What is FHIR? The eventual answer to healthcare interoperability

Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) is a healthcare-specific standards framework for the same kind of RESTful APIs that underlie most internet commerce. In theory, it sounds like problem solved. But experts say there is still a long road ahead before FHIR is widely adopted for EHR-to-EHR interoperability.

Electronic Health Records [EHR] / digital medical data, monitor health status, doctor, laptop
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Fifteen years after President George W. Bush launched a nationwide campaign to computerize healthcare and give everyone access to their electronic health records (EHRs), the industry is finally starting to achieve some degree of interoperability among EHRs and other health IT systems. But much of the data is still locked up in documents, and the ability of healthcare providers to access discrete data from outside sources at the point of care remains limited.

The reason interoperability between computer systems is so difficult in health care—and the reason it’s so badly needed—is that health care is extremely fragmented. There are many different kinds of healthcare providers, including hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and urgent care centers, and they use many different types of EHRs. Health insurers use an array of other systems. Interfaces are expensive to build and difficult to maintain, and they don’t allow searches across networks.

Complicating this already complex scenario is the fact that, for their own business reasons, some EHR vendors and provider organizations have created barriers to electronic health data exchange. A recently proposed rule from the federal Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT (ONC) would prohibit such “information blocking” and would also make it easier to exchange discrete data by requiring that government-certified EHRs include APIs based on the emerging FHIR standard.

What is FHIR?

Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) is a healthcare-specific standards framework for the same kind of RESTful APIs that underlie most internet commerce. Snippets of data known as resources represent clinical entities such as medications and medical problems. FHIR-based apps can be plugged into any FHIR-capable EHR without a customized interface.

In theory, it sounds like problem solved. But experts and CIOs tell cio.com there is still a long road ahead before FHIR is widely adopted for EHR-to-EHR interoperability. Today, the major use cases for FHIR-based apps are to expand EHR functionality and to enable patients to download their records and make use of them in various ways. For example, the Apple Health Records app now uses FHIR to enable consumers to download health information from multiple providers and assemble them into a single health record on their iPhones.

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