By Dave Shaver
For The Record
Vol. 19 No. 1 P. 22
Is HL7 Greek to you? Then get to know the messaging standard whose goal is to connect healthcare organizations that speak different “languages.”
In more than 100 nations, written language is based on the same 26-letter alphabet we are familiar with in North America. The words in many of these Indo-Europeanlanguages are drawn from a set of core ancient languages (Latin, Greek, etc). The sentence construction rules, word spellings, and related details are related yet different. For example, mother in English has a straightforward translation into Spanish (madre), German (mutter), French (mère), and Dutch (moeder). All are close, but none are the same.
Accordingly, without some type of translation betweenlanguages, a person who speaks only English would not be able to communicate with a person who speaks only German, Spanish, or French. Two hundred years ago, when travel and commerce between countries were limited, communication between users of different languages was not as important as it is today.
The same is true for healthcare applications. Fifteen years ago, there was typically little needfor clinical applications to exchange data; today, the need for applications to share clinical data is critical. The explosion in the number of clinical applications and the national push for a centralized electronic health record are only two factors driving the requirement for a common language between applications.
Health Level 7 (HL7) is a large part of the solution. Applications used byhealthcare organizations that have adopted the HL7 messaging standard can communicate with one another—even when they speak different languages.
The evolution of HL7 is improving workflow throughout the healthcare industry, and as technology continues to improve, so too will the quality, accuracy, and efficiency of healthcare providers.
Healthcare Is Unique
Before discussing HL7, it is critical tounderstand that each healthcare setting is radically different in terms of politics, business relationships, payment structures, data collected, database structures, and software systems. That means every hospital, clinical lab, imaging center, outpatient surgery center, podiatrist’s office, and acupuncture center have unique requirements for interacting with data and patients.
Multiply theuniqueness of each healthcare setting by the number of countries or political settings where care will be delivered. The result is almost an infinite number of unique requirements that—like English, Spanish, and German—are close in terms of their needs but not exactly the same.
It is in this hazardous arena where “all care settings and users of clinical systems are different” that HL7 attempts toestablish a single, flexible, worldwide standard for the representation/movement of clinical data.
What Is HL7?
In extremely general terms, HL7 is a messaging standard that enables clinical applications to exchange data. In today’s world of e-mail, FTP, Bluetooth, and high-speed downloads, that may seem passe, if not unremarkable. In the healthcare “every user and setting is unique” world, however,that type of data exchange can be challenging.
Patients may believe a radiology information system (RIS), lab information system (LIS), hospital information system (HIS), and electronic medical record (EMR) inherently communicate with one another seamlessly. Furthermore, they may expect information to be sent freely between a hospital and external magnetic resonance imaging center or externaltesting laboratory. However, in many cases, each of these systems speaks its own language.
In 1987, in an attempt to begin solving this problem, an international community of healthcare subject matter experts and information scientists collaborated to create the HL7 standard for the exchange, management, and integration of electronic healthcare information.1
Today, HL7 is a standards developing...