User-defined functions in the Arden Syntax: An extension proposal

Artif Intell Med. 2018 Nov;92:103-110. doi: 10.1016/j.artmed.2015.11.003. Epub 2015 Dec 11.


Background: The Arden Syntax is a knowledge-encoding standard, started in 1989, and now in its 10th revision, maintained by the health level seven (HL7) organization. It has constructs borrowed from several language concepts that were available at that time (mainly the HELP hospital information system and the Regenstrief medical record system (RMRS), but also the Pascal language, functional languages and the data structure of frames, used in artificial intelligence). The syntax has a rationale for its constructs, and has restrictions that follow this rationale. The main goal of the Standard is to promote knowledge sharing, by avoiding the complexity of traditional programs, so that a medical logic module (MLM) written in the Arden Syntax can remain shareable and understandable across institutions.

Objectives: One of the restrictions of the syntax is that you cannot define your own functions and subroutines inside an MLM. An MLM can, however, call another MLM, where this MLM will serve as a function. This will add an additional dependency between MLMs, a known criticism of the Arden Syntax knowledge model. This article explains why we believe the Arden Syntax would benefit from a construct for user-defined functions, discusses the need, the benefits and the limitations of such a construct.

Methods and materials: We used the recent grammar of the Arden Syntax v.2.10, and both the Arden Syntax standard document and the Arden Syntax Rationale article as guidelines. We gradually introduced production rules to the grammar. We used the CUP parsing tool to verify that no ambiguities were detected.

Results: A new grammar was produced, that supports user-defined functions. 22 production rules were added to the grammar. A parser was built using the CUP parsing tool. A few examples are given to illustrate the concepts. All examples were parsed correctly.

Conclusions: It is possible to add user-defined functions to the Arden Syntax in a way that remains coherent with the standard. We believe that this enhances the readability and the robustness of MLMs. A detailed proposal will be submitted by the end of the year to the HL7 workgroup on Arden Syntax.

Keywords: Artificial intelligence; Clinical decision support systems; Expert systems; Medical informatics; Programming languages.

MeSH terms

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Decision Support Systems, Clinical / organization & administration
  • Expert Systems*
  • Humans
  • Information Systems / organization & administration*
  • Information Systems / standards
  • Medical Informatics
  • Programming Languages*