The Rise of APIs and App Stores In Healthcare

Two years ago, we published a report on the promise of open APIs in healthcare. In APIs for a Healthcare App Economy: Paths to Market Success (available as a free download), provider organizations told us that developing and using APIs was low on their list of priorities. Modern REST-style APIs were still not on the radar for most providers and payers.

doctor using smartphone app

Back then, HCOs large and small said they expected their EHR vendor to build an API infrastructure for them. Two years ago, only Allscripts and athenahealth offered an app store along with a comprehensive developer support program. At that time, the other EHR vendors were slow-walking FHIR support and had vague plans for app stores and developer support programs. We found that:

  • Small HCOs were completely dependent on their EHR vendor.
  • EHR data was the most valuable data resource in healthcare.
  • Large IT vendors had varied beliefs about the role and contribution of third-party developers.
  • Large and small IT vendors had strong faith in open APIs.
  • Small and independent IT vendors were thinking way beyond the EHR.
  • Physician dissatisfaction with EHRs was an unsolved problem.

Since then, market conditions have continued to change. EHR vendors are now more vocally rolling out the API infrastructures that will bring healthcare into the mainstream of 21st century computing. Every major EHR vendor has delivered a variety of proprietary, HL7, FHIR, and SMART APIs along with the ability to leverage REST to improve their products.

Each of these companies sponsor, or will soon sponsor, an app store for third-party innovation. This has seen a concurrent rise in interest for using APIs within provider organizations. A recent Chilmark report, Healthcare App Stores: 2018 Status and Outlook, examines some of these platforms and the progress that has been made to date in more depth.

That said, some things have not changed. EHR data remains the most valued data resource in healthcare. All but the largest provider organizations are dependent on their EHR vendor for API enabling technologies. Small and independent developers struggle to participate in app stores and EHR developer support programs, despite great ideas for better apps to improve care delivery. And physician frustration with EHRs continues to grow.

Developing and using APIs is a priority for healthcare stakeholders who want to get more from their EHR investments as they identify opportunities for workflow improvements, real-time analytics dashboards, and more. While EHR vendors are leading the charge, our more recent research suggests that many other stakeholders hold or control access to other key data sources that could underpin such efforts.

The opportunity to capitalize on data already collected to provide advice and predictions is too big to ignore, and the easiest way to do this efficiently will be with integrated apps that can pull data from any relevant resource to provide the necessary insights at the right time.

Where do we go from here?

The number of apps in EHR app stores grows monthly. To date, the idea of the potential role and benefits of an independent certification body has not entered the discussion about APIs and app stores since the collapse of Happtique’s efforts in 2013. Currently, EHR vendors certify apps for their customers based on rigorous internal evaluations, but the process varies by vendor. An independent and impartial body could do more than just provide information for prospective users. Instead, it could deliver tremendous value if its assessments were multi-pronged and supplied information about the ongoing use of the app, as well as a consistent way to think about safety, security and dependability. While a certification authority could make it easier for decision-makers, the real value could be in delivering users more information about how the app delivers value across its install base.

Sometime in the next few months, the ONC will issue new rules on information blocking and what constitutes an API that does not require “special effort” to access and use. While these actions may seem like a watershed moment for health IT, the provider market has moved perceptibly since ONC began its rulemaking. Just two years ago, providers were curious about APIs and app stores but they weren’t ready to make any commitments.

Slowly and inexorably, healthcare is embracing the downloadable app as a tool for innovation and improvement. One-size-fits-all platforms are not meeting the needs of the industry and apps can do more to assist with care provision needs than just provide supplemental functionality – to read more about opportunities for apps to have significant impact, take a look at the infographic we developed to accompany our more recent report, or read more in this deep dive post from June.

The opportunity to capitalize on data already collected to provide advice and predictions is too big to ignore, and the easiest way to do this efficiently will be with integrated apps that can pull data from any relevant resource to provide the necessary insights at the right time.

Stay up to the minute.

Did You Know?

Healthcare App Stores Moving to Mainstream

Update, 9/4/2018: This post was based on research conducted for the report, Healthcare App Stores: Status and Outlook, which is now available. 

Apple’s early and fantastic success with its app store spawned imitators. App stores are a relatively new wrinkle in healthcare IT vendor’s approach to relationships aimed at better serving existing customers or finding new ones. Most major IT vendors to payers and providers have partnerships with other companies that provide complementary technology or services. These arrangements allow the partners to reach markets, users, or use cases that either vendor would find challenging on its own.

