Getting proprietary gear to work together, to transform reports among proprietary standards, is the first step on the road to an open world.
The HIMSS show takes that step every year with what it calls its Interoperability Showcase.
At this year's show in Atlanta it occupied the whole end of one hall of the Georgia World Congress Center. Run by Integrating the Health Enterprise (IHE), it's designed to show systems from different vendors working inside a clinic, throughout a state, across the country and internationally.
Mike Glickman of Computer Network Architects, acting as an IHE volunteer, explained that the idea is to create "meaningful re-use" of data with a live demonstration. "This is real systems sharing information. We had 400 engineers at our ConnectaThon this year testing this."
Critics may scoff that the showcase is just "bleeding edge" technology, that what's in the field is a year behind what shows up at HIMSS, but if this is even what 2011 looks like it's not half bad.
This year attendees are seeing demonstrations based on specific types of cases and concerns. I followed the case on biological transmission, watching how data might be presented at a clinic, transferred to a hospital, then to a statewide network and finally the CDC.
The CDC access to data is designed to run on NHIN-Connect, a nationwide data sharing network built under a government contract to Harris Corp. using open source tools.
It's the limits of IT itself, not interoperability, that keep our tracking of disease from being better, IHE officials said. With many clinics still running on paper, many cases don't get into the system. Automating clinics, however it is done, will improve the quality of data available to researchers.
It should be noted that just as interoperability is moving forward, so are open standards and open source. There are open standards involved in the Interoperability Showcase, and some of the vendors sell open source.
But if we've broken into nearly all the nation's health data silos, we have done quite a bit. And this showcase showed that even if we have not done that yet, we will.