Reversing the Tower of Babel

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The ancient city of Babylon had at its center a great tower called the Tower of Babel. The people of Babylon had toiled to build this great structure reaching up to the heavens. Babylon also had a common language, until as the story goes, God foiled the Babylonians by confusing their language so they could no longer understand one another and progress on the tower would cease.

As people sought to expand their boundaries and move apart, different dialects and languages evolved. Some 70 families were believed to be involved in this dispersion, adding up to about 1,000 people in three groups. With time, tongues were confused. As people could not understand one another, there was no alternative than for them to separate from one another.

This oversimplified, and less biblified, explanation of the origin of the major differences among human language and tongues - which now number almost 7,000 - mimics the creation of electronic health records. But in a kind of reversal of history, electronic health record advocates today are uniting vast systems with common languages - interoperability standards.

When I started in this business 13 years ago, proprietary software for imaging devices and IT systems was the thing marketing buzz was made of. Today, proprietary has gone the way of single slice CT scanners. Interoperability activities such as Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise (IHE) and standards such as DICOM, SNOMED and HL7 are the uniting languages. New associations like the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) EHR Vendor Association are addressing national efforts to create interoperable EHRs and advance adoption in hospitals and ambulatory care facilities. The association, with 21 founding members, looks to open up communication among vendors with regard to software development and functionality of EHR products, as you'll see in this month's cover story, "The Future of the EHR is Now," which begins on page 14.

The planets are definitely aligning around the EHR. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology just released a request for information that seeks industry input on conquering the interoperability challenges of a National Health Information Network. (See news, page 8; and to contribute, visit

Like the Babylonians, healthcare professionals are building a virtual tower of patient information, but this one is united by standards-based systems that will bring people and information together.

Happy Holidays from the staff of Health Imaging & IT, and a peaceful and prosperous New Year!