors towards open platform architectures, open standards, open data and open APIs, but need to recognise that this transition cannot be achieved overnight and will require investment by vendors that will ultimately need to be paid for by customers. The trick is to link new business to an evolution to open standards without making unrealistic demands, that in the end you will have to allow vendors to ignore.

Vendors need to appreciate the value of open platforms and the commercial opportunities they bring. The increasing complexity of digital health means that I can foresee only two future options:

  • The first based on open platforms creates opportunities for vendors, particularly innovative SMEs, to enter the market and compete with the larger players on a level playing field and forces vendors to compete on quality, performance, support and value rather than relying on customer lock-in and pseudo-ownership of customer data.
  • The second is increasing market consolidation with a few very large  vendors owning competing proprietary platforms, that allow access to other vendors on their terms with customers locked into their platform

The first option drives innovation and value, creating a competitive market  for both the provision of  federatable open platforms and the applications that run it. The second will result poor value and reduces both the opportunity and motivation for innovation and gives the platform provider too much influence in the way health and care services are provided.

There is a great future for vendors of all sizes in an open platform environment, which by delivering value to the health and care system, will result in market growth delivering greater revenue opportunities for those that can adapt their business models to take advantage – For those that can’t there always the cranberry sauce.

Stuffed Turkey
By No machine-readable author provided. Chensiyuan assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1491125

Defining an Open Platform


It is widely agreed that the future of digital health lies in an “Open Platform”. However, it’s not clear as to exactly what an Open Platform is or how we get there. With McKinsey tell us that health care systems that create an open platform can save more than 11% of total health care cost this is a question we urgently need to answer

“…….each national or federal health system should consider an open innovation platform that holds healthcare data ……………., and provides data access that is enabled for application programming interfaces as well as common technical IT services such as identity, access, or consent management. This platform would serve as the basis for an ecosystem of digital-health-services innovation……”

“In 2014, we did considerable research into the economic value of digital technologies in healthcare and found ……..  net economic benefits of 7 to 11 percent of total healthcare spending. Over this past year, our work on the ground has confirmed this original analysis. However …………  we believe an even greater impact can be achieved through coordinated joint effort. This would involve the interconnection of all digital-health stakeholders through an open innovation platform.”

McKinsey and Co., Jan 2016

This blog is an attempt to do so on which feedback from others would be welcomed..

While any given instance of an Open Platform will be a specific implementation of a set of software components owned and operated by a particular organisation (this might be a health and social care organisation or a third party, operating the platform on behalf of a local health and care community), it is most usefully defined by a set of principles rather than the specific details of a particular implementation.

Open Platform Principles

Any platform implementation that is truly to meet the definition of being ‘open’ should comply with the following principles:

  • Be Open Standards Based – The implementation is based on open standards which any willing party can use, free of charge, to build an instance of the Open Platform – what these standards are will be described later in this article.
  • Share Common Information Models – There should be a set of common information models used by all instances of the Open Platform, independent of the specific technical details of a particular implementation.
  • Support Application Portability – Applications written to run on one implementation of the Open Platform can run with little or no change on another independently developed implementation.
  • Be Federateable – Any implementation of the Open Platform can be connected with all other independently developed implementations in a federated structure  to allow the sharing of appropriate information and workflows between them.
  • Be Vendor and Technology Neutral While those building an implementation of the Open Platform will chose particular technologies and may choose to use or include proprietary components, the standards should not depend on particular technologies or require components from particular vendors.
  • Support Open Data – An implementation of the Open Platform can expose all of the data it contains in an open, shareable, computable format in near real-time; it is for implementors to decide if they choose to use this format natively in their persistence (storage) layer of the Open Platform, or meet this requirement by means of mappings and transformation from some other open or proprietary format.
  • Provide Open APIs – APIs are the means by which applications connected to the Open Platform are able to access and update the data it contains. There are a number of available open APIs (see below) and ideally any platform should support a number of these to give the maximum flexibility for applications that wish to connect to it.

Open Platform Standards

Meeting these characteristics implies the use of certain approaches and the adoption of certain standards. However, it is important to understand that by its very nature an open platform, just as with the Internet, is not something that can be rigidly defined and indeed is something that will continually evolve. There are multiple ways to build an open platform and for these to work together we don’t need and can’t have rigorous standardisation; we need just enough of a common approach to make things work. This approach is different to that historically adopted in NHS IT, but it is the model on which the Internet and World Wide Web were built and have succeeded. See these two pieces on my blog here and here.

At the core of an open platform is the need for common information models, which define the clinical content (information) to be represented on the platform and which provide a sharable, open and computable format for that information. Currently there are only two approaches that have current support from the global health informatics community.  These are the Clinical Element Models (CEMs) and openEHR. They adopt very similar approaches, coordinated through the CIMI initiative. In the NHS, the HSCIC has chosen to use openEHR; which is the model that has achieved the most widespread global acceptance and use.

