FHIR showing promise in healthcare information exchange

Providers and developers will soon be able to start implementing the emerging interoperability standard
By Frank Irving
06:50 PM

If you haven't yet heard of FHIR (pronounced - fire), an open data interoperability standard being developed by HL7, you will soon.

FHIR — which stands for Fast Health Interoperability Resources — was among key components of the Shared Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap released in January by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. FHIR specifications for querying a common clinical data set will be refined and piloted this year.

The upshot? Healthcare organizations that use FHIR will eventually be able to communicate current data across disparate systems, fostering enhanced care collaboration.

At the moment, FHIR is in its first version as a Draft Standard for Trial Use, meaning that interested healthcare providers and vendors are testing it through ongoing "connectathons."

Within the next two months, HL7 will release a specification and an implementation guide for the FHIR API and the corresponding security profile.

"People can then take the specification guide and start implementing. It will be up to each of the vendors and providers how far down the road they want to go," said Micky Tripathi, co-chair of a federally appointed task force advising ONC's Health IT Policy Committee.

"We already have a reference-able implementation out there with the first FHIR profile, which is for patient demographics — the ability to exchange patient information such as name and address," said Tripathi. "And there are 25 to 30 organizations who have already signed up and said they are going to start testing."

Some of the testing organizations are small patient-facing vendors, but others are nationwide entities such as the Veterans Administration, U.S. Postal Service and Department of Defense. Health IT heavyweights GE and NextGen have also indicated that they intend to participate.

In addition, the potential is there for provider-authorized apps that would download specialty-specific data that their current EHR does not support.

The technology could even make its way into consumer circles.

"We believe consumers are demanding change; they want to have their health information at their fingertips through their mobile phone," said Aashima Gupta, healthcare transformation strategist for Apigee, an API development firm. "While health apps can be engaging, they may result in scattering consumer health data and creating more data silos. Further, these apps have no way of easily connecting to EHRs or pulling meaningful information about consumers, with their consent. This is resulting in redundant copies of records and inconsistency."

Gupta continued, "That’s where FHIR comes in: It is designed to connect siloed data in a meaningful way and empower consumers to understand their health data. FHIR resources/APIs enable healthcare stakeholders to securely share, manage and measure data across a multitude of devices and digital touchpoints."

Former national chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, an advisor to Apigee since 2012, has been encouraging the firm "to focus more energy on the healthcare sector as the industry undergoes a digital transformation" by joining the organizations that have pledged to implement the forthcoming specifications.

You can see a demonstration of FHIR capabilities at the HIMSS15 Interoperability Showcase on the exhibit floor. 

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