MedicAlert responds to SOA’s call

Web services overhaul enables those with vital medical emergency needs to trade in bracelets for USB fobs

When responsiveness is the lifeblood of your business, agile systems provide competitive advantage. But when your business involves responsiveness to medical emergencies, the ability to surface data quickly -- and clearly -- is essential to saving lives.

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Such was the realization for MedicAlert, a 50-year-old medical informatics company, which set about transforming its storage, retrieval, and sharing of biomedical data from legacy client/server systems to a modern, more universally accessible SOA in 2004.

If the name looks familiar it is probably because the MedicAlert emblem is engraved on bracelets worn by millions of people who need a way to share personal information, such as allergies or required medications, with an emergency responder when they are unable to communicate.

Up until now, all of that medical information was locked in a specialized database that supported a customized client application. Because the app and database were tightly coupled, this system could respond only to very specific requirements generated within a narrow scope, says Jorge Mercado, lead architect of the advanced technology group at MedicAlert.

"The first step was creating an infrastructure that could support Web services, XML, and Web service management," Mercado says, speaking of his solution to the legacy lock-in problem.

After that task had been completed, Mercado and team went about constructing new services to sit atop the infrastructure. This Web services wrapper became a conduit for mapping to multiple sources for data retrieval and data input. Now, instead of having to know how to specifically query a customized database, applications calling for data retrieval deal directly with Web services.

All told, the legacy system’s Web service makeover took about 12 months, Mercado says.

The newfound agility of MedicAlert’s SOA first bared fruit in the form of the company’s E-HealthKEY service, the first of many such services to come, Mercado says.

E-HealthKEY leverages the storage potential of USB keys or sticks, which allow MedicAlert members to convey far more information about their medical history and medical needs than they could with bracelets, which used medical shorthand that emergency responders would then need to interpret.

The Windows-based E-HealthKEY system runs on any PC. Insert the USB fob into a notebook or desktop, and the records can be accessed -- securely, though without the need for medical shorthand interpretation. The USB setup also allows members to update their files and synchronize all data from the MedicAlert back-end system.

MedicAlert’s SOA has given the company the ability to develop services far more quickly than it could with the old system. Moreover, it will enable MedicAlert to redevelop business processes around functionality rather than siloed data.

SOA is just the gateway to MedicAlert's greater goal -- namely, to help create a single standard for medical records that can be accessed securely by patients and practitioners alike.

"If you are not a healthy person, you have health records everywhere. Some of those records are probably out of date and will force hospitals to run tests that are unnecessary or to make incorrect assumptions," Mercado says.

MedicAlert has taken what it feels are two big steps toward changing all that. Step No. 3, a universal health care record, is still a ways off.

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