Information models, such as those created by openEHR can be used natively in the persistence (storage) and messaging components of the platform or be used simply to inform the design of these components using either another open standard such as HL7 FHIR, XML, JSON, or by using proprietary approaches. The critical point is that  an open platform can produce and consume data in a form compatible with the standard information models. It is for the designers of the platform to decide how to do this, but I would expect those building from scratch to use openEHR natively in the persistence layer and those adapting existing systems to converge their internal representation on these standards over time.

Open Platform Architecture

The architecture of an open platform will evolve over time and it is likely that different implementations of the platform will vary in the detail of the architecture and the particular components included. What’s important is not that different implementations are identical, but that they comply with the principles described above. The diagram below proposes a possible architecture. Any open platform of this kind is likely to have similar components, arrayed in a functionally equivalent architecture and to implement a similar set of standards.

Open Platform Architecture

The heart of the platform is an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) which links the components together and provides authentication along with the management of the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which serve both platform components or services and external systems connected to the platform.

Core components of the platform include:

  • repositories for both structured and unstructured data (documents, images, etc);
  • a Master Patient Index (MPI) and Registry which stores basic demographic data and provides a locator service to help find where the records for a particular patient are held (e.g. on the platform, elsewhere in the local health community or on other federated platforms);
  • knowledge services that provide access to knowledge (particularly workflows, processes and decision support);
  • a range of external connectors which allow applications on the platform to connect to existing systems relevant to the local health community including other local systems and national services (such as NHS Spine);
  • a range of platform services, none of which are essential, but which, if available, remove the burden of dealing with the functions they support from application developers. These might include:
    • terminology services;
    • identity management;
    • consent management; and,
    • access control (role based access (RBAC) legitimate relationships (LRs) and workgroups.
  • Connectors and federation services to other platforms to allow platforms to be connected in a federated web allowing an authorised user to discover and access any relevant data in any location.

It is my strong view that the right choice for a structured data repository is openEHR and the right choice for the unstructured data store is IHE-XDS. (IHE-XDS also provides a suitable option for the registry). Both of these open standards are well supported by vendors with a number of proven proprietary implementations and emerging open source options. However, there are alternative approaches that could comply with the principles described above.

I don’t have fixed views with regard to the best approach with regard to the knowledge repository, but the work of Synapta to draw together a number of available standards including BPMN 2.0, GDL, CMMN, Drools and PROforma looks promising.

Examples of Open Platforms

There are a number of examples of open platforms that adhere to the principles outlined here and a number of people working to create more.

Established platforms that include both openEHR and IHE-XDS, working together include Moscow City support health and social care for 12 million patients and Slovenia support the entire population of 2 million. There are many more examples based on one or other of these standards that could easily be extended to do the same, including a number of UK projects.

There are also a number of other projects in the UK working together to refine the definition of an open platform and build implementations these include.

  • NHS England Code4Health This is based on my work with Dr Ian McNicoll for HANDI. The Code4Health Platform provides a simulated environment where people can explore open platform concepts and APIs and build applications to test their ideas.
  • Ripple who have an operational open platform based on openEHR in Leeds.
  • The Endeavour Health Charity who are building a platform using HL7 FHIR and a number of connectors to legacy systems.
  • Operon who are developing Synapta to provide components to support open workflow standards including BPMN 2.0, GDL, CMMN, Drools and PROforma

All of these projects are working together coordinated by the Apperta Foundation  (a clinically led not-for-profit company established with initial grant aid from NHS England) and are already committed to using a common set of information models created using the openEHR tools. The aim is to agree a common set of standards and components which will enable them to build implementations of open platforms which comply with the principles here. Each implementation will be different, enabling us to learn what works best, but similar enough to enable federation and interoperability.

We are actively talking to a number of projects in the pipeline and some other existing projects already using one or more of the core standards described here, so we expect to see many more open platforms complying with the principles outlined here. If you like to join us get in touch ewan@woodcote-consulting.com

 

Would you like to build health and care software 100 times faster?


I’ve written before about openEHR and how I think its time has come. I been talking to lots of people about openEHR and it’s clear it takes a while to really understand its power – It took me 15 years. In this blog I try and summarise what I think makes it different and special. If you are new to openEHR I suggest you read this first and then go to my previous blog and openEHR.org  for more detail.

OpenEHR is not a piece of software it’s an open specification from which software can be built. It has it roots as a way of creating electronic health records, but can be used to build records across the whole of the health and social care domain.

Its key benefits are:

  • It enables those designing systems to work at the information level rather than at the level of a particular technology separating
    • “content” – the domain of the clinician or social care professional
    • from “technical infrastructure” – the domain of the software engineer
  • enabling both to concentrate on their own domain without needing to worry about the complexity of the other.
  • It’s independent of any particular vendor or technology – There are multiple implementations from a number of vendors, built on various technologies, including open source options.
  • There is a vibrant global openEHR clinical community creating archetypes (the building blocks of openEHR), which are generally “open source” and can thus be freely shared, used and adapted. See Wooland’s  Cat for more on this 
  • There is an active vendor community which supports the clinical content development and a number of examples of implementation at scale, mainly outside the UK where it was invented!
  • The specifications are amazingly rich. There is very little than its creators have not covered including:
    • Interoperability, openEHR makes it easier to achieve interoperability than not.
    • Multilingual support and language independence
    • Federated multi-vendor implementations, with cross vendor querying
    • Complex access control capabilities
    • Intermittently connected devices
    • Versioning and backward comparability
    • Cybersecurity
    • Privacy protection and consent management
    • Terminology bindings

