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APIs Key to the Healthcare Kingdom

Mashed by: @mansilladev


Stroll around your office right now and ask a few people this question: What industries are ripe for disruption? One of the top answers you’ll undoubtedly hear: healthcare. Healthcare is a big industry with big problems. In 2012, US healthcare expenditures are estimated to reach ~$3 trillion USD. Looked at another way, we spend about $95,000 per second on healthcare. The upside for disruptive innovations in healthcare could easily translate to billions, both in savings and revenues. But where and how do we begin? Isn’t access to the healthcare space traditionally reserved for well-established, deep-pocketed, politically influential institutional players?

Platforms: You’re invited
Some players in the space, both in the public and private sector, are taking a new approach to solving healthcare bureaucracy issues – they’re opening their data and service channels. They’re taking the platform API approach, inviting new partners, and in some cases, third-party developers, to access their data and services. While data interchange between healthcare entities over the network is not new, using this open channel for partner business development and external innovation is new.

Financial service and healthcare verticals once viewed as too risky to transact services in the cloud are on their way to becoming mainstream platform offerings. Established healthcare players are extending platforms to attract new partner integrations in addition to their traditional large-scale B2B partners. In fact, in less than five minutes, anyone (including you) can register for self-service API access from a Fortune 100 company for the following data: insurance claims (patient de-identified), estimated cost of care, food and drink nutrients/allergens, FDA and NDC drug databases, FDA recalls, federal and private clinical drug trial databases.

No wining or dining required. No e-mail, nor phone call. You are invited to the trillion-dollar healthcare industry mixer, and the hosts of the party are excited to meet you. And there isn’t a better platform party than a hackathon.

Hackathons: Not for just developers anymore
For the past two years, UC Berkeley has hosted Hacking Health, a hackathon for developers, designers, investors, clinicians and scientists to brainstorm problems, solutions, and build rapid prototypes. This year’s Berkeley event also included partners from the industry: Genentech, RelayHealth, UCSF, BodyMedia, Kaiser Permanente, Practice Fusion, and Rock Health. $4,000 USD was up for grabs in several different prize categories.

The hackathon followed a standard format, with event partner and platform talks, along with challenge and prize details. Genentech discussed how they were working with BodyMedia devices to collect data in their drug clinical trails. BodyMedia followed with their platform presentation and distributed Fit wearable devices that collect activity and sleep data that’s ultimately made available via an API. After the talks were finished, about twenty people lined up to pitch ideas, and shortly thereafter, assembled into teams, based upon their interest in the problem areas and skill sets.


BodyMedia’s API and FIT devices really shined at this event. We learned that these wearable devices could help us build solutions that encourage healthier, more active lives by reliably collecting data from individuals, then making the data easy to access and integrate. Two teams were awarded prizes that integrated the BodyMedia platform: DoubleYou, an app that helps children with chronic diseases through gamificiation, and Bioniks, an app for remote physical therapy.

The number of non-developers in the crowd was much higher than normal; however, something far more interesting caught my eye. Nearly all of the non-coders were healthcare professionals, including MDs, nurses, hospital administrators, scientists, etc. Every single non-developer that I spoke with was fully engaged and excited at the opportunity to discuss their ideas, problems, and share knowledge. It was a very powerful and fantastic learning experience, and was the best hackathon I attended to date (despite it’s small size)… only to be outdone by yet another health-centric hackathon two weeks later.


Health 2.0 Code-a-Thon
Just weeks after Hacking Health, was the Health 2.0 Conference Code-a-Thon, hosted at Mashery HQ in San Francisco. The event was titled HealthE Habits, and the goal was to build apps that motivate people to adopt healthy behaviors that stick. Like the Berkeley event, a large number of non-developer medical professionals attended (thanks to the Health 2.0 SF Conference), but a larger number of health-related companies with APIs were involved.

As I mentioned earlier, some very big players in the healthcare space are taking the platform approach – and few are as big as Aetna, who came in full force to the Health 2.0 Code-a-Thon. CarePass is the name of Aetna’s developer platform (managed by Mashery), where developers can get access to data not only from Aetna, but from other providers, including HHS (US Health and Human Services), GoodRx (prescription drug prices), Healthline, etc. CarePass launched just a few months ago, and is a clear example of how even the largest companies are making forward-thinking investments in their platforms.

FoodEssentials, another sponsor of the Code-a-Thon (and a Mashery customer), launched their platform at the event. FoodEssentials transforms raw food label information to assign additive, allergen, ingredient and nutrient properties to each product. Their data is the most comprehensive available of its kind, and was a perfect fit for the healthy behaviors theme.

FoodEssentials is a small startup out of the Midwest, but in the universe of API platforms, it was on a level integration playing field with the likes of Aetna CarePass and AT&T mHealth. A large slice of the developers on-site gave both the FoodEssentials and Aetna CarePass APIs a try over the course of the weekend. In fact, the majority of the apps built used one or more APIs from FoodEssentials and Aetna, including the top three winners overall.

Doctor + Developer = Efficacious prescription
At traditional hackathons (general theme), we try to best match up developers, designers and idea generators to build something compelling and useful in the eyes of app consumers, or even investors. However, for vertical hackathons like these health events, we’ve witnessed the value of having expert, non-hacking professionals as key participants, helping build solutions aimed to increase patient care, healthier outcomes, or simplify process inefficiencies. Mashing up non-hacking medical professionals, app developers and healthcare API platforms has resulted in two of the finest hackathon events I’ve attended this year — and has helped build winning teams:


  • Gut Guru (first place) – an app for helping those with IBS track down what the root cause of their irritable bowels, driven by the vision of Dr. Jasmine Zia, MD, gastroenterologist at Stanford.


  • Good Mood Food (second place) – an app that promotes healthy eating habits by associating healthy foods with positive moods, co-developed by Dr. Howard Saft, MD, pulmonary medicine and assistant professor at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Standing back a few feet and reading what I just wrote – well, it sounds rather obvious, that putting together an industry professional (doctor) and someone who can build a product (developer) makes good sense. But with the app and platform API economy, things are moving from concept to reality much faster. These hackathons were held over a weekend, and a majority of the participants did not know each other nor had prior knowledge of the APIs. The speed of gaining access, learning the platform and integration is astounding.

Platform, Meet Platform
The FoodEssentials and Aetna platform teams met each other at the Health 2.0 Code-a-Thon about 8 weeks ago. Yesterday, at mHealth Summit, Aetna announced that FoodEssentials is a new partner on the Aetna CarePass platform. Recap: FoodEssentials, the platform startup from the Midwest, is now partnering with a Fortune 100 company. This serves as another example of how APIs and platform strategy help accelerate business and innovation!

Developers, On Your Marks…
Companies ranging from small startups to Fortune 100 giants in the healthcare vertical are opening up their platforms, creating new avenues of opportunity. The problem areas are vast enough, and economic opportunities large enough to bring plenty of bright and motivated people to the platform table. The healthcare industry is ripe for innovation, and it’s going to come from all directions, made possible in large part by APIs — and it’s incredibly exciting!


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