The Shifting Mindset of APIs in Healthcare
APIs in Healthcare today
Application Programming Interface (API) technology is shaking things up in healthcare. But API usage amongst healthcare companies is in its infancy, trailing behind most other industries that have been taking advantage of the technology for quite some time now. Many developers today will say that general API use is the standard, and for good reason: “APIs have become a requirement for building digital businesses. They enable companies to quickly devise new approaches to serving the needs of a diverse mix of users with a whole new set of expectations” (apigee.com). And there is no sign that API usage will slow, particularly as the healthcare industry begins to use the technology to its full potential. In fact, the global healthcare API marketplace will have expanded from $162.4 million in 2015 to $243 million by 2024 according to a report by Transparency Market Research.
The healthcare industry exists to serve a purpose different from that of other industries. This purpose is, at its core, personal; after all, what is more personal than our health? The different aspects of healthcare, from treatments to electronic medical records (also known as EMRs) to insurance, require a specialized approach. An approach that is complicated by privacy and service regulations. Additional complications are created by the major players in the industry, including EMR vendors and hospitals. These elements amount to roadblocks large enough to have considerably slowed down the use and adoption of newer technology. In short, this is an industry that has a long way to go to reach its full technological potential.
Challenges preventing this industry from making the most of new technologies take different forms and come from different directions, but primarily boil down to the issue of EMRs: access, use and format.
Accessing Healthcare Data
The challenge of access can be seen from more than one angle. First and foremost, because of the nature of the data, there are strict regulations in place to maintain security and privacy. Legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, better known as HIPPA, sets national standards to protect and secure the medical records and other personal health information of individuals (hhs.gov). But on a separate level, EMR vendors don’t make interoperability easy on healthcare companies, thus slowing down or blocking off access.
These vendors aren’t known to be openly cooperative with healthcare companies looking to get their hands on EMR data, particularly when it comes to smaller companies with fewer resources. Working with these vendors requires putting to use legacy systems that are often not interoperable with newer technologies, becoming increasingly inefficient as they age (mulesoft.com). Add to this the resistance by legacy EMR vendors to allow newer EMR vendors to integrate with them, and it amounts to a major roadblock for progress. The lack of interoperability and integration between these systems prevents innovations by developers and collaboration in the industry.
Challenges of Data Standardization
Along with the challenge of interoperability between systems comes the issue of data standardization: “Data quality and standardization is very poor and for most of the client-server EMR vendors, each data model is different. So on a population level, data exchange may require much more work correcting data before it’s ready for analytics and treatment” (thehealthcareblog.com). The lack of data standardization among EMRs can be largely attributed to the way hospitals and doctors organize and handle patient information. Every hospital has a different system for saving patient data digitally. While many are similar, most only overlap to a certain extent, which means some data is organized in very different ways, making it impractical or impossible to integrate.
The Current State of Technology in the Healthcare Industry
All of this said, the technology in the healthcare industry has a long way to go, and consumers know it. Consumer demand for advancements has increased, and the industry is starting to listen. Healthcareitnews.com elaborates on this, saying, “patients now demand timely access to their health information, and they want as few impediments to that access as possible… It’s not just a consumer expectation, either. Data access has become a regulatory requirement.” Specifically, new regulations will be enforced starting in 2018 that will require all healthcare providers to give consumers direct access to their personal healthcare data using APIs. These regulations will pair with other industry shifts, such as the search for new, automated solutions by large hospitals and laboratories to manage things like order tracking or patient intake and discharge records.
The Role of Healthcare APIs in the Future
The use of APIs will be a game changer for the future of the healthcare industry. This is the case because of two primary reasons: time and cost. Ultimately, the successful development and use of APIs will simplify the process of data exchange. Whereas in the past the exchange of health data was a long and complex process, changes in data access will streamline the entire process. Developers will not have to start from square one as they sort through data, but will be able to build APIs on top of existing technologies. Innovation will take much less time and require much less work, thereby cutting costs and “finally clearing the way for innovative companies to build data-driven solutions to a wide variety of healthcare challenges” (medcitynews.com).
How and Why Healthcare APIs will Benefit the Industry
From here, the possibilities are endless and real progress can be achieved: “Standardized APIs will extend the functionality of [EMRs] and other emerging solutions by establishing the technological foundation for providers to share information and enabling apps that can be used by patients and providers to improve care” (healthcareitnews.com). Innovation will begin to happen at a level that was not previously possible. Whether it’s developers, EMR vendors, insurance companies, doctors or patients, everyone will witness the effects as technological advancements begin to develop.
Increased Security and Accessibility of Records
With the right APIs, patient records will be more easily shared between doctors within different hospital systems or medical offices. The same goes with lab results. This will lessen the risk of error and allow medical professionals to focus more on patient care. Per the required regulations, APIs could give patients access to their own healthcare records easily and securely, even allowing them to make their own updates. Patients can put the data from their personal wearable devices to greater use, giving doctors direct access to the data and a more well-rounded understanding of their health. Similarly, APIs could be used to create apps that help patients monitor their health and set reminders for medications, appointments, and instructions for care from their doctors.
Potential for Innovation
The list of possibilities goes on, with the potential for further innovations within the walls of hospitals. MuleSoft hypothesizes: “hospital[s] could develop private APIs… to better predict staff requirements, thus reducing overtime costs and better serving patients… With the right tools, doctors and nurses could more easily access government and research data that might help them make smarter diagnoses. Another API could interact with major insurance providers to prevent billing errors and reduce patient exasperation.”
APIs are the key to achieving what hitconsultant.net refers to as the quadruple aim: lower costs, better outcomes, improved patient experience and improved clinician experience.
APIs can serve a multitude of functions which developers are sure to explore. As EMRs become more accessible, APIs can stretch the data further, doing more with it. This is evident when looking at the four levels of integration: read, write, change and add. At the lowest level of integration, read, data can be accessed, but nothing more. The ability for APIs to integrate further is where progress will be made. With the help of APIs, data can be accessed (read), transmitted back to the user (write), altered or edited (change), and added to (add). A single app may work with a variety of APIs to accomplish this.
How to Leverage the Potential of APIs
That’s where API managers come in. API managers assist with API publishing, documenting, and overseeing performance in a secure and scalable environment (techtarget.com). Specialists such as Apigee, with their API management platform Apigee Edge, regulate the functionality of any given API that interacts with its system. Edge is a platform for developing and managing API proxies and products, through which app developers can access the service or functionality provided by the API. API management platforms like this typically consist of API, analytics, and developer services which support different aspects of API functionality, from security and management to API creation and backend development (apigee.com).
As healthcare technology progresses and APIs gain more ground, API management portals will come into high demand as they assist with the interoperability that the industry has struggled so much with in the past.