Saturday, July 19, 2014

Tracking the convergence of NIEM and HL7

Every few years, someone asks "could you implement HL7 with NIEM" or vice versa; well, with enough resources, you can accomplish anything, but what I want to do here is consider how the two standards are converging, how they are divergent, and why. NIEM has had a Health Domain for several years, evolving under the auspices of HHS. You wouldn't know it from the LinkedIn group.

The two communities could really benefit from sharing an understanding that to save money on implementation and stakeholder engagement, they need tools which provide the ability to easily and visually review and alter exchange packages (IEPD, FHIR Conformance Profiles), to reach absolute consensus; and then generate terse and completely accurate validation packages and conformance suites, so as to increase ongoing information safety. We need to be able to put all of the important details on one page.

NIEM and HL7 are both messaging models based on an underlying information model, and whereas HL7 is moving away from design by constraint towards design by extension, NIEM has always relied upon an extension mechanism. The difference here comes down to the size of the NIEM problem space ("everything"), as opposed to HL7 ("healthcare"), for which you might be able to imagine a totalizing framework that encompasses all workflow in all contexts; however, for HL7 as well, a workable extension mechanism is proving to be essential to success, and this is a change from the paradigm established with HL7v3.

NIEM and HL7 are both moving towards support for multiple wire formats. In domestic U.S. markets, HL7 means either "pipe and caret" v2 or "quasi-XML-HTML" hybrid CDA, but internationally, HL7 is an XML standard which is outgrowing the business cases for XML, much like NIEM. For both of these standards to grow and implement future business cases, they will need to also embrace and support JSON, HTML, and RDF, and given time they will.

HL7 is moving away from a proprietary tooling set towards tooling which is readily accessible, like Excel, Java, and XML editors. NIEM already uses a similar toolset, and has several initiatives in play to support open tooling like CAM Editor and UML tooling. One of the difficulties we have run into with HL7 v3 is difficulty sharing visual models, since these are captured in proprietary tooling, and it is here that the NIEM and HL7 communities would both benefit from demanding better tooling. Put simply, shouldn't these two standards support and be supported by a common toolset which extends beyond XMLSpy or Oxygen? And, given time I'm sure they will.

This is something I feel strongly about. At their core, NIEM and HL7 RIM rely on XML Schemas, and yet, XML Schemas are not sufficient to the task. In the HL7 world, as far as v3 Messaging and CDA are concerned, ISO Schematron fills this gap. For NIEM, OASIS CAM performs a similar task; but there is a disservice here to both of CAM and Schematron, that these are treated only as validation tools, when in fact, they contain key pieces of business. The same is true of UML - these should be the tools we use to visually communicate the business to the business.

Some of the tools will be open source, some of them will come from the product world. If the NIEM and HL7 communities articulate their needs, the tool vendors will follow. In short, HL7 and NIEM are both going to need to converge on a set of XML-based tooling that goes beyond XML Schemas and Visio diagrams. The CAM tooling provides some of this. The Excel-based Resource Profiling in FHIR provides some of this. UML tooling provides some of this.

To reduce the burden of approval for stakeholders, both messaging standards need to allow modelers, implementers, and business stakeholders to meet in a room and review the details of a proposed information exchange on a single page, and this will provide high value. When this is happening, information safety increases because the resulting XML Schemas and documentation produced after this meeting will be simpler, more accurate representations of the business.

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