Part Three: Functional Specifications of IA Clinical Information Systems

This is Part Three of the 4-part series, Immediate Adaptability (IA).

Part One: Immediate Adaptability
Part Two: Objections to Immediate Adaptability
Part Three: Functional Specifications of IA Clinical Information Systems
Part Four: A Generic Architecture for IA-CIS – Refactoring the EMR Model

The intrinsic definition of an Immediately Adaptable system is in the name: immediate. We consider this to be a period of hours or days, not weeks, months, or years! However the requirements as defined by the complaints to the professional lists and elsewhere have a wider ranging scope.

The first level of problem is the concept of the EMR which describes a medical record as placed into an electronic storage bin instead of a filing cabinet. Such an EMR fits the CERP model which is focused on collecting content and storing it on a large scale and then processing the data for highly stable requirements, e.g. billing. Furthermore the CERP methodology requires decomposition of data into normalised storage structures of permanent definition and storage representation. As “efficient” storage of data is paramount to the processes of “capturing” the data and then “reusing” the data, that is, moving the data from the context in which it is collected to the contexts in which it is reused, are blighted by the effort and complexity of programming for the internal movement of the data. This involves elaborate methods putting data into fixed data structures and reading data back out whenever it is called for with the storage mechanisms tightly coupled with the data capture and display processes. Modern web technologies enable a significant loosening of this coupling but the CERP developers have been slow to embrace these innovations due to their years of investment in older software engineering methods.

Given their engineering paradigm, ultimately, the greatest limitation of the CERP approach is the effort, cost, and risk associated with changing the structures by which the data is defined and stored when a new data element needs to be inserted into a design, or changing the semantic meaning of an existing data item. This requires changing the underlying storage design and creating the code to store that data element and to retrieve it at all the points where it is reused without disrupting anything of the existing processings. With due cause, the large vendors, whose systems have thousands of data tables that are beyond the scope of any one person or even small team to comprehend, are aware that their data management is brittle where even a single accident in a new design or coding can bring down their house of cards. This is one of the crucial reasons for resisting modifications to CERP systems.

The process of separating the capturing data in one context, storing it in a rigid data structure, and then moving it for reuse into another context is fundamental to moving away from the idea of an EMR towards one of a Clinical Information System (CIS). A CIS is a software technology that is integrated into the processes of the users so as to support their work in the most active manner possible. Crucially it is NOT a system that cements in the processes of data collection and dissemination as found in a CERP EMR system. A CIS matches the users requirements for both the flow of data from one context to another, and their movement through activities of work that the users have to perform. A CIS supports both dataflow and workflow for the user. The third part of the triumvirate of a CIS is screen layout and design. The optimal design of a CIS is a dominant part of clinical usability research, but, due to the nature of the CERP methodology, usability discoveries have, at best, a slow journey in seeping into such systems.

An IA-CIS has to be easily and readily changeable, that is accept real-time change (or nearly so). An underlying architectural consequence of real time changeability is that it has to have dynamic data structures along with revision control that does not affect the previous versions of storage organisation or access to previously recorded data so that real-time use is uninterrupted.

We have named the data flow requirement of IA-CIS: native interoperability. This is the idea that data created or input at one point in a data flow can be referred to by its name wherever it needs to be reused. There should be no need to write code to read tables to transfer such data, but rather it should behave more like a link. Thus, when you invoke the name of the data at a time for its reuse in a new context, it appears at that point of invocation, without needing to do anything else. This introduces interesting questions about the protocols for naming data but stable solutions are available to solve them.

IA implies real-time design, which requires a design toolkit for specifying all the requirements of the user including, data definition, screen layout and behaviours, business rules, data flow, and workflow. Underlying these design utilities needs to be a design language universal to all CIS designs that become the specification of the operational system. This has an important consequence: the design of the users’ system is independent of the software that manages their data. The benefit is that design can be changed without affecting software code, and code be changed without necessarily effecting designs. Software maintenance is done independently of any CIS design processes. This radically simplifies the nature of system maintenance as their is no enmeshment of a given system design and the program code required to implement it.

Furthermore it opens the door for usability research to be directly incorporated into an operational system. To support usability research the only software engineering requirement is to have a library function that performs according to the usability task being investigated. If the feature to be investigated is not available in the design tool kit then the only software engineering task is to enhance the design tool to carry the function as an element of the design toolkit. To create an executable instantiation of the design as defined in the design language there needs to be libraries for all design functions and auto generation of data structures that are invoked at the point of real-time system generation.

While not an absolute requirement for an IA-CIS, built-in analytics are needed to achieve the user demands for being able to operationalise Continuous Process Improvement. The role of using a CIS for direct operational workflow is fundamental to its conception. However optimising the CIS over time requires the analysis of the behaviour of the CIS and the users as an integrated entity. This analysis is best achieved by having analytical tools built into the CIS that can actively monitor the CIS and its users to establish the value of changes as they are implemented. Omitting analytics functionality as an intrinsic part of the CIS will severely limit the ability of the user team to identify behaviours of the system (technology + staff) that warrant change and later measures those changes.

Part One: Immediate Adaptability
Part Two: Objections to Immediate Adaptability
Part Three: Functional Specifications of IA Clinical Information Systems
Part Four: A Generic Architecture for IA-CIS – Refactoring the EMR Model

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