Ensuring that the 21st Century Cures Act Health IT Provisions Promotes Interoperability and Data Exchange

Dan Gottlieb MPA
Josh C. Mandel MD
Kenneth D. Mandl MD


The opportunity has never been greater to, at long last, develop a flourishing health information economy based on apps which have full access to health system data–for both patients and populations–and liquid data that travels to where it is needed for care, management and population and public health. A provision in the 21st Century Cures Act could transform how patients and providers use health information technology. The 2016 law requires that certified health information technology products have an application programming interface (API) that allows health information to be accessed, exchanged, and used “without special effort” and that provides “access to all data elements of a patient’s electronic health record to the extent permissible under applicable privacy laws.”

After nearly two years of regulatory work, an important rule on this issue is now pending at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), typically a late stop before a proposed rule is issued for public comment. It is our hope that this rule will contain provisions to create capabilities for patients to obtain complete copies of their EHR data and for providers and patients to easily integrate apps (web, iOS and Android) with EHRs and other clinical systems.

Modern software systems use APIs to interact with each other and exchange data. APIs are fundamental to software made familiar to all consumers by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon. APIs could also offer turnkey access to population health data in a standard format, and interoperable approaches to exchange and aggregate data across sites of care.

The Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT (ONC)-funded SMART on FHIR API specification enables apps to connect with EHRs in a standards-based way, giving users a frictionless way to choose their favorite apps. This property of substitutability defines a new form of interoperability. SMART leverages the Health Level Seven (HL7) Fast Health Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard and has been implemented by the major EHR products. The SMART app gallery, and EHR-specific app stores such as Epic’s App Orchard and Cerner’s code App gallery host scores of app that connect to EHRs.

Two particularly intriguing uses of SMART are (1) Apple’s use of the API to connect its health app to hundreds of health systems enabling users to download copies of their health records to their smartphones; and (2) the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid’s implementation of “Blue Button 2.0”, enabling beneficiaries to connect apps to their healthcare financial data.

Because the specifics of the final rule matter greatly, we strongly encourage policy makers to attend carefully to a few key requirements which derive from the phrases “without special effort” and “all data elements.”

Expanded data access. ONC has proposed a set of standardized clinical data that will grow over time from the 2015-era “Common Clinical Data Set” to a forward-looking “US Core Data for Interoperability”. This kind of consistent, standards-based data set holds tremendous promise for the ecosystem. At the same time, standards can lag behind clinical practice and cutting-edge technology development, so the Cures Act goal of “all data elements” would be challenging to achieve through detailed clinical modeling standards alone. We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We propose a three-pronged approach to meeting the Cures provisions for “all data elements”:

  1. Use standards that exist today. For example, FHIR “US Core” profiles cover the 2015 era Common Clinical Data Set, providing a common basis for communicating patient demographics, medidcations, conditions, lab results, vital signs, and more. These core data should be made available through APIs to provider- and patient-facing apps.
  2. Continue developing these standards over time. For example, efforts like HL7’s Argonaut Project are driving common support for new data types like clinical notes as a fast-moving 2018 roadmap. We should start building a community-maintained “profile backlog” to articulate and prioritize the most valuable data that haven’t yet been standardized.
  3. Enable flexible approaches to cover the gap between our well-standardized-and-growing “core data” definitions and the long tail implied by the Cures provision for “all data elements.” As one example to illustrate how EHR vendors could ensure that innovators have programmatic access to all of the clinical data accessible in the system: similar to the way vendors publicly document a subset of APIs today, they might expand this documentation to include database schema, tables, columns, and enumerations used to store complete clinical records.

This approach (use standards, develop standards, and cover the gap) would empower early adopters to develop cutting edge clinical integrations ahead of the standardization process, building experience to guide the standards process that follows.

Standard and ubiquitous APIs for patient facing apps, provider facing apps and population analytics. Our vision is that an app written once should run anywhere in the healthcare system. The availability of standardized APIs, ubiquitously implemented across care settings, is essential to driving down the “special effort” that is still typically required to create, distribute and use health apps.

  1. Standardize APIs for apps. The SMART Health IT (a.k.a. SMART on FHIR) specification is sufficiently mature to be considered as an industry standard for launching and authorizing apps in an EHR or patient portal. It is in widespread use in clinical settings, has achieved consensus through the Argonaut process, is implemented in EHR products, and its core elements are being incorporated into the next release of the FHIR standard.

While the SMART-based app integration focuses on one‐patent‐at‐a‐time access to health system data, population level data export is critical for value‐based care, postmarket surveillance, quality improvement, and clinical research. The API should enable a user or an app to specify export of all EHR data or EHR data on defined cohorts at the discretion of the data owner. Under ONC funding, a standard for bulk data export in a FHIR‐formatted flat file has been proposed and the Argonaut implementation group is working to pilot it in 2018.

  1. Allow multiple pathways to register apps for connection to EHRs and other HIT. As more EHR vendors build support for standards-based apps, developers are discovering that they need to independently register each new app with each vendor and complete a set of on-boarding, review, or “vetting” steps before users are able to install the app and authorize a data connection. The app registration and vetting landscape is evolving quickly as vendors create developer programs, launch partnerships, and build out their own app marketplaces. App vetting procedures review and assess critical aspects of integration including security, usability, and business/privacy practices and offer value to end-users, who expect a clean, safe, experience of choosing, installing, and running apps.

Nonetheless, we have observed that these vetting practices can cause friction for some use cases and believe it is too early to define a “one size fits all” standardized app vetting process.  As such, we propose an “escape hatch” in the form of an at your own risk principle, by which provider organizations and individual patients should be able to accept the risk of connecting an un-vetted app to their own data without vendor review. While many apps will follow a conventional path of registration and vetting, this option provides a route to ensure that all apps, even small-scale apps (e.g., one-offs produced by individual tinkerers, open-source developers, research efforts) can reach visibility and commercial viability within the real-world clinical landscape, and that providers have the opportunity to select any apps of their choice.

  1. Ownership terms. App developers should have the option of retaining all intellectual property related to the app, regardless of how the app connects to the EHR and which underlying EHR APIs the app consumes.
  2. Maintain free registration of apps for patients. As required now under Meaningful Use Stage 3, patients should always be able to connect apps of their choice, without cost.
  3. App connections should be long lasting, when desired. In other words, the user should not need to reauthorize the app to the system each time data is accessed. This property will enable apps to perform functions on behalf of patients and providers, without special effort (for example, checking periodically for new lab results).

Summary. We are so pleased that ONC has and the OMB have gotten to the is stage in which a proposed rule is pending at OMB. We are on the precipice of creating a national-scale apps model for health, based on an API that promotes interoperability and data exchange via substitutable apps. The simple imperatives we enumerate above, could reshape the health IT industry by providing a channel for innovators to distribute and/or sell their software applications by enabling customers to select and integrate EHR-connected apps as easily as they do for smartphones. As the final proposed language implementing the 21st Century Cures Act API provisions is reviewed and prepared for release is decided, we encourage policy-makers to keep all eyes on this prize.

Kenneth D. Mandl, MD, MPH directs the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, is the Donald A.B. Lindberg Professor of Pediatrics and Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School, and leads the SMART Health IT project.

Dan Gottlieb, MPA is a Clinical Informaticist at the Harvard Medical School Department of Biomedical Informatics, collaborating with developers to design & deploy open standards that enable an interoperable ecosystem of healthcare apps, clinical decision support services, and population health analytic tools.

Josh C. Mandel, MD is Chief Architect for Microsoft Healthcare, Chief Architect for SMART Health IT at the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard Medical School Department of Biomedical Informatics.

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