Weaving a Data Fabric

October 28, 2022

How Open Standards Layer Data for Easier Transfer, Consumption and Interpretation

There’s a very good chance that you’ve heard the term “data fabric” before. But what exactly is a data fabric? Think of it as a digital structure created when networks are woven together to share data and information. The “fabric” itself is really just a mechanism by which information and services are interconnected. It allows for a wider availability and movement of information and services that have the power to change healthcare technology as we know it.

Data fabric is an emerging technological architecture, designed for attaining flexible, reusable and augmented data management.

Data fabric is an emerging technological architecture, designed for attaining flexible, reusable and augmented data management. It utilizes the benefits of human-facing care and interoperable systems when accessing information. This allows data to be integrated to current and future metadata assets that can be shared among various platforms.

To put it simply, data fabric allows for layers of data and tools to be built onto an existing system so each layer enriches the others and, when viewed holistically, makes it easier to consume and interpret the information. Data can quickly transfer between assets, allowing for users to make better, more informed, decisions. 

The goal of data fabric is to provide the mechanism by which multiple independent technologies can interoperate against the same data source. It implements applications to work with well established data structures, Application Programming Interface (API) sets, terminology—to name a few—that already exist in an environment and utilizes standardized tools.

Thread by Thread: Understanding Data Fabrics

In healthcare especially, information needs to be structured while being constantly updated. Data fabrics enable just that and work as a mechanism that provides, stores, organizes and updates health information through a collection of services and capabilities. Similar to a tapestry, the threads of information are pulled in the same direction, meshing together, allowing for the endpoints to have the same interpretation and uses. The pieces of information travel through complex loops, weaving together health records.

There are dozens of applications used in healthcare—all of which have their own sources and formats of data connected to other systems via custom APIs to facilitate the use of that information. And it’s common for the industry to have many different separate data source models. Each system has a user interface; it has a workflow, a set of content that's necessary for the user to do their jobs. What often is missing is a consistent and established pathway for how that information is efficiently, accurately, and securely shared. Additionally, when a new application—like health data stored on a patient’s phone—enters the picture, there’s no context or connection with the existing systems and silos of information.

A health data fabric fills those gaps, as it is woven into and wraps around existing EHRs (which hold a wealth of data trapped within them) and uses the power of the Health Level 7 (HL7®) Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR®) specification standard for exchanging healthcare information electronically, to ingest and clean up the volume of data available. Open standards make data fabrics possible. When an application is built on top of data that’s stored in an open source, each application can benefit from the other. Data fabrics connect the existing data and uses open standards to ingest and sort the volume of available data.

Just like you can weave a pattern on fabrics—and see that pattern from a distance—the information on a data fabric is intended to be identified and understood. Whether this be for various use cases or other future applications, information is clearly displayed with different pathways—or patterns. The analytics patterns that emerge are important for improving healthcare.

Data Fabrics as an End to Healthcare Data Silos

As healthcare providers and payers all tend to use data sources unique to their own organizations, the process of data sharing is extremely complicated, laborious and expensive due to proprietary data modeling. Current processes mean that patients are receiving inconsistent care; their information isn’t being shared among care providers because relevant data can’t be transferred to another organization in a timely manner. A data fabric simplifies the process of sharing data between systems.

Rather than have a strategy to connect information, there’s no system to make data available to the users who need access to it; instead, it’s currently exported from one system to another. Every time a new system is needed to access one patient’s data, a new copy is created and a new silo is built. This makes syncing that patient’s data more difficult. When a system uses open standards, however, there’s a more effective and efficient way to share and store data.

Whether clinical information needs to be shared across different hospitals or patient details shared between a provider and a payer, there is a fundamental need for relevant information to flow in near real-time. This becomes especially important when there’s a population health concern with greater volumes of information being exchanged. 

Once a data fabric is created, data can be accessed across hybrid and cloud-based platforms and is connected from varying applications and moved to a new application suite where it still exists with full access to the information. This provides more information and disambiguates content. All of that activity is then available to the other applications in the data fabric; they each get upgrades to any individual application because the information set outcome is richer and more readily available.

Without data fabrics, siloed systems will continue to reign. The current state of healthcare—which doesn’t have a consistent and established pathway for information to be conveniently shared—has no support for new applications to connect with existing information.

Essentially, a data fabric uses open standards in a way that has meaningful outcomes by applying shared and discoverable data across multiple systems. It delivers the capability for applications to drop in and out and participate in a consistent information model of other platforms. The benefits to this include a hybrid storage solution, active intent, standardized schema and coding, realized semantic interoperability, native knowledge graphs and a healthcare industry data value domain.

How Does Smile Digital Health Come into Play?

Any piece of a data fabric can mesh with another, making them bigger. This is especially true when using a standard like FHIR. In fact, thanks to FHIR, you can take all of the information and services you have and make them available externally with those using the same standards. 

If you share patient data with another healthcare provider, the same mechanisms can be integrated in order to use that patient information as part of their care plan. This could be statistical information, research data or average genomic information; the ability to participate is limited only by the need and the motivation of the participants. It's no longer bound by the opaque ways of proprietary structured information services. 

Just like the solutions we deliver at Smile Digital Health. They’re no longer dependent on an understanding of technology choices in terms of basic infrastructure. Our current health data platform is designed to store information that can be useful by supporting research and providing more capabilities. In the near future, we’ll improve the platform by building rich user interfaces and workflows.

When we use the internet today, we don’t spend any time considering the nature of the TCP/IP connection. This ease and ubiquitousness is the future we are working to build with healthcare data fabrics at Smile. It isn’t just about how our platform meets the current goals of our customers. It’s the value-add of bringing applications that can read or work with FHIR to plug into the larger fabric and enable analysis, trend identification—and truly begin to solve healthcare inefficiencies and inequities across nations. 

If we collectively do it right, healthcare will be vastly improved—for everyone.

Reach out to our team to learn more about how Smile Digital Health can help develop your own innovation platform that makes you #SmileInside.