Microsoft Delivers Health Framework

Connected Health Framework is Microsoft’s latest move toward SOA.

The health-care industry lags behind other sectors when it comes to the exchange of electronic data, making the often-cited quest for achieving integrated electronic health records a slow work in progress.

Microsoft has taken some recent steps to remedy the situation. The company is now assessing feedback to its recently released Connected Health Framework Architecture and Design Blueprint.

Put forth on CodePlex as a community effort, the framework represents a key step forward by Redmond to deliver a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that will ease development and portability of solutions between Windows and other environments. IBM Corp., BEA Systems Inc. and others have already launched similar efforts.

Microsoft is putting serious firepower behind the initiative. The company launched the framework at the annual Health Care Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) show in New Orleans, La. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer delivered a keynote address at the show, and pointed out that the company already has such frameworks in other industries, including financial services, banking, manufacturing and retail.

"We want to bring the power of that thinking now also here into the health-care arena," Ballmer told attendees. "What that will allow us to do is to create a reference architecture that serves to document best practices for integrating health-care systems."

Ballmer pointed to some key assets behind Microsoft's efforts to provide better connectivity of health-care information, including last year's acquisition of Azyxxi, a SQL Server-based platform that can extract data such as documents, X-rays and other medical information from various systems.

Hard to Integrate
The issue all developers are faced with in trying to provide a unified electronic health record is that there are a slew of proprietary, integrated health-care management platforms from a variety of large and small players. Among the biggest are Cerner Corp. and GE Information Systems.

While efforts to achieve interoperability among these systems have occurred through a group called Health Level Seven (HL7), which is accredited by ANSI, much of those standards are limited to the messaging layer, says Robert Ruggeri, Microsoft's worldwide senior technical health care strategist.

"HL7 is at best a common ground for negotiation. It's not a very prescriptive standard; that creates some problems in the way things are integrated," Ruggeri says. "You're trying to pull together systems that really weren't meant to interoperate. Yes, they can exchange clinical messages using industry standards, but it's really a monolithic application that's informing other systems that there's something for them, and they need to carry on some work. It's very hard to integrate."

Core to the framework is the Health Connection Engine, which leverages SQL Server for the registry functions and BizTalk Server for routing instructions. The engine is built on the .NET Framework 2.0 and C and C#, according to Ruggeri. "The Connection Engine is a series of services that make it easier to connect the different applications in services-oriented fashion," he says.

Ruggeri and his team are gathering feedback from the development community, and ultimately Microsoft will release a beta of the engine. Microsoft is hoping the engine will be ready for the release of the next version of BizTalk Server, slated for year-end release.

The engine itself will not be a product, he says, but rather guidance for how to develop health-care methodologies atop existing technologies in a SOA. As a result, systems architects can start orchestrating business processes within a workflow platform that can trigger events and processes between different systems.

The framework is a positive development, says Burton Group analyst Chris Howard. But it will presume developers are familiar with the BizTalk platform.

"If they're not using BizTalk Server for doing messaging and orchestration then they're going to need to learn it," Howard says. "It's key to making this pattern they put up there for health-care work. It's not that that's a huge undertaking, it's just a different development paradigm, because you're thinking more in terms of process and less in terms of structured code all the time."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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