About 540 software systems engineers from 101 companies or organizations are spending most of their days this week sitting in front of their laptops at dozens of lines of banquet tables in the basement of a Chicago hotel, trying to get 160 different software systems to talk to one another in a common language.
“You're sort of on the cutting edge here, trying to make your system run,” said Jerry Bastian, a software engineer with SunTech Medical, a developer of computerized electronic devices, including one Bastian was working with to measure a patient's pulse, blood pressure and blood oxygen levels.
Bastian is a first-time participant at this, the 14th annual Connectathon NA (North America), organized by the not-for-profit association Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise USA. This year's Connectathon opened Jan. 28 and runs through Feb. 2.
Bastian's goal is to test his system against a common communication profile developed by IHE for medical devices, and then use that profile to connect it with other health IT systems—say an electronic health-record system—also using the same profile and operated by system engineers from the EHR developer sitting maybe a table or two away.
A profile, Bastain explained, is a standard or group of standards sufficiently “constrained” to reduce variability and make data swapping both possible and precise. But even with standards and profiles, exchanges don't always go as expected, thus the need to test, and the benefit of having data swapping partners all together in the same room for several days, all focusing their time and energies exclusively on making their systems play well with other.
“If I have a problem, I say, 'Hey, what's going on?' Bastian said. “Here you're able to do that with multiple people all day long. That's what we're here for.”
The IHE International was founded in 1997 as a project of the Radiological Society of North America and the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. The first gathering of the geeks in what's come to be known as the Connectathon was in the basement garage at RSNA headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Ill., in 2000. The party moved in 2007 to downtown Chicago and the Hyatt, where it's been ever since.
Joyce Sensmeier, a nurse informaticist, vice president of informatics for HIMSS and president of the IHE USA, said there are 31 companies at the event this year testing a clinical messaging format called the Consolidated Clinical Document Architecture. Created by the standards development organization, Health Level Seven International, the Consolidated CDA is one of the specified interoperability standards for Stage 2 meaningful-use criteria under the federal EHR incentive payment program.
In addition, she said, eight companies this year are pilot-testing a new IHE program to certify products as capable of meeting one or more IHE-developed interoperability profiles—there are about 100 IHE profiles in all. Participants in the pilot are trying to certify their systems against, on average, five profiles.
If all goes well, the IHE testing and certification program is “going to raise the bar on interoperability,” Sensmeier said.
Some of the handiworks of Connectathon participants this year will be on display at the Interoperability Showcase at the annual HIMSS Convention in New Orleans March 3-7. Earning passing marks at the Connectathon is a prerequisite for demonstrating systems at the showcase, Sensmeier said.