IBM to Launch Prototype of Health Information Network

A few months after the nation’s health IT czar asked for input on how to create a national health information network, IBM on Monday announced plans to build a prototype of sorts.

By building a test system to move data from one place to another, IBM Research aims to show that easy electronic sharing of medical information can not only provide better care at lower costs, but can enable new kinds of services.

“By creating a system with model data, we can develop a model of what health IT might look like in the future.” said James Kaufman, manager of the Healthcare Information Infrastructure at the IBM Almaden Research Center.

The pilot system, called the IHII (Interoperable Health Information Infrastructure), will use open standards and will be fully operational by the end of the year, according to IBM. It will not link any actual health care providers but instead will test how they can make information available across disparate systems.

The first step is figuring out how to move data between systems that may have trouble talking to each other. That requires implementing standards developed across different sectors of the health care industry and developing programs that can transfer real-world information into “standard schemas.” By moving data through the system, researchers can learn where standards conflict or overlap and how well the system will scale.

That’s a capacity that is sorely needed, according to Scott Wallace, head of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology.

“There isn’t a lot of good testing capability to test for functionality,” he said, adding that this deficiency has made certifying clinical information systems difficult. The Certification Commission for Health Information Technology was established last year by the alliance and two health IT vendor groups to help clinicians know how well different systems would work together.

Wallace said IBM’s project could prove invaluable in helping clinicians and patients make the best use of their health information, but only if the company shares the results of the testing. “We’re curious to see how much they are willing to use it to advance the public interest.”

Kaufman said IBM is working closely with standards development organizations, but said he could not discuss how IBM would collaborate with other industry players.

The prototype will use a combination of real and dummy information that will be linked between sites in San Jose, Calif.; Rochestor, Minn.; and Haifa, Israel.

Industry and federal health care leaders have clamored for widespread interoperability, saying it will improve care and reduce costs by, for example, preventing doctors from ordering redundant services.

One study estimated that U.S. savings from highly interoperable health IT could be as much as $78 billion a year.

But Kaufman made clear that IBM is looking far beyond mere efficiency: Interoperability will transform mere data into “a platform for doing research,” Kaufman said.

“The data is going to enable whole new industries and make medicine more of a science,” he said. Widely linked health information systems also could help detect and quell epidemics, and IBM’s IHII includes tools to study emerging infections, as well as model interactions between diseases in disparate communities.

To spur additional development, IBM has made the code for this tool, called the Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler, freely available. Patient data used for these purposes will not require any personally identifying information, Kaufman said.

A statement from IBM said the company will engage with industry leaders. But it did not mention whether it will coordinate efforts with the so-called Interoperability Consortium—a group of large IT vendors including IBM, Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp.—who banded together to call for open standards to be used in any national health information network.

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