Common Data Elements: Standardizing Data Collection

Why Need Common Data Elements?

Example: United States Postal Service

Why are data standards important? One example of the need for standardized data comes from the United States Postal Service (USPS). In the past, the post office generally required only the name of a person and a town on the envelope to successfully deliver the mail to the intended recipient. As the demand for street service grew, Congress declared that letters would only be delivered if cities met certain standards – such as the availability of sidewalks, numbered houses, and streetlamps.

This sparked the development of the format we now know as the U.S. standard mailing address. The fields for data became standardized. Abbreviations set by the USPS represented an agreed-upon format for meaning and interpretation. Now, standardized addresses allow most mail processing to be done by machines.

Image of blank envelope with an American Flag stamp

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Electronic Health Information

More recently, the U.S. government has determined that electronic health information should be standardized to the extent possible, to support the exchange of accurate health data between systems.

What makes health information increasingly complex is not only the granularity needed to convey information, but also evolving definitions of the structure and meaning of health concepts. Defining information for capture and exchange is a continual challenge.