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FHIR And The Coming Transformation Of Healthcare Data

FHIR And The Coming Transformation Of Healthcare Data

CEO of 1upHealth, a cloud-based data interoperability platform built on FHIR that unlocks healthcare data to help improve outcomes.

For a group of data innovators within healthcare, there is a sense that this is the time when the promise of interoperability becomes a reality and healthcare begins to transform. Triggered by a little-known regulatory rule that will have big implications for how healthcare data is shared and accessed, there is work being done to capture the real benefits that come with data sharing and an open ecosystem of cooperative stakeholders. And while a vast majority in the general business community are just coming to understand the potential for change, the technology is readily available to move quickly to deliver on improved care, lower cost, better quality and a transformed patient experience.

The federal government has been working behind the scenes to get the industry ready for a world of patient and bulk access to healthcare data. In 2021, the first of many steps were put in place when hospitals were required to provide access to population health data via an interface called a FHIR (fast healthcare interoperability resources) Bulk Data API. The standard defines how healthcare data is stored and exchanged between different systems. Essentially, FHIR has been designed to solve the data challenges widely faced by the healthcare industry (i.e., disparate data sources, untimely access, information silos, outdated legacy infrastructure, etc.).

So, why is this such a big deal for healthcare? Because, sadly, healthcare still operates with the fax machine as its most interoperable mechanism.

When health data access becomes routine and straightforward, I’m confident we’ll see a total transformation of healthcare, just as we’ve seen data access greatly transform other industries for the better.

The Power Of FHIR Is Standardization

FHIR’s great innovation is one data model based on widely used internet standards that other industries have used to successfully transform themselves. Standardization was a deliberate decision by regulators and, I think, the best possible one.

In the past, healthcare has tried to develop its own specialized systems for gathering, transmitting and using data. Part of the reason stemmed from how specific and demanding healthcare data is. But another part was an unhealthy desire to retain existing silos. Repeated attempts to keep system development in-house with proprietary tech stacks demonstrated that it’s hard to design a flexible and dynamic technology architecture from these monolithic and closed systems.

By relying on a set of common standards that are based on familiar technologies in an open and more transparent system, FHIR has made it possible for software developers to bring their existing knowledge and skills to take on healthcare data problems and innovate to take it to the next level.

It is exactly this approach that has powered the transformation of other industries by allowing anyone who could come up with a solution to a problem to build it and demonstrate its value. Now is the time for healthcare to experience the same transformative power that standard data access can provide.

There Is No Change Without Disruption

As a new entrant into healthcare, I’m seeing history repeat itself.

I’ve been through several industry transformations and have seen what happens to companies that resisted change that was both necessary and inevitable. As the environment changed, many businesses struggled to be relevant or underwent a painful transition to catch up.

At the time, some felt that the required changes would create chaos, as established ways of doing business had to be changed or redesigned. But in most of these transformations, the changes quickly centered on the same areas that the healthcare industry will need to focus on: connecting to large amounts of high-quality data, the ability to control and protect the data, developing first-class analytics, and establishing new business processes that take full advantage of the analytics.

In other industries, often the consumer was the main beneficiary of the changes taking place. They got higher quality goods and services faster and more cheaply, as well as a wealth of previously unimagined new services.

In healthcare, the core priority is delivering high-quality care to patients. To date, this has been a challenge as data sharing and access have been limited. But as this gets addressed, not only will care improve and cost be reduced, but there is the opportunity to improve the overall patient experience as has happened in other industries.

FHIR as a common data standard is a great starting point. But we need to do more. We need to rebuild the data infrastructure to support a new healthcare paradigm that provides us with data in real time to change both the way we operate and the quality of care we can deliver to patients.

This Will Be A Big Change

A broad-scale adoption of FHIR, as you might expect, has been slower than some of us had hoped. The big industry incumbents, with their own financial interests to protect, have decided to point to this as a sign that FHIR will fail in the same manner as other attempts at healthcare interoperability have failed in the past. I passionately disagree.

FHIR will grow the way network technologies usually do: first slowly, then less slowly, then with startling speed. No one in the healthcare system is used to having access to large amounts of comprehensive high-quality clinical and claims data, and as such, their operations are not ready to take advantage of it. The culture of healthcare will need to move beyond a closed approach, and the habits of using data to properly and effectively deliver their services will need to evolve.

We are in the early stages of transformation with the potential for real and lasting benefits. The presence of large volumes of high-quality data inevitably leads to a virtuous circle. The more this data gets used, the greater the demand for more of it.

Our healthcare system has been waiting a long time for access to this kind of data. The time for it is finally here.


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