This is my second of five guest blog posts covering Health IT and EHR Workflow.

If you pay any attention at all to interoperability discussion in healthcare and health IT, I’m sure you’ve heard of syntactic vs. semantic interoperability. Syntax and semantics are ideas from linguistics. Syntax is the structure of a message. Semantics is its meaning. Think HL7’s pipes and hats (the characters “|” and “^” used as separators) vs. codes referring to drugs and lab results (the stuff between pipes and hats). What you hardly every hear about is pragmatic interoperability, sometimes called workflow interoperability. We need not just syntactic and semantic interop, but pragmatic workflow interop too. In fact, interoperability based on workflow technology can strategically compensate for deficiencies in syntactic and semantic interoperability. By workflow technology, I mean Business Process Management (BPM).

Why do I highlight BPM’s relevance to health information interoperability? Take a look at this quote from Business Process Management: A Comprehensive Survey:

“WFM/BPM systems are often the “spider in the web” connecting different technologies. For example, the BPM system invokes applications to execute particular tasks, stores process-related information in a database, and integrates different legacy and web-based systems…. Business processes need to be executed in a partly uncontrollable environment where people and organizations may deviate and software components and communication infrastructures may malfunction. Therefore, the BPM system needs to be able to deal with failures and missing data.”

“Partly uncontrollable environment where people and organizations may deviate and software components and communication infrastructures may malfunction”? Sound familiar? That’s right. It should sound a lot like health IT.

What’s the solution? A “spider in the web” connecting different technologies… invoking applications to execute particular tasks, storing process-related information in a database, and integrates different legacy and web-based systems. Dealing with failures and missing data. Yes, healthcare needs a spider in the complicated web of complicate information systems that is today’s health information management infrastructure. Business process management is that spider in a technological web.

Let me show you now how BPM makes pragmatic interoperability possible.

I’ll start with another quote:

“Pragmatic interoperability (PI) is the compatibility between the intended versus the actual effect of message exchange.”

That’s a surprisingly simple definition for what you may have feared would be a tediously arcane topic. Pragmatic interoperability is simply whether the message you send achieves the goal you intended. That’s why it’s “pragmatic” interoperability. Linguistics pragmatics is the study of how we use language to achieve goals.

“Pragmatic interoperability is concerned with ensuring that the exchanged messages cause their intended effect. Often, the intended effect is achieved by sending and receiving multiple messages in specific order, defined in an interaction protocol.”

So, how does workflow technology tie into pragmatic interoperability? The key phrases linking workflow and pragmatics are “intended effect” and “specific order”.

A sequence of actions and messages — send a request to a specialist, track request status, ask about request status, receive result and do the right thing with it — that’s …read more