Tag Archives: interoperability

Healthcare Leader Should Embrace APIs

Originally published in Healthcare Information Management and Communications Canada magazine:

Despite their technical sounding name, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are a strategic weapon that can drive innovation, foster interoperability, and unlock the value of existing information systems. Just as leaders in industries as diverse as retail and finance have embraced APIs as a strategic imperative, so too should Healthcare leaders. 

Over the summer I had the perfect opportunity to pitch the benefits of APIs to a hospital leadership team and I blew it! I was interviewing to fill a vacancy on the leadership team and had been asked (as had the other candidates) to prepare a presentation on how the organization could optimize use of their recently deployed hospital information system replacement. APIs were part of my response. 

While many aspects of my presentation elicited nods and smiles, the mere mention of APIs was met with quizzical looks that quickly morphed into the dreaded “eyes glazed over” expression. I knew that I had failed to clearly explain APIs and why they matter when the CEO asked, “So, what exactly is an API?” 

As I am firm believer in the old adage, “if you at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, I’m taking another run at convincing healthcare leaders to embrace APIs. 

The U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) describes APIs as “messengers or translators that work behind the scenes to help software programs communicate with one another.” APIs “describe a specific set of technical instructions that allow one piece of software to interact with another piece of software.” 

An October 2015 article in Forbes entitled Why Your CEO And Board Should Be Demanding API Adoption, asserts: 

“Given the benefits that companies of all sizes in a diverse collection of industries are getting from APIs, it is clear now that more CEOs and Boards of Directors should be delivering their own version of the Yegge rant.” (Written by Steve Yegge, formerly with Google, the rant includes a leaked communication from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in which he demanded that everyone at Amazon implement APIs or be fired). 

In a companion article entitled Don’t Get Ubered: APIs Hold Key To Digital Transformation, author Dan Woods argues: 

“In a larger sense, APIs are the secret sauce to becoming digital, that is, to transforming business so that innovation can happen at a faster pace, so that barriers to change are reduced, so that many more people can contribute to your company’s success, and so that you can create better products and defend yourself from the competition.” 

Robert S. Huckman, faculty chair of the Harvard Business School Health Care Initiative, and Maya Uppaluru, a policy advisor in the Obama administration’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, share Dan Wood’s views on the benefits of API. In a December 2015 Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Untapped Potential of Health Care APIs”, they assert: 

“If the health care industry followed suit, the impact on the quality and cost of care, the patient’s experience, and innovation could be enormous.” 

Many industries have embraced APIs. According ProgrammableWeb, Reference, Financial and Social are the leading users. The health sector, unfortunately, does not make the top ten on the ProgrammableWeb list. 

A Commonwealth Fund healthcare policy and practice commentary entitled “Making Health Data Useful to Patients Through Open APIs” puts the current use of APIs by the health into perspective: 

“APIs have the potential to remove many barriers to the sharing of health information between providers, patients, and others but they are fairly new to health care.” 

The ONC has recognized the transformative potential of APIs and views them as the means to overcome the interoperability challenge that has plagued the health sector. Certification criteria for electronic health record systems include reference to APIs. Since the majority of hospital information systems used in Canadian hospitals are from U.S. vendors, these hospitals can potentially leverage these same APIs. 

The Ontario Hospital Information System (HIS) Renewal Secretariat shares the ONC’s views on the transformative potential of APIs and has included API support as a core requirement that must be incorporated into Master Service Agreements and RFPs. Specifically, with respect to Data Access and Portability, the HIS Renewal Provincial Framework (draft) specifies that an HIS must “support access to the hospitals’ data by other health care solutions including through the use of published APIs.” 

The Harvard Business Review article that I referenced earlier describes the benefits of APIs for patients, healthcare providers, and researchers. With respect to optimizing use of hospital information systems (the topic I was asked to address in my interview), the article explains: 

For providers, who often report difficulty with using EHR technology, APIs represent an opportunity for internal innovation. Open APIs can allow provider systems to build their own custom user interfaces in-house or shop around for a better solution than the interface that comes standard with their EHR system. EHRs could eventually become a platform on top of which other companies could build more tailored applications and improve usability for clinicians. 

What are your thoughts on the strategic importance of APIs? Are they strategic a strategic imperative that healthcare leaders, including CEOs, should embrace? 

Mike

 

Pragmatic Interoperability

The idea for this article hit me so suddenly I was concerned that I might have uttered the title out loud in the middle of someone else’s presentation! I was attending an ITAC Health workshop on healthcare interoperability and was listening to Trevor Hodge, Executive Vice-President at Canada Health Infoway, introduce Infoway’s clinical interoperability strategy. When Mr. Hodge cited the Alberta NetCare Viewer as a highly successful example of interoperability that met clinicians’ needs, I realized that interoperability could take many forms and that a pragmatic approach may be the most appropriate short-term strategy.

Check out the remainder of this article at Technology for Doctors.

Mike

The Interoperability Imperative

This article originally appeared in Healthcare Information Management & Communications Management magazine:

Call me a “fan boy” but I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Apple’s iPhone 6. Having written about the disruptive potential of digital health platforms, I was eager to play with apps designed for the new HealthKit platform (and that took advantage of the iPhone 6’s many built-in sensors). Even before I began to explore the functionality of the first HealthKit enabled app that I installed, I was struck by how it easyit is to share data among these apps. I simply indicated during the installation process which data elements I wanted to read from and write to the HealthKit repository and I was done. If only the sharing of my personal health data across the various health IT systems in which it is stored was so easy!

