A new Health Care Interoperability Forum (HCIF) has been set up to actively support the design of interoperability standards covering over 90 data flows which occur in the patient’s journey through the UK health system.

The forum says its members are drawn from all the leading GP, out of hours and NHS Direct system suppliers and some suppliers serving hospitals. Member companies, who currently number 18, have signed up to a memorandum of understanding which commits them to time, effort and pro-rata funding of various work streams associated with setting interoperability standards.

A statement announcing the forum’s formation said, “The companies are attaching high priority to the project and believe these developments will be seen in hindsight as pivotally important.”

The lack of common interoperability standards has been one of the key factors holding back the exchange of information between systems in the NHS.

HCIF chair, Dr Leo Fogarty, who is an independent consultant, said, “I think this is an extremely important piece of work. After many years of trying to produce interoperability standards, the single missing brick in the wall has been having the suppliers wanting to do this.”

He said the National Programme for IT in the NHS had been a big factor in bringing the group together, but discussions between suppliers ante-dated the National Programme. Primary care IT suppliers in particular had been having discussions among themselves before the National Programme was conceived.

“The suppliers perceived there was a user demand for interoperability standards and there was no other place that these standards were going to come from,” said Dr Fogarty.

The collaboration does raise commercial issues for suppliers. As Dr Fogarty explained, “For example, if you are selling laboratory systems, in effect, you have to tell other suppliers, ‘This is how we do our business’.”

Companies have had to weigh the competitive disadvantages of collaboration on standards against the commercial advantages which include meeting the requirements of an NHS that is absolutely determined to crack the interoperability problem.

“The environment in healthcare is such that the psychological barrier has been passed,” said Dr Fogarty.

The new interoperability standards generated by the forum will be based around the international standard, HL7 version 3. The forum is commissioning work by HL7UK informatics experts and is supporting the new National Programme Design Authority and the NHS Information Standards Board. An early project will cover discharge and referral information.

“We’ve had discussions with the Design Authority and established in principle that we can meet their needs. These discussions are ongoing,” said Dr Fogarty.

Any companies wanting more information about the forum can contact Dr Fogarty at lfogarty@cix.co.uk