However, the most remarkable and powerful feature of openEHR is its ability to support new requirements with minimal changes to systems. To support a new requirement it is simply necessary to create new archetypes. These will be immediately deployable, storable and queryable; will not require any database schema changes, won’t affect parts of the system not connected with the new requirement and won’t break anything – This means that new requirements can often be deployed in hours rather than months. Let me explain further:

New requirements generally mean new information has to be collected and stored. Anybody, who has worked at the database level will know how problematic this can be. You have to modify the database schema, modify existing tables, maybe create new ones and then migrate data from the old schema to the new. In a database of any complexity it’s easy to break things and can require the rework of lots of software unconnected with the new requirement. While modern databases have tools that can help developers avoid schema changes like the plague and when they do consider them, the rework and testing required means that changes will be expensive and slow if they happen at all often leaving people with no recourse than another  Feral System

Supporting new models of care means being able to meet new requirements 10 – 100 faster, by utilising openEHR’s ability to incorporate changes simply by creating new archetypes, the large preexisting set of open source archetypes, its openAPIs we can now achieve this.

If you not looked an openEHR already then I suggest you do and if you loked at it a while ago I suggest you look again.

This video produced by Dr Wai Keong Wong (@wai2k )provides a useful introduction to openEHR

Nobody should (can) “own the platform”


I’m sitting in the Interoperability Workshop in London being jointly organised by NHS England, The Health and Social Care Information Centre and The Local Government Association (3 June 2015).

In the UK like there are a large number of projects trying to deliver integrated care that need to achieve integration of IT systems and data across multiple organisations and systems. Most of those speaking here today are trying to follow an open approach but some seem to be achieving more rapid progress implementing proprietary systems. In many ways this is to be applauded, but there is a risk that it leads people down a cul-de-sac and creates vendor lock-in.

Globally the health informatics community agree that we need to move away from enterprise based monolithic systems and bespoke “best-of-breed” integrations to community wide systems based on a platform architecture that allows components to plug-and-play sharing information, knowledge and work flows in a computable format.

For vendors the commercial opportunity of “owning” the platform is massive and many vendors from the very large, to wildly ambitious start-ups are trying to achieve this. However, in my view, and that of a growing number of others, is that an “own the platform” approach is both doomed to failure and not in the public interest,

It’s not in the public interest because it creates vendor lock-in and while in the short-term the right vendor might offer the lowest risk approach to short-term success in the medium-term vendor lock-in mitigates against agility, innovation and the achievement of good service and best value.

It’s doomed firstly because governments, health and care providers and payers increasingly understand my point above, secondly because of competitive pressures in the market; google won’t let apple, won’t let Microsoft, won’t let amazon, won’t let IBM, won’t let EPIC, won’t let TPP won’t let Orion etc and finally because unless we adopt open approaches we won’t be able to address the federation of platforms which is essential to deal with the inevitable flows between communities.

The smart money will invest in the creation of open platforms (spending a lot less than is required for an “own the platform|” play) and build business models that exploit rather than own the platform (like the Internet works!)

Those responsible for commissioning digital systems need to ensure open standards, open interfaces and open data and avoid being seduced by the vendors of proprietary solutions.

openEHR a Game Changer Comes of Age


I’ve been watching openEHR over more than fifteen years, and although I have always been impressed by its potential to enable us to do things differently, I must admit it has been a slow burn, and take up has been limited, particularly in the UK where it was invented. However, due to some recent developments, I think this is about to change, and that openEHR is going to take off in a big way. This is going to revolutionise how we think about and do digital health, and it should increase the speed at which we can do it by at least two orders of magnitude. Why do I say this, and what evidence is there to support my assertion?

openEHR has come of age with a large number of successful small implementations, and a few much larger ones (1) which have proven the approach works at scale. We have also seen the use of openEHR by governments and major health providers across the globe, including the NHS (2), as the mechanism for the creation and curation of clinical content standards in their territories. In addition, changes to the openEHR Foundation have made it unarguably an open source organisation with a global user community; a growing vendor community has developed offering both open source and proprietary tools and components supporting the standard; and there is serious interest from major system integrators. These changes make openEHR look like a much better alternative to the hegemony of the big US megasuite providers, who still want to shape health and care systems in their image and who own the platforms on which these providers will increasingly depend.

UPDATE (12 April 16)

Possibly the best explanation of openEHR I’ve seen “openEHR technical basics for HL7 and FHIR users” Well worth reading.

UPDATE (15 March 16)

Some great videos here which provide an easy way to understand various aspects of openEHR.

In particular:

Clinician-led e-health records – An introduction to openEHR for clinicians

National governance of openEHR archetypes in Norway – A national approach to building information models with openEHR. Many lessons here for HSCIC who have just started doing something similar here.