Interoperability, like innovation, is one of those words that has become so overused that it risks oblivion in buzzword hell. Equally concerning, it is a term that few people outside the health IT community use and care very little about. Yet, interoperability (or, perhaps, more correctly, lack of interoperability) has proven to be a major impediment to realizing the full potential of health IT.

Karen DeSalvo, Director of the Office National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (often referred to as the ONC) in the United States, has made impassioned pleas about the interoperability imperative at various events since she was appointed less than a year ago. At the annual HIMSS conference, held this year in Orlando, Ms. DeSalvo told attendees:

“We have made impressive progress on our infrastructure, but we have not reached our shared vision of having this interoperable system where data can be exchanged and meaningfully used to improve care.”

A similar situation exists in Canada. In a brochure advertising an interoperability workshop scheduled to take place in October 2014 (before this article is published), ITAC Health offers the following summary:

“For years the Health ICT industry in Canada has struggled with the challenge of interoperability. Application developers are faced with a dizzying array of standards, jurisdictional requirements and legacy environments.”

At the annual American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) conference held this year in San Diego, Ms. DeSalvo observed that healthcare data “must be plug-and-play. It’s not helpful if it just sits there idle.”

I was intrigued by Ms. DeSalvo’s choice of words. To be useful, Ms. DeSalvo contends, healthcare data must be able to move to where it is needed. This notion of data liquidity, which the Institute of Medicine defines as “the rapid, seamless, secure exchange of useful, standards- based information among authorized individual and institutional senders and recipients”, captures the essence of what we are trying to achieve when we talk about interoperability.

So, how do we achieve data liquidity? Dr. Doug Fridsma, Chief Scientist at the ONC (and soon to be President and Chief Executive Officer for the American Medial Informatics Association (AMIA)), contends that tackling this challenge “from the top down isn’t going to work.”

In a HealthITBuzz (the ONC’s blog) post earlier this year, Dr. Fridsma offered insights on how to achieve interoperability on a large scale. These insights were gleaned from a Software Engineering Institute report entitled “Ultra-Large Scale Systems: The Software Challenge of the Future.” He notes that the characteristics of ultra-large-scale systems described in the SEI report have “an eerie similarity to the challenges we face in the overall health IT industry.”

“Ultra-large scale systems are not about a single software application, or a couple of applications working together, but rather an ‘ecosystem’ of interacting software systems,” notes Dr. Fridsma. These systems “cannot be managed ‘top down’ in a monolithic way, but will require a coordinated, decentralized way of meeting local needs, while keeping all of the systems working together.”

This notion of ecosystem is reflected in the ONC’s 10-year vision for an interoperable health IT infrastructure. This vision is based on what the ONC refers to as “five critical building blocks”

  1. Core technical standards and functions
  2. Certification to support adoption and optimization of health IT products and services
  3. Privacy and security protections for health information
  4. Supportive business, clinical, cultural, and regulatory environments
  5. Rules of engagement and governance

These building blocks are similar to the key enablers that Canada Health Infoway lists in its Pan-Canadian Digital Health Strategic Plan.

Ken Stevens, VP, Healthcare Solutions, Intelliware Development
Inc. and Co-Chair of the ITAC Health Interoperability and Standards Committee, offers what I think is perhaps the best summary of the interoperability imperative. Commenting on one of my posts on the eHealth Musings blog, Ken writes:

“Interoperability and data mobility have a huge impact on whether innovation is even possible …. Wherever valuable data is accessible through simple open standards, innovation will flourish.”

What are your thoughts on the interoperability imperative? How can we achieve data liquidity? What needs to change?

Electronic medical record systems: Does one size fit all?

I love fall! Not only for the changing colours and cool, crisp days but also for the many conferences and trade shows that take place this time of year. At the recent HealthAchieve conference, organized by the Ontario Hospital Association, for example, I learned that there is a growing trend in Canadian hospitals towards a single, enterprise-wide electronic medical record system. Experience elsewhere in the world suggests that this preference for single vendor systems over best of breed environments is fraught with challenges and runs counter to the trend in other industries.

Check out the rest of this Technology for Doctors articles here.

Mike

An important step towards more open healthcare IT systems

For years one of the major complaints about healthcare IT systems has been the closed and proprietary nature of most vendor offerings.  As we move to improve “information liquidity” (a cool term I read about it a Deloitte study, I believe) across the continuum of care. announcements such as the following are most welcome:

http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/eclipsys-and-microsoft-form-strategic-alliance-to-make-enterprise-health-it-more-open-and-powerful-85193517.html

Of particular note in the press release is the statement:

The Microsoft agreement is part of Eclipsys’ open platform initiative, by which Eclipsys plans to expand its reach by working collaboratively with other industry participants to enhance interoperability, and enabling third parties to develop new applications that work natively with Eclipsys solutions.

I added the bold to emphasize Eclipsys’ intent to support third party applications.  Taking a page from Internet pioneers and giants Amazon, Facebook, and Google, Eclipsys is creating the conditions for an ecosystem in which they do not try to be all things to their customer.  By allowing third parties to add value to their core platform they will make this platform more valuable and more attractive to current and prospective customers.

I hope that other vendors, particularly Canadian EMR vendors, take note of the Eclipsys strategy.  Opening up your platform so that other vendors can develop applications that make use of the information stored in your systems is good for the customer, good for our health system, and good for your bottom line.