Getting documents from a FHIR XDS infrastructure

So far in our little mini series on FHIR and XDS we’ve had an overview of how FHIR resources support a document sharing infrastructure, looked at how a document creator can create and submit documents to a repository and/or registry, and spent a bit of time talking about the DocumentReference resource.  Time to think about the consumer of these services.

There are 2 main scenarios that we want to support:

  • Getting a list of documents for a patient (with various search parameters – e.g. a date range, type of document etc.) and displaying the metadata in a list to the consumer
  • Retrieving a particular document to view

Getting the list of documents

Let’s think about the first scenario, and to keep it simple we’ll aim to retrieve all the documents for a patient. Given that the metadata about the document is represented by a DocumentReference resource hosted by the registry server we are using, then this is obviously going to be a query against the DocumentReference endpoint. There are a couple of ways we could to this, and the way we choose depends on whether the have the patients ID or their identity (in fact, it’s exactly the same issue as the document creator had – so refer to that post for more discussion on this).

If we know the patient ID (let’s say it’s 100), then our query will be something like:

GET  http://registryserver/DocumentReference?subject= 100

(assuming that the patient identity is also on the registry server – if not then the patient ID would need to be the absolute reference to the patient resource).

If we don’t have the patient ID, but we do have an identifier (e.g. PRP1660) then we have a couple of options (as always!):

  • Look up the patient ID by a query against the Patient endpoint first
  • Query the DocumentReference with the patient identifier using a chained query, like so:

GET http://registryserver/DocumentReference?subject.identifier= PRP1660

Note that the server is not obliged to support chained queries – check their conformance resource to see if they do. Also, I didn’t include the identifier system in the query – depending on the implementation I may need to do so. Chained queries make a clients life easier (but a servers life harder) – but as the FHIR philosophy is to make it as easy for clients as possible, it’s to be hoped that servers do support that capability.

In either case, the result will be a bundle of DocumentReference resources – the difference between the two being that if we specified the patient ID, then we know that all the DocumentReference resources are for the right person. If we used the identifier, then we are trusting that the identifier is unique (which means that we should probably not be lazy and include the system in the query).

But what if we want a more targeted search? Perhaps we’re only interested in documents created in the past year, or only outpatient summaries?

Well, checking the defined search parameters for DocumentReference we see a period parameter (date of the service) and a type parameter (document type) which would seem to suit our purpose, so (assuming we have the Patient ID):

GET  http://registryserver/DocumentReference?subject= 100&period= >= 2013-01-01


GET  http://registryserver/DocumentReference?subject= 100&type=|34108-1

And of course we can mix and match parameters as we need to (provided the server supports them as documented in their conformance resource)

Retrieve a particular document.

So now we have a list of documents which we can display to our user, how do we retrieve a particular document for them? Well, hopefully the DocumentReference resource that describes the document we want has the location property. Then it’s just an HTTP call away. If the repository where the document is stored doesn’t support a direct GET, then you’ll need to drop back to the XDS ‘Retrieve Document’ profile, the access details for which should be on the DocumentReference.service property.

Assuming you can make a GET call, the repository should include the HTTP standard headers in the response like content-type (which is also recorded in the DocumentReference.mimeType property of course), so rendering by the viewer should be straightforward. Of course, it can get a lot more complex than that – especially in the case of a structured document like a CDA or FHIR-document, when specialized client-side renderers (like XSLT stylesheets) will be required. The metadata in the DocumentReference resource (and possibly HTTP headers)  should indicate what renderer is going to be needed, so all should be well.

Note that the GET call will return the document directly, whatever it is – eg a PDF or CDA document – not a FHIR resource of any sort.

A short (and grossly incomplete) comment on FHIR security.

FHIR itself doesn’t define security protocols – rather it provides the ‘hooks’ that a security framework can use when deciding whether to deliver up a particular document – or even whether to include the document metadata in the original list of documents.

There is an assumption that anyone accessing any of these services is authenticated (identified) and oAuth is the recommended (though not mandated) way to do this.

FHIR supports the concepts of tags – that can be applied to any resource, and allow a privacy policy framework to apply rules when determining whether to deliver up information p and those rules can become arbitrarily complex.  In addition, the DocumentReference resource has the specific confidentiality property that can also be used.

There is also the SecurityEvent resource (analogous to the IHE ATNA profile) that can be used to record significant events such as the release of a document to a viewer. This resource can then be used as the basis of functionality such as “Who has viewed my data?”, and can be created at any time that is appropriate in the overall workflow. The provenance resource indicates the context in which a resource was obtained – e.g. the person who created it.

So, it is the responsibility of the governing body for the document sharing infrastructure to make these policy decisions – and to enforce them! And the IHE ‘Affinity Domain’ concept is a good source of information.

Incidentally, for health security issues in general, check out John Moehrkes blog as a good source of inspiration!

We’re getting towards the end of our little mini series – one of the longer ones so far! We’ll wrap up the loose ends in the final post – in particular we need to think about the best approach when a document source needs to update a document it has already sent to a repository.

About David Hay
I'm a Product Strategist at Orion Health, Chair emeritus of HL7 New Zealand and co-Chair of the FHIR Management Group. I have a keen interest in health IT, especially health interoperability with HL7 and the new FHIR standard.

5 Responses to Getting documents from a FHIR XDS infrastructure

  1. Pingback: Retrieving and rendering a #FHIR document | Hay on FHIR

  2. David Hay says:

    Updated to correct an error with the query when specifying a period. The ‘=’ symbol is always required as that is HTTP uses to bind the value to the parameter. Thanks to Josh Mandel ( for pointing that out.

  3. Pingback: FHIR query syntax: Note to self… | Hay on FHIR

  4. Pingback: FHIR: Securing an ecosystem | Hay on FHIR

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