In healthcare IT — specifically with interoperability — connectathons are where the rubber meets the road.
If you follow industry news, you’ve likely read about challenges in healthcare interoperability. To be sure, we have a lot of challenges.
Patients have a hard time accessing their own health information, making it difficult to manage their health. Providers often lack access to patient data at the point of care. Payers often lack access to clinical data on their members.
On top of this, we have more data coming in from outside the typical care settings, thanks to remote monitoring devices and other patient-generated health data from smartwatches and other wearables.
How do we standardize and exchange this data with the right people at the right time to provide better patient care? And how do we meet the changing regulatory requirements around healthcare data exchange?
These are complex problems, and many healthcare organizations are coming up with solutions to help improve interoperability. But the solutions need to be tested to see if they’ll actually work in the real world.
That’s where connectathons come in.
What Is a Connectathon?
At a connectathon, healthcare organizations of all sorts — health systems, payers, health IT vendors, government entities, you name it — send their best and brightest IT minds to see if their product’s data-exchange capabilities are compatible with other products either in use or in development in the healthcare industry.
These events are usually held face-to-face, typically at a conference center. Participation is key for healthcare organizations to prove that their solutions work in a non-competitive environment.
“Connectathons give us an opportunity to try things that most of our customers aren’t doing yet — to see things that are coming over the hill,” says Christopher Stehno, solutions architect for Corepoint Health. “They allow us to test different features of our products so they’re implemented by the time our customers start asking for them.”
Katelyn Formal, solution consultant for Rhapsody, says, “At a Connectathon, we have the chance to thoroughly test communication with a wide variety of peers. Through testing of both industry-adopted and emerging standards-based workflows, we can ensure our product features align with real-world transactions. The end-end testing ensures we support all requirements including security, communication protocols, messaging payloads, and audit logging, so we are confident our customers can seamlessly implement standards-based interfaces.”
Who Organizes or Hosts Connectathons?
Several different organizations host connectathons, including HL7 and Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise (IHE) International. Both groups organize multiple connectathons each year all over the world.
The HL7 FHIR connectathons focus on developing and validating the FHIR specification (rather than conformance of applications to FHIR). There’s also a heavy emphasis on networking and building the community.
The HL7 organization itself hosts many connectathons, and so do some of their affiliates and other organizations around the world. For instance, The DaVinci Project is a private sector initiative with the goal of helping payers and providers to positively impact clinical, quality, cost, and care management outcomes. It recently hosted its first connectathon in December 2019.
IHE Connectathons, by contrast, are geared to conformance testing of specific IHE “profiles.” Profiles specify how “actors” use standards to address specific healthcare workflows. IHE defines standards for use cases that healthcare organizations encounter on a daily basis, such as querying for patients, retrieving documents, or interacting with medical devices.
IHE’s North American connectathon is hosted each January. If participants at this event verify the IHE Profiles that they’re testing, they have the opportunity to participate in the HIMSS Interoperability Showcase.
Who Participates in Connectathons?
Connectathons bring together developers from just about every part of the healthcare landscape: health systems, health IT vendors, payers, health plans, health information exchanges (HIEs), and even government groups.
The developers in the room are generally pretty seasoned and have a high level of specialization and expertise. They also bring the latest and greatest products or tools from the organizations they represent.
“The technical expertise of connectathon attendees is so impressive,” says Formal, who attended her first connectathon in 2019. “Organizations send their product experts so it’s a great opportunity to learn from each other and collaborate.”
“Very few CTOs or CIOs participate. Instead, it’s the people on the ground in the trenches — the people who CXOs are looking to,” says Stehno, who has been attending connectathons for Corepoint Health since 2013.
What Happens at a Connectathon?
IHE describes its connectathon as a “cross-vendor, live, supervised and structured testing event where industry leaders test implementations of IHE Profiles to advance health IT interoperability.” IHE profiles describe specific solutions to interoperability problems and spell out how actors use standards to address a specific healthcare use case.
HL7 describes its FHIR connectathon like this: “The Connectathon is not a formal tutorial, and there are no lectures or presentations. Participants engage in hands-on, heads-down development and testing, working directly with other FHIR developers and senior members of the FHIR standards development team. This is a chance to get your hands dirty and learn by helping evolve the FHIR specification.”
“We at least get an idea of what’s coming over the hill before the full-blown implementation guide is released,” Stehno says. “Organizations wouldn’t want to invest development resources into something that may or may not see the light of day, and connectathons are a safe environment to test something before committing a lot resources to it.”
What Developments Have Come from Past Connectathons?
Corepoint Health has tested dozens of IHE Profiles in recent years, including mobile alerting for patient identification and regional HIE connectivity.
Rhapsody developed an IHE Toolkit as a result of connection testing, and launched the Co-Creation lab in 2019, so testing of complex use cases with outside organizations is not limited to just connectathon events.
IHE publishes the results of its connectathons here. HL7 provides details from past FHIR Connectathons here.
This year, Corepoint Health and Rhapsody will send representatives to several connectathons. At the time of this post, we’re planning to attend the IHE North America Connectathon and the HIMSS Interoperability Showcase.
If you’re planning to attend one of these events in 2020, let us know.
We’d love to, ahem, connect.