In-Depth: Digital health APIs every health startup should know

By Brian Dolan

Health-GraphBy Jonah Comstock

One conversation topic that never seems far away at digital health industry events is the idea of data silos. Consumer health and fitness apps are letting people collect more health data about themselves than ever before. And increasingly connected electronic health records create a wealth of electronic data about patients. The real potential for that data, many people believe, will come when it can be combined with other data and integrated into other apps and platforms, rather than being locked away wherever it was originally collected.

This is increasingly being done through application programming interfaces, or APIs, which are offered by consumer devices like Fitbit, Withings, and Jawbone, but also electronic health records like drchrono, Allscripts, and Practice Fusion. APIs are also being used in high-profile platform plays looking to create an integrated user experience for the variety of digital health apps available -- services like Aetna Carepass, Kaiser Permanente's Interchange, or Runkeeper's Health Graph.

A recent history of health APIs

GoogleHealthThe now-defunct patient health information hub Google Health and its surviving competitor Microsoft HealthVault both made APIs an important part of their strategy as early as 2008. But back then, they were arguably too early for the space and weren't able to find many API-ready partners to integrate with. In 2011, RunKeeper launched Health Graph, an attempt to use APIs to create a health and fitness-focused social experience that would resemble Facebook's social graph.

“Imagine a system that can identify correlations between a user’s eating habits, workout schedule, social interactions and more, to deliver an ecosystem of health and fitness apps, websites, and sensor devices that really work, based on a user’s own historical health and fitness data," RunKeeper CEO Jason Jacobs wrote in a 2011 blog post that's no longer online. "The Health Graph has the potential to completely alter the health and fitness landscape.”

The next year, 2012, saw two big API moves: Aetna opened its CarePass API to developers and Nike+ started offering its API via hackathons and its own accelerator, specifically for companies building technology that would integrate with Nike+.

Aetna's CarePass began as a data sharing initiative, but evolved to be more of a consumer health dashboard that brings different apps together. It has gradually added a range of health and fitness apps and, just recently, medication adherence and stress apps.

CarePass City To City Tablet“When we launched the developer portal I think we had a hypothesis that the data we were opening up — things like aggregated claims data that had not been opened up before or aggregated cost of claims information — would catch on in the developer community like wildfire,” Jesse Givens, head of CarePass product at Aetna, told MobiHealthNews last year. “When we put that out there, we found that people were interested in it, but conversations we had were far more focused around how do they get their app in front of our members and in front of a large user community.”

Nike+ Fuelband has always put a lot of stock and store in its brand and its own invented fitness metric of Nike Fuel. The accelerator had the goal of getting more currency for Nike Fuel by coaxing developers to create different ways for consumers to use it. As we reported at the time, "Nike listed a handful of examples for the types of startups it is searching for: training or coaching programs that help athletes reach their goals; games that use NikeFuel ‘to remind people that movement is supposed to be fun”; tools to motivate millions of Nike+ runners to perform better or train smarter; programs built around achievement and rewards for activity; wellness solutions that promote active, healthy lifestyles; social challenges that deliver motivation and challenges with friends; and master