Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Future of Healthcare Data Exchange Standards

Meaningful Use Final Rule has finally been released and I think now is a good time to start thinking about where we want to be five years from now in terms of healthcare data exchange standards.


Listening to the Concerns of Implementers


I think it is very important that we listen to the concerns of the implementers of the current set of standards. They are the users of those standards and good software engineers like to get feedback from their end users to fix bugs and improve their software. The following post details some of the concerns out there regarding the current HL7 v3 XML schema development methodology and I believe they should not be ignored: Why Make It Simple If It Can Be Complicated?


Using an Industry Standard XML Schema: A Developer's Perspective

XML documents are not just viewed by human eyeballs through the use of an XSLT stylesheet. The XML schema has become an important part of the service contract in Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). SOA has emerged during the last few years as a set of design principles for integrating applications within and across organizational boundaries.

In the healthcare sector for example, the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN) and many Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) are being built on a decentralized service-oriented architecture using web services standards such as SOAP, WSDL, WS-Addressing, MTOM, and WS-Policy. The Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) Profiles WS-I Basic and WS-I Security provide additional guidelines that should be followed to ensure cross-platform interoperability for example between .NET and Java EE platforms. Some of the constraints defined by the WS-I Basic Profile are related to the design of XML schemas used in web services.

An increasingly popular alternative to the WS-* stack is to use RESTful web services. The REST architectural style does not mandate the use of web services contract such as XML schema, WSDL, and WS-Policy. However, the web application description language (WADL) has been proposed to play the role of service contract for RESTful web services. This post will not engage in the SOAP vs. REST debate except to mention that both are used in implementation projects today.

On top of these platform-agnostic web services standards, each platform defines a set of specifications and tooling for building web services applications. In the Java world, these specifications include:

  • The Java API for XML Web Services (JAX-WS)
  • The Java Architecture for XML Binding (JAXB)
  • The Java API for RESTful Web Services (JAX-RS)
  • The Streaming API for XML (StAX).

JAX-WS and JAXB allow developers to generate a significant amount of Java code from the WSDL and XML schema with tools like WSDL2Java. The quality of a standard XML schema largely depends on how well it supports the web services development process and that's why I believe that creating a reference implementation should be a necessary step before the release of new standards. An industry standard XML schema that is hard to use will directly translate into high implementation cost resulting from development project delays for example.


Embracing Design Patterns

Beyond our personal preferences (such as the NIEM vs. HL7 debate), there are well established engineering practices and methodologies that we can agree on. In terms of software development, design patterns have emerged as a well known approach to building effective software solutions. For example, the following two books have had a strong influence in the fields of object-oriented design and enterprise application integration respectively (and they sit proudly on my bookshelf):

  • Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides
  • Enterprise Integration Patterns: Designing, Building, and Deploying Messaging Solutions by Gregor Hohpe and Bobby Woolf.

An interesting design pattern from the "Enterprise Integration Patterns" book that is relevant to the current discussion on industry standard XML schemas is the "Canonical Data Model" design pattern. Enterprise data architects tasked with creating such canonical data models often reuse components from industry standard XML schemas. That approach makes sense but cannot succeed if the industry standard XML schema is not designed to support reusability, extensibility, and a clearly specified versioning strategy.


Modeling Data In Transit vs. Data at Rest

Modeling data at rest (e.g. data stored in relational databases) is a well established discipline. For example, data modeling patterns for relational data have been captured by Len Silverston and Paul Agnew in their book entitled "The Data Model Resource Book, Vol. 3: Universal Patterns for Data Modeling".

There is a need to apply the same engineering rigor to modeling data in transit (e.g. data in web services messages). The XML Schema specification became a W3C Recommendation more than 9 years ago and I think there is now enough implementation experience to start building consensus around a set of XML Schema Design Patterns. The latter should address the following issues:

  1. Usability: the factors that affect the ability of an average developer to quickly learn and use an XML schema in a software development project
  2. Component Reusability
  3. Web services cross-platform interoperability constraints. Some of those constraints are defined by the WS-I Basic Profile
  4. Issues surrounding the use of XML databinding tools such as JAXB. This is particularly important since developers use those tools for code generation in creating web services applications. It is well known that existing databinding tools do not provide adequate support for all XML Schema language features
  5. Ability to manipulate instances with XML APIs such as StAX
  6. Schema extensibility, versioning, and maintainability.

These design patterns should be packaged into a Naming and Design Rules (NDR) document to ensure a consistent and proven approach to developing future XML vocabularies for the healthcare domain.

The XML Schema 1.1 specification is currently a W3C Candidate Recommendation. It defines new features such as conditional type assignments and assertions which allow schema developers to consolidate structural and business rules constraints into a single schema. This could help alleviate some of the pain associated with the multiple layers of Schematron constraints currently specified by HITSP C32, IHE PCC, and the HL7 CCD (sometimes referred to as the "HITSP Onion"). Saxon supports some of these new features.

Developing Standards the Way We Develop Software

The final point I'd like to make is that we should start creating healthcare standards the same way we develop software. I am a proponent of agile development methodologies such as Extreme Programming and Scrum. These methodologies are based on practices such as user stories, iteration (sprint) planning, unit test first, refactoring, continuous integration, and acceptance testing. Agile programming helps create better software and I believe it can help create better healthcare standards as well.

1 comment:

TimCook said...

I agree. That is why we spun off the mulit-level healthcare information modelling (MLHIM) project from openEHR in 2009. You may find it interesting. I know we could use your input.