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Implementation of workflow engine technology to deliver basic clinical decision support functionality

Vojtech Huser12*, Luke V Rasmussen1, Ryan Oberg1 and Justin B Starren3

Author Affiliations

1 Biomedical Informatics Research Center, Marshfield Clinic, Marshfield, WI, USA

2 Morgridge Institute for Research, Madison, WI, USA

3 Division of Biomedical Informatics, Department of Preventive Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2011, 11:43  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-43

Published: 10 April 2011

Abstract

Background

Workflow engine technology represents a new class of software with the ability to graphically model step-based knowledge. We present application of this novel technology to the domain of clinical decision support. Successful implementation of decision support within an electronic health record (EHR) remains an unsolved research challenge. Previous research efforts were mostly based on healthcare-specific representation standards and execution engines and did not reach wide adoption. We focus on two challenges in decision support systems: the ability to test decision logic on retrospective data prior prospective deployment and the challenge of user-friendly representation of clinical logic.

Results

We present our implementation of a workflow engine technology that addresses the two above-described challenges in delivering clinical decision support. Our system is based on a cross-industry standard of XML (extensible markup language) process definition language (XPDL). The core components of the system are a workflow editor for modeling clinical scenarios and a workflow engine for execution of those scenarios. We demonstrate, with an open-source and publicly available workflow suite, that clinical decision support logic can be executed on retrospective data. The same flowchart-based representation can also function in a prospective mode where the system can be integrated with an EHR system and respond to real-time clinical events. We limit the scope of our implementation to decision support content generation (which can be EHR system vendor independent). We do not focus on supporting complex decision support content delivery mechanisms due to lack of standardization of EHR systems in this area. We present results of our evaluation of the flowchart-based graphical notation as well as architectural evaluation of our implementation using an established evaluation framework for clinical decision support architecture.

Conclusions

We describe an implementation of a free workflow technology software suite (available at http://code.google.com/p/healthflow webcite) and its application in the domain of clinical decision support. Our implementation seamlessly supports clinical logic testing on retrospective data and offers a user-friendly knowledge representation paradigm. With the presented software implementation, we demonstrate that workflow engine technology can provide a decision support platform which evaluates well against an established clinical decision support architecture evaluation framework. Due to cross-industry usage of workflow engine technology, we can expect significant future functionality enhancements that will further improve the technology's capacity to serve as a clinical decision support platform.