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Syntactic and Semantic Interoperability April 8, 2019

by Francisco Jauregui

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) held its 2nd Interoperability Forum on August 6-8, 2018 in Washington, D.C. This event brought people together from ONC, federal partners, the healthcare industry and the technology sector to learn about recent efforts to advance interoperability nationwide and identify concrete actions in response to current interoperability barriers. While the focus of the ONC forum was on healthcare data, the concepts and challenges apply to any data.

At a high level, interoperability is the ability of two or more components or systems to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged. In general terms, there are two types of interoperability: syntactic and semantic. Sematic interoperability is more desirable than syntactic interoperability. With semantic interoperability, the data is not only exchanged between two or more systems but also understood by each system. Syntactic interoperability allows two or more systems to communicate and exchange data, however, the interface and programming languages are different.

To be effective, the design of any interoperability solution must consider and account for

  • the granularity of data to be shared
  • the matching of people or “actors” to assure the most effective and efficient outcomes
  • the continuum of participants in the flow of data
  • the business workflow (to reduce the likelihood of introducing a nonautomated step into the flow of data)

As inoperability becomes more prevalent, the proactive sharing of implementation concepts and practices will be important.

The Internet of Things (IoT) introduces new threats and data that will need to be secured and protected. Interoperability will help systems work smarter and more efficiently to protect data and assure it is secure.

Francisco Jauregui is a project manager at Electrosoft and supports the Veterans Health Administration.

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