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Delivering the value of APIs in healthcare


Cognizant Industry Voice

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Paul Martin, healthcare executive at Cognizant UK, supports the increased use of application programming interfaces in the NHS

The NHS has begun to harness the potential of application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable data sharing and underpin development of a wide range of new applications - but there is still plenty to be done to obtain the full value from the movement.

There is tremendous scope for this in the healthcare sector, with the development of an API infrastructure to support integrations from patient care into social care. This could make it possible for an organisation to develop a single API for a specific dataset that could be made available to internal teams and a range of external bodies for them to make use of the data.

This would be most effective when supported by a robust API platform, a place that users can go to register, obtain documentation and test their solutions with an API, and the development of standards for best practice in their creation, presentation and how they are used.

Cognizant’s conversations with NHS digital leaders - including a recent roundtable - suggest there is a lot of enthusiasm at the prospect but also frustration at the progress so far. They identified a need to simplify the complexity in the effort and see how some suppliers of legacy systems could be incentivised to provide APIs. They called for an accreditation for systems that have APIs enabled and a scope for new suppliers to enter the NHS economy with new solutions.

Momentum for progress

Now, however, there is a momentum to overcome the barriers, with existing government resources and a plan to develop an API platform for the NHS in England.

The Government Digital Service has developed a catalogue of APIs from a range of organisations in central government, available on GitHub, to help build an understanding of what datasets can be reused and best practice in doing so.

Initiatives have also emerged within the health service. NHS England has an API and integration catalogue on those that are currently available or in development for itself and associated organisations. This includes standards and a guide to building software with the APIs.

It also has an open API policy, including key expectations aimed at helping organisations to embed the use of APIs, and a supporting management programme providing components such as a service template and related management utilities.

The effort has now been intensified with work on an API platform as a ‘front door’ for health and care APIs.

Three components

It will consist of three components, the first being a hosting platform including proxies for security and rate limiting against bot attacks, a translation layer, sandboxes for early testing, an authorisation service integrated with the NHS Care Identity Service and NHS login, and tools for logging, monitoring and alerts.

Second is a developer and integration hub for people building the front end applications that consume APIs. This includes tutorials for getting started, a catalogue, detailed API specifications, self-service access to test environments, a digital onboarding service and a developer community for help and support.

Third is the producer zone that includes self-service guidance, technical and non-technical support, and lightweight governance to ensure APIs are built to a consistent quality. It requires an NHS England Confluence account for access.

The priorities in delivering these three elements are to produce a good experience for the people engineering APIs, balancing the needs of API consumers against risks, keeping consumer communities engaged, aligning with industry standards and balancing innovation with stability.

It is all designed to make integration easier between point-of-care, patient facing and back end applications within the NHS and from third parties. It also provides a range of benefits including lowering the barrier to entry for software providers, reduced software costs for the NHS, a variety of well integrated software for healthcare workers, and an environment in which digital innovation can thrive.

Exemplars and iterations

An exemplar API – for the NHS Personal Demographics Service – has already been developed, more are being built and there are plans to migrate others onto the platform. A series of iterations is to follow to overcome any problems and provide a reliable resource.

This will involve a lot of hard work but it will ultimately make things more simple for those using APIs to develop new applications.

NHS England is now looking for more developers and new ideas, urging them to register for an account on the platform, become active in the community, engage with the NHS Innovation Service, provide feedback and suggestions, and comment and vote on features of the work done so far.

It should all help to build an API economy within the sector, making it as simple as possible for developers to do things that are really needed, while ensuring robust mechanisms for information governance, security and clinical safety are in place.

UKAuthority and Cognizant are currently partnering on a research programme on the use of APIs throughout the health and public sector, investigating the issues in efforts to unlock their value for the public good. It includes a survey in which you can provide your perspective. Take part here.

Paul Martin recently spoke at UKAuthority Integrating Digital Health and Care 2024 conference, catch up with his presentation now: 

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