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When Providing a Health Service, the Infrastructure Behind the API is Equally Important

Posted on May 2, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

In my ongoing review of application programming interfaces (APIs) as a technical solution for offering rich and flexible services in health care, I recently ran into two companies who showed as much enthusiasm for their internal technologies behind the APIs as for the APIs themselves. APIs are no longer a novelty in health services, as they were just five years ago. As the field gets crowded, maintenance and performance take on more critical roles in offering a successful business–so let’s see how Orion Health and Mana Health back up their very different offerings.

Orion Health

This is a large analytics firm that has staked a a major claim in the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative. Orion Health’s data platform, Amadeus, addresses population health management as well as “considering how they can better tailor care for each chronically ill individual,” as put by Dave Bennett, executive vice president for Product & Strategy. “We like to say that population health is the who and precision medicine is the how.” Thus, Amadeus can harmonize a huge variety of inputs, such as how many steps a patient takes each day at home, to prevent readmissions.

Orion Health has a cloud service, a capacity for handling huge data sets such as genomes, and a selection of tools for handling such varied sources as clinical, claims, pharmacy, genetic, and consumer device or other patient-generated data. Environmental and social data are currently being added. It has more than 90 million patient records in its systems worldwide.

Patient matching links up data sets from different providers. All this data is ingested, normalized, and made accessible through APIs to authorized parties. Customers can write their own applications, visualizations, and SQL queries. Amadeus is used by the Centers for Disease Control, and many hospitals join the chorus to submit data to the CDC.

So far, Orion Health resembles some other big initiatives that major companies in the health care space are offering. I covered services from Philips in a recent article, and another site talks about GE. Bennett says that Orion Health really distinguishes itself through the computing infrastructure that drives the analytics and data access.

Many companies use conventional relational database as their canonical data store. Relational databases are 1980s-era technology, unmatched in their robustness and sophistication in querying (through the SQL language), but becoming a bottleneck for the data sizes that health analytics deals with.

Over the past decade, every industry that needs to handle enormous, streaming sets of data has turned to a variety of data stores known collectively as NoSQL. Ironically, these are often conceptually simpler than SQL databases and have roots going much farther back in computing history (such as key/value stores). But these data stores let organizations run a critical subset of queries in real time over huge data sets. In addition, analytics are carried out by newer MapReduce algorithms and in-memory services such as Spark. As an added impetus for development, these new technologies are usually free and open source software.

Amadeus itself stores data in Cassandra, one of the most mature NoSQL data stores, and uses Spark for processing. According to Bennett, “Spark enables Amadeus to future proof healthcare organizations for long term innovation. Bringing data and analytics together in the cloud allows our customers to generate deeper insights efficiently and with increased relevancy, due to the rapidity of the analytics engine and the streaming of current data in Amadeus. All this can be done at a lower cost than traditional healthcare analytics that move the data from various data warehouses that are still siloed.” Elastic Search is also used. In short, the third-party tools used within Orion Health are ordinary and commonly found. It is simply modern in the same way as computing facilities in other industries–così fan tutte.

Mana Health

This company integrates device data into EHRs and other data stores. It achieved fame when it was chosen for the New York State patient portal. According to Raj Amin, co-founder and Executive Chairman, the company won over the judges with the convenient and slick tile concept in their user interface. Each tile could be clicked to reveal a deeper level of detail in the data. The company tries to serve clinicians, patients, and data analysts alike. Clients include HIEs, health systems, medical device manufacturers, insurers, and app developers.

Like Orion Health, Mana Health is very conscious of staying on the leading edge of technology. They are mobile-friendly and architect their solutions using microservices, a popular form of modular development that attempts to maximize flexibility in coding and deploying new services. On a lark, they developed a VR engine compatible with the Oculus Rift to showcase what can creatively be built on their API. Although this Rift project has no current uses, the development effort helps them stay flexible so that they can adapt to whatever new technologies come down the pike.

Because Mana Health developed their API some eighteen months ago, they pre-dated some newer approaches and standards. They plan to offer compatibility with emerging standards such as FHIR that see industry adoption. The company recently was announced as a partner in the Commonwell Alliance, a project formed by a wide selection of major EHR vendors to pursue interoperability.

To support machine learning, Mana Health stores data in an open source database called Neo4j. This is a very unusual technology called a graph database, whose history and purposes I described two years ago.

Graphs are familiar to anyone who has seen airline maps showing the flights between cities. Graphs are also common for showing social connections, such as your friends-of-friends on Facebook. In health care, as well, graphs are very useful tools. They show relationships, but in a very different way from relational databases. Graphs are better than relational databases at tracing connections between people or other entities. For instance, a team led by health IT expert Fred Trotter used Neo4J to store and query the data in DocGraph, linking primary care physicians to the specialists to which they refer patients.

In their unique ways, Mana Health and Orion Health follow trends in the computing industry and judiciously choose tools that offer new forms of access to data, while being proven in the field. Although commenters in health IT emphasize the importance of good user interfaces, infrastructure matters too.

