FHIR transactions: the Search functionality

FHIR supports transactions by POSTing a bundle of resources to the root of a server. The server processes them separately as if they had been sent as individual requests – except that the entire group of updates either succeeds or fails as a group (which is what a transaction is, after all…)

It’s one of the more complex processing that a server has to do – particularly as it needs to manage references between resources for new and existing resources within the bundle.

But there’s one particular aspect to this, and that is what if you don’t know if the resource already exists on the server?

For example, we’re working on a project to import glucose data from a personal device. Our current thinking is to create a bundle containing a Patient resource, a Device resource and Observation resources for each of the glucose results we want to save. (We’re probably not using the DeviceObservationReport as it doesn’t add anything extra for us in this scenario).

So when the client creates the bundle, what does it use for the Patient ID – and the Device ID for that matter? (The Observations will always be new, so cid: IDs are appropriate for them). We do have an identifier for both, but that’s not the same as the ID – and having to look up the resources before putting them in the bundle kind of defeats the purpose. And if we include the resource anyway with a cid: ID , then the server will always create a new one – not what we want.

The answer to this is a couple of paragraphs in the spec that talks about how a server can manage this. Here it is (it’s in the transaction description):

The application constructing a bundle may not be sure whether a particular resource will already exist at the time that the transaction is executed; this is typically the case with reference resources such as patient and provider. In this case, the bundle should contain a candidate resource with a cid: identifier, and an additional search parameter using an Atom link:

<link href="http://localhost/Patient?[parameters]" rel="search"/>

A search link with a root of http://localhost means to search the local resource store for a match as specified in the parameters (which must conform to the servers capability for searching as specified in its conformance statement). If the search returns no matches, the server process the resource normally. If the search returns one match, the server uses this matching resource instead, and ignores the submitted resource. If more than one resource is found, the transaction SHALL be rejected.

 This means that we can include the identifier of the Patient and the Device in the bundle, and the server will locate the resource if it exists – and create it if it does not.

So here’s a sample of a patient resource in a bundle:

    <title>Patient details</title>
    <link href="http://localhost/Patient?identifier=PRP1660" rel="search"/>
    <content type="text/xml">
        <Patient xmlns="http://hl7.org/fhir">
                <status value="generated"/>
                <div xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">Joe Bloggs</div>
                <value value="PRP1660"/>
                <text value="Joe Bloggs"/>

Note the <link> element where we specify that the search parameter is an identifier with the value of PRP1660. (and, of course, we have this identifier in the candidate resource – otherwise it will never work!)

This is incredibly useful! In fact it does raise the issue of whether a server claiming to be able to process transactions in its conformance statement SHALL be able to implement this functionality. I don’t think the spec is clear on this – and probably needs to be.


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.

2 Responses to FHIR transactions: the Search functionality

  1. Pingback: Processing FHIR Bundles using HAPI | Hay on FHIR

  2. Pingback: Mapping HL7 Version 2 to FHIR Messages | Hay on FHIR

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