Ready For a Third-Party Market for Apps on Your EHR? athenahealth Explains How (Part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of this article, I explained why EHR vendors need to attract outside developers to remain competitive, and how athenahealth’s More Disruption Please (MDP) program pursued this goal by developing open APIs. This part goes on to describe how they made their athenahealth Marketplace an actuality.

Through experimentation, API developers throughout companies and governments have found a toolbox of best practices to develop and promote their APIs. athenahealth pretty much did everything in this toolbox:

  • A prominent public announcement (in this case, coming from the CEO Jonathan Bush himself)

  • A regular set of hackathons to answer developer questions and familiarize them with the APIs,

  • An early pilot partnership that created a demonstration project and produced insights for further development, described in Part 1 of this article

  • An accelerator program that offers seed funding, free office space, mentorship, technical resources, support, and contacts with the client base

  • A commitment to support both physicians and partners, including a requirement that athenahealth developers work on API documentation

Access to the APIs is easy–for security purposes, a developer has to agree to the run-of-the-mill terms and conditions, but the process is fast and there is no charge. The athenahealth Marketplace is large and thriving, with more than 2,500 members.

Having spent a lot of money for an EHR, clinicians who are growing more tech-savvy and have come to love their mobile apps will demand more and more value for the money. Vendors are coming to realize that they can’t produce all the value-added solutions and functionality their customers want.

The SMART Platform has, for several years, championed the availability of EHR data to fuel app development by EHR users and third-party companies. The recent FHIR standard has drawn enthusiasm from vendors. A number of them, including athenahealth, have formed the Argonauts project to develop shared definitions and ensure that, in an interoperable way, they can provide the most common types of data used by US clinicians.

But as explained before, supporting an API does not automatically lead to more effective, beneficial apps or services. athenahealth has gone to the next level to attract real-time, dynamic applications to its Marketplace, and in turn is reaping the benefits.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site ( and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.