#HIMSS14 Highlights: Enthusiasm for Patient Engagement

Posted on March 7, 2014 I Written By

As Social Marketing Director at Billian, Jennifer Dennard is responsible for the continuing development and implementation of the company's social media strategies for Billian's HealthDATA and Porter Research. She is a regular contributor to a number of healthcare blogs and currently manages social marketing channels for the Health IT Leadership Summit and Technology Association of Georgia’s Health Society. You can find her on Twitter @JennDennard.

Patient engagement solutions abounded at HIMSS14, though their levels of sophistication varied. Like many other commentators, I felt this was a big jump in interest over last year. It will be interesting to see if this level sustains into 2015, and how the same products will mature come HIMSS15 in Chicago.

The theme of engagement was heard most loudly in several educational sessions I attended. I was happy to pre-register for an Orion Health / ePatient Dave event; and make time at the last minute to attend a live demo of the new Blue Button Connector, and a brief presentation by Regina Holliday, founder of the Walking Gallery.

I believe ePatient Dave (aka Dave deBronkart) has been at this awhile, but the Orion Health lunch and learn I attended was my first opportunity to hear him tell his story live. And what a compelling story it was! It certainly resonated with the audience of about 75, and I couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t up on stage in a “From the Top” session. The theme that ran throughout his presentation and audience questions was the need for online patient communities, and the subsequent need for providers to let their patients know about them. Websites like PatientsLikeMe.com and Sharecare.com were brought up as interesting resources.

epatientdavewp

I headed from there to the exhibit hall, where HIMSS had set up a very nice learning gallery, complete with comfy chairs, swivel desktops and a nice presentation area. Lygeia Ricciardi spent a good 20 minutes going through the new Blue Button Connector website, which you can find here: http://bluebuttonconnector.healthit.gov/. While not a true, live demo, she did offer several screenshots, and was very forthcoming about the ONC’s plans and goals for the site. Apparently they see it as almost a marketing tool, similar to the Energy Star label you see on just about every appliance these days. The Blue Button symbol will hopefully come to be recognized as an endorsement of easy access to patient data. She was frank in saying that it’s not a panacea, but will be a powerful tool in the hands of consumers, and developers who choose to take advantage of its open source code and bake it into their own apps.

bluebuttonwp

It is literally a connector. The new website simply allows patients to connect to third parties that may house their medical records, such as payers, pharmacy, labs, physicians or hospitals, immunization registries and health information exchange portals. Knowing I already have a provider that participates in Blue Button via their athenahealth patient portal, I went through the “Physician or Hospital” steps to see how the Connector worked. I didn’t see my physician listed, so I’ll likely send an email to bluebutton@hhs.gov. The Connector is in beta right now, and Riccardi mentioned they are very interested in gathering as much user feedback as possible during this process, so I encourage you to check it out and drop them a comment or two.

I was back at the Learning Gallery the next afternoon to hear Regina Holliday of the Walking Gallery speak, and she did not disappoint. Like a preacher that just can’t stay in the pulpit, Regina passionately talked about the power patients have when they come together and demand change. It was my first time hearing her speak live and I was not disappointed. It was a powerful sight to see close to 30 Walking Gallery members stand up at the end of her session and show their jackets. Why they were not on a larger stage in front of a capacity audience is beyond me.

walkinggallery

That’s it for my notes from HIMSS. Next up on my conference dance card is the Healthcare IT Marketing and PR Conference, taking place April 7-8 in Las Vegas, and hosted by Healthcarescene.com. I hope to see you there!

Establishing A National HIE On One Platform May Be A Good Idea

Posted on March 21, 2011 I Written By

Katherine Rourke is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

When you read this statement from HIT vendor Orion Health, it sounds oh-so-simple: why not establish an entire county’s HIE network on a single connecting platform?  Given the country’s already high EMR adoption rate — about 80 percent of GPs had one, as of March 2010 — New Zealand’s already part-way there.  Just knit offices up together and you’re ready to go.

Orion, of course has its own technology in mind, naturally. But whatever vendor you use, they may be onto something. I’ll pause here to say that the following proposal could incite a riot at a HIMSS floor full of competing vendors, but hey, ideas are harmless, aren’t they?

What if CMS decided that it would pay incentives not just to meaningfully, sensitively, insightfully install EMRs, but to connect them to an overall HIE?  And to take the thought into more controversial territory, what if it had a vendor or two of choice which doctors and hospitals had to use if they wanted the dough?

As we all know, the value of EMR installations isn’t just in automating, error checking and (hopefully) streamlining workflow in practices. The data is infinitely more valuable when it can be aggregated, shared, cross-checked and mined for best practices.

What are the odds of that, however, if you have an outbreak of regional and state projects using technology from a multitude of vendors?  You can talk standards all you want, but true interoperability isn’t going to happen anytime soon this way.  National connectivity?  Well, give me a couple of decades and let’s see how far that’s gotten.

On the other hand,  if CMS signed contracts with HIE technology vendors, and demanded that they give preferred pricing to those work with them, you’d see a rash of connectivity unrivaled since the invention of the telephone.  Before you scream that this just isn’t fair, doesn’t this kind of thing happen every day in, say, military contracting?

I know, I know, this may not be practical. But you can’t argue that It’d be interesting to see how the HIE and EMR market gelled if CMS took a strong lead.