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Gone are the days when healthcare data only resided on paper charts and electronic medical records. Today, patients and providers want instant access to medical data on their mobile devices. HL7 is the most widely used standard for formating messages transmitted from one information system to another in healthcare. As the demand for healthcare interoperability increases, there is a need to connect more clinical applications, devices, and information systems, within and outside the organization. Before we look at the challenges CIOs face when dealing with HL7 and how to overcome them, let’s briefly define HL7 integration.

What is HL7 Integration?

HL7 integration is the process of linking together different kinds of HL7-compatible sub-systems so they can exchange healthcare data seamlessly. HL7 integration may be used for various scenarios, such as:

  • Ordering lab tests through an EHR/lab interface
  • Checking eligibility for lab tests and treatment
  • Automatic transmission of lab test results from instruments to a lab management system

How to Handle HL7 Integration Challenges

Here are some common challenges associated with HL7 integration and how to handle them effectively.

1. Version Choices and Compatibility

The HL7 standard has two major version groups: 2.x and 3.x. Most of the HL7 messaging in EHRs and other healthcare information systems use version 2.x. Unfortunately, version 3.x is not compatible with version 2.x.

To further complicate version issues, the 2.5.1 HL7 version was chosen as the standard for meeting certification requirements and making laboratory reports.

If you intend to create new HL7 interfaces, you need to determine if they will communicate with version 2 based apps or version 3. If the interface needs to communicate with legacy applications, it is advisable to use version 2.x standards.

2. Secure Data Transfer

Adopting a secure protocol for HL7 has become a significant concern for providers and their health IT teams. While the data residing in databases or EHRs is encrypted and relatively secure, the data in transit may not always be.

It is vital to use one or more of these solutions to ensure the security of data in HL7 messages:

  • VPN Tunnel: A virtual private network links two remote sites together through a private network. Using a VPN helps to protect HL7 messages. The VPN tunnel provides a channel to transfer data using secure encryption. To protect HL7 messages, send the data using the lower layer protocol (LLP) over the VPN.
  • Secure FTP: With the File Transfer Protocol, it is possible to implement the secure transfer of HL7 messages. This is particularly useful for the transport of batches of HL7 messages.
  • An extension of the well-known SSH protocol known as the SSH File Transfer Protocol offers access control and secure transfer of data streams.
  • SSH Tunnelling: Like the VPN connection, SSH tunneling provides a secure connection between two sites or servers. SSH is available by default on Linux and OS X, but Windows users may need to use Voshell for Windows.

3. Managing Different Vendor Implementations

There’s a significant variation in the way vendors implement the HL7 standard. Unfortunately, this lack of standardization makes integration difficult and costly.

For each endpoint, developers have to create and maintain a separate codebase. And if there’s a need to update interfaces, each endpoint needs to be updated.

It is more economical to invest in a version and vendor-agnostic interface engine in such cases. The interface engine will handle the differences in implementation and boost the productivity of in-house developers.

4. Communication With Non-Clinical Systems

As the healthcare system adopts digitization, non-clinical systems now need to “talk” with the EHR. Today, billing departments, patient portals, and all aspects of practice management need to use data residing in EHRs.

To meet this need for communication with systems that don’t usually use HL7, an interface engine must be used to convert HL7 data into JSON and XML formats. Another way to solve this problem is to use APIs that work with new standards like fast healthcare interoperability resources (FHIR), and these standards work seamlessly with web-based technologies.

While it is essential to know the challenges associated with HL7 integration and how to overcome them, it is also necessary to understand how to work with an expert that has provided practical interoperability solutions to hundreds of clients.

Get Expert Help for Your HL7 Integration Project

Contact Lifepoint Informatics at 877.522.8378 today to book a free consultation. Visit our contact page to discuss your needs and schedule a demo of our HL7 integration solutions.