UPDATE (13 July 15)

In their PQQ which kicks of the procurement for the Datawell to support Devo Manch,  Manchester have mandated openEHR along with other established standards including IHE-XDS. This could potentially lead to the largest implementation of openEHR in the UK with Manchester building on pioneering work in Moscow and Leeds

UPDATE  (24 Apr 15) Further information and news about the growing interest in openEHR will be found here

Firstly, everything I read and all of the people I talk to across the globe about digital health agree on a couple of things.

  • Firstly, we need to move towards a platform architecture into which we can plug the thousands of apps and hundreds of traditional systems that we currently use in health and care; an architecture which will enable all of these to interoperate and work together.

  • Secondly, we need to separate content (the data, information and knowledge that applications consume and update) from the applications that process it; and that content needs to be expressed in a modular, computable and reusable format.

Beyond this, agreement breaks down – people do argue about business models (who should own and control the platform), and also the details of the particular standards and technology to be used – but on the core principles, everyone with any credibility agrees.

When it comes to business models, some would like to own the platform, because doing so would create a massive commercial opportunity. And while some still pursue this goal, most significantly Apple, others have decided, as I have, that ownership of the platform is neither achievable (competitive and customer pressures mean even the mighty Apple can’t win this battle) nor is it desirable from the perspective of citizens, health and care providers and payers – none of whom wish to be locked in or to pay the ‘fruit tax’ or its equivalent.

Others, including me, and more significantly some big players, have come to the view that while it might be great to own the platform, that isn’t going to happen and so we need to move to an open platform which nobody owns (in the sense that nobody owns the Internet). As for commercial opportunities, they will still exist higher up the value chain, and the existence of the platform will create such opportunities by the spadeful. Surely it’s more fruitful to concentrate on these, rather than waste time and resource on a battle no one can win.

On the details of implementation, disagreement is less significant. The two major contenders, openEHR and the Healthcare Consortium, both have similar approaches, and they are already converging through the Clinical Information Modeling Initiative (CIMI) to reduce their differences to the point where they really don’t matter and can be dealt with at a purely technical level, with their components being easily interchangeable.

So, if we want to create an open platform, what do we need? We need openEHR or something like it – and frankly there is nothing else as mature or as well supported as openEHR.

OpenEHR is not software, nor is it a particular technology. It’s an open specification or standard for the representation of a key bit of content – the health and care record. The specification is open source (insofar as you can apply this term to something that is not software), and it’s curated by the openEHR Foundation, which is a not-for-profit company democratically controlled by those who choose to be part of the global openEHR community (and anybody can). The community is truly global and growing, and consists of both users and developers; and is supported by a number of vendors who can offer tools, components and services supporting the standard.

openEHR provides a simple, robust and stable over-arching reference model (3) which defines a formalism for the representation of the modular components of a health and care record. openEHR calls these ‘archetypes’ and they define the elements of a record, their properties, and how they are represented (including bindings to terminologies and classifications). Archetypes are intended to represent a superset of all those properties that might be associated with the concept they represent (at a high level these will be either an observation, an evaluation, an instruction or an action). Archetypes can then be constrained and/or combined in a ‘template’ to provide practical interoperable components for use in a particular context or system.

The tools available for the creation of archetypes and templates are open source (as are the vast majority of the archetypes and templates created with them), and this makes openEHR easily accessible to clinicians and other domain experts while also providing system developers with robust components to handle many of the technical complexities. openEHR enables clinicians to concentrate of the clinical stuff, and developers to concentrate on the technical stuff, without needed to understand more about the other domain than they want to.

By building systems using openEHR, system development work shifts from the technical level to the domain level. A repository that has been built to store an openEHR health and care record does not need to take account of the particular content of a given archetype. Whatever that archetype might represent, the repository will be able to store it, and you will be able to query that repository about its content. This feature of openEHR is the key enabler of much faster application development, because the addition of new features will not require changes to database schemas (with all the associated testing and data migration that entails). Instead, all that is needed is the addition of some archetypes and/or templates – and these may already be available as the result of work by others in the community, or else they can be created rapidly by a relevant domain expert – plus the creation of some new user interface components, and these can often be generated automatically from the underlying templates. In this way changes can be made by end users, or by people close to them. This will reduce the time to add new features from months to hours, and the time to build new systems from years to weeks.

openEHR is also technology independent. Applications don’t need to concern themselves with the technology of a particular implementation of an openEHR repository – that’s purely a matter for the implementer, who can chose whatever technology works best for them at a particular time and in a particular context. The applications that use it will not be affected, so long as they remain compliant with the standard. We can see this happening in the dozen or so existing implementations of openEHR repositories: they use different operating systems, different databases (SQL and NOSQL) and various development tools to create both open source and proprietary implementations of the standard. Compliant implementations of the standard from different vendors are interchangeable, and a single query can be executed across multiple implementations. openEHR is vendor independent, and it eliminates vendor lock-in.

