The FHIR Standard at the Heart of Healthcare

We are witnessing the healthcare industry undergo remarkable transformations as the information exchange between systems and stakeholders becomes more seamless and accessible. With the 21st Century Cures Act provisions leading the way, new interoperability rules and regulations empower consumers to easily access and share their health information with their care team. And who’s at the forefront of this revolution? The Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resource (FHIR) standard, of course!

As the healthcare landscape evolves, it’s imperative that professionals and organizations stay ahead of the curve in order to succeed. This is especially true when it comes to FHIR and interoperability – two buzzwords that are rapidly becoming cornerstones of the industry. At b.well Connected Health, we’re committed to helping healthcare organizations understand and leverage these key technologies so that they can make a real difference in people’s lives.

What is the FHIR Standard?

The FHIR standard was developed in 2012 by Health Level Seven (HL7), an international standards organization specializing in developing standards for the exchange of healthcare information. In its simplest terms, FHIR is a standard for exchanging electronic health information between computer systems. It is designed to be flexible and scalable, making it suitable for use in a wide variety of contexts, from mobile phone apps to cloud communications and server communication in large health systems. 

Healthcare systems, plans and payors depend on health information technology from thousands of different vendors, few of which can talk to each other. FHIR solves that problem by providing a set of specifications for how data should be structured and exchanged, including a common data model, data exchange formats, and application programming interfaces (APIs). It allows healthcare organizations to exchange information in a standardized way, regardless of the specific technologies they use.

FHIR solutions are built from a set of modular components called “Resources.” These resources can easily be assembled into working systems that solve real world clinical and administrative problems at a fraction of the price of existing alternatives. The most recent version of FHIR, FHIR R4, was introduced in 2019 and offers the first normative content for the data standard. Normative content has passed through all six stages of the FHIR maturity model, as devised by HL7, meaning it has been extensively reviewed and tested in real-world environments.  In developers’ terms, R4 is now “locked down,” so the variation in real-world implementation that plagued earlier version of FHIR is now stabilized.  

Why is the FHIR Standard Important?

FHIR is appealing because it’s based on a truly modern web services approach that makes it easier for systems to exchange very specific, well-defined pieces of information, such as a medication list, a problem list, or lab results, rather than entire documents. This makes it easier for systems to communicate with each other and exchange information securely and efficiently.

In contrast, previous methods for exchanging health information between disparate systems often relied on proprietary data formats and custom integrations, making it difficult for different systems to communicate. This resulted in a fragmented and siloed healthcare system we all know too well, where information was not easily accessible to all stakeholders, including patients. 

Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) have attempted to address this problem by providing a centralized repository for health information, but they still need help with data standardization and interoperability. FHIR helps to address these challenges by providing a common language for data exchange that can be used across different HIEs and healthcare organizations.

FHIR is also critical to the development of a consumer-first healthcare system. That’s because FHIR is the first national data standard to enable the secure, access-based, free movement and sharing of data, helping consumers to maintain and manage their health. In recognition of this, the 21st Century Cures Act Final Rule required that any federally certified healthcare technology – including all EHRs – must provide their customers with FHIR-based APIs by December 31, 2022.

How has FHIR Impacted Patients, Payers & Providers?

The FHIR standard has positively impacted patients, payers, and providers by making it easier to exchange electronic health information. At least in principle. 

FHIR has enabled patients to access their health information from various sources, including different healthcare providers and mobile health apps. So far, though, EHR patient portals have largely failed to take full advantage of FHIR. Patients remain reliant on individual providers’ understanding of their health. If the standard were fully implemented, then patient portals would incorporate information from wherever a patient receives care. That would give patients a more complete picture of their health, allowing them to make more informed decisions about their care.

FHIR has made it easier for payers to access and analyze health information from multiple sources. This enables them to make more informed decisions about coverage and reimbursement, improving the overall efficiency of the healthcare system.

Providers have also benefited from FHIR by making it possible to access health information from providers outside their own organization, as well as from digital health apps and wearables. This enables them to provide far more comprehensive care to their patients, avoiding expensive, duplicative tests and procedures and improving patient health outcomes. 

Again, in principle. Most provider organizations still need to take full advantage of the FHIR standard. That leaves it up to patients to ensure their providers know their full medical history, often through the old-fashioned and error-prone method of delivering paper records by hand.

One final beneficiary of the FHIR standard is innovation itself. A nationwide ecosystem of standard FHIR APIs will enable more innovation among technology developers in the future. This will benefit all stakeholders in the healthcare system, including patients, payers, and providers.

How Can Healthcare Pioneers Successfully Leverage the FHIR Standard?

It sounds simple enough. Healthcare pioneers can successfully leverage FHIR by understanding the standard and its potential. They should also clearly understand the challenges and opportunities that FHIR presents. This includes understanding the technical aspects of FHIR, such as the resources and data elements that make up the standard and the regulatory and privacy requirements that must be met.

But like any standard, FHIR is only useful when put to work. And that’s no simple thing. 

At b.well, the FHIR standard and the APIs it supports are at the heart of our mission to simplify the consumer healthcare journey. Our FHIR-enabled platform aggregates data from providers, payers, connected devices, and more to create a 360° longitudinal health record that fuels our customers to deliver powerful, personalized, and proactive insights to consumers. 

The FHIR standard enables b.well to provide consumers with convenience and choice that extends well past the four walls of the doctor’s office. Thanks to FHIR, b.well can help deliver what consumers want from their healthcare providers – real-time access to all of their data at the point of care.  That access is also vital to providers because it fuels population health management and value-based care.

Without FHIR, providers would struggle to use 360-degree data to communicate proactively and reach out to their patients. Yet that proactive communication—whether it’s to alert patients that they’re due for an important test or to schedule a doctor visit—serves the entire community, whether it’s an insurance carrier, a provider, or a consumer-facing application trying to add value to a consumer’s life.

This is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

As we continue to talk and work with healthcare providers, consumers, and other stakeholders about the power of FHIR, we will only continue to realize its true potential. It’s more than a standard; it’s a movement that puts consumers in the driver’s seat, allowing them to participate actively in their healthcare journey. This truly makes FHIR revolutionary – and why we’re pushing for the industry moving towards this standard.

Join us on our mission to simplify healthcare, one person at a time.