Don’t panic – incoherence ain’t all bad!

In November 2014, a paper was published: Developing Large-scale Electronic Patient Records Conforming to the openEHR Architecture –  by Norwegian authors Gunnar Ellingsen, Bente Christensen & Line Silsand.

Part of the final concluding discussion reads:

“…Similarly, the effort of National ICT in Norway to use archetypes from international repositories of archetypes (i.e. CKMs), indicates that there are little coherence among the existing repositories…”

Some of my openEHR colleagues started to panic. How could we allow incoherence? How could we allow divergence? Were we failing in our clinical knowledge governance responsibilities?

My responses:

  • Incoherence is not necessarily bad. It is a natural and potentially healthy part of a distributed archetype development process, especially when working at an international level, but we absolutely do need processes in place to manage and mitigate it;
  • Divergence will occur. It just will. So we have to learn how to live with it and manage it; and
  • Our clinical knowledge governance is strong. That is exactly why the incoherence was noticed in the first place.

Let’s start from the current reality… most of our clinical systems use non-public, proprietary data models, and so is not unreasonable to conclude that we at the atomic data level we actually have maximal non-interoperability and incoherence. Interoperability between these systems only occurs due to mappings and transformations to standardised messages and then reversing this process in the receiving systems.

The openEHR approach is rather orthogonal to traditional clinical system development processes in that it involves sharing clinical archetypes that define the content we require in our electronic health records (EHRs) and the Clinical Knowledge Manager tool is in use as an online archetype repository, collaboration portal and governance vehicle.

Some have said to me that we should only allow one central openEHR Clinical Knowledge Manager (CKM) – effectively a single source of truth for all archetypes. While it is tempting to think that this would solve many aspects of problems with interoperability, it is not realistic. I can fully understand why national eHealth programs feel the need to manage their own national clinical content standards: Australia’s NEHTA CKM; Norway’s Nasjonal IKT CKM; UK’s NHS HSCIC CKM; Slovenia’s eHealth CKM; and Brazil’s CENTERMS CKM are all perfect examples. And there is also value contributed from grassroots collaboration happening within some eHealth projects in UK, resulting in the grassroots UK Clinical Models CKM.

Clinical knowledge governance is complex at the best of times. I think the openEHR approach and the processes built into the CKM product demonstrate that we understand this area better than many. Our approach to clinical knowledge governance is very people-focused, particularly aimed at engaging the true domain experts, grass roots clinicians, rather than technical standards developers. In many situations it is a classic example of herding cats, as effectively suggested in the Norwegian paper – doing anything collaboratively with intelligent humans is like that. But within the openEHR communities we are collaborating successfuly, momentum is building… and good quality, clinically verified archetypes are being published, ready for vendor implementation.

The transparency of the CKM tool allows us to see the true state of our shared information models – both the well designed, coherent ones that we want to see as well as the rather embarrassing ones that are not yet quite right. It is too easy for outsiders to point out the incoherence as evidence that there are problems or flaws with the openEHR governance process. But the reality is actually the opposite – the transparency and openness of each CKM enables us to understand the reality of the current situation, no smoke and mirrors here.

Without the transparency that is offered by each CKM we would be unable to estimate the extent or impact of the incoherence that exists or make informed decisions on how to resolve the issues. Be realistic here – that incoherence may not be obvious in other standards organisations is due to a lack of transparency, rather than that it does not exist.

There are a number of, not unreasonable, causes of archetype divergence between existing CKM repositories:

  1. Differing local and jurisdictional requirements – these are commonly imposed on implementers by various levels of government and usually require locally unique archetypes. We have devised an approach that allow for local configuration while still using the broadly applicable interoperable archetypes. These will likely remain with us for the foreseeable future.
  2. Uncoordinated or fragmented development of archetypes.
  3. The natural evolution of archetype design patterns over time, including differing approaches, scope or focus.

This problem can be largely solved, or at least mitigated, if there is a willingness for collaboration between the administrators of the different CKM instances – over time, islands of incoherence will gradually become less.  It is essentially a human, rather than technical, problem that we can do something about.

