The Facts on FHIR

Posted May 11, 2017
By George McLaughlin

There’s a lot of great information on FHIR out there for developers; however, there isn’t enough help for the non-technical folks who are impacted by its adoption and need to understand what it is, what it does, and what it means for them.

So, this article is for the all the sales, marketing, operations, and business development folks out there. Here are the most relevant and important facts about FHIR that you need to know.

What exactly is FHIR?

FHIR is a new standard for healthcare data exchange. It stands for “Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources” and is being developed by Health Level Seven International, a standards body who’s importance and background I’ll explain more in a second.

The goal of FHIR is to improve how we share electronic healthcare information so it can be used to accelerate research and be incorporated in new technologies that make healthcare better for patients and providers.

A key component to understand here is that a Standards Organization is developing FHIR. A Standards Organization “is an organization whose primary activities are developing, coordinating, promulgating, revising, amending, reissuing, interpreting, or otherwise producing technical standards that are intended to address the needs of a group of affected adopters.” –source

These organizations originated at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when a real need for precise, consistent, and interchangeable tools arose. Today, Standards Bodies exist to provide guidance and consistency to nearly every industry.

Health Level Seven (HL7) works to outline exactly how health information is structured and stored so that it can be accessed and utilized by anyone. Per their site, HL7 is a “not-for-profit, ANSI-accredited standards developing organization dedicated to providing a comprehensive framework and related standards for the exchange, integration, sharing, and retrieval of electronic health information that supports clinical practice and the management, delivery and evaluation of health services.” –source

Tl;dr FHIR is being touted as a new and improved way to store and share electronic health information.

Why do we need FHIR?

The way healthcare data is structured today is painfully out of date and makes sharing information extremely difficult. This is because the standards in use (also developed by HL7 International) were created long before the internet was ubiquitous. Though they were once helpful, they lack a lot of the efficiencies and best practices adopted over the last decade.

FHIR aims to get healthcare caught up.

Who cares about FHIR?

Primarily developers and health system IT staff. These are the folks who will be working with it the most and understand how it improves what they’ve been using up to this point. Healthcare as a whole is excited about an improved way to share health information and all of the use cases it could support, but, realistically, it’s developers who will see the most benefit.

What is a FHIR “resource”?

You’ll hear the term “resource” a lot. Resources represent a clearly defined packet of information—they take the most commonly needed pieces of healthcare information and put them together in a consistent way. This allows developers to know exactly how information will look. An example would be the FHIR “Patient” resource, which includes information like name, birth date, etc., and will be very frequently used. Another example is the FHIR “Coverage” resource which includes information on a patient’s insurance plan.

If that still doesn’t make sense, think about a FHIR resource like a Big Mac: everyone (well, maybe not quite everyone) knows a Big Mac has “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun.” No matter where you are, you know what to expect because you know the order of a Big Mac’s components. Every “Patient” resource will include consistent “ingredients”.

Can I use FHIR today?

This is where all the hype and momentum around FHIR kind of stalls, because the answer right now is “sort of”. It’s further than ever which is exciting, but FHIR isn’t totally ready and still has a way to go before it is the de facto standard for healthcare data exchange.

Right now, the major EHRs are starting to make FHIR available, and cutting-edge health systems are adopting it. However, it will still be years—yes, literally years— before FHIR is adopted at scale and becomes the most commonly used standard for healthcare information exchange.

Remember those resources I mentioned above? Well, there are a bunch of them, and as of today, only a handful are mature enough to be useful. All of this is to say, in its current state, FHIR is not yet as functional as promises to be, but people are beginning to use it for certain use cases at early-adopting organizations.

Why should I (you) care about FHIR?

Because, hopefully, FHIR will usher in a new era of innovation in healthcare. If health information is clearly structured and made available using technical best practices that all modern developers understand, the potential use cases are endless. FHIR should make it much easier to build out healthcare applications that are used by patients and providers. Currently, from a software standpoint, healthcare is kind of like a smartphone without an app store. How much more useful is your phone once you download all of the specific applications you like and help you do what you want? Right now, healthcare is stuck with stock apps and no other options; FHIR aims to flip the script, and we’re excited for how it will look.

Looking to take advantage of FHIR?

Redox is the leading integration platform for healthcare. We get new technologies in the hands of patients and providers by making it easy for health systems to adopt new solutions regardless of their existing technical infrastructure. To learn more about how Redox can help your organization, reach out—our solutions team is standing by to learn more about your needs and share how we can help you get your solution live, regardless of the standards in use.