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What are REST APIs?

What are REST APIs?

REST APIs, or Representational State Transfer Application Programming Interfaces, specifically provide a set of rules and conventions for building web services that allow systems to communicate and interact over the Internet. For instance, when you use a mobile app to view social media posts, send an email, or check the weather, REST APIs are working behind the scenes, fetching data from servers and ensuring that it seamlessly integrates with your app. 


How do REST APIs work

REST APIs leverage the HTTP protocol to enable communication between client and server applications over the web. The study Automated Specification-Based Testing of REST APIs details how these APIs use HTTP methods like GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE to perform CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) operations on web resources. Each client request includes an endpoint URL, specifying the resource to interact with, and, if necessary, data in the form of JSON or XML. 

The server then processes this request, performs the desired operation, and returns a response to the client. This response includes a status code indicating the outcome of the request and, often, data about the resource in question. As mentioned in the study, the REST architectural style simplifies web application development by utilizing these standardized HTTP methods, making it a preferred choice for API development due to its ease of use, fast response time, and support for a wide range of data types.

See also: HIPAA Compliant Email: The Definitive Guide


The use cases of REST APIs in healthcare 

Patient health information exchange

REST APIs enable the seamless exchange of patient health information (PHI) between different healthcare providers, such as hospitals, clinics, and specialists. For instance, APIs can connect a primary care physician's system with that of a specialist to whom the patient has been referred. This ensures that the specialist has access to the patient's full medical history, lab results, and previous treatments, leading to more informed decision-making and continuity of care.


Real-time alerts for patient monitoring

In critical care units, REST APIs can facilitate the development of systems that provide real-time alerts to healthcare professionals about patients' vital signs. If a patient's heart rate or blood pressure deviates from the normal range, the system can immediately alert the attending staff, enabling swift intervention. 


Integration with laboratory information systems (LIS)

REST APIs allow for the integration of Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems with Laboratory Information Systems. This integration enables doctors to electronically submit lab test requests and receive test results directly in the patient's electronic record. A specific use case could involve a doctor ordering a blood test through the EHR system, with the results automatically updated in the patient's record once available, streamlining the diagnostic process and reducing wait times for patients.


Personal health record (PHR) apps

PHR applications use REST APIs to give patients access to their health data, including medical history, lab results, and medication lists, on their smartphones or online. Patients can share this data with new healthcare providers or caregivers as needed, empowering them to take an active role in their healthcare management. Additionally, these apps can offer personalized health tips and reminders for medication or appointments, further enhancing patient engagement and self-care.


Remote patient monitoring (RPM) for chronic disease management

REST APIs are pivotal in RPM solutions, especially for managing chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension. These solutions can collect data from connected devices, such as glucose monitors or blood pressure cuffs, and transmit it to healthcare providers for monitoring. A specific use case involves a diabetes management app that collects glucose level data from a smart glucose meter and uses an API to send this data to the patient's healthcare team, allowing for adjustments in treatment plans without the need for in-person visits.


Clinical decision support systems (CDSS)

CDSS use REST APIs to access current and historical patient data from various sources to provide healthcare professionals with evidence-based recommendations. For example, when prescribing medication, a CDSS can use APIs to check the patient's record for potential drug interactions or allergies, ensuring safer prescribing practices and reducing the risk of adverse drug events.


Genomic data analysis

In personalized medicine, REST APIs enable the integration of genomic data analysis tools with clinical systems. Healthcare providers can use these tools to understand how a patient's genetic makeup might influence their response to certain medications or their risk of developing specific diseases. A use case could involve an oncologist using a genomic data analysis tool, accessed via an API, to select the most effective chemotherapy regimen based on the genetic markers of a patient's tumor.

See also: What is genomic data?


The benefits of using REST API’s 

  1. Simplicity and ease of use: REST APIs use standard HTTP methods, making them easy to understand and implement. The use of familiar HTTP operations (GET, POST, PUT, DELETE) simplifies the development process for creating, reading, updating, and deleting resources.
  2. Statelessness: REST APIs are stateless, meaning that each request from a client to a server must contain all the information the server needs to fulfill the request. The server does not need to store session information, which simplifies the architecture and improves scalability and reliability.
  3. Scalability: The stateless nature of REST also contributes to its scalability. Since the server does not need to maintain session state, it's easier to scale an application horizontally by adding more servers.
  4. Cacheability: Responses from REST APIs can be explicitly marked as cacheable or non-cacheable, allowing clients to cache responses and improve performance by reducing the need to repetitively fetch the same data.
  5. Uniform interface: REST APIs are designed around the principle of a uniform interface, which simplifies the architecture by decoupling the implementation of the server's functionality from the services it provides.
  6. Platform and language independence: REST APIs work with standard HTTP and can be handled by any tool or library that can make HTTP requests. This makes REST APIs accessible from any programming language or platform that can interact with the web.
  7. Fast performance and lower server load: By using methods like caching, REST APIs can reduce the number of interactions between the client and the server, leading to faster performance and lower server load.
  8. Interoperability and integration: REST APIs facilitate the interaction between systems on the internet, making it easier to integrate with external services and systems.

See also: Top 10 HIPAA compliant email services



Can REST APIs be used for any type of application?

Yes, REST APIs are versatile and can be used for a wide range of applications, from small personal projects to large-scale enterprise systems. They are particularly well-suited for web and mobile applications that require communication with a server to fetch, update, or delete data.


What is the difference between REST APIs and SOAP APIs?

REST APIs and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) APIs are both used for web services, but they differ in complexity, standards, and use cases. REST is based on HTTP and is more lightweight and flexible, making it ideal for web applications. SOAP is a protocol with strict standards, providing built-in security and transaction compliance, making it suitable for enterprise-level web services with high security and reliability requirements.


What are some common uses for REST APIs?

  • Integrating third-party services into applications (e.g., payment gateways, social media services).
  • Developing client-server applications where the client can be a web browser, mobile app, or another server.
  • Creating web services that need to be accessible from various devices and platforms.
  • Managing the interaction between microservices in a microservices architecture.

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