There is a lot of talk about HL7 and FHIR standards in healthcare. What do these standards mean? Why are they important?  

You could spend days reading about the different standards that health care IT systems use to talk with each other. But unless you are an expert, it can be hard to tell which ones are important. We will break it all down here. 

Healthcare Data Integration 

Data integration is the process of extracting and combining data from disparate sources. The process of data integration involves the location, retrieval, cleaning, and presentation of data. But before integrating data from disparate systems, healthcare providers must conform to a set of data integration standards. 

Integration Standards in Healthcare 

HL7® 

 HL7 (or Health Level 7) is the organization that sets the framework and standards for the retrieval of electronic health information and data exchange. 

HL7 messages are transferred using the TCP/IP protocol. TCP/IP data is sent as a stream of bytes. When HL7 messages are configured to be sent in fragments, multiple HL7 messages may be sent as a continuous stream. 

The HL7 architecture allows healthcare applications to exchange data. This makes it easier for providers who use many programs in their operations. By using the system’s distinct message structure, computer programs can send and receive specific information in a way that maintains data consistency between both systems. 

HL7 messages are transmitted as HL7 files. An HL7 file has the .hl7 extension and must be opened with software that supports HL7 files. 

HL7 standards create rules about structuring data to enable a seamless flow of information between disparate systems. They provide a guide on how to send and receive healthcare data. Adopting HL7 standards equips healthcare organizations with the tools necessary to automate workflows in an environment that uses multiple software applications. 

FHIR 

HL7 has recently developed FHIR or Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources. FHIR, pronounced as “fire,” takes a web-based approach to connect various healthcare elements. 

FHIR uses APIs that communicate via HTTPS RESTful protocol. FHIR resources can provide valuable data for real-time analytics. Healthcare organizations can gather real-time data from specified resource models. 

FHIR resource references are directional links from a source resource to a target resource. They can be used to connect similar or related FHIR resources. They can also explain why two or more FHIR resources look the way they do.  

The objective is to create a base set of resources that can meet the diversified needs of common healthcare data and interoperability use cases. 

Like HL7 standards, FHIR standards are also standards for healthcare data exchange. However, it is a new and still developing method of integration. 

Despite being in its early stages, huge organizations like Microsoft, Apple, and Cerner already provide FHIR options. They offer it as a jumpstart to gain momentum in interoperable approaches for the acquisition of patient health data from personal and wearable devices. 

APIs 

APIs enable two different applications to exchange data. The traditional HL7 standards alone are not programmed to communicate with various applications, like mobile devices. 

Often, HL7 standards use an enterprise interface engine, which is suitable for data exchange between EHRs, but not for non-clinical applications. APIs transform HL7 messages into data formats such as JSON or XML.  Other systems can read these data formats easily. 

FHIR and APIs are currently implemented on top of or along with HL7 standards. They are expected to expand in the years to come, allowing a more innovative level of data interaction among various healthcare software applications. 

Challenges of HL7 

HL7 standards, no matter how they are recognized and used around the world, are sometimes called non-standard standards. This means that they are interpreted and implemented differently among various healthcare systems. 

HL7 recognized the need for stricter rules and developed newer versions. This resulted in more consistency among organizations. The development of APIs was a big help to overcome the challenge of consistency. 

IHE (Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise) International develops profiles to make HL7 standards more readable and predictable. The profiles create standards so that other devices and software may integrate with EHRs and other devices.  

The future of Data Integration in Healthcare 

Overall, data integration standards aim to unify the flow of information between different applications and systems. When this is done, it creates a more efficient way to deliver healthcare. This leads to improved patient outcomes, better use of resources, and greater efficiencies across the industry.  

Here at intely, our primary goal is to improve healthcare. To achieve it, we want to make healthcare data integration seamless, smarter, and faster.  

If you are interested in learning more about how data integration can improve your healthcare operations, please contact us and schedule a demo today.  

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