The API revolution in healthcare’s evolution

The healthcare and life sciences industries are evolving at a rapid clip, driven primarily by the shift to value-based care and changing patient behavior.

These forces are impacting all sectors of healthcare, from providers to payers, and pharmaceutical to medical device manufacturers. And with an acute focus on the quality over quantity of care, there is also increased pressure on organizations to innovate and transform faster than ever before to deliver more precise, targeted care and make data more accessible across the care continuum.

But there’s historically been two things standing in the way of rapid, agile innovation in healthcare: closed off technology systems and siloed data stores. In more recent years, however, healthcare innovators have been pushing the widespread use of application programming interfaces (APIs) to overcome the challenges of data exchange and interoperability, and reduce the friction often associated with innovation and transformation.

Today, APIs are being used to create a more connected healthcare experience for all involved –– patients, providers, payers, and drug and device manufacturers. While we’ve really only scratched the surface on their utilization in healthcare, APIs are enabling important integrations that are streamlining and automating workflows, expanding patient access to their own data, and empowering providers to utilize predictive analytics to map more effective and prescriptive courses of care.

The use cases, however, are near endless, and the innovative leaders who’ve embraced APIs are using them to build new solutions to transform treatment, research, communication, and service and support –– reimagining the future of healthcare. As patient expectations and complexities continue to evolve, integrated systems and APIs will prove increasingly critical to the healthcare equation.

Innovating through APIs
Until more recently, robust APIs and app developer programs were severely lacking in healthcare. There simply wasn’t a need as mass adoption of EHR (electronic health record) technology didn’t take root until the introduction of the Medicare and Medicaid Incentive Program and the meaningful use requirements that came with it. This brought about a need for interoperability and easier access to data.

Today, largely because of incentive programs and meaningful use requirements, more than 90 percent of hospitals of all sizes are utilizing certified healthcare IT. Meaningful Use, however, dictates that certified EHR technologies must be “connected in a manner that provides for the electronic exchange of health information to improve the quality of care.” It’s the term “connected” in this sentence that’s key – and this is where APIs are proving mission-critical to information exchange and interoperability.

Out of the box, many of the enterprise solutions available have traditionally made data difficult to share, and have been difficult to implement and use because they fail to match clinical workflows, particularly among specialty providers. Incidentally, one-size-fits-all healthcare IT platforms have also been a contributing factor to provider burnout. But APIs introduced the opportunity to build custom interfaces within these systems and expand capacities of purpose-built platforms to make analyzing and applying data easier –– easing the burden on providers.

Making the business case for APIs
With the push towards connected healthcare, and patient satisfaction and outcomes now part of the reimbursement equation, the business case for APIs has become much more urgent. Further propelling this is the increased patient demand for timely access to their health information and the implementation of Stage 3 of the Meaningful Use program, which went into effect last January. This made it mandatory for healthcare providers to give patients direct connectivity to their healthcare data through APIs.

As a result, healthcare organizations are recognizing the impact these forces are having on their existing patient engagement strategies, as well as the urgency to innovate at scale. Now, innovators in the sector have discovered how to link things like CRM and inventory management systems, artificial intelligence (AI) tools, and analytics to make data more accessible, while improving patient communication and health outcomes, and streamlining processes to match specific workflows, and reduce the cost of care.

In this regard, APIs have opened the door to apps and tools that have accelerated the ability to innovate and evolve, empowering IT leaders and other internal teams to become true business drivers for the company and solve complex business problems. APIs are also reducing overall IT costs and the need for new resources as it enables healthcare organizations to expand the capabilities of their current healthcare management solutions.

The emergence of APIs in healthcare has also made it easier for developers to create new applications using their underlying health IT systems, which has opened the door for collaboration opportunities and increased the velocity of innovation. In fact, we’ve seen apps using open APIs and standardizations like SMART Health IT and HL7’s Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) go from prototypes to full-blown use in clinical settings in near record time.

By connecting applications through APIs, healthcare IT leaders are also able to design a solution that accommodates their existing skill set and architecture, which reduces the burden on resources and makes onboarding and integration smoother as extensive training is no longer required. Creating a connected system through the use of integrated apps also creates a centralized hub for all data, making it easier to access and share –– and this has had a far-reaching and significant impact on the broader market.

Using APIs in modern-day healthcare environments
In fact, the use cases for APIs in today’s healthcare environments abound. They’re being used to encourage and streamline internal communications, improve provider recruitment, onboarding and retention, make data more accessible, and improve decision making among providers.

One hospital system, for instance, introduced a mobile social intranet to encourage internal communication and collaboration among its employees staffed across its multiple hospitals. The new tool used APIs to integrate with several communication platforms to unlock information that had previously been siloed in various locations –– emails, internal chats, social platforms, customer service inquiries, etc. –– and brought it together in one centralized location. Information is now more easily accessible and it prevented important communication from being lost.

Another organization used a blend of custom-built and off-the-shelf APIs to orchestrate an inventory tracking system within its biolabs. The custom system enabled them to automate the process of products being purchased from freezers stationed within labs, track the buying trends of the scientists, authenticate the scientists using it, manage inventory replenishment, and track the temperature and “lock” status of the freezer kiosks housing the inventory. This helped inform business and purchase decisions, reduce errors and bring greater convenience to lab scientists.

In another scenario, a pharmaceutical maker utilized APIs to create a mobile healthcare concierge app which provided patient training and support in administering medications and therapies. This became particularly important as the company began moving towards specialized and precision medicine. In the past, they had limited control over the patient experience as they relied on call centers and home visits to support patients. With the app, they were able to maintain quality control throughout the entire patient experience and open the lines of communication.

In today’s ever-evolving healthcare environment, APIs can help solve complexities enabling various systems and data sources to “communicate” to support interoperability and create an all-around better experience. When considering APIs, keep in mind, they should be part of the overall business strategy rather than a tactic. How can they be leveraged to deliver an enhanced patient or provider experience, liberate data or help inform the quality of care your organization delivers?

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