An Answer to the Interoperability Challenge?

Sun Microsystems moved aggressively into healthcare last year with its purchase of SeeBeyond, which had its origins in the master patient index world. But this isn't the story of a hardware vendor buying a niche application vendor -- even if that's what both companies were known for. Instead this is a significant bet on increased demand for data interoperability within healthcare organizations -- a demand Sun thinks is answered by its service-oriented architecture (SOA). Chief Web Services strategist Mark Hapner was quoted earlier this year saying "SOA's core vision is a global computing model that eliminates interoperability roadblocks."

In acquiring SeeBeyond, Sun got the eGate integration solution and a big footprint in the enterprise record locator market. They're now calling their offerings a full integration suite -- finding records divided up in multiple systems. It links both patient and physician identifiers to the data from those systems and then presents them in various formats to clinicians.

Wayne Owens, Sun's VP of healthcare, thinks providers went away from best of breed in the early 2000s because vendors such as Epic Systems and Cerner were able to deliver functionality across all departments without integration hassles. But Sun is basing its strategy on the belief that no one solution can replace best-of-breed, and the question is moot if data need to be shared outside the institution. Owens says, "We may not have 10 or 20 vendors in one institution, but we'll certainly have a few. SOA is the fabric that can bring it together."

But SOA is only the basis for interfacing records in different file formats, which remains a major challenge. Sun is working with partners such as Vignette, Kodak, and TeraMedica -- all of which have different approaches to interfacing images, text, voice, and video. These players are all building interoperability onto their strengths -- document management for Vignette; image capture and display for Kodak.

TeraMedica's Evercore system is almost a data traffic cop. Its technology emerged from the Mayo Clinic, which is a customer along with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and UC Davis. Paul Markham, VP of marketing, describes it as a "middleware bus infrastructure that any system can plug into," including picture archiving and communication systems (PACS), other clinical object generating systems, and storage. So this removes CIOs from being locked into proprietary storage -- and associated expensive maintenance contracts. EverCore also assesses the metadata within each file to determine which won't be used much and can be moved to less expensive storage media. Sun's purchase of StorageTek indicates that they too believe that the sale of storage will increasingly decouple from proprietary systems.

There is certainly a long way to go before healthcare moves to open systems, but some vendors are anticipating the demand and pushing true plug-and-play interoperability.
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