EMR Data Archival Strategy Deep Dive – Tackling EHR & EMR Transition Series

The following is a guest blog post by Robert Downey, VP of Product Development at Galen Healthcare Solutions.

Inside the world of data archival (Download this Free Data Archive Whitepaper for a deep dive into the subject), there are nearly as many different types of archives as there are vendors. Many of the existing archival solutions that have gained popularity with large healthcare organizations are ones that are also frequently utilized by other sectors and often claim to be able to “archive anything.”

This can be very appealing, as an organization going through a merger will often retire dozens or even hundreds of systems, some clinical, but most only tangentially related to the delivery of care. HR systems, general ledger financial systems, inventory management, time tracking, inventory tracking systems, and CRMs are just a few of the systems that might also be slated for the chopping block. The idea of retiring all of these into a single logical archival solution is very appealing, but this approach can be a dangerous one. The needs of healthcare organizations are not necessarily the same as the needs of other sectors.
To understand why some archival approaches are superior to others, it’s useful to visualize the way each of the solutions extract, store, and visualize data. The methodologies used typically trade fidelity (how well it preserves the original shape and precision of the data) for accessibility (how easy it is to get at the information you need), and they trade how easily the solution can archive disparate sources of data (such as archiving both an EMR and a time-tracking system) with, again, accessibility.

There are certainly other ways to judge an archival solution. For instance, an important factor may be whether or not the solution is hosted by the archival vendor on-premises or remotely. Some factors, such as the reliability of the system, service level agreements, or its overall licensing cost are big inputs into the equation as well, but those aren’t necessarily specific to the overall archival strategy utilized by the solution. There are also factors that are so critical, such as security and regulatory compliance, that deficiencies in these areas are deal-breakers. Now that we have the criteria with which to judge the solution, let’s delve into the specific archival strategies being used in the marketplace.

Raw Data Backups
A shockingly large number of organizations treat raw data backups of the various databases and file systems as their archival solution. There are some scenarios in which this may be good enough, such as when the source system is not so much being retired as it is being upgraded or otherwise still maintained. Another scenario might be when the data in question comes from systems so well known that the organization won’t have significant issues retrieving information when it becomes necessary. The greatest benefit to this approach is that acquiring the data is fairly trivial. Underlying data stores almost always offer easy built-in backup mechanisms. Indeed, the ability to back up data is a certification requirement for EMRs, as well as a HIPAA and HITECH legal requirement. This strategy also offers “perfect” data fidelity, as the data is in the raw, original format.
Once it actually comes time to access the “archived” data, however, the organization is forced to fully reverse engineer the underlying database schemas and file system encodings. This leads to mammoth costs and protracted timelines for even simple data visualization, and it’s a major undertaking to offer any kind of significant direct clinician or compliance access to data.

Another danger with raw database backups is that many clinical system vendors have language in their licensing related to the “reverse engineering” of their products. So while it may be “your” data, the vendor may consider their schema intellectual property — and the act of deciphering it, not to mention keeping a copy of it after the licensing agreements with the system vendor have been terminated — may well be a direct violation of the original licensing agreement.

Hybrid Modeled / Extracted Schema
A common approach utilized by healthcare-specific archival solutions is to create a lightweight EMR and practice management schema that includes the most common data attributes from many different source system vendors and then map the data in the source system to this fully modeled schema. The mapping involved is usually limited to fieldtype mapping rather than dictionary mapping, although occasionally, dictionary data which feeds user interface aspects such as grouping (problem categories, for instance) may require some high-level mapping.

This approach usually yields excellent clinical accessibility because the vendor can create highly focused clinical workflows just like an EMR vendor can. Since these visualizations don’t need to be created or altered based on the source system being archived, it means that there is generally no data visualization implementation cost.
As the mapping is limited to the schema, the extraction and load phase is usually not as expensive as a full EMR data migration, but because every required source field must have a place in the target archival schema, the process is typically more time-consuming and expensive than the hybrid modeled / extracted schema or non-discrete document approaches. That said, vendors that have a solid library of extraction processes for various source systems can often offer lower initial implementation costs than would otherwise be possible.

The compliance accessibility and data fidelity of this strategy can be problematic, however, as unknown fields are often dropped and data types are frequently normalized. This fundamentally alters a substantial portion of the data being archived in the same way that a full data migration can — although, again, not as severely given the typical lack of data dictionary mapping requirements. In some cases, vendors will recommend that a full backup of the original data be kept in addition to the “live” archive, providing some level of data fidelity problem mitigation. Should a compliance request require this information, however, the organization may be left in a similar position to those utilizing raw data backups or extracted schema stores with no pre-built visualizations.

Archival solutions utilizing this strategy may also frequently require augmentation by the vendor as new sources of data are encountered. This can make the implementation phase longer, as those changes typically need to happen before any data can be loaded.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all archival solution across organizations, and even within an organization, when determining the strategy for multiple systems. Another key takeaway is to always be wary of all the “phases of implementation.” Many vendors will attempt to win deals with quick and inexpensive initial implementations, but they leave significant work for when the data actually needs to be visualized in a meaningful way. That task either falls on the organization, or it must be further contracted with the archival solution provider.

It also is valuable to consider solutions specifically designed for archival purposes and, ideally, one that focuses on the healthcare sector. There are simply too many archival-specific scenarios to utilize a general purpose data backup, and many organizations find that the healthcare-specific requirements make general purpose archival products ill-suited for their needs.

Download Galen Healthcare’s full archival whitepaper to evaluate available EMR data migration & EMR data archival options and processes critical to EMR replacement and legacy system decommissioning.

About Robert Downey
Robert is Vice President, Product Development, at Galen Healthcare Solutions. He has nearly 10 years of healthcare IT experience and over 20 years in Software Engineering. Robert is responsible for design and development of Galen’s products and supporting technology, including the VitalCenter Online Archival solution. He is an expert in healthcare IT and software development, as well as cloud based solutions delivery. Connect with Robert on LinkedIn.

About Galen Healthcare Solutions
Galen Healthcare Solutions is an award-winning, #1 in KLAS healthcare IT technical & professional services and solutions company providing high-skilled, cross-platform expertise and proud sponsor of the Tackling EHR & EMR Transition Series. For over a decade, Galen has partnered with more than 300 specialty practices, hospitals, health information exchanges, health systems and integrated delivery networks to provide high-quality, expert level IT consulting services including strategy, optimization, data migration, project management, and interoperability. Galen also delivers a suite of fully integrated products that enhance, automate, and simplify the access and use of clinical patient data within those systems to improve cost-efficiency and quality outcomes. For more information, visit www.galenhealthcare.com. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.