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Why Digital Health Developers are Adopting FHIR, Interoperability, and APIs

COVID-19 has pushed digital health into the future. A key part of this future is enabling healthcare providers and product developers to access and exchange clinical data. This is critical for providers who are treating patients remotely and need to review all of their patient’s medical records, including those that exist outside the 4 walls of their clinic. It's also critical for developers who need to retrieve this data from multiple EMR systems and surface this data within their applications for providers to act on. Ingesting and displaying comprehensive clinical data have become critical product functions during the pandemic.

Just a few years ago, building out these capabilities was prohibitively expensive for startups, technically complex due to antiquated HL7 standards, and required valuable engineering time. Young healthcare companies were forced to take resources away from the organization’s domain expertise, and invest heavily in getting clinical data in and out. This hindered progress across the industry and prevented developers from building and scaling solutions quickly.

Today, developers have a different toolkit at their disposal. Similar to how cloud platforms like AWS have significantly lowered the barriers to build software, digital health developers can leverage modern exchange standards like FHIR, existing interoperability networks, and APIs to bypass traditional means of accessing clinical data.

FHIR is a modern, lightweight standard, introduced by HL7 about 8 years ago, to exchange healthcare information across digital health applications and EMR systems. When the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) endorsed FHIR as the new standard for health information exchange in 2019, we started seeing developers and providers across our customer base transition to FHIR. Taking it even further, ONC will require that all EMRs must use FHIR for data sharing purposes, like making clinical data accessible to patients and performing bulk data transfers. In this blog post in Health Affairs, the authors suggest that ONC should track the percentage of providers that use FHIR for data sharing, which could be a useful indicator of information blocking. After several years of slow adoption, it's become abundantly clear that FHIR is here to stay.

Existing interoperability networks make it possible to retrieve clinical data from most providers in the country without performing one-off integrations. We’ve connected to over 70,000 care sites, over 600,000 providers, and most major diagnostic labs, whom all agree to share data for treatment purposes. Developers who serve providers can use this network to collect clinical data without having to do time-consuming HL7 integrations or VPN tunnels. The networks have already been built, greatly reducing the burden on healthcare companies that need this data. We’ve been fortunate to work with developers like Oscar Health, Virta Health, and Heal that have adopted this strategy to support their provider users in the delivery of care.

By making this network available through an FHIR-based API, developers can bypass complex integrations with various health information exchanges and labs while reaping all the benefits of direct connectivity. These APIs allow developers to leverage pipes that someone else has built, retrieve data through the pipe, and surface this data in their application as they see fit. You code once, even as the network of participating providers grows. The fact that we have pipes into most major EMRs and providers removes the burden off of your product and engineering teams. This allows digital health organizations to control their user experience, collect the data they need, and accelerate value delivery.

A couple of weeks ago, several of our clients shared how they’re leveraging our APIs in our webinar. We encourage digital health developers to understand the ways in which FHIR, interoperability, and APIs can drive value for your users. By learning from our clients who have successfully implemented these solutions, you can avoid the pitfalls and understand best-practice use cases that have produced significant efficiency gains in the digital health space.

If you’d like to learn more, please submit your contact information at healthgorilla.com.