Suppliers of openEHR repositories will have to compete on performance, security, robustness, value and service – they cannot rely on customer lock-in, as the vendors of many traditional EHR systems have in the past. From the perspective of health and care providers, openEHR puts them back in charge of their own destiny. This contrasts with most of the current successful approaches to the delivery of enterprise-wide EHR, where customer institutions have adopted one of the four big US megasuites, and then have had to adapt internal processes and organisation to fit with the chosen system – in effect, you become an EPIC, Cerner, Allscripts or Meditech institution, rather than a customer who calls the shots.

The ‘megasuite model’ has worked spectacularly well (if expensively) in a number of big US hospitals, particularly for EPIC, but that model starts to break down when you seek to extend the scope of a system from an institution to an integrated health and care community. It also fits badly with UK and other European models of health and care, which are not so close to the US model as the megasuite vendors might hope them to be.

Of course European health and care providers don’t want to remodel their processes along American lines – why would relatively successful European providers want to adopt systems designed primarily for the inequitable and unsustainable US system? According to the well respected US Commonwealth Foundation the United States ranks last among eleven leading developed countries on measures of access, equity, quality, efficiency, and healthy lives (and, by the way, the UK’s NHS takes the number one spot).

Much of my conviction about openEHR comes from work I’ve been involved in with HANDI, in building HANDI-HOPD – the HANDI Open Platform Demonstrator, which has now been adopted by NHS England as the NHS England Code4Health Platform. This platform provides a simulation environment for any system or service that wants to expose an API (interface) within an open ecosystem, and it includes an openEHR repository loaded with test data from the Leeds Lab Project.

We have exposed SMART and FHIR APIs, as well as the native openEHR service API, on top of the repository; we have used this to build a number of apps, and also demonstrated how you can simply plug in apps that were developed elsewhere using the SMART API. We have also used this platform to prototype a UK localisation of an open source ePrescribing product (www.openep.org), and the speed at which we have been able to carry out the localisation and meet some special mental health requirements has been impressive – indeed so impressive that we will shortly be announcing the first NHS Trusts who will be taking the system live.

Work is currently being completed to re-brand the HANDI platform as the NHS Code4Health Platform, and this will shortly be available for those who want to learn more and experiment with this and other open technologies.

openEHR has come of age – If you don’t believe, me give it a try.

Notes:

This is a slightly updated version of the original with a few minor changes to make it more readable to the general reader and correct some typos my thanks for this to my friend and colleague Conrad Taylor.

1) Large scale implementations of openEHR include:

Moscow – Integrated health and social care 12 million population 

Slovenia – Country wide 2 million population

Brazil – Unimed Medical cooperative

2) Health systems using openEHR to create curate and publish clinical content.

NHS HSCIC

NHS Scotland

Australia

Norway

Slovenia

Brazil

openEHR Foundation 

Applications built on openEHR platform

OPENeP EPMA product www.openep.org

Marand Think!Med Clinical, Ljubljana Children’s Hospital http://www.marand-thinkmed.com

Ocean Multiprac Infection control, Queensland Health, Australia http://www.multiprac.com/?portfolio_4=infection-control-2

Ocean LinkedEHR, Western Sydney, Australia  http://openehr.org/news_events/industry_news.php?id=121

DIPS Arena, Norway http://openehr.org/news_events/industry_news.php?id=97

mConsole, Mental Health patient portal, Code24, Netherlands

Clinical Decision Support, Cambio, Sweden http://www.cambio.lk/News-and-facts/Produktnytt/COSMIC-Clinical-Decision-Support1/

See also http://www.openehr.org/who_is_using_openehr/healthcare_providers_and_authorities

3 Some key documents on OpenEHR

OpenEHR Architecture Overview

OpenEHR Reference Model

Moscow eHealth a Model for the UK


The approach that Moscow City Council has adopted to create an open platform to support health and social care services in Moscow which uses some of the same technology as the Code4Health platform would seem to have relevance to the UK and in particular is a good fit for the needs of emerging new approaches to the integration of health and social care like that recently announced for Manchester.

Many of you will know about HANDI-HOPD the HANDI Open Platform Demonstrator  that we have been working on for the last few months, this has now morphed into the NHS Code4Health Platform launched by NHS England during eHealth Week in London this week (5th March 2015).  However, what you probably won’t know is that one of the key pieces of technology available on the platform is the same as that which is currently powering the whole of the eHealth system in Slovenia and even more impressively Moscow.

Moscow

The Platform deployed in these two places brings together OpenEHR www.openehr.org and IHE XDS  in a very impressive way. And I believe provides a model for what we might do in the UK and even more interestingly aligns with the thinking in a number of UK city regions who are already looking at IHE XDS and/or OpenEHR and who in a number of cases have already implemented one or the other. However, the UK initiatives appear to know little of what’s been done in Slovenia and Moscow and in particular how XDS has been successfully integrated with OpenEHR, which I believe takes the capabilities of the platform to a new level – This blog aims to put this right.

One of our key partners in the Code4Health Programme who have provided the core of platform and open source components for the OPENeP Project www.openep.org are Marand,  and they are also the company who provided the platform for both Slovenia and Moscow and it is from their charismatic CEO Tomaž Gornik that I draw much of my inspiration and information.

