Let’s just dump the lab data on the Internet – not that easy

When I was at Chiron Diagnostics, a marketing manager was giving a talk about his informatics strategy. He noted the difficulty that labs had in accessing data from a variety of sources, especially with regard to “legacy” databases and offered as part of his strategy – “let’s just dump all of this data on the internet”.

I attended a talk recently about reducing errors in POCT (point of care testing). The speaker was advocating using web browsers to access lab data on the internet and offered as an advantage that “non-programmers can help design the software”.

These statements imply that setting up a program to use the internet to access lab data is easy. Since almost anyone can design a web page, then can anyone design a web based system to access lab data? The answer is no and this is why.

There is no “dumping the data on the internet”. The data, whether it will be on the internet or is on a network, still resides in a database (often SQL Server or Oracle) and one must be knowledgeable about these databases, including the table structures, the SQL query language, database security, and so on. So one must start with this knowledge but using the internet makes things more complicated not easier.

For example, the internet uses a stateless protocol. To see what a stateless protocol is consider the task of going to a web site, for example: http://www.aacc.org. Depending on your connection speed, after a short time, your screen fills up with the AACC start page and it is common to say “I’m at the AACC site and reading the content.” Although everyone says this, what really has happened is that when you have clicked on a hyperlink such as the AACC link, a request is sent from your PC to the AACC server to download the start page to your PC. When the download is complete, you are no longer connected to the AACC web site – you are reading the content from your own PC. In fact, if after the download was complete, the AACC server failed and was no longer online, you wouldn’t be aware of this unless you pressed reload.

This makes retrieving data from a database through the internet more complicated than over a network. Of course, it’s done all of the time, by using middleware such as ASP.net, which is a programming language. Unlike designing a web page, using these programming languages is not for everyone. Finally, one must also understand the web server upon which this service runs, especially the security and authentication methods.

So non-programmers really can’t help design the software.

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