By DAVE LEVIN MD
The Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) have proposed final rules on interoperability, data blocking and other activities as part of implementing the 21st Century Cures Act. In this series, we will explore the ideas behind the rules, why they are necessary and the expected impact. Given that these are complex and controversial topics open to interpretation, we invite readers to respond with their own ideas, corrections and opinions. You can find Part 1 of the series here.
In 2016, Congress enacted the 21st Century Cures Act with specific goals to “advance interoperability and support the access, exchange and use of electronic health information.” The purpose was to spur innovation and competition in health IT while ensuring patients and providers have ready access to the information and applications they need.
The free flow of data and the ability for applications to connect and exchange it “without special effort” are central to and supported by a combination of rules proposed by ONC and CMS. These rules address both technical requirements and expected behaviors. In this article, we look at specific technical and behavioral requirements for interoperability. Future articles will examine data blocking and other behavioral issues.
Compatible “Plugs and Sockets”
The proposed rules explicitly mandate the adoption and use of application programming interface (API) technology (or a successor) for a simple reason: APIs have achieved powerful, scalable and efficient interoperability across much of the digital economy. Put simply, APIs provide compatible “plugs and sockets” that make it easy for different applications to connect, exchange data and collaborate. They are an essential foundation for building the next generation of health IT applications. (Note: readers who want to go deeper into APIs can do so at the API Learning Center).
APIs are versatile and flexible. This makes them powerful but can also lead to wide variations in how they work. Therefore, ONC is proposing that certified health IT applications use a specific API based on the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) specification. FHIR is a consensus standard developed and maintained by the standards development organization (SDO) Health Level–7 (HL7). Mandating the use of the FHIR standard API helps to ensure a foundational compatibility and basic interoperability. This gives API technology suppliers (like EHR vendors) a clear set of standards to follow in order to fulfill the API requirement. It also ensures “consumers” of that API (like hospitals and health IT developers), have consistency when integrating applications.