Before turning to some of the technical details I’d like to describe a little of what I understand of the somewhat different approaches in Slovenia and Moscow and the motivations behind them, as while both use what is fundamentally the same technical platform they came to the solution from different directions in ways which graphically illustrate the flexibility of the underlying technology.

Moscow City Council is responsible for pretty much all of the health and social services serving Moscow’s 11 million citizens covering broadly what we call primary, community and social care and outpatient clinics. Moscow is a complex environment and has large number of siloed legacy systems, which made interoperability difficult and created significant vendor lock-in of data and systems. Moscow wanted to separate data from applications and store its data in a vendor and technology neutral format and chose OpenEHR to do this. They piloted this approach using the Marand Think!EHR OpenEHR implementation (which is one of the components on the Code4Health Platform) and IHE XDS components from  www.forcare.com. The same basic technology as Marand had already successfully implemented in Slovenia where the IHE componets were supplied by www.tiani-spirit.com . The pilot was successfully and the platform is now rolling out across the City.

While both Slovenia and Moscow have ended up with broadly similar solutions they reached this point from opposite directions. Slovenia started simply wanting to implement IHE XDS to allow sharing at a document level, but came to realise that this did not support their need for fine-grained structured data to support big data analytics. They solved this problem with the integration of  OpenEHR. Moscow on the other hand started with a view they just needed OpenEHR, but were persuaded of the quick wins IHE XDS could bring with document level sharing and in particular its ability to mobilise documents already produced by legacy systems that would take some time to be replaced or upgraded to take full advantage of the power of OpenEHR.

In both Moscow and Slovenia the same proprietary components have been used to implement both XDS and OpenEHR.  However, both have the comfort that because the data is stored in an open format, these components can easily be replaced if alternatives emerge which appear to offer better performance or value. Indeed this portability of data is something that HANDI have already proven in the creation of the Code4Health platform which required the data to be moved between two competing OpenEHR implementations.

Requirements and technology will evolve, but for me for now and the foreseeable future the approach taken in Moscow seems like the best bet for the integration of systems and information in the complex environment of health and social care across a city region. It brings the long-term benefits of OpenEHR, which has the capacity to put data into an open, fine grained, structured format that is technology and vendor neutral, with the tools to easily engage frontline clinicians and other Health and Care Professionals in its curation while delivering the quick wins with XDS that can ensure the right document is available in the right place at the right time to support safe, efficient care.

 

Let’s do it like the Internet


There is much talk about “Standards” following the publication of the NIB Framework “Personalised health and care 2020: a framework for action”.

Standards are of course a self-evidently good thing, but only if you do them right which is far from the way the NHS has traditionally done them or looks like doing them in the future.

I ask those who challenge this view the three questions:

  1. Do you think the Internet has had a significant transformative impact over the past ten years?
  2. How does the Internet do standards?
  3. Why doesn’t the NHS do standards like the Internet?

So far only Mrs Trellis from North Wales has answered “No” to question 1 for the rest is the reaction is a resounding “YES – Why would you even ask”.

In relation to question 2 the answer is generally “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” and certainly those who really do and know how the Internet does it are not those driving policy on standards in the NHS.

The answer to question 3 is usually “Well we probably should – Why don’t we?” for those who do raise an objection their answer can often be more honestly be restated as “because I’d be out of a job if we did”

I written a lot about standards and I explain my view in more detail in my blogs “Farewell to ‘Ruthless Standardisation” and “Standards are a Barrier to Innovation”

But the short answer is: The Internet does standards on an agile, collaborative, voluntary basis as a trailing edge activity with those who use the standards doing them. Internet innovation doesn’t wait for standards, they simply follow to secure it as business as usual. The process and outcomes are messy and like much of the Internet in theory can’t possible work, but do in practice.

We must follow the way IETF and WC3 do technical Internet and web standards and need look no further than Wikipedia for a model for clinical content development.

Finally, to those who are worried about their jobs if they support these new ways of working I say, that given the shortage of those with skills in health informatics you need never worry about being out of a job as long as you are willing to change, learn and embrace new opportunities. If you’re not the sooner you go the better for us all, maybe you can get a job walking in front of cars with a red flag?

We really do need to do things like the Internet does.

Farewell to “Ruthless Standardisation”


“Ruthless Standardisation” was the failed mantra of the NHS National Programme for IT. The Programme is dead, but in some places this view still persist but it is time to consign it to history as something else that “seemed a good idea at the time”

In a previous blog I said “Standards are a Barrier to Innovation” and I have taken to repeating this statement which tends to get a strong reaction often supportive but sometimes not.

This statement is of course deliberately provocative and those who read beyond the headline will find that I not saying that standards are a bad thing, indeed I believe that applied appropriately that they are probably a good and necessary thing.

It seems I’m not alone in these concerns and I was recently introduced to  a blog from Prof. Enrico Coiera from last November which asks “Are standards necessary?”  This is essential reading and provides a more erudite and evidenced perspective than my own in which he proposes a  new ‘Malthus’ law of standards “That the fraction of standards produced that are actually complied with, will with time asymptote toward zero”

I’ve also been much influenced by discussion with my friend and colleague Dr Ian McNicoll who has spent more time in the standards swamp than me and who introduced me to the idea of a “Distributed Doocracies” as a new approach to developing clinical content standards.