In the wider economy, successful app stores rely on a widely-accepted set of Web technologies. Chief among these are REST-style APIs offering programmers simple and uniform access to data and functionality across organizations and systems. REST APIs provide the data fuel that transformed consumer and enterprise apps. Most API programs are open in that documentation is available to anyone. Programmers can often use the APIs without any interaction with the API publisher. In other cases, they can use them after getting an API key, usually a simple online process while many API program sponsors monetize access at certain call volume thresholds. Health Level 7, the standards organization, created Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) to enable modern, REST-style APIs that will be far less unwieldy for programmers than traditional HL7, IHE, or C-CDA APIs. The advent of FHIR-standard APIs and SMART’s use of OAuth supplies the crucial building blocks for effective app stores in healthcare.

While the challenges are daunting, the opportunity to improve healthcare is vast. Healthcare users are eager to discuss their unmet needs. Small and independent developers are eager to address these needs.

What will be the App Store Platform?

App stores facilitate the distribution of applications that add value to some base platform or brand. On the strength of the large volume and variety of data these companies collect for their HCO customers, the EHR is that platform. EHRs also have strong brand recognition among clinicians. The vast majority of HCOs lack the resources to develop their own applications, relying mostly on their EHR vendor for new and better functionality. Ironically, most EHR vendors recognize that they lack the resources or bandwidth to be the sole source for new and better functionality.

Other categories of companies could be the platform that establishes and hosts an app store. Payers and providers have the strongest brand name recognition with patients and their caregivers. Medical equipment vendors have large data volumes and established brands among healthcare workers that could provide visibility and attention from users. Companies that provide healthcare transaction or data services have amassed stupendous data volumes but remain mostly unknown to patients and are not top-of-mind for healthcare workers. In theory, any entity that holds large inventories of patient data or has a strong brand could sponsor an app store.

The technical potential already exists to access data or services from any combination of provider, payer, data aggregator, or another source. For now, the willingness to make such capabilities a reality is lacking, given that healthcare’s financial incentives almost demand that organizations hoard, monetize, or closely control the use of their data. While the challenges are daunting, the opportunity to improve healthcare is vast. Healthcare users are eager to discuss their unmet needs. Small and independent developers are eager to address these needs.

The Healthcare App Store Opportunity

While better applications for clinicians and patients are a priority, the demand for more effective use of IT in healthcare is not limited by user category or use case. Some specific examples include:

  • Care coordination apps that:
    • borrow functional ideas from social network applications
    • support people involved in care who have no access to an EHR
  • Apps that use the longitudinal record to:
    • to conceptualize and present each patient as a sequence of birth-to-death care gaps
    • provide real-time access to individual data points
    • support more precise search
  • Apps for:
    • comparing the cost implications of different treatment and medication options
    • self-service scheduling for patients and clinicians
  • Better support for patient-generated data, including patient-reported outcomes
  • Patient-focused peer group community apps modeled on social networks
  • Error detection and prevention
  • Utilization management
  • Precision medicine support

The recent and widespread adoption of EHRs highlights the need to supplement or enhance the EHR itself. EHRs are not the only opportunity, since only a minority of the healthcare workforce uses an EHR regularly. The need to activate and engage patients with more effective applications is also important for most healthcare stakeholders. Patients have only ever known a disjointed “customer experience” with healthcare. Ideas such as convenience, price transparency, or predictability would never enter into the average patient’s expectations of interacting with any aspect of the healthcare system. But patients are beginning to expect a more conventional “consumer” experience with healthcare. The proliferation of high-deductible plans and rapidly increasing out-of-pocket costs could eventually produce a market or regulatory response that could impose a different approach and processes for consumers.

Apps in the 2020s

In theory, an app could discover patient data at multiple organizations using a network-based record location service’s APIs. It could access that data directly from as many organizations as the application and use case demand. It could match pertinent records using an API-accessible master patient index service. It could access workflow from yet another network-based service to support part or all of a patient encounter. This kind of orchestrated functionality using distributed data is increasingly commonplace in consumer and some enterprise apps where the application uses REST-based access to data and functionality from multiple organizations. Healthcare is years away from being able to deploy such a scenario, but many in HIT would like to see it become a reality.

We are preparing a report on the status and outlook of healthcare app stores. For now, EHR vendors have shown strong interest in investing to reach new markets, users, and use cases. Most vendors recruit third-party developers and companies into their developer programs outside of their clinician user base. Third-party experiences with EHR vendors such as Epic, Allscripts, and athenahealth have varied in terms of support, costs, and allowed functionality. This report not only inventories the ways that EHR vendors are expanding functional and organizational app coverage; it also looks at the outlook for some of the other potential app store platform hosts.

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