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APIs for Research: Perspectives from App Developers and Data Integrators

Mera Choi; Stephanie Garcia; Chelsea Richwine; Christian Johnson and Brittney Boakye | June 13, 2022

In ONC’s “App Developer and Data Integrator Perspectives” report [PDF – 511 KB] (Perspectives Report) – the third in the “Accelerating APIs” report series – we assess the current landscape of API-based health information exchange in a rapidly evolving electronic health data ecosystem. Perspectives of app developers and data integrators are presented to understand the emerging landscape of technology companies and their role in effective data aggregation, integration, and exchange.

Federal Efforts Promoting Standardized App Use

Together with the ONC Cures Act Final Rule and CMS Promoting Interoperability Programs, health IT developers are encouraged to support a more interoperable health IT ecosystem. As a result, we see a growing number of third-party app developers emerging in the marketplace to create health apps that gather and exchange data from electronic health records (EHRs), devices, and related systems.

Patients can now use apps to consolidate their health records from multiple providers including their medications, laboratory test results, and other important clinical information. ONC research shows that individuals are using health apps to track their health-related goals, as well as inform discussions with their provider to make decisions regarding their health. Providers are using apps to expand the current capabilities of their EHR and provide clinical decision support tools to better care for patients. Greater access to health data is also increasingly used to inform clinical and biomedical research.

The App Developer and Data Integrator Perspective

In the Perpsectives Report, the term “data integrators” refers to companies that specialize in health across disparate health IT systems and third-party software products, data exchange between health care organizations, and technology-enabled services and solutions aimed at promoting a more interoperable health IT ecosystem. This report describes app developers and data integrators’ challenges, barriers, and opportunities for the advancement of using APIs in health care and research.

Prior to the availability of standardized APIs, developing apps to support data exchange with multiple source systems has traditionally been a time and resource-intensive, costly, and arduous process. As a result, the product life cycle, from development to implementation, is often mired with confusing guidance, uncertain data structures and fees, lengthy timeframes, and other burdensome requirements an app developer needs to complete prior to connecting. This also presents challenges for entry into the health app marketplace for new organizations trying to emerge in this market.

The Cures Act Final Rule requires certain developers of certified health IT to adopt secure, standards-based APIs with the Health Level Seven (HL7®) Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR®) data exchange standard, and make specific business and technical documentation necessary to interact with the certified API technology publicly available. The goal of these policies is to increase health data interoperability, lower costs, and improve the speed of developing new health IT products.

What We Learned

When asked to describe the current motivators for the adoption and use of standards-based APIs and apps by providers and patients, discussion participants expressed the following key themes:

  • Use of interoperable data across multiple EHRs and health systems remains a strong motivator.
  • The potential for “plug and play” seamless connections to multiple systems will help drive a “self-service” model at lower costs, with fewer resources, and a shorter development life cycle.
  • Government regulations motivate health IT developers, providers, and payers to implement interoperable solutions and provide patients with greater access to their health data.
  • Standardized workflows and processes will promote further innovation for digital health and mobile app solutions.

Learn More About APIs and Healthcare Apps

Learn more about APIs and apps via the following ONC resources:

Accelerating APIs for Scientific Discovery: Main ONC homepage for the Accelerating APIs for Scientific Discovery project that includes links to project activities aimed at increasing use of APIs and healthcare apps by consumers, researchers, and providers.

Accelerating APIs for Scientific Discovery: Consumer Perspectives: First in the “Accelerating APIs” report series provides the perspectives of consumers and patient advocacy organizations and the need for health apps to support accurate, timely, detailed and interoperable health information.

Accelerating APIs for Scientific Discovery: Researcher Perspectives: Second in the “Accelerating APIs” report series provides the perspectives of researchers including biomedical and clinical informaticists, academic researchers, and pharmaceutical companies and their need for data housed within electronic health records and other data sources that can be accessed through APIs.