Snomed CT Conference and Smart Healthcare Expo 2008, part 2

Following part 1 , I’d like to talk about a little bit about the importance of user interfaces in medical informatics in general, their relationship to terminologies and Microsoft CUI as an important attempt. Snomed CT 2008 had many interesting speakers, one of them being a team member from Microsoft CUI team, who was accompanied by a colleague of his from the same team.

Their presentation was about the user interfaces they’ve been developing with NHS for Microsoft CUI, which I’ve mentioned before. Inevitability I recalled the past efforts during the development of a hospital information system by a team which I was leading at the time. I remember the solution that was produced in response to the coding requirements. Put a tree on user interface, and add something else, like a text box so that the user (presumably the doctor) can click on the tree with the mouse, or use the text box to type in some sort of keyword to navigate to related code on the tree easily.

This is a classical software developer response to a very, very important requirement in medical informatics. In fact, the flexibility and efficiency of the solution for this basic requirement is actually a shame on our account. Here “our account” is used to point finger to technical people who are in charge of creating systems that will be used by medical staff. This is a very common response by the way. If you get a bunch of developers and tell them to build a user interface that’d allow the user to select a code for a particular condition, they’ll ask you about the coding system. For most of the coding systems, exactly at he second the developers hear the word “hierarchy” they’ll think about a tree. Yes, a nice tree, maybe a little enhanced, like icons, or colored text for tree nodes etc.. But still, a tree. I guess a tree is the most common method we have at the moment for representing a hierarchy in the user interface, but its usability is not very scalable. In fact it is very likely that you will have a higher number of nodes in real life usage in a tree, than the development scenarios, and in real life, users will hate your tree.

Why focus on the issue with trees so much? Because it is a very common tool for technology supplier part of healthcare informatics, and it is mostly a major setback to adoption of information systems in many scenarios. Real life example: I had a urinal track infection, and went to see a doctor in a government hospital. The doctor simply asked for some tests, and she was using a hospital information system that was developed by a company that I also worked for in the past. She just opened the relevant screen for requesting lab tests, and clicked on a node on a tree, selecting a totally irrelevant code for the condition. Needless to say, I warned her, and the response was terrifying. She told me that the software forced her to perform a coding by selecting an item from the tree (we’re talking about ICD by the way). Smart is it not? No coding, no requests. But she simply hated the user interface, and did not have the time to struggle with it, according to her own words. So, she chose a random item each time.

Results? Well, how about messing up the whole effort for DRG even before it begins? Or not being able to do any fraud detection, or decision support, or any analysis on the data, when almost all doctors are doing the same for almost all lab tests. In real life, the government hospital will send this information to social security institution and ask for the costs, and usual analysis by the experts will see that some unrelated tests are requested for my condition. It is quite possible that the payment for the government hospital will be delayed at best, and you’ll have a heap of problems which are reflected on health of real people.

This is why, Microsoft’s CUI is very, very important. When technical people make assumptions about a domain without knowing all there is to know about it, (or all there must be known), the results can be devastating. Snomed CT conference showed one important thing: coding systems, which can be placed at a much lower position in the complexity scale, compared to modern medical modeling efforts are everywhere! They are way more common in implementation than the ongoing HL7 V3 or OpenEHR work, and you can not neglect this fact. Actually, the mentioned standards also recognize this fact. Some other presentations which I’ll mention in future posts also prove this point, everything from decision support to clinical guidelines use coding systems, they give you a simple method for adding semantics to raw data. But you have to allow the staff to use coding systems without causing loss of time to them.

Usability in user interface becomes so critical in some parts of medical informatics, that you can miss many opportunities for making good use of data, just because you’ve assigned the task of building the coding system for user interface to a regular developer, just someone from the team. Hopefull, MS and MDs from NHS will come up with better solutions for this minor looking but important problem, so that we can actually benefit from the data for which we’ve been spending billions to collect.

This is the first part of my comments related to CUI, and the second part is related to backend of the terminology that is used, which will be next post. That’s another issue that deserves its own post.

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