SAN DIEGO, Feb. 10, 2003 — Today at the annual conference of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), Microsoft unveiled the official name of a new product being developed by the Office group, Microsoft InfoPath, formerly code-named “XDocs.”
A screen shot of a healthcare form created using Microsoft InfoPath. Click image for high-res version.
With its support for customer-defined XML schemas, Microsoft InfoPath is able to support a variety of XML data standards, including Clinical Document Architecture (CDA), a national XML standard for the healthcare industry. This means that businesses can choose how they want to capture and store their data — since they know their information needs best.
InfoPath is a client application that combines the familiarity of a traditional word-processing program with the rigorous data-capture capabilities of a forms package. InfoPath connects end users directly to XML content and databases dynamically, allowing them to directly access, create and update key business data.
PressPass spoke with John Vail , director of the Information Worker Categories team at Microsoft, and Roberto Ruggeri , Healthcare Technical Strategist for the Microsoft Industry Solutions Group, about the value of InfoPath for the healthcare industry and the meaning behind the new name.
PressPass: What business problem is InfoPath designed to address?
Vail: Most businesses today widely acknowledge that the way they gather information is inefficient and cumbersome. They may manually collect the data on paper rather than electronically, which can result in a lot of errors. Or they may be using forms that are either difficult to use or aren’t flexible enough to accommodate their needs. When business processes change, the solutions then need to be revised and re-implemented, which can get very expensive.
InfoPath is an information gathering tool that is both flexible and easy to use. Using InfoPath’s design environment, businesses can create their own document templates — or use InfoPath’s ready-to-use sample forms — that give workers the ease of use and familiarity of a product like Microsoft Word, with all the structured rigor and data validation of a form.
And because InfoPath is built from the ground up to work with XML and supports industry standards such as CDA in healthcare, businesses can define their own company-specific and industry-specific schema, which is simply the structure of the information contained in their document templates. InfoPath then gathers that information based on those schema and integrates it with existing databases and servers. This kind of hybrid functionality makes it easier to reuse data within teams, across the enterprise or with other companies via XML Web services, so users could pull up information they already have to pre-populate the form, rather than having to start from scratch.
PressPass: What is the meaning behind the product’s new name?
Vail: The InfoPath name represents the essence of the application, which is collecting information for use as part of a business process. It functions as the starting point, or the front end of the business process, where you create, gather and pass information on to other business processes and people — so data can be turned into knowledge.
PressPass: How is InfoPath different from other information-gathering solutions?
Vail: One of the biggest advantages of InfoPath is that it provides a richer environment for gathering information, enabling businesses to gather more than just raw data; they can enter additional details to provide the data with context. So rather than looking simply at a big spike or drop in sales for a particular region, for example, you can collect data that provides more of an explanation for why your sales have been affected, so you can mine, reuse and analyze your data more effectively.
What this means is that the customer defines the overall structure of the information that will be gathered from an InfoPath form and what type of content each data element will contain. Being able to define your own schema is a critical business advantage, because no one knows what kind of information your company needs to gather better than you do.
PressPass: Can you talk more about the role of XML in InfoPath?
Vail: The general idea behind InfoPath’s support for XML is that XML provides a universal data interchange format that’s totally open and not constrained by any one vendor. XML as it relates to InfoPath means that businesses can create and capture their own business-specific information in a way that allows it to be reused with other business processes, other applications, other suppliers, other partners, and so on.
Ruggeri : I’d also like to add that, for the healthcare industry, XML is a very important technology. When you think about medical records or information that is relevant to your health, those records usually need to be maintained for quite some time — 7 to 10 years for adults and until the age of 21 for pediatric population. So XML is very important because it’s an agnostic technology that can survive system aging.
Vail: Yes, that’s something you see in all industries that are thinking about adopting XML, whether it’s financial institutions, the government, energy companies or other technical industries. The fact that XML is an open standard and anyone can work with it is super-critical. It gives businesses a stronger sense of ownership over their data and flexibility in terms of the solution and technology they want to use.
PressPass: Can you talk more about how InfoPath is relevant to the healthcare industry?
Ruggeri: Healthcare is a very fragmented industry. For instance, there are many small physician practices that have five or fewer staff members and absolutely no IT support. So it’s very hard to deploy a custom solution that requires a lot of administration, training and maintenance. InfoPath eases these requirements on all fronts.
As John mentioned earlier, InfoPath supports CDA, a national XML standard for the healthcare industry developed by HL7, a leading healthcare standards body. With CDA, HL7 has developed a national standard, based on XML, for how the healthcare industry views patient information contained in electronic medical records. But the problem up until now has been that there hasn’t been a readily available tool that would let users enter information into medical record systems according to the CDA standard. Instead, if businesses wanted CDA compliance, they had to build a custom solution to do it, which can be a multi million-dollar investment. With InfoPath, healthcare organizations can deploy CDA solutions much more easily and cost effectively using InfoPath forms that support customer-defined schemas.
Also, because InfoPath is a cross between a traditional word-processing program and a rigorous, sophisticated forms package, users will find the familiar Office user interface makes it easy to use InfoPath. HMOs, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies won’t need to go through an extensive training process to get their employees up to speed.
PressPass: What are some likely scenarios of how the healthcare industry might use InfoPath?
Ruggeri: One of the biggest advantages of InfoPath for the healthcare industry is the fact that it’s self-contained. Users don’t need to be online to enter information, yet that data still gets subjected to the rigors of data validation and compliance with the XML schema used in the InfoPath solution, whether it is an industry standard schema like CDA or a custom one. In the case of home care, this is a unique advantage. In this situation, nurses visit patients in their homes and have to collect a lot of patient data while they’re there. Because this information is usually collected on paper, the nurses often end up having to spend two or three hours back at the office retyping patient information into the back-end system. Using InfoPath and a laptop or a Tablet PC, nurses can enter the patient data onsite at the patient’s home and then quickly synchronize that content with the back-end system when they return to the office. In this type of situation, InfoPath can really help improve the productivity of the people who take care of these patients.
Another scenario is the pharmaceutical space, where at any point in time more than 12,000 clinical trials are being conducted worldwide at any given time. In each clinical trial a lot of information has to be gathered, such as possible side effects, vital signs and the like. Like the home-care scenario, gathering this kind of information is a very paper-intensive process that involves eventually having to re-key that information into a back-end system. And again, the re-keying of information leaves a lot of opportunity for human error. It can take days, or even weeks, before you realize there is an error, and at that point it can be difficult to access the original data and recover it. So using InfoPath to collect the data and perform vigorous validation can greatly reduce the time required to collect this information. For the pharmaceutical industry, this is no small advantage — reducing the drug development cycle by one day can save a pharmaceutical firm between US$3 and $4 million.
Part of Microsoft’s vision in healthcare is to enhance the flow of information, because getting the right information to the right place at the right time is the key to improving the quality of care and optimizing efficiencies across the entire healthcare delivery system.
PressPass: Can you talk a little more about this vision in healthcare?
Ruggeri: There are a number of different players in the healthcare space, including providers, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, the government, and most importantly, the consumer. All of these different players must communicate with one another, yet IT solutions in the healthcare arena traditionally have functioned in a silo, with each silo representing one of the various players. Microsoft’s vision is to bridge the gap between these silos and make it more efficient for the different players and their back-end systems to communicate with one another.
Vail: And InfoPath is a critical component of this vision. Its ease of deployment, ease of use, and support for XML standards make it possible for the different players within this and any industry to communicate more seamlessly.