Rather than experience that heart-sink moment as someone points out an area of incoherence, dsivergence or error, I welcome that someone has taken the time to look and identify an issue. This knowledge or insight enables improvement, quality control or correction. Individuals or groups can be motivated to tackle and fix the problem; to find the other candidate archetypes; identify other individuals with whom they can collaborate; and contribute the resulting archetype back to all of the CKM communities.

And responding to the criticism from the article, above: I have absolutely no problem that we currently have different archetypes for tobacco use in various CKMs. There is no doubt that I would much rather that we had a single, super elegant published archetype to represent tobacco use and smoking already, but despite quite a lot of work this has not been possible to date. In reality, tobacco use, and addiction more generally, is a hugely complex clinical area where very little has been standardised, despite it being core clinical content for any paper or electronic health record. The draft archetypes in question have not yet been agreed, verified and published as fit for use by any clinical community – so the content is still up for discussion, anyone can put their hand up to solve this outstanding problem.

And in fact, in recent weeks the Norwegian CKM team have indicated a willingness to lead the collaboration on this family of archetypes – not just tobacco/smoking but the similar patterns required for recording alcohol and other drug use. While I have made a number of previous attempts, the ideal solution has evaded my efforts to date. Hopefully by combining our efforts we can change that. It is now up to a much broader ‘people-power’ to solve the problem – identify a robust modelling pattern, develop the next draft candidate, and review and refine it with the domain experts.

Once this new tobacco archetype is published it will be up to each individual CKM instance to choose to adopt, adapt or manage. Ultimately it is their choice and responsibility – to participate, effectively maximising interoperability, or not, with the real consequences of divergence and reduction in international interoperability. There is a definite tension here, no simple, one-size-fits-all, perfect solution. Some CKM instances collaborate actively – the international and Norwegian CKMs run parallel archetype reviews in an attempt to minimise convergence yet still allow Norway to fulfill their government imposed mandate to manage their archetypes according to well-defined governance rules. Other CKMs may adopt published archetypes from other CKM instances, or use them as the starting point for their own. Others choose to operate completely independently, building their own archetypes from scratch – as time passes, it will be interesting to observe the outcomes of their independent approach.

The openEHR clinical knowledge governance processes are considered world-leading, yet we are all still learning here. Incoherence is not ideal, but it is a realistic part of any work such as this. Transparency and openness can only help to mitigate some of the incoherence but it is certainly not acceptable as a long term solution, but within a governed environment it can be leveraged constructively and collaboratively to improve the quality of future published archetypes.

The openEHR approach and CKM tools enable groups and individuals to actively participate – to make a difference in interoperability, rather than sitting back and complaining about how clinical systems don’t share data! If we truly aspire to shared EHRs the eHealth community need to actively work towards reducing the incoherence and maximising interoperability of atomic health data.

Please note: The Norwegian national governance framework is described in detail here and a must read for those interested in this evolving clinical knowledge domain. I will let that work speak for itself (via Google translate for most of you!)

2 thoughts on “Don’t panic – incoherence ain’t all bad!

  1. Congratulations for your cristal clear post on coherence-divergence on electronic health communication and openEHR. I am on the side of the brazilian IT non-initiated occupational health care doctors who see openEHR as a hope for a better future. Unfortunately the acess to the collaboration comunities seems to me rather academic and difficult at least where a live,in São Paulo-SP and at my present stage of knowledge about IT. I see, in a daily personal observation basis the non coordinated use of proprietary health care data bank you mentioned in your post as an overwhelming negative reality creating fragmentation constraint to health care quality improvement even within one single organization. I also agree that it is unreal to expect an universal one size fits all EHR model. Perhaps an universal clinical translator tool for the same medical signs-symptons-situations would do.

    • Hi Sergio,

      Glad to hear from you.

      The interoperability problem we have is tricky. There have been attempts to solve it for over 30 years now, and look how far we’ve come (or not). So there is no easy fix.
      I am very hopeful that the Brazilian program will take off in the next 12 months and you will have ample opportunity to participate. In the meantime please register with the openEHR CKM – you will be welcome to collaborate on the content and we need Portuguese translators for all our published archetypes. It is a place where as the archetype is published then multiple translations can be applied. I think the Blood pressure archetype currently has been translated into 13 languages.



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