Epic Launches FHIR-Based App Platform

Posted on March 2, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

It looks like Epic is getting on the FHIR train. According to an article in Modern Healthcare, Epic is launching a new program – serving physician practices and hospitals – to help them build customized apps. The program, App Orchard, will also support independent mobile app developers who target providers and patients.

The launch follows on the heels of a similar move by Cerner, which set up its own sandbox for developers interested in linking to its EMR using FHIR. The Cerner Open Developer Experience (code_), which launched in early 2016, is working with firms creating SMART on FHIR apps.

App Orchard, for its part, lets developers use a FHIR-based API to access an Epic development sandbox. This will allow the developers to address issues in connecting their apps to the Epic EMR. Previously, Epic wouldn’t let mobile app developers connect to its EMR until a customer requested permission on their behalf.

In addition to providing the API, App Orchard will also serve as an online marketplace along the lines of Google Play or the Apple app store. However, end users won’t be able to download the app for their own use — only software developers and vendors will be able to do that. The idea is that these developers will create the apps on contract to customers.

Meanwhile, according to the magazine, Epic will screen and pick an initial group of developers to the program. Brett Gann, who leads the Epic-based team developing App Orchard, told Modern Healthcare that factors which will distinguish one developer from the other include app safety, security, privacy, reliability, system integrity, data integrity and scalability.

As part of their participation, developers will get documentation listing these criteria and what they mean to Epic. The Epic team will expect the developers to commit to following these guidelines and explain how they’ll do so, Gann said.

While Epic hasn’t made any predictions about what types of apps developers will pursue, recent research offers a clue. According to new research by SMART and KLAS, providers are especially interested in apps that help with patient engagement, EMR data viewing, diagnostics, clinical decision support and documentation tasks.

One thing to watch is how Epic decides to handle licensing, ownership, and charges for participation in their Orchard Program. If they have a true open API, then this will be a good move for the industry. If instead they choose to take ownership of everything that’s created, put restrictive licenses on developers, and/or charge huge sums to participate, then it’s unlikely to see much true innovation that’s possible with an open API. We’ll see how that plays out.

Meanwhile, in other Epic news, Becker’s Hospital Review notes that the vendor is planning to develop two additional versions of its EMR. Adam Whitlatch, a lead developer there, told the site that the new versions will include a mid-range EMR with fewer modules (dubbed “utility”), and a slimmer version with fewer modules and advanced features, to be called “Sonnet.”

Whitlatch said the new versions will target physician practices and smaller hospitals, which might prefer a lower-cost EMR that can be implemented more quickly than the standard Epic product. It’s also worth noting that the two new EMR versions will be interoperable with the traditional Epic EMR (known as “all-terrain”).

All told, these are intriguing developments which could have an impact on the EMR industry as a whole.

On the one hand, not only is Epic supporting the movement towards interchangeable apps based on FHIR, it appears that the vendor has decided to give in to the inevitable and started to open up its platform (something it hasn’t done willingly in the past).  Over time, this could affect providers’ overall Epic development plans if Epic executes it well and enables innovation on Orchard and doesn’t restrict it.

Also, the new versions of the Epic could make it available to a much wider audience, particularly if the stripped-down versions are significantly cheaper than its signature EMR. In fact, an affordable Epic EMR could trigger a big shakeup in the ambulatory EMR market.

Let’s see if more large EMR vendors decide to offer an open API. If access to EMR APIs became common, it would represent a major shift in the whole health IT ecosystem.