HHS Revamps Its Open-Source Software for HIEs

The Department of Health and Human Services has unveiled Connect 3.3, its updated open-source software that allows health information exchanges to be interoperable.

The Federal Health Architecture in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced version 3.3 of Connect, the open-source gateway software that allows health care IT developers to create health information exchanges. Operating in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, within HHS, the FHA manages health IT among 20 federal agencies.

States are actively setting up HIEs to allow electronic health records (EHRs) to be interoperable.

Several government agencies built Connect to establish interoperability standards for the exchange of EHRs, including the Food and Drug Administration, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health.

"Connect makes it possible for organizations to securely exchange health data across the Internet," Lauren Thompson, director of the FHA, told eWEEK in an email.

The new version of Connect, announced on March 16, allows states and health care organizations to use data based on Nationwide Health Information Network (NwHIN) specs between January 2010 and July 2010. Made up of 25 member companies, NwHIN offers standards, services and policies that enable doctors, insurance companies, pharmacies and other health organizations to exchange health data online. The Obama administration approved new NwHIN standards in July 2011.

In developing Connect, the government aimed to align the open-source software with HIE specs while allowing data to be shared securely, Greg Turner, Connect product manager and contractor for the FHA, wrote in a blog post.

Oregon State University's Open Source Lab hosts the Connect software, and the FHA oversees the product.

The new version of Connect will provide more flexibility to health care organizations adopting the software. Large health care organizations will benefit from the ability to cluster multiple instances of the gateway, as well as "fan out" so that multiple messages for a single transaction event can be transmitted to multiple locations, said Thompson of the FHA.

Otherwise, providers would have to wait for messages to be processed before sending the next one, she explained. They also can install fewer targeted services rather than supporting services that are not being used by health care organizations.

"Customization was enhanced by the ability to support two versions of the specifications in one instance of the gateway," Thompson said.

"To handle higher traffic volumes, Connect 3.3 supports multiple instances of the gateway in a single implementation," wrote Connect product manager Turner.

It also adds benchmark testing and documentation on tuning, or optimizing, the software performance. It includes features for patient discovery, document queries and information retrieval.

The FHA is working on increasing adoption by health care organizations and making it easier to link EHRs using older versions of the software, according to Thompson.

"This means that implementers with older versions of Connect will be able to use Connect 3.3 with minimal or no changes to their back-end systems," said Thompson. With backward compatibility built into version 3.3, the FHA plans to ease adoption in future releases by integrating a simplified API to link EHRs with Connect, she explained.

In addition, Connect has a "reference adapter" and a developer forum so health care IT organizations can gather information on how to join EHR databases or back-end systems with Connect, said Thompson.

By December, ONC plans to spin off Connect into a distributed development program in an open-source environment, according to Healthcare IT News.