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.

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