Healthcare’s digital revolution is opening up new frontiers in medicine. Patient care is not only more personalized to individual needs, but health players are operating in an ecosystem that is shaping to deliver affordable, accessible, and interoperable care delivery. Innovations in telemedicine, artificial intelligence, robotic solutions, internet of things, and other IT solutions are building blocks to this emerging healthcare landscape –– but playing valuable, behind-the-scenes roles are software infrastructure like Application Programming Interfaces or APIs.
Using information gathered from healthcare providers, payers, and digital healthcare companies, research predicts that 67% of providers and 63% of payers will move to use APIs at scale in 2023. Outside healthcare, APIs provide a service that is employed daily in different aspects of digital life. Over 90% of developers use this mechanism to ensure travelers can book a flight ticket online, or log in to a mobile application using an email or social media account. You also have APIs to thank for being able to cross-post a new reel from Instagram to Facebook. But just how does this interface work, and what role does it play in healthcare? This guide will explore the transformative role of APIs in data exchange across healthcare. Read on to learn how IT communication across healthcare sectors is improved through this digital middleman. We will also explore the challenges to API adoption, and why adoption can be delayed.
The short story is, APIs help different software systems communicate and exchange information with each other. IBM goes into further detail by describing API function as: “an intermediary layer that processes data transfers between systems, letting companies open their application data and functionality to external third-party developers, business partners, and internal departments within their companies.” In everyday applications, systems like third-party APIs (we’ll get to these) link travel booking sites with multiple airline and hotel operating systems for easy data transfer. This integration grants access to relevant records like flight schedules and accommodation prices which are then collected and displayed on the booking website –– saving you the need to check every airline or hotel website’s lineup individually. Similarly, when a web platform gives the option to avoid manual login by using your social media account, their API is simply connecting with say - Facebook’s social media login API, to retrieve your user information and authenticate entry.
Applying APIs in healthcare isn’t much different. Patient information is stored in different systems across information exchanges, portals, lab EHRs, pharmacy EHRs, and so on. This fragmented system means data is often stored in different formats, and accessed using unrelated protocols that can complicate easy information transfer to get a full picture of a patient’s health story. APIs serve as entry points –– connecting databases, sending queries and retrieving responses to ensure that patient data is always functional and readily accessible.
Think of APIs as an interpreter and exchange system wrapped in one. APIs communicate data between systems that don’t speak the same operating language but hold information that either system needs to progress in patient care. An API makes it possible for a hospital’s EHR system to connect with a pharmacy’s database to access information that determines patient coverage for a service or medication.
APIs guide how systems communicate and swap information by using data standards, such as Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), which give operating systems a uniform language to speak. In 2019, 84% of hospitals and 61% of clinicians adopted FHIR-enabled API technology in their practices. This system introduces similar standards for exchanging information, guaranteeing nothing is lost in translation when operating systems share information queries and responses.
APIs are pushing healthcare towards the interoperability finish line by acting as entry points for systems to retrieve, store and update information. Depending on its configuration, an API may secure data access, or promote collaboration and exchange within a single medical practice or between different care providers. There are different types of healthcare APIs. These are:
Healthcare's complex data structures mean that within a hospital, patient records may be distributed across different EHRs in the OB-GYN department, across emergency units, and within the labs. Internal APIs integrate with an organization's existing IT systems to better consolidate patient information. This improves data visibility and can streamline operations.
External APIs are built so trusted outside partners can safely access a health player’s secured data. These APIs make it possible for patients to connect with hospital EHRs and other relevant databases to access and retrieve their data. External APIs also provide doctors with good company at the point of care. Clinical Decision Support (CDS) systems like symptom checkers and drug reference programs integrated with EHRs give valuable assistance at the point of care — encouraging patient-centric care delivery.
Third-party APIs are developed and maintained by external vendors or healthcare providers. These APIs are publicly available to patients or health partners looking to exchange data to improve interoperability. Hospitals can integrate with wearable device APIs like Fitbit and Apple Health to gather information generated on a patient. To continue the care cycle, relevant players can also access patient information gathered by remote monitoring devices and systems
APIs are doing a lot of heavy lifting to ensure the health industry is not just patient-centric, but is actively innovating and collaborating to achieve this goal. These are the ways APIs are transforming care delivery:
APIs provide a digital master key to data stored in EHRs, HIEs, ERPs, and other information deposits which are commonly a challenge to access. Using APIs, authorized health players can bypass interoperability issues like unrelated software and data formats to promote care coordination and continuity.
By bridging access to data and medical records, APIs have elevated patients to decision-makers who have a direct say in their care. Patients can independently share diagnostic and treatment information gathered from healthcare portals, health devices, and other platforms — with new providers when they need second eyes on a proposed treatment course. Patients can also take advantage of API structures to update missing or relevant data in their provider’s EHR system.
APIs form a line of trust between organizations that would otherwise feel reluctant to grant access to sensitive patient data. Using these secure entry points, hospitals, pharmacies, labs, and other health units can open their information systems to multiple devices with little fear of compromise. APIs also provide a layer of data protection from malicious trespassers and cyberattacks.
Through secure code networks, APIs ensure that the healthcare industry is constantly evolving towards more innovation for patient care. APIs encourage providers and developers to collaborate on applications that improve health operations and delivery. Developers capitalize on existing API structures to integrate applications and programs that improve efficiency in patient care.
APIs are not only a faster and safer way to exchange clinical and medical data, but they are also a cost-effective option to do so. With data siloed in EHRs and HIEs, the financial and personnel costs of directly integrating with these systems can be steep. Likewise, the time spent integrating with this infrastructure can complicate data access for relevant providers. APIs act as willing middlemen to speed up connectivity to health record systems.
APIs provide widely accepted improvements to healthcare operations and outcomes. But for all the benefits, these interfaces are still in the growing stages of adoption across health systems. A 2021 report commissioned by Change Healthcare revealed only 24% of healthcare companies adopted APIs at scale. Because healthcare IT systems are developed on different technologies, data formats, and other unrelated components, this lack of standardization can derail easy communication between operating systems. Likewise, with healthcare said to be in its third digital wave, organizations with technology fatigue may initially struggle to adopt another system to their established exchange formats. In other cases, organizations may struggle with trust when dealing with access to sensitive data.
Thankfully, Metriport is well positioned to ride this third digital wave, offering the world's first open-source API for healthcare data, setting new standards for trust, transparency, and standardization along the way.
APIs are laying the groundwork to revolutionize patient-centered care and innovation in healthcare. As the recognized future of software architecture in healthcare, it’s important to address present challenges on standardization to improve API functionality.
For the next steps in improving adoption, governments and concerned bodies must prioritize data standards to encourage API integration, and ultimately patient care in the long run.