Application programming interfaces give access to data created by others, enabling a computer programmer or someone working on a computer to call up another program and get it to do a particular task, explains Brian Murphy, an industry analyst at Chilmark Research.

It is a technology the healthcare industry desperately needs and is slowly moving toward, he contends.

APIs are not new, having been invented in the 1950s. But Google, Facebook and other social media put them on the map in recent years. Most notably, APIs power all the apps on your smartphone.

The healthcare industry has been slow in adopting APIs, and most other major industries are considerably ahead in use of the technology, Murphy says. “I could write an app for all the garages in Boston so they could look up parts information from General Motors.” But healthcare organizations don’t yet share data so easily, in part because of potential HIPAA ramifications and, in part, because some degree of data hoarding among providers and vendors still exists.

Also See: ONC announces initial winners of API challenge

The move toward accountable and value-based care, however, is breaking down that barrier as providers are assuming more responsibility and risk for the patients they care for, with multiple providers often having joint responsibility for a patient.

That means providers need better tools to exchange health information and APIs make the exchange easier than existing tools such as the Health Level Seven and Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise data exchange standards.

Over time, with expanded use of APIs, clinicians will be able to see data on a particular patient from multiple other providers by clicking on the patient name in their electronic health record system, Murphy predicts. This can be done today, but at large cost and only getting a small subset of additional information on patients. And it will take time for vendors and providers to all get on board and take full advantage of API—five to ten years before the technology is ubiquitous. “This is inevitable; it’s just a question of when.”

Also See: 12 top data and IT trends to expect in 2017

For now, there is growing demand among administrators and clinicians for easier data sharing and not so much demand among vendors to offer it, so providers must make the move to APIs a priority for their vendors, Murphy advises.

A new Chilmark report from Murphy, “APIs for a Healthcare App Economy: Paths to Market Success,” is available here.

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