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Making integration easier for people building healthcare software

Tony Heap, Lead Product Owner for API management at NHS Digital, explains how our new API platform can create a more competitive marketplace for healthcare systems.

I last wrote about progress on our API platform in October 2020. It’s a bit of an understatement to say quite a lot has happened since then.

Tony Heap, Lead Product Owner for API management, leans against a whiteboard at NHS Digital's Leeds office

But one thing that has, if anything, become even clearer than it was back in 2020: the necessity of enabling point-of-care systems to talk to one another and to our national systems. 

This interoperability happens through APIs (application programming interfaces). If we can build the right APIs, and make them easy to use, we can create a competitive marketplace of healthcare software that provides professionals and patients with more choice and better value for money. 

APIs have always been central to our strategy. They are the primary method of access to our core national services, such as the Personal Demographics Service (PDS), the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) and the Summary Care Record (SCR). We handle over 1.5 billion API transactions per month. 

The challenge

Back in 2019 we identified a problem. People building healthcare software told us that integration was hard work, time consuming and costly. We discovered pain points all the way through the software delivery lifecycle, including poor documentation, outdated technology, tricky to access path-to-live environments, overly complex manual assurance processes and patchy help and support. 

Those issues create a barrier to entry for newcomers to the healthcare software market, resulting in limited choice and higher costs for end users.  

Our mission

Based on these pain points, we set ourselves a mission - to make integration easier. We also developed a set of supporting principles: 

  • make learning easier – with API documentation that is online, accessible and clear  
  • make design and build easier – with APIs that are internet-facing and that use modern open standards such as REST, FHIR, OAS and OAuth 2.0
  • make testing easier – with sandboxes and test environments that are self-service and well documented 
  • make onboarding easier – with an online process that only asks for things that are needed  
  • make help and support easier – with a single point of contact for support that is simple and reliable
  • make building and running APIs easier – for our own delivery teams, with an API platform that is cloud-based and self-service, and support and guidance from our central team  

What we have done so far

To achieve our mission, we’ve built the NHS Digital API platform - a one-stop shop for all our APIs, providing a consistent experience for API consumers and API producers alike. 

A key part of the platform is the developer hub, where developers, architects, product owners, business analysts and delivery leads can come to learn about our APIs, test them and register for full access online. We’ve put a lot of effort into digitising and streamlining the onboarding process. 

To demonstrate what a good API looks like, we’ve also built an exemplar API – the Personal Demographics Service (PDS) FHIR API. This can be used to discover a patient’s NHS number, look up their personal details and update their records. 

When we started, a survey was conducted which found that healthcare software developers rated their experience of integrating with our APIs at 2 out of 5. Two years on, the average is 4 out of 5. 

Finally, we’ve migrated a number of our other APIs to the platform. We currently have nine APIs in production, with eight more in alpha. 

To date we have handled over 1.6 billion transactions from 51 API consumers on the new API platform – some of which support apps that are part of the COVID-19 pandemic response. Our API catalogue includes 93 APIs and API standards.

This approach seems to have worked. When we started, a survey was conducted which found that healthcare software developers rated their experience of integrating with our APIs at 2 out of 5. Two years on, the average is 4 out of 5. 

We have engaged with industry bodies – such as techUK and their Ten Point Plan for Healthtech - and thought leaders, some of whom had previously been outspoken about this area. They’ve been impressed by our improvements, with one describing them as “an incredible move forward.” 

Opening up the platform to third parties

The API platform is now available to API producer teams outside NHS Digital. This is to allow others to take advantage of the work we’ve done and to progress towards a one-stop shop for healthcare APIs. This service is free as long as the use case is appropriate. 

The potential possibilities are exciting. We've recently been talking with the Ministry for Health in New Zealand, who have just started a similar journey to us. Their team were impressed by our API platform and developer hub and are keen to learn from our experiences. 

What is still to do?

The API platform exited beta in late April, but that doesn’t mean work ends. We’ll continue to improve the platform based on user feedback for as long as we can. 

Our to-do list includes
  • continuing to migrate existing APIs to the new platform to make them easier to use
  • proactively looking at what APIs are ‘missing’ from our portfolio 
  • improving the Digital Onboarding Service and migrating more APIs to it
  • launching a developer forum 
  • iterating existing platform features based on user feedback 

You can see a full list of our planned APIs and platform features on our interactive product backlog. Feel free to  suggest, comment or vote on features you want to see. 

Get involved

Ultimately, the purpose of our API platform is to improve health and care outcomes. We need your help. 

Firstly, we need your views to ensure we’ve built the right thing. So, give us your feedback - on the API platform and on the APIs we’ve built. 

Secondly, we need our APIs to be used. So, take a look at our API catalogue and see whether any of them would be useful. In particular - get involved in a beta programme and help us to shape the future.  

Finally, if you have a health or care API that might be of interest to others, consider publishing it on our API platform. 

Related subjects

Mick Schonhut, Technical Writer at NHS Digital, explains how we put user needs at the centre of our API documentation.
We want to make it as easy as possible for suppliers to integrate their services with the NHS App. Dan Collins, Senior Product Manager at NHS Digital, explains some new self-serve tools we think will help.
Alex Lord, Lead Product Owner for the Digital Onboarding Service at NHS Digital, explains why we are investing in digitalising the onboarding journey for developers of healthcare software.


Last edited: 10 October 2022 10:39 am