Saturday, June 12, 2010

Putting XQuery to Work in Healthcare

The following are some of the challenges that healthcare organizations will be facing during the next few years:

  • Conversion from HIPAA 4010 to 5010
  • Conversion from ICD-9 to ICD-10
  • Efficiently storing, querying, processing, and exchanging Electronic Health Records (EHRs)
  • Mapping from HL7 2.x to HL7 v3 messages
  • Assembling EHRs by aggregating data from multiple organizations participating in Health Information Exchanges (HIEs).

XQuery is not just a query language for XML data sources. It is also a very powerful declarative, strongly typed, and side-effect free programming language for processing and manipulating XML documents. XQuery is a natural solution for querying and aggregating data coming from heterogeneous sources such as relational databases, native XML databases, file systems, and legacy data formats such as EDI. Some developers will find XQuery easier to use than XSLT because XQuery has a SQL-like syntax.

Migration to HIPAA 5010 and ICD 10

Conversion from HIPAA 4010 to 5010 and ICD-9 to ICD-10 will be a priority on the agenda in the next three years (details on final compliance dates can be found on this HHS web page).

The XQuery and XQuery Update Facility specifications provide a simple and elegant solution to this conversion challenge.

Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) and the Virtual Health Record

In a HIE with multiple participating organizations, EHR data must be assembled either through a centralized, federated, or hybrid data model. The data needed to assemble a longitudinal EHR (a virtual health record) for a patient could be coming from several providers, payers, lab companies, and medical devices. XQuery was designed to handle that type of XML processing use case.

Storing, Updating, and Querying EHRs

The HL7 CCD and ASTM CCR have been retained as Meaningful Use XML data exchange standards for EHRs. Mapping between an XML HL7 CCD representation (which is derived from the HL7 UML-based Reference Information Model or RIM) and an existing relational database structure is not trivial. IBM has been granted a patent entitled "Conversion of hierarchically-structured HL7 specifications to relational databases". The HL7 RIMBAA project provides some best practices on mapping RIM objects to a relational database structure.

With the emergence of native XML databases such as Oracle XML DB and IBM pureXML, XML is no longer just a messaging format. It can be used as a format for storing and querying data as well.

This article shows a sample code of updating an EHR stored in HL7 CDA format in an IBM DB2 pureXML native XML database.

Mapping from HL7 2.x to HL7 v3 messages

In countries like Canada where HL7 v3 has been adopted, a frequent challenge is to map from legacy HL7 2.x messages to HL7 v3 messages for example for lab results. An XQuery-based transform can be used to map from an HL7 v2.x XML structure to an HL7 v3 XML structure.

An Alternative to GELLO?

In a previous post entitled "Clinical Decision Support: Crossing the Chasm", I argued that Clinical Decision Support Systems (CDSS) implementers should be free to use any programming language of their choice. GELLO is an HL7 standard which specifies an expression and query language for CDSS. The following are the requirements for a CDSS expression and query language as specified in the GELLO specification:

  • vendor-independent
  • platform-independent
  • object-oriented and compatible with the vMR
  • easy to read/write
  • side-effect free
  • flexible
  • extensible

XQuery satisfies all these requirements except the third. XQuery is a functional programming language with no side effect as opposed to an object-oriented programming language. GELLO settled on the OMG Object Constraint Language (OCL). The following paragraph from the GELLO specification explains why XQuery (known as XQL at the time) wasn't selected:

XQL is a query language designed specifically for XML documents. XML documents are unordered, labeled trees, with nodes representing the document entity, elements, attributes, processing instructions and comments. The implied data model behind XML neither matches that of a relational data model nor that of an object-oriented data model. XQL is a query language for XML in the same sense as SQL is a query language for relational tables. Since the HL7 RIM data model and the vMR data model are both object-oriented, it is clear that XQL is not an appropriate approach for an object-oriented query and expression language.

That might have been true back in 2004 in an object-oriented world. Today, if the inputs to a CDSS are EHRs represented in HL7 CCD or ASTM CCR format, and those EHRs are stored in an XQuery compliant native XML database, then XQuery could be a strong candidate for an expression and query language for the CDSS.

1 comment:

Bob Liebowitz said...

Good discussion regarding newer approaches to speed access to HC information. A technology you may want to investigate is a native XML database from our firm, MarkLogic. Our technology manages all information in the server as XML and was built from the ground up to do so. We deal very easily with unstructured information like physician notes, semi structured data like an HL7 message and of course fully structured data. Check us out at