IHE Connectathon

You know how well networked computers work pretty well most of the time. But then sometimes you can't open an attachment you get from your friend or the formatting of the text is wrong or you can't open a site everybody else can open. Well unfortunately, the same thing happens in Healthcare IT. Except its your urgent heartscan or a list of your allergies that can't be handled.

Sakakibara-san and me working on our ultrasound machine

The thing about medical healthcare equipment is that if you buy equipment from different vendors its hard to be sure it really will work together seamlessly. Too many times hospitals buy equipment and it doesn't work perfectly. They can hire an expensive consultant to write a detailed spec before purchase that ensures things will work. But even if they can find a product that fully complies with it, the whole landscape is shifting and tomorrows needs might be unfulfillable.

IHE seeks to solve the problem by using existing standards to solve real world clinical challenges. They identify real world clinical requirements and then devise profiles that solve the problem. For example a patient registers in a hospital on one system is scheduled for a procedure on another, the procedure is performed on a third, resultant images are stored on a 4th and reviewed on a fifth. The Connectathon is an annual event which makers of the systems come to prove they have correctly implemented the profiles. Its a huge, high pressure, practical connectivity test with hundreds of system and engineer participants. The idea of the event is that if a hospital buys two pieces of equipment that have passed Connectathon then the equipment will work together. Its a great concept, and it really works.

At Connectathon, if you successfully complete enough tests you get an IHE Gold Star for your product. Most companies go with that as the main focus, but the whole event is very friendly and co-operative. Companies who spend the rest of the year trying to wipe eachother off the healthcare map work together at this event. Everybody at the event just wants to make connectivity work better.

When I first went to Connectathon it was held in a parking garage. Carpet was laid down, benches setup, and in the middle of a Chicago winter the place was kept warm by just the heat generated by hundreds of people and their systems. Now the event has grown up a bit its held in a hotel ballroom. But it still has a slightly gritty feel as hundreds of people working very hard to complete their tests. Its not unusual to see people modifying their code getting ready to try the test again (and again and again).

Part of one of the 4 rows of testers at the event

This year, Toshiba went with 4 systems. One of my colleagues and I were there to test our new ultrasound system. We had submitted for _a lot_ of tests. I don't mind telling you I was a little nervous. As usual the event got off to a slow start. People were getting set up and not all the infrastructure was working properly. But by the second day the pace quickened and we were doing a lot of tests. In years gone by half the challenge has been doing the tests in a timely matter and the other half has been fixing software that has this or that problem when connecting with our test partners. This year was nice because we didn't have any bugs or software problems to contend with, just a huge pile of tests to do. We had a brief moment of panic when we realized on the end of the 4th day that we hadn't documented some of our tests as well as we should have, but in the end the whole thing went pretty smoothly.

A test usually involves finding a test partner and checking a function or series of functions with them. For example in our first test we stored some of our data to a central archive and then found another company to retrieve it and make sure they could view it without difficulty. We logged the whole event and showed the logs to a moderator who passed us. Most tests are a bit more complicated than that, some involve more than 2 systems/companies.

The thing I like most about Connectathon is the tight focus. You are there to get Gold Stars for your product by passing tests. Then you are there to help others get theirs. The deadline in Friday lunchtime. When you come in in the morning you know exactly what to do. Even though the technical problems might be complicated, the process and decision making is dead simple. I wish work was clear cut like this every day of the year. Its easy to work really hard at Connectathon.

The Toshiba team relax after getting their Gold Stars.

The best strategy at Connectathon is to help everybody else, because in the next test you will need their help. There are very few tests that don't require you to find another company to help you complete even if it goes without a hitch. One year a direct competitor stayed late to help me with a test when the problem was 100% a problem with my equipment. This year we helped a bunch of companies with their problems. We've all been on the receiving end of such help, we've all handed it out. And if you don't try to help other companies out, then the pigeons will come home to roost very quickly. Of course everybody understands if a company can't help you right now because their quest for gold stars is in meltdown too.

And its a pretty small community so you get to know a lot of the smartest people in the field who are really nice and fun to be with. Even the moderators who check your logs to make sure you really did pass the tests you said you did are a friendly, fun group.

Its cold in Chicago in January.

The sad thing about IHE is that not enough buyers demand it. The whole thing doesn't get the play it should. Despite the fact that so many customer bemoan that connectivity at their site doesn't work as well as it should. I'm still quite sure it will catch on, the sites that do make use of it work much better. But until then I get to play with technologies at Connectathon that I never see in the field.