Three Strategies for Leveraging APIs in Digital Health


Learn more about different strategies in leveraging APIs in Digital Health. 

This article previously appeared in Tech Crunch, June 2021

Technology companies want to enter and innovate in the digital health economy, an ecosystem where developers can make a positive impact in healthcare.

In the United States, healthcare spending is on the rise, reaching $3.8 trillion annually—nearly 18% of the country's gross domestic product. Research estimates that 30% of healthcare spending is regarded as wasteful. More than ever, technology and health IT companies can play a leading role in helping address this problem while also helping deliver an improved digital consumer experience reflective of other industries such as travel, online retail, and finance. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are the backbone of this transformation, and when leveraged strategically, APIs can help technology and health IT companies accelerate their time to market, make the most of their capital, and deliver value more quickly. 

This article provides three strategies for effectively leveraging APIs in digital healthcare: Use what already exists; prioritize privacy, security, and performance; and try before you buy. Before discussing these strategies, it’s important to recognize why timing is critical for technology and health IT companies entering the digital health community.

Edge of Innovation

More technology, health IT companies, and start-ups than ever before are entering the digital health economy as regulations now mandate greater visibility, access, and interoperability of healthcare data. These regulations created requirements for secure, standards-based APIs that support a patient’s access to their health information and data sharing among stakeholders in an effort to streamline care coordination and foster innovation.

Healthcare providers, insurance companies, health IT, and other stakeholders will increase their investments in APIs in 2021, according to our national study on API adoption. Nearly 90% of healthcare stakeholders believe APIs are “mission critical” or “quite important,” but less than a quarter report using APIs at scale. However, healthcare providers and insurance companies expect to nearly triple their use of APIs in the next three years. As API usage grows, they will spur the next wave of innovation in healthcare.

Innovate. Don’t Recreate.

Innovating in the digital healthcare economy isn’t just about building capability; it’s about building scale and connectivity with data, with systems, and with organizations. Strategic use of APIs enables technology and health IT companies to efficiently develop differentiated solutions by leveraging the existing technology from the right partner.

Technology and health IT companies should focus on building their business rather than developing capabilities and connections that could already be available via APIs. For example, if you’re building a digital patient experience app, use an API rather than building capabilities that submit and track key financial transactions. Instead of building point-to-point connections to each data system to support your personal health record (PHR) or engagement app, leveraging an existing interoperability API is much more effective and efficient.

Getting started with an API-based approach to designing your product, experiences, and outcomes requires a change in approach throughout the development process. First, identify your use cases, what data you need, and where the sources for that data exist. Then determine where and how you can get that data and/or deliver those experiences. Can you do that via an API or do you have to build it? Once you’ve identified what APIs you need, consider who you should get those APIs from. Rather than sourcing your APIs from multiple places, it’s helpful to find a partner with a broad portfolio of APIs that are simple to access, purchase, and implement. For maximum utility, find APIs that are independent, interoperable, and neutral, ensuring that they can work across multiple platforms, technologies, EHRs, and customer segments such as healthcare providers, insurance, and other health IT companies. 

Prioritize Security, Privacy, and Performance

One of the biggest responsibilities for technology and health IT companies when developing digital health applications is protecting a patient’s or members’ health data by meeting security and privacy requirements and ensuring solutions perform properly. While this may seem obvious, the challenges are even greater and the stakes even higher when operating within the healthcare industry.

Insurance companies, hospitals, and health systems cited security and privacy concerns as the biggest barriers to API adoption. Healthcare information is some of the most sensitive information that exists; therefore, it’s critical for technology and health IT companies to become familiar with privacy laws and accreditations like the Electronic Healthcare Network Accreditation Commission (EHNAC) and HITRUST. Furthermore, when creating solutions using existing APIs, companies should look to a partner that treats APIs as products and follows a formal product-release process for ensuring that each and every API—no matter its size or capability—meets healthcare privacy and security standards.

Healthcare is a trillion-dollar market that demands performance. That reality is true for the surgeon performing a procedure and for the tech company that developed the app that allows the patient to schedule and pay for that procedure. While many APIs claim to do the same thing, at the end of the day, developers need to trust that the API will perform as promised across multiple end points and customer segments. To deliver when it matters most, technology and health IT companies should seek a partner that builds APIs using a rigorous process that ensures consistency, scalability, and connectivity.

Try Before You Buy

When possible, try before you buy. The ability to experiment with APIs is critical for technology and health IT companies, particularly those in the startup environment. Healthcare is a large, complex industry with myriad interactions and transactions, and the impact of “getting it wrong” not only impacts your bottom line, it impacts your credibility and your ability to grow. To create the best experience possible, developers need to test APIs, retest, and test again. If you’re building a solution that bundles several APIs together, such as a digital front desk, you need to see how API workflows seamlessly work together. With a vast array of data types and uses, it is critical to take time to test before launching a new solution.

Part of this process should also include leveraging the experience and insights of a subject matter expert or an API provider with an extensive understanding of the healthcare industry. Engaging the right partners helps organizations create a scalable solution and accelerate speed to market.

In conclusion, our research shows that industry stakeholders anticipate widespread usage of APIs in healthcare by 2023. How will you take advantage of this evolution? Quickly bringing valuable, viable, innovative applications that deliver outcomes for patients, providers, and insurers to market requires that technology and health IT companies explore what APIs already exist to complement their business needs. These APIs should meet stringent healthcare security and privacy requirements. APIs must also perform as promised across a variety of customer segments and diverse scenarios. The opportunity to test APIs and consult leaders in the field is a critical part of this process. Together, these strategies enable technology and health IT companies to focus on building the next greatest algorithm, engagement, or other innovation that will help transform healthcare and deliver a better patient experience.

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