athenahealth and Mashery team up for health developer-friendly API initiative

If you know anything about health IT, it’s probably that the industry is full of outdated systems that are cumbersome to use, difficult to access and mostly indisposed to sharing information. Some electronic medical records (EMR) providers have begun to open up their data with developer challenges but, for the most part, as athenahealth’s (s ATHN) Kyle Armbrester puts it, “it’s in the dark ages.”

For the past two years, the EMR company, which was co-founded by the country’s CTO Todd Park (before his Washington, DC career), has tried to encourage more openness and innovation with hackathons and conferences through its “More Disruption Please” campaign. But this week, the company said it’s taking its biggest pro-developer step yet with an API (application programming interface) initiative launched in partnership with API management company Mashery.

“Our point of view is that the largest barrier to entry for a lot [health companies] is access to physicians and access to their work flow,” said Armbrester, the company’s director of business development. “What we really want to do is expose APIs and let people build things.”

Starting this week, developers and providers will be able to access APIs that connect to athenahealth’s network of 40,000 providers nationwide.  With access to doctors’ appointment data, patient’s medical history (anonymized , billing information and more, the company hopes developers will be able to create an ecosystem of apps on top of athenahealth’s EMR service in the same way that third-party developers have created apps on top of Facebook’s(s fb) Open Graph.

Possible apps could help doctors with scheduling, sharing information with other practices, communicating with patients and getting patients to stick to their treatment plans, Armbrester said.

The next step, he added, is the creation of an Apple(s aapl)-like app store where physicians can pick and choose the apps most relevant to their needs. Other EMR providers, including Allscripts (s MDRX) and Greenway (s GWAY), have also opened up their APIs to developers and created app marketplaces. But Armbrester said that unlike most traditional health care companies, athenahealth’s multi-tenant cloud-based architecture means that it can roll out application updates to all providers at once.

While the industry has been mostly slow to open up to third-party developers, others have started innovating from the outside. The SMART (Substitutable Medical Applications & Reusable Technology) Platforms Project, led by doctors at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, is creating an ecosystem of apps that can be layered on top of existing EMRs. Once a vendor or hospital IT department implements a software container, hospitals can install SMART apps, which include interactive growth charts for pediatricians, and cardiovascular risk assessments for cardiologists. Last month, mobile API company Apigee said it was creating an API exchange that could be used in health care to help developers write one app that could be used across different hospitals and health organizations.