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Changing EHRs from the inside out with containerized services

Looking back, the widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) in the United States was a considerable feat. In 2009, less than 8% of acute care hospitals had implemented a basic EHR. By 2017, that number shot up to 96%. We’re now half a decade past that point, but the way EHRs work largely remains unchanged. Often, they simply function as electronic representations of paper medical records.

Digitally transforming the EHR will open new opportunities for healthcare organizations to improve clinical and operational performance. One advancement that will enable the next era of EHRs are containerized services. While containers are commonly used across other technology sectors, they are just beginning to prove their potential in healthcare.

Here’s what healthcare organizations should know about containerized services and how they can change the way we think of EHRs.

Containerized services explained

Containerized services are isolated, reusable components of code that drive a particular function and can be updated or replaced without affecting the rest of the application. These self-contained services are connected to a hub, called an enterprise service bus (ESB), that enables the services to share data and communicate in a standardized way. Using containerization, technology providers like Altera Digital Health can make modifications to solutions without affecting the frontend user experience and with near-zero downtime. Additionally, containerized services can be deployed on-premises or in the cloud.

To use an analogy, think of an ESB like the electrical architecture in your home and containerized services as your electronic devices. If you wanted to replace your toaster or move your television from your living room to your home office, you could simply unplug and replace them. However, if you wanted to swap your refrigerator with a gas stove, this would be much more challenging as there is no centralized architecture powering your appliances. You would need to develop a standardized way of transmitting power so you can easily plug in new technology.

For a health IT example, with Sunrise™ we can add new data elements to change the filter criteria for pulling a patient list without bringing down the entire application. But with traditional EHRs, downtime is required for developers to make modifications because an application’s different services may be dependent on each other to run.

A new kind of EHR

In addition to reducing or eliminating downtime, containerization offers several benefits. First, services that have more data processing requirements can be pushed onto a separate server and run independently while still providing data back into an application. This enables the application to remain performant while minimizing the computing resources needed for the application to run (and helps control the cost to run it).

Additionally, containerization can help improve interoperability, which remains cumbersome across health IT. A service bus could be used to connect different downstream applications to the EHR. Using Sunrise again as an example, we can share information more easily between its containerized services and third-party applications, such as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution.

The ability to plug-and-play external solutions means that healthcare organizations can also leverage new innovations faster and more easily. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and robotic process automation (RPA) applications can connect to the containerized service bus so Altera and other third-party solutions can leverage those services as well.

Health IT has not always had a reputation for being on the cutting edge, but with enhancements like containerized services, we can reimagine EHRs for the benefit of patients and providers alike. Learn more about how Altera is transforming the EHR here.

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