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XML (eXtensible Markup Language)

XML, the eXtensible Markup Language is the brainchild of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an organisation that is dedicated to developing and harnessing the full potential of the Internet.

XML is probably the most revolutionary of the new technologies to come about since the introduction of the World Wide Web. Since its conception in February 1998, XML has grown to become the standard platform for information exchange and management in almost all industries, including healthcare.

XML, which looks like HTML (Hypertext Markup Language - a technology that is used to build web pages), is a descendent of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which has been around since 1960s, however XML is more suited for the Internet. Both languages, XML and SGML, are both meta-languages, which are languages that can be used to create vocabularies that are relevant to their information. Another common feature is that of descriptive markup. Descriptive markup allows for information to be inserted into a document that computers use, in a structured manner and this makes it independent of both the system on which the document was created and of the processing to be performed on it.


These two features of XML make any information encapsulated by XML independent of any software or system. These factors along with the fact that it is easy to learn and it is license-free have contributed to the success of XML and it probably came as no surprise to any one when the Health Level 7 (HL7) organisation announced that its latest version of the HL7 standard was to be based on XML.

The HL7 standard is a healthcare standard for data interchange. The latest version (version 3.0), because of its XML based format, has been adopted by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service as data exchange standard for all primary care health systems.

The potential of XML in the transfer of clinical data, because of its system and software independent features, is very promising, and this has probably prompted others to look into the use of XML in healthcare information management. Mick Seal in his article - The use of XML in Healthcare Information Management, described how XML could be harnessed in data warehousing applications.

XML, because it was designed to work on the Internet, can provide healthcare organisations with opportunities to develop applications that would manage their data online as well as exchange information with dissimilar applications within and outside their organisations.

Some healthcare organisations are now using XML to manage the content of their electronic medical records (EMRs). Such organisations include the Acharga and Sharma Medical group, The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopedic and District Hospital and Poole Hospital. This is however not wide spread as no standard has been developed on how the information within XML documents should be described.

However, the potential of storing data in XML has been recognised as widely available databases such as Microsoft’s SQL server and Oracle, now facilities do to just that.

XML is still an emerging technology and its application in information management is still being explored. However there are few in doubt about what it can deliver and that healthcare benefit from it when it finally comes of age.



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