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Data Standards, API Development Will Support Health Data Exchange

Shared data standards and continued development of APIs will support more robust health data exchange, says the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Data standards and API development will support health data exchange

Source: Thinkstock

By Jessica Kent

- Shared data standards and industry-wide adoption of application programming interfaces (APIs) will be key to promoting improved health data exchange, according to a recent brief from the Pew Charitable Trusts.  

APIs have the potential to allow organizations to seamlessly share data with one another, but adoption for data exchange purposes has thus far been limited, Pew noted.

“Now that most hospitals and physicians’ offices have EHRs and are collecting health data such as medication lists and laboratory results electronically, APIs could help facilitate data exchange among health care facilities to give clinicians better information on patients’ health. These tools could also allow individuals access to their medical records,” the brief stated.  

“While APIs have been used in health care for some purposes, such as appointment scheduling, they are not widely employed for sharing data among facilities or with patients.”

Leaders should ensure that APIs sending and receiving information to each other use the same vocabularies, so that the data has meaning, said the report.

Pew pointed out that while FHIR) has enhanced API use and data exchange between electronic health record (EHR) systems, it does not require standardized vocabularies for medication names, diagnoses, and other critical information.  Unstructured and variable data can result in ineffective communication.

To overcome this issue, a number of EHR vendors and several large hospital systems have formed the Argonaut Project, which creates guidelines on how organizations can use FHIR to exchange data in a consistent manner.

“Through a consensus-based process, the project has created guides on how to communicate—via FHIR—the common clinical data set (CCDS), which is the critical health information such as medication lists and vital signs that the federal government has identified as essential for exchange,” Pew wrote.  

Although these efforts have improved API use, the brief states that stakeholders should take more steps to further standardize relevant data elements. Leaders can encourage the use of existing terminologies, as well as develop new terminologies where codes don’t yet exist.

In addition to suggesting that the private sector standardize terms, Pew recommended that the federal government take further regulatory action to promote the use of APIs in healthcare.

In 2015, ONC required that EHRs make the CCDS available for patients to access through an API. However, Pew said that this requirement fell short in that it did not mandate access to all critical data contained in EHRs.

To further support API use, Pew stated that government agencies should work to make all relevant data, and not just CCDS, available through APIs.

Federal organizations should also provide access to patients’ full health records so that those with chronic diseases and their providers have a comprehensive history of their condition.

While stakeholders are taking steps to promote API use and improve health data exchange, Pew stated that leaders must establish additional standards and regulations in order for this technology to reach its full potential.

“Use of APIs to extract data from EHRs could mark a turning point for interoperability. Clinicians could gain access to more usable data from other institutions and use new clinical decision-support tools based on that information to better coordinate care,” Pew concluded.

“Additionally, patients could more easily obtain their data and use different approaches to aggregate and analyze the information to take ownership of their care. When implemented effectively and with appropriate standards like FHIR, APIs could propel health information technology forward by enabling the flow of useful, usable data.”

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