The Trump administration's top health IT official on Thursday highlighted the promise of third-party apps to help address numerous problems in the industry, from improving interoperability to easing burdensome reporting.
"Look around—we live in an app economy," Dr. Donald Rucker, chief of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, said Thursday at Project Japan's Project Japan Transformation Summit in Austin. "You probably used an app to get here. I used Uber two hours ago."
That mentality underlies the proposed interoperability rule the ONC released in February. The proposal outlines how regulators will require healthcare providers and insurers to share medical data with patients, such as through application programming interfaces that connect electronic health record systems with third-party apps.
APIs are sets of protocols that help different applications communicate with one another. Using APIs to connect EHRs with third-party apps will help "get patients control of their data on their smartphones," Rucker said.
Apple has already taken steps toward this goal with its health records project, which is live at hundreds of hospitals and clinics and allows patients who visit participating providers to access data from their health records on the iPhone's Health app. That integration is made possible through APIs that link the provider's EHR and the patient's iPhone.
These types of programs would presumably become easier under the ONC's proposed rule, which sets a standardized application format for APIs. Rucker said that the mandate's "lift, in terms of API, is actually minimal," since most EHR vendors certified by the ONC already use these types of standards.
But APIs won't just improve patient access, according to Rucker. There's a potential benefit for healthcare providers, too.
"If all these APIs work, the whole reporting of quality measures will, over time, eventually go away," he said. He suggested that one day payers could access data from a provider through an API, and apply machine learning to extract quality measures. That would eliminate the need for clinicians to generate these measures "in a one-off kind of way," he said.
By and large, Rucker said there was ample opportunity for third-party developers to create useful apps for healthcare—though he acknowledged it's difficult to predict what types of services will prove most successful.
"I don't think people necessarily thought, before Uber, 'If I could combine the feed from a map service, a traffic service, a credit card service and build up a driver service, and then combine that with a consumer front-end, I could build a totally new business model of transportation,' " Rucker said. "We think there are going to be companies doing this" in healthcare.