- In a recent post on The Commonwealth Fund’s To the Point, subject-matter experts — including the foundation’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Research Eric Schneider, MD, MSc, and former US Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra — observe that application programming interfaces (APIs) can provide unprecedented patient access to health information.
“Making digital health data useful to patients is a national priority—and application program interface technologies, or APIs, are needed to realize this goal. API technologies, adopted widely in banking and retail, make it possible to move information easily between computer systems or programs,” they write.
However, the quality of that access depends on how organizations make use of APIs in healthcare settings.
“APIs have the potential to remove many barriers to the sharing of health information between providers, patients, and others but they are fairly new to health care,” they write. “In addition, not all types of APIs are equal when it comes to sharing digital health information. Some restrictive APIs could even be used instead to block patients from accessing their health information.”
The authors note that imminent signing of the 21st Century Cures Act by President Obama will strengthen the push for making digital health data more accessible already necessitated by bills such as the Health Information Technology for Clinical and Economic Health Act (HITECH) and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) — and emphasize in particularly the use of APIs in healthcare.
“The certification program incentivizes the exchange of interoperable information between EHRs and other health IT systems such as apps, pharmacy systems, or laboratories,” they explain. “Because there are a variety of distinct EHRs and other health data systems that must communicate to mobilize health data, APIs are key to advancing health record interoperability.”
And achieving those advancements in healthcare interoperability will come down to how useful unlocked data is made to its end-users, especially patients, they authors argue.
The blog post includes a list of benefits that APIs in healthcare can make possible for consumers:
- strengthening consumers’ ability to get, use, and share health information
- making it easier for them to move among providers
- helping providers coordinate care across settings
- reducing entry barriers and promoting innovation for new health apps, devices, and services.
Additionally, they authors list several actions that both the private and public sectors could take in order to advance healthcare API use.
For the former, those actions include updating the Health IT Certification Program to incorporate consumer access to openly accessible APIs and funding the development of open-source APIs using health IT standards to access EHR data.
Actions in the private sector will require multiple stakeholders to take part:
- Encourage public commitments from leading providers, payers, and EHR vendors to use openly accessible APIs through “consumer empowerment and interoperability pledges” or other public declarations.
- Provide purchasing tools such as model contracts and purchasing guides to help health providers procure openly accessible APIs.
- Invest in continued development of open-source API technologies through industry groups such as standards development organizations or market-driven consortia.
- Investment in open-source technologies should lower the cost of entry for new market entrants seeking to sell APIs to EHR vendors and providers. Providers and EHR vendors should support the ability to choose among multiple openly accessible APIs to encourage competitive markets for openly accessible APIs.
- Develop consensus standards for openly accessible APIs and related technologies.
According to the authors, the use of APIs in healthcare should enable future innovations for using digital health data though the challenge remains choosing the best APIs for the job.