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Could the key to health data exchange be APIs? ONC thinks so.

Application program interfaces (APIs)– routines, protocols, and tools used when building software—are important not only for interoperability but also to the future of healthcare, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

“APIs have been and will continue to be a key element toward enabling interoperability among consumers and health care providers,” Peter Ashkenaz, a spokesperson for ONC, said in a MeriTalk article. “Publicly available APIs in health care and technology solutions built using them could help usher in a new wave of advanced tools that can more seamlessly connect consumers and health care providers to data.”

And then there’s the new healthcare law, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). It says providers will be rewarded for using technology to improve care outcomes and will be able to customize health IT, and interoperability will be a top priority.

Open-source APIs could also make interoperability more achievable because they allow the exchange of secure health data through the cloud, the article said.

However, there are still barriers to APIs really taking hold in health IT.

“Continued work remains to align the use of different data formats, codes, and semantic terminology in order to enable the seamless use of data,” Ashkenaz said in the article.

He added that a few steps need to be taken before APIs can live up to their full potential in health IT:

  • Developers should establish one standardized set of publicly accessible API specifications that have been tested and deployed by developers and then put to use by healthcare providers
  • Other software developers need to be able to use those APIs unimpeded to create innovative solutions
  • Consumers and providers must be able to obtain new tools and applications that deliver better experience and constantly update to better versions

Despite the challenges, the outlook for APIs ultimately looks good because they will play an important role when it comes to the changes in reimbursement models, such as those embodied in MACRA, Ashkenaz said.

“The use of APIs–and the tools built off them–will likely be a key aspect of any health IT developer and provider strategy to participate in future payment programs, including alternative payment models,” Ashkenaz said. “As demand for health information exchange continues, so too will the demand for more efficient ways to exchange, aggregate, and analyze data.”