I conclude that to make progress we have to.

  • End (or at least ignore) the religious wars amongst the Standards Tribes  for the one true way and adopt a more polytheistic and pragmatic approach
  • Learn from the processes that have allowed us to create the Internet, the Web and Wikipedia and apply them to health informatics.
  • Apply the “Four Freedoms” of open source to the standards making process to create a “Shared Commons” of clinical content.
  • Promote new ways of creating the accommodations we need to deliver interoperable digital health systems, based on distributed doocracies, which are accessible to and driven by frontline clinicians, supported by techies and informaticians.

In this blog I want to talk about the process of standards development and how I’m led to the conclusions above.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that the process as currently applied to digital health and care is not fit for purpose and it is this rather the process that standards themselves that are a barrier to innovation.

There are two problems with the process. Firstly, it’s too slow, changes are not possible in a responsive way forcing people to “do their own thing” to meet operational needs. Secondly, it opaque and inaccessible both to clinicians and innovative SMEs.

Before considering these two points I want to differentiate between the technical and contents aspects of standards. The technical aspects deal with the format of data and might use representations like CSV, XML, JSON, etc. These are generally not a problem. If the content is equivalent it is usually easy to write mappings or transformations between them. The content aspects are where the problems lie, what do we mean by a blood pressure, an allergy, a diagnosis, a prescription? What elements make up these things and how do we represent them in ways that are unambiguous and computable. The domain expertise to answer these questions lies with experts in the clinical domain to which these concepts relate i.e. clinicians. Specialist clinical informaticians can support this process but even if they are clinically qualified they are rarely the domain expert. If you want expert input on, say, visual acuity you need to ask an ophthalmologist specialising in visual acuity.

The problem is that the current process for standard settings and many of the tools that support it are not likely to engage the required domain expertise as those best able to provide it are generally more interested in clinical practice than learning the technicalities of things like UML, HL7 or RDF or sitting in interminable standards meetings waiting for the few minutes where they can make a valuable contribution.

So the first problem is that we have to make the process accessible to frontline clinical experts. This means managing the process so they can engage only on those matters of specific interests to them and supporting them by tools that feel intuitive to a clinician with minimal training in their use.

The second problem is that we have to make the process agile so that required enhancements to content standards can be made available in hours-days, rather than months-years. This requires two things: A move from top down control and a shift to a continuous process (rather than one based on review and publication cycles) this is analogous to what is known as continuous integration in the software development world.

The third problem is that we have to make the process open, too many standards making bodies operate behind closed doors or raise barriers to participation by way of the cost of participating in the process or obtaining outputs. It is a scandal that formal standards from the likes of BSI, CEN and ISO which are funded by taxpayers are not freely available on the web and I was appalled to be asked to sign a NDA by BSI before joining a committee to develop standards for apps (I declined). The fact that it costs £232 to buy a copy of CEN 13606 from BSI is hardly going to encourage a microenterprise to find out if it might to be helpful to them (even if they can get it at half price by joining BSI for £189 pa at the microenterprise rate) –   Standards development needs to be like open source software and licensed in a similar way to grant the “Four Freedoms”

So how do we address these issues? Well the answer as ever is to follow the Internet which provides us with two great  open, distributed models for reaching accommodations.

The first is the way core Internet standards are developed, which is by way of RFCs. The clue to the approach is in the name “Request for Comment” Internet standards are those things, which for the moment, nobody is moved to make any comments about. RFCs cover “many aspects of computer networking, including protocols, procedures, programs, and concepts, as well as meeting notes, opinions, and sometimes humor(sic)” – The last is essential when trying to set standards. – Read the page my link points to it’s short and stuffed with wisdom.

The second is the Wikipeadia editorial model and it’s a simplified version of this we need for clinical content and this is illustrated in the diagram below created by Dr Ian McNicoll.

Distributed Doocracy

This specifically relates to proposals for the creation and curation of clinical content models in the form of OpenEHR archetypes, but is equally applicable to any similar process.  It has a number of key features.

Archetype development is an open process that anyone minded to can watch and/or participate in.

  • Archetypes can be used at any point a user considers them stable enough and fit for their purposes, but become standard at the point of “publication” at which point they become subject to strict version control and configuration management.
  • The work and decision making is delegated to Editors working with a small number of reviewers and is fine grained operating at the level of a single archetype or small group of related archetypes. While anyone who wants to participate can at this level there would typically be a small number of active participants (<10 often fewer) who have  specific expertise and interest
  • Publication is a decision of the Editor who operates as a “benign dictator” subject only to the risk of a coup if they fail to satisfy the needs of users.
  • There can be competing archetypes and archetypes can fork if users feel a need, but the aim of the Editor should be to create an “accommodation” that allows a rough consensus (the maximal data set + restraining template approach of OpenEHR makes this relatively easy to achieve)
  • There is some loose overarching governance to enforce general principles and deal with dictators who cease to be benevolent, but there is no central body controlling the publication and approval of archetypes.
  • Professional bodies and standards organisations are encouraged to provide guidance, nominate appropriately expert and interested individuals as editors and reviewers and to provide formal secondary endorsement of published archetypes but are not required to approve publication.
  • There is a high level of vendor engagement, as these are the people that need to make archetypes work in the real world.
  • Archetype and project Editors are supported and coordinated by a team of expert informaticains acting as Clinical Knowledge Administrators.

