Accelerating Healthcare Innovation with FHIR

Photo by The Ewan under the Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Data interoperability is a growing concern in the healthcare industry and with good reason. As systems for delivering care become more digital, the need to share data between systems becomes more clear. Currently, EHR vendors create their own custom API specs which have led to bespoke and brittle data connections between entities that are vulnerable to breaking changes. To make matters worse, vendors are often not following best practices when it comes to popular styles like REST that cause confusion and wasted time for those attempting to consume their data.

The need for a common API standard is clear and HL7’s FHIR is emerging as the solution. The standard supports developer-friendly, modern web standards like JSON, XML and OAuth while defining entities as easily understood RESTful resources. Initiatives like Argonaut Project and SMART on FHIR are organizing both leading EHR vendors (like Epic, Cerner, athenahealth) and major healthcare providers to accelerate the development and adoption of FHIR. There have been talks that many large EHR vendors are working to release their FHIR plans this calendar year.

My previous job was in IT for local city government, releasing governmental data to the public as part of the “open data” movement. FHIR reminds me of the Open311 API specification for how to represent data related to 311 systems (in which citizens can ask questions and report non-emergency issues).

Adoption of Open311 API standard in large cities, like our own Philadelphia, has led a explosion of apps, API wrappers in various programming languages, data visualizations and other libraries that can interact with 311 data. Most of these tools are open source, meaning that they can often be used by others at no cost. With open source software, for example, It is even conceivable for an application designed for Chicago implemented for St. Louis’ 311 system because of the shared Open311 standard.

The FHIR effort will lead a similar increase in digital innovation in the healthcare industry. The point isn’t that healthcare applications will be free of charge if they use FHIR, but rather that a shared standard helps the health IT ecosystem create and support data interoperability by making development of systems faster, simpler and less resource-intensive.

Healthcare vendors, such as Grand Round Table, stand to benefit by being able to integrate their tools with more EHR products at a lower cost when the FHIR option is available. It is for this reason that we hope to develop open source FHIR tools that we will use for our own applications with FHIR while giving back to the healthcare ecosystem.

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