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New IBM Technology Connects Healthcare Databases

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The healthcare database infrastructure of the 21st century is now looming a little larger on the horizon. Earlier this year, IBM introduced a prototype search engine that allows healthcare providers to access medical records across disparate locations and networks.

In 2005, the US Department of Health and Human Services awarded a total of $18.6 million to four separate consortia to develop fully operational network systems for a Nationwide Health Information Network architecture. The consortia, which also include groups led by Accenture, Northrop Grumman, and the Computer Science Corporation, were tasked with designing a secure medical records information exchange network.

Engineers at IBM addressed the challenge with a standards-based, searchable interface built on a service-oriented architecture. This makes the prototype software agnostic, enabling it to interface with virtually any online records system in use.

From hospital to hospital and region to region, patient information can reside on database systems that have very little in common with each other. IBM’s NHIN prototype technology enables seven hospitals and 24 physicians in Virginia, North Carolina, and New York to exchange information securely across different databases. “One of the large challenges is the providers being ready for this,” says Ginny Wagner, project executive of the NHIN team for IBM. “You have different vendor products that are all over the map here.”

With IBM’s system, a clinician can access a patient’s medical records simply by entering his or her name and address. What comes back is a list of URLs that link to any and all databases containing information on that patient. In the interest of patient privacy, these links cannot be sent to anyone else and can only be viewed at the time of the search. All of the data remains on the database of origin and is not stored at the point of access.

The network prototype was also developed with the idea of giving clinical research a boost. “One of the future uses that we see for the network is secondary use of data,” says Wagner. “In a research perspective, our hope is that you could shorten the bench-to-bedside-back-to-bench cycle, and reduce that 17-year lag that you see right now.”

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