This general approach is proven as successful both in the very diverse world of Wikipeadia and the specific world of OpenEHR.

Making this work requires the existence of an engaged community, appropriate governance and supporting tools. Here again OpenEHR provides a great model. Available tools like the Clinical Knowledge Manager are easy for clinicians to learn and use and provide an online community that can engage global clinical expertise and allow debate and discussion to support archetype development. The online approach removes the need for costly and time-consuming meetings and allows individuals just to engage in those things in which they have a specific interest. The OpenEHR tools as provide the facilities that the Techies need in a way accessible to them without the need for detailed clinical knowledge, provides the technical artefacts they need and supports good software engineering practice in relation to version control, configuration management and backward compatibility.

So we know what needs to be done and have some proven examples of how to do it. So lets just do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open Interfaces, Open Standards and Open Source


Everyone I talk to agrees that we have to create an Open Digital Health and Care Ecosystem in which a range of digital health and care service can be delivered. This needs to support the interoperability and orchestration of ecosystem components and provide the infrastructure to make it easier for innovators to deliver safe and secure services by offloading the technical and governance complexities from applications and by supporting a diversity of business models to enable sustainable digitally enabled health and care services.

In this context, pretty much everyone I talk to agrees that the existence of stable, robust, open interfaces on both legacy and contemporary systems is critical. Also most agree that both Open Standards and both Open Source have a role to play in the creation of Open Interfaces. However, I think there is some conflation of various issues, which I think could be usefully clarified and I attempt to do this in this blog.

Neither Open Source or Open Standards are necessary or sufficient in the creation of Open Interface and Open Standards and can be a Barrier to Innovation


Open Source and Open Standards have a role to play in the creation of robust Open Interfaces and I’ll attempt to describe what I think this is, but both are neither necessary nor sufficient and in some circumstance insisting on either can be a barrier to innovation and progress. What’s important is the availability of freely available, robust open interfaces not necessarily that they are Open Standard or Open Source.

Interfaces can exist at file levels of maturity which are illustrated in the diagram below.

Open API Pyramid

What’s important is the availability of freely available, robust open interfaces not necessarily that they are Open Standard or Open Source.

At the lowest level (5) Closed Systems lack stable, documented interfaces. Such a design approach is still encountered in monolithically architected legacy systems which were designed to “stand alone” at a time when, amongst other reasons, hardware constraints made the use of modular software architectures too computationally expensive. The only way to interface with such systems is to “hack” into the systems source code and data structures (always possible with Open Source systems, in the gift of the IPR owner otherwise.) Such interfaces tend to be fragile and are easily broken by changes to the underlying system.

Systems at the next level Private Interfaces (4) are the most commonly found in health and care systems today, with more modular software architectures. Such systems will typically have both internal interfaces (between modules) and external interfaces. Private interfaces are intended for the use of the systems software developer and are typically insufficiently documented and less robust than is required for their easy and safe use by third party developers. With proprietary systems access to the interfaces is controlled by the IPR owner; with Open Source anyone can use and improve the interfaces.

The concept of a partner interfaces (3) applies only to proprietary systems and such interfaces are commonly found in health and care systems in use today. Partner interfaces are designed and documented to make them easily and safely usable by third party developers, but access to them is controlled by the IPR owner who can choose with whom they wish to partner – Otherwise partner interfaces are identical to open interfaces (2)

Open interfaces (2) are designed and documented for safe and easy use by third party developers and differ from partner interfaces only insofar as the IPR owner has made the interfaces irrevocable freely available to all. This is automatic in the case of Open Source systems and can be achieved by a range of licensing or contractual arrangements in the case of proprietary systems – Public policy encourages public bodies to insist on the availability of open interfaces as a contractual requirement in procurement of systems. Open interfaces may be produced directly by the system developer or by a third party as a layer above a freely available private interface – Typically as an Open Source plug-in.

At all levels described above the technical and content characteristics of the interfaces are defined by the software developer but at this highest level Open Standard Interfaces (1) the interface implements wildly accepted open standards for both technical and content aspects of the interface. Such standards might be formal (ISO, CEN, BSI etc.) Industry/community de-facto (IHE, HL7,etc) or NHS (ISB, PSRB, etc). While a requirement for the use of open standards where such standards exist is highly desirable, insistence on the adoption of formal/NHS standards before they are fully mature, stable and widely accepted can be a serious barrier to innovation and adoption, as can onerous accreditation requirements in relation to standards compliance. Often a better approach can be the partial use of open standards in open interfaces (2) covering those characteristic where there is consensus.

The priority then is to get to level 2 – Open Interfaces. Ideally such interfaces should make use of those technical and content standards that support aspects of what they do, but the priority should be to expose rich interfaces able to allow access to all of the data and functions supported by the system.