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NCPDP: Engineering Manager, Mark Harris, Presents on Open APIs

Early May, industry stakeholders once again descended upon Scottsdale, Arizona for the 40th Annual National Council for Drug Prescription (NCPDP) Conference — the “ruby” anniversary.

CoverMyMeds Engineering Manager, Mark Harris, co-presented at the conference on the importance of open APIs. It kicked off a lot of conversations during and after the conference on how crucial it is that everyone in the health care industry (regardless of their role) understand the impact of open APIs.

Before we kick it off – since we’re actively dropping the acronym – let’s get everyone up to speed on APIs:

An API is an Application Programming Interface. In a nutshell: it’s a set of clearly defined methods of communication between various software components. It’s in your everyday jargon if you’re a computer programmer.

CoverMyMeds: Can you tell us a bit about why you chose this topic for NCPDP? Why APIs?

Mark Harris: The topic of APIs came up because our task group realized the rest of the NCPDP audience was not as familiar with the concept, while at the same time we are on a crash course with it. With the recent popularity of FHIR (www.fhir.org) and other APIs like Google, Facebook and Salesforce, we should reconsider how the NCPDP standards fit into this new paradigm. The NCPDP standards have changed to adapt to the best technology available at the time, and it seemed like the right time to reconsider APIs.

Mark and his co-presenter, Mike Rosenthal, had a unique way of describing how technology advanced through the years, by showing evolving fashion throughout the decades. By applying something people could easily recognize, it was easier to dive into the often-complex information they provided.

CoverMyMeds: The “decades” theme was a fantastic way to gain understanding from an audience that as you said, may not be as familiar with the concept of APIs. How did that come about?

MH: The “decades” theme was the brainchild of my co-presenter, Mike Rosenthal. We were struggling to come up with a less-technical way of describing the change of technologies over time, and one of us mentioned that APIs were currently “in fashion.” Mike ran with it. The next time we met, he had reconfigured the presentation to compare fashion to computer technology.

Through the years, technology has moved from large, isolated computers tended to by Ph.D.-credentialed professionals to personal computers we hold in our hands that even toddlers can operate. Along the way, we have had to conquer challenges such as security, privacy and to our societal frameworks. The good news is those problems are mostly solved. To solve the big problems in health care, we stand on the shoulders of those solutions to build useful systems that take advantage of the power of interconnected systems. When we agree on a set of standards for how these systems interact with one another, that frees up entrepreneurs to concentrate on solving the problems providers face.

CoverMyMeds: What do we need to know about connectivity?

MH: Internet-based systems solved the interoperability problem a long time ago, but did so without much concern for privacy. The emerging standards for APIs (e.g. FHIR) combine the best of web standards with the tradition of privacy from existing health care standards. This combination of openness and privacy will create innovation in health care in ways we cannot imagine today. NCPDP and other standards organizations, as well as private companies like CoverMyMeds, can participate in a new boom in innovation and solutions that matter to providers and patients. The time is now to get involved and to leverage existing web standards to solve our critical health care issues.

CoverMyMeds: What do you see for the future?

MH: Health care is an industry teeming with opportunity to improve workflows and engage patients. Until now, someone with an idea that would improve a physician workflow or help a patient’s health and wanted to get that in front of physicians had to either be working for an existing electronic medical record (EMR) system vendor, make a partnership with that vendor or write their own EMR system to effect that change. Even if they were successful in getting that change into one EMR, they still had to make that change across multiple vendors.
FHIR allow access in a standards-based way across a multitude of EMRs. With those APIs, a person with such an idea can create their solution using those APIs, and will immediately have access across a wide variety of EMR solutions with just that one implementation. Moreover, health care providers no longer should change EMRs or wait for their EMR vendor to implement a feature they want because developers across the world can contribute their solutions to extend EMRs independently.

CoverMyMeds: Final thoughts on this year’s annual conference?

MH: This year’s conference, like all other years, was completely overwhelming. The volume of demonstrations and the energy of the presenters was infectious. With the national focus on improving costs in health care, all eyes are on health care IT, and the vendors have clearly stepped up to the challenge.