Semantic interoperability is one of the priority themes of the ARGOS Trans-Atlantic Observatory. This topic represents a globally recognised challenge that must be addressed if electronic health records are to be shared among heterogeneous systems, and the information in them exploited to the maximum benefit of patients, professionals, health services, research, and industry. Progress in this multi-faceted challenge has been piecemeal, and valuable lessons have been learned, and approaches discovered, in Europe and in the US that can be shared and combined.
Experts from both continents have met at three ARGOS workshops during 2010 and 2011 to share understanding of these issues and how they might be tackled collectively from both sides of the Atlantic. This policy brief summarises the problems and the reasons why they are important to tackle, and also why they are so difficult. It outlines the major areas of semantic innovation that exist and that are available to help address this challenge. It proposes a series of next steps that need to be championed on both sides of the Atlantic if further progress is to be made in sharing and analysing electronic health records meaningfully.
Semantic interoperability requires the use of standards, not only for EHR data to be transferred and structurally mapped into a receiving repository, but also for the clinical content of the EHR to be interpreted in conformity with the original meanings intended by its authors. Wide-scale engagement with professional bodies, globally, is needed to develop these clinical information standards. Accurate and complete clinical documentation, faithful to the patient's situation, and interoperability between systems, require widespread and dependable access to published and maintained collections of coherent and quality-assured semantic resources, including models such as archetypes and templates that would (1) provide clinical context, (2) be mapped to interoperability standards for EHR data, (3) be linked to well specified multi-lingual terminology value sets, and (4) be derived from high quality ontologies.
There is need to gain greater experience in how semantic resources should be defined, validated, and disseminated, how users (who increasingly will include patients) should be educated to improve the quality and consistency of EHR documentation and to make full use of it. There are urgent needs to scale up the authorship, acceptance, and adoption of clinical information standards, to leverage and harmonise the islands of standardisation optimally, to assure the quality of the artefacts produced, and to organise end-to-end governance of the development and adoption of solutions.