APIs: A Path to Putting Patients at the Center

I remember when visiting a city required paper maps and often actual guidebooks. Today, I tap on a map app on my phone, enter my destination, and review options for getting from point A to point B. In recent years, these applications have expanded to integrate ride-sharing, bike-sharing, and public transit information. Map apps provide two key real-time data points to help me compare the different options: the time it will take to get to my destination and the cost.

Behind those data points are elegant algorithms that analyze traffic patterns and conditions, as well as the real-time data exchange between multiple apps through modern, REpresentational State Transfer (RESTful) application programming interfaces (APIs). What makes our smartphones so powerful is the multitude of apps and software programs that use open and accessible APIs for delivering new products to consumers and businesses, creating new market entrants and opportunities. There is nothing analogous to this app ecosystem in healthcare.

ONC’s interoperability efforts focus on improving individuals’ ability to control their health information so they can shop for and coordinate their own care. While many patients can access their medical information through multiple provider portals, the current ecosystem is frustrating and cumbersome. The more providers they have, the more portals they need to visit, the more usernames and passwords they need to remember. In the end, these steps make it hard for patients to aggregate their information across care settings and prevent them from being empowered consumers.

Just as consumers can see the time to destination and costs using their map apps, they should be able to see quality indicators and costs of their care. As Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Azar recently stated, “putting the healthcare consumer in charge, letting them determine value, is a radical reorientation from the way that American healthcare has worked for the past century.” I certainly recognize that issues around pricing for healthcare services and measuring quality are complex, but I am confident that ONC’s efforts will complement new policies across HHS to encourage transparency, leverage Medicare and Medicaid to drive value-based transformation, and reduce regulatory burden on the health system.

As part of ONC’s role in coordinating health information technology (health IT) nationally, we are working with innovators to develop modern APIs that support the use of mobile apps to help individuals manage their own health or the health and care of a loved one. A robust health app ecosystem can lead to disease-specific apps and allow patients to share their health information with researchers working on clinical trials to test a drug or treatment’s efficacy, or monitoring outcomes like those in the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program.

ONC took a practical step to accelerate the use of APIs in healthcare with the 2015 Edition of the certification criteria adopted as part of the ONC Health IT Certification Program. Specifically, the 2015 Edition includes updated technical requirements that were not available in the prior edition and—to the benefit of the provider and the patient—to support further innovation in APIs and interoperability-focused standards. The 2015 Edition includes “application access” certification criteria that require health IT developers to demonstrate their products can provide application access to core medical and patient information via an API.

The 21st Century Cures Act (Cures) builds on ONC’s 2015 Edition and calls for the development of APIs that do not require “special effort” for developers to access and exchange health information. ONC will address this requirement through rulemaking expected to be issued later in 2018. Ensuring that APIs in the health ecosystem are standardized, transparent, and pro-competitive are the central principles guiding our work. These goals should allow new business models and tools that will expand the transparency of all aspects of healthcare. New tools should allow patients to comparison shop for their healthcare needs like they do when hailing a ride.

In recent years, the health IT industry has made positive strides. The HL7 Argonaut Project, a private sector initiative, has been developing a core set of Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) implementation specifications. These specifications will enable expanded information sharing for electronic health records and other health IT solutions based on modern computing standards (i.e., REST, Javascript Object Notation (JSON), and FHIR). Boston Children’s Hospital Computational Health Informatics Program and the Harvard Medical School Department for Biomedical Informatics have been leading the development of SMART Health IT, an open, standards-based technology platform that already is showing success in enabling innovators to create apps that seamlessly and securely run across the healthcare system.

The convergence of these actions, the new authorities granted to ONC by Congress in the Cures Act, and efforts by HHS, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the National Institutes for Health (NIH), and the Veterans Administration (VA) with the MyHealthEData initiative are helping promote more consistent data flows, inject market competition in healthcare, and return individual control of their care to the American public.

Don Rucker, MD is National Coordinator for Health Information Technology

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