Start using RSS for health/medical alerts and data sharing

As most of us bloggers already know, Really Simple Syndication (RSS), is pretty popular in the blogosphere. It’s a wonderful solution to the “how do I tell everyone I have new stuff without sending out a bunch of emails?” problem. Although it’s quite popular for syndicating content like news, blog articles, and related information I think RSS has a chance to make a huge impact on healthcare and medical data sharing.

Today medical devices send out alerts using one or more mechanims in a “push based” approach. For example, the device manufacturer has to write software to send alerts via e-mail, pager, phone, etc whenever some programmed action occurs in their device. In the healthcare IT world data sharing occurs through HL7 in a hub-and-spoke or publish/scribe model where all information is published to a broker and that broker is queried for things like new lab results, updated patient information, etc.

Well, what if all medical devices had the ability to respond to RSS requests on various channels? For critical messages the push method would be fine but for other kinds of messages we could have a channel which an IT system could poll every second, minute, or over many hours depending upon how often the system wanted an update from a device. Instead of all the devices always sending out all messages, why not put in some simple code to respond to RSS requests and separate the different message types into RSS channels? This way, the “pull based” approach allows the device to be more responsive to each client instead of having to use a broker model to send out all messages.

What if health IT systems from Cerner, Misys, McKesson, etc also had this capability? Suppose I wanted to use my mobile device (which will all have RSS feed readers installed) to be able to check on labs for a particular group of patients? I could simply subscribe to a specific channel in a Lab Management System’s RSS feed and get what I need without having to go through a broker. If I’m a doctor and I have a finite number of patients, I can simply subscribe to an RSS feed of my patient’s data in all the various IT systems and pull together my own aggreator.

Think about RHIOs and how they could use RSS to subscribe to information across multiple health IT systems.

I think with a little creativity, building in RSS publishers inside our medical devices and health IT systems like EMRs and HIS would go a long way towards helping create more interoperable systems. Of course, content and messaging standards like HL7 would not be replaced but would become the de facto standard of the payloads in the messages that RSS feeds could publish.

What do you think? Ready to start a company based on this idea? I’m game 🙂

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22 thoughts on “Start using RSS for health/medical alerts and data sharing

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  2. It’s important to clarify the differences between RSS (the concept) and RSS 2.0 the format for this. The concept of a client polling a master system for a data feed is a great idea. Picturing doctors monitoring separate data streams for labs is just one great idea here that does away with client-server problems. But RSS 2.0 the format fails us here.

    The problem is that RSS 2.0 fails to define many of it’s elements and can have silent data loss. You wouldn’t want that during a labs feed. Also, updates to previously fetched feeds can prove problematic. A better solution is Atom (think of it as RSS done correctly). Among other things, it remedies the two problems listed above (silent data loss and handling updated information).

    For more information on these problems you can read Sam Ruby’s detente piece

    Silent data loss is the biggest problem here. You need to ensure that the information that needs to come across does so fully and accurately. Anything else is unacceptable.

    And HL7 should of course be the payload (along with other complimentary information). Of course we’ll need custom aggregators that can understand HL7 and display the information in a meaningful way.

  3. Great points, Lou. It was my intention to discuss the concept more than the technology but it’s great that you’ve described the technology in a bit more detail in case I led anyone astray. Thanks!

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  7. I think this is a great idea – the idea as RSS as an alert rather than ‘news’.

    We have been working on a heads-up-display that could actually be the IT department’s method of being alerted to machine breakdowns.

    We call it Touchstone and the idea is they could subscribe to all the feeds from all the medial devices and Touchstone would alert them on the desktop when something happened (less like news, more like an alert).

    It also supports changes instead of just new items – so Touchstone could visualize the status of all devices in a hospital (for example) and show as items change state.

    You can see our work so far at

    Great idea!

  8. Seems like a great idea. I love the “attention management engine” slogan 🙂

    Let me know if you need some help putting together something specific for healthcare — it can certainly be useful for health IT data centers.

  9. You know we could also broaden this idea to include alerting doctors and nurses to certain things couldn’t we? I know nothing about healthcare – but I know that Touchstone was designed to be a unified alerts delivery mechanism.

    With more and more doctors using mobile PCs, Touchstone could help determine who needs to know what and alert them.

    In regard to something specific for healthcare, Touchstone, at its heart, is actually a platform rather than a product. There are Input adapters so that you can get information from any datasource, and there are output adapters that can be designed to visualize information to suite a Doctor’s needs while their on the run – even so far as visualizing an item as a Page on a pager or something (do they still use pagers? haha)

    I don’t know if we have the understanding or the resources to focus on healthcare ourselves, but we are about to publish an SDK for input/output adapters and it would be great if you knew someone who might be interested.

    Also, because it’s so domain specific, they could even sell the adapters and make some money off our platform!

    Drop me a line if you like –

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  14. Hi,
    Iam a US trained physician based in India. I was surprised to the core that there are others who had the same thinking as mine! I have been trying to create a simple Lab information and hospital wide announcement system using RSS. Infact as I work on it, I see more use than Lab and Announcements. Surgical lists and lists of patients in dynamic areas and data associated with them (ER, ICU, PACU etc) can be fed through RSS. I use a automated polling software which refreshes every few minutes. I have gone a step ahead and ported this to Palm devices using Plucker/Sunrise combination. But strangely, it requires a parallel Health information network, a dedicated person to co-ordinate and maintain feeds and I am still not clear about what security loop holes it create! Iam still experimenting. Very glad to see another person sharing this thought. Do keep in touch!

  15. Balaji, glad to hear that we’re on the same wavelength. Please let us know how your implementation is coming along so that others can learn from it. If you’d like to put together a guest article about what you’ve done, how it’s benefitted you and your organization, and what lessons you’ve learned I’d be happy to publish it for you.

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