Data interoperability has always been an important issue in the healthcare ecosystem. Various healthcare providers and medical tech applications depend on data transformation across different systems and platforms. However, it is necessary to maintain seamless communication and exchange of patient information for an individual's privacy and the organization’s security .

Unfortunately, the healthcare industry suffers from a lack of standardization. Fragmented data creates various challenges such as interoperability barriers between Electronic health records (EHRs), incompatible formats of data, and also inefficiency in sharing patient data securely.

Volunteers created the HL7 committee in 1987 to address these problems among healthcare applications. The initial members followed by thousands of healthcare providers, vendors, and consultants dedicated their time to creating a strong foundation for the HL7 standards. Today, most of the clinical interfaces are built and deployed using these standards.

Since 1987, the variety of information has increased vastly due to advancements in the medical field. The complexity of healthcare data and the volume of data generated needed real-time access. The revolution of mobile device usage also demanded immediate access to data on request. In 201, HL7 began with a project that could meet these increasing demands. Thus the FHIR standard was created.

FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) was first considered as an interoperability standard, but as its use has grown and the community has grown, it has incorporated itself into other parts of the healthcare system. FHIR provided standards for building applications and flexibility for adapting them for specific purposes.

In this blog, we will provide detailed information regarding HL7 and FHIR and the differences between them. We aim to enable industry professionals to understand the healthcare interoperability standards better and offer them to understand how these data exchange standards enable comprehensive interoperability. Let us begin-

Understanding HL7 & FHIR

HL7, or Health Level Seven, refers to a globally recognized standard for exchanging clinical and administrative data between healthcare applications. Think of it as a common language that allows various healthcare systems, like EHRs and lab equipment, to communicate seamlessly. HL7 has played a critical role in promoting interoperability in healthcare data exchange.

While HL7 has been a successful standard, it also has limitations, such as complexities in representing certain clinical findings and limited ability to capture the sequence of patient episodes. However, HL7 continues to evolve, with newer versions addressing these limitations and promoting even better healthcare data exchange.

There are three main versions of HL7-
HL7 Version 2 (v2):

Released in 1987, v2 is the most widely used version. HL7 v2 focuses on hospital workflows through electronic messages for administrative, logistical, financial, and clinical processes. HL7 v2 uses a specific format with segments and data elements separated by pipes, this is why it's sometimes called "PipeHat". Different versions exist (v2.1, v2.2, etc.), but they are mostly backward compatible, meaning a newer system can understand messages from an older system. The HL7 v2.3 and v2.3.1 are the most commonly used versions in practice.

HL7 Version 3 (v3):

Introduced later, v3 has a more complex structure based on a formal language called Resource Description Framework (RDF). HL7 v3 aims to be more semantic, meaning the data includes its meaning in addition to the value. While powerful, v3's complexity has limited its adoption compared to v2.

FHIR, which stands for Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, is a modern standard designed to streamline healthcare data exchange. It emerged as a response to the limitations of previous HL7 versions, particularly v2, in addressing the growing need for seamless information sharing within the healthcare ecosystem.

Here's what makes FHIR v3 a modern approach-
  • Web-based technology: Unlike v2's reliance on specific message formats, FHIR utilizes RESTful APIs and open web technologies. This allows quicker and more efficient data exchange, similar to how travel websites interact with airlines.
  • Focus on interoperability: FHIR promotes seamless data exchange among healthcare information systems. This breaks down data silos and enables better care coordination between providers, payers, and patients.
  • Simplified development: FHIR's API approach makes it easier for developers to build applications that can access and share healthcare data. This reduces development time and effort compared to v2's complex structure.
  • Flexibility: FHIR offers a modular structure with resources, which are self-contained information units. This flexibility allows for easier customization and adaptation to specific healthcare data exchange needs.
  • Patient-centric: FHIR recognizes the importance of patient engagement in healthcare. It supports patient data and empowers patients to share their information more easily.

FHIR represents a significant shift towards a more modern and efficient way to exchange healthcare data. It paves the way for improved care coordination, better patient outcomes, and a more connected healthcare system.

FHIR uses web services and resources for easier data exchange, making it faster and more flexible than previous HL7 versions. It aims to improve interoperability, simplify development, and empower patients in data sharing. Though not a complete replacement, FHIR offers a significant advancement for healthcare data exchange.

Related Read: Decoding SMART on FHIR for Healthcare Interoperability

FHIR vs. HL7: A Comparative Analysis

FHIR vs. HL7

HL7 and FHIR, both aim to bridge the communication gap between healthcare information systems but take distinct approaches. Let's explore the key differences between FHIR vs HL7-

Data format

HL7 primarily uses structured messages in XML format, which can be complex to parse and interpret. FHIR Offers more flexibility with data resources available in XML and JSON formats, making data exchange easier.

Implementation complexity

Setting up HL7 can be challenging due to its specific message structures and customization needs. FHIR implementation is generally simpler thanks to its use of web services and modular resources.

Interoperability potential

HL7 achieves moderate interoperability within a defined scope, ensuring systems understand the specific data being exchanged. FHIR offers a higher potential for broader interoperability due to its focus on standardized resources and open web technologies.

Suitability for cloud-based healthcare systems

HL7 limited support for cloud environments due to its reliance on point-to-point connections.
FHIR is ideally suited for cloud-based systems as it leverages web services and APIs for seamless data exchange.

Focus

HL7 is focused on structured messages tailored for specific data exchange scenarios (e.g., lab results, and medication orders). FHIR focuses on reusable data resources, allowing for more flexible data exchange beyond predefined scenarios.

Scalability

HL7 scales well within a defined system but can become cumbersome for complex data exchange needs. FHIR offers excellent scalability due to its modular design and ability to handle diverse data exchange requirements.

Developer Friendliness:

HL7 requires specialized knowledge and experience for development due to its complex structure. FHIR is more developer-friendly because of it’s open web technologies and readily available resources, lowering the development barrier.

Security

Both HL7 and FHIR prioritize data security during healthcare information exchange. They utilize established security standards like Transport Layer Security (TLS) to encrypt data in transit, safeguarding confidentiality and preventing unauthorized access. Additionally, they support authentication methods to verify user identities and authorization mechanisms to control access rights. HL7 has a longer track record with more mature security guidance. FHIR, on the other hand, offers some flexibility in how security is implemented, which can be beneficial for specific use cases but necessitates a more careful security design.

Maturity (adoption)

HL7 enjoys a high level of maturity and widespread adoption within healthcare institutions. FHIR adoption is rapidly growing due to its modern approach and advantages over HL7 but isn’t fully replaced the established standard.

Conclusion

While HL7 laid the groundwork for healthcare data exchange, FHIR represents a powerful evolution. HL7's legacy standards continue to be crucial for foundational healthcare data interchange. However, FHIR's agility and focus on modern technologies make it ideal for the dynamic cloud-based healthcare landscape.

The future lies not in a complete replacement but in a symbiotic relationship. HL7 standards can provide a strong foundation, while FHIR acts as the nimble layer for real-time data exchange and innovative applications. Imagine a future where a patient's data seamlessly flows between their smartwatch, a mobile medical app, and a doctor's electronic health record system – all facilitated by the combined strengths of HL7 and FHIR. This interconnected ecosystem holds the potential to revolutionize preventive care, improve clinical decision-making, and empower patients to participate actively in their healthcare journeys. .

At Mindbowser, we specialize in advanced custom healthcare software development, tailored to meet the unique needs of your healthcare organization. Our skilled healthcare software developers are dedicated to transforming your vision into reality, including migrating from HL7 to FHIR. We understand the importance of embracing modern standards like FHIR for improved interoperability and data exchange in the healthcare industry.

Our team has the expertise to integrate FHIR-compliant interfaces into your existing systems, ensuring smooth communication and efficient workflows. By leveraging our custom healthcare software development services, you can stay ahead of the curve and embrace the future of healthcare data exchange confidently. Migrating to FHIR is an investment in the future of healthcare data exchange. It paves the way for more efficient workflows, improved care coordination, and better patient outcomes. So, take the first step towards a more connected healthcare ecosystem – consider partnering with Mindbowser for your FHIR migration today!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between HL7 and FHIR?

HL7 primarily uses structured messages in XML format, while FHIR offers more flexibility with data resources available in both XML and JSON formats. FHIR also adopts web-based technologies like RESTful APIs, making it faster, more flexible, and easier to implement compared to HL7.

What is HL7 and FHIR, and why are they important in healthcare?

HL7 and FHIR are standards used in healthcare to facilitate the exchange of clinical and administrative data between different systems. They play a crucial role in ensuring interoperability among various healthcare applications, such as electronic health records (EHRs) and lab equipment, enabling seamless communication and data exchange.

What are the advantages of migrating from HL7 to FHIR?

Migrating from HL7 to FHIR offers several benefits, including improved interoperability, simplified development processes, better scalability, and suitability for cloud-based healthcare systems. FHIR's modular design and focus on modern technologies make it an ideal choice for the evolving healthcare landscape.

Meet the Author
Pravin-Uttarwar
Pravin Uttarwar , CTO Mindbowser

Pravin has 16+ years of experience in the tech industry. A high-energy individual who loves to use out-of-the-box thinking to solve problems. He not only brings technical expertise to the table but also wears an entrepreneurial hat – benefiting any project with cost savings and adding more value to business strategy.

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