The Future of Medical Records – FHIR

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As medical care becomes increasingly sophisticated, the successful transfer and utilization of patient records is critical for providing the best outcomes. The Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resource (FHIR), developed by the nonprofit group Health Level 7 International (HL7), is the latest standard for such data. FHIR seeks to transform the way patient data is used by giving everyone from doctors to developers the opportunity to view and build on it in unprecedented ways.

Before FHIR, standards for sharing patient data could roughly be compared to PDFs. Health care providers receiving a report from another doctor could see the doctor’s notation, but generally not the underlying data that the doctor collected. Even if the provider was able to get access to that data, no protocol existed for filtering it or interacting with it. This informational gap severely hampered the ability of health care providers to collaborate in providing treatment.

FHIR, which was first released in 2011, uphanded this dynamic. Rather than providing static printouts, FHIR relies on data elements called “resources,” which are unique identifiers for medical information. Through combinations of these resources, FHIR expresses medical data, allowing health care providers to see and interact with the information. FHIR can be roughly compared to a URL, generating a dynamic form of patient records more akin to a webpage than a PDF.

The interoperability of FHIR leaves open many possibilities for future uses. The rise of wearable devices and Internet of Things technology means that there is more medical data floating around than ever before. Using FHIR, developers can create tools that allow health care providers and patients to utilize this data in innovative ways. For example, using the iOS app Apple Health, patients can now download their FHIR records. The app can keep those records up-to-date and organizes and presents them in a more user-friendly way, simplifying a previously confusing process. The resource-based nature of FHIR allows these records to be automatically updated every time new information is added. These discrete resources are then compiled for patient viewing on the Apple Health app, generating a readable report.

Doctors can also use Apple Health to view data from wearable devices such as the Apple Watch. With patient consent, doctors can incorporate heart rate data from such devices into medical records to help detect heart conditions and tailor treatment. In addition to Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are also working on applications that incorporate FHIR. FHIR apps are available on two primary marketplaces, run by software companies EPIC Systems and Cerner. Analogous to the iOS App Store or Google Play Store for smartphones, these two marketplaces allow developers to sell FHIR applications directly to consumers and healthcare professionals.

Doctors are also seeing other benefits from the integration that FHIR provides. A prime example is in the notation and documentation of medical records, which previously was a cumbersome process involving the use of dictation devices and apps to upload records to desktop-based records systems. Now, FHIR-based apps are beginning to emerge that can upload medical records quickly and seamlessly. The Nuance Surgical CAPD allows surgeons to create fully operative notes in less than 90 seconds. Doctors can dictate notes and capture images directly from their smartphones and upload them securely to a patient’s medical records.

One primary concern of FHIR developers is protecting patient privacy. While the open-source nature of FHIR allows increased collaboration and interoperability, it leaves open the possibility that third-party apps may not adequately protect sensitive medical data. In December 2018, EPIC instituted a three-month halt on applications by new developers to its FHIR “App Orchard.” EPIC later reopened enrollments with more stringent requirements for HIPAA compliance and security. With these concerns in mind, universities and medical providers have begun to give seals of approval to select FHIR applications that protect privacy. For example, Emory’s FHIR Advisory Committee gives formalized endorsements to apps that meet several criteria, one of which is protecting patient privacy.

Everyone who examines medical records, from hospital systems, to individual doctors, to insurance companies, will find FHIR helpful in creating a seamless patient experience and improving standards of care. FHIR apps are already serving innovate roles, from helping doctors manage medication dosage to streamlining directives for end of life care. FHIR will serve as a key building block of the medical records market for years to come, as the basis for innovative methods of sharing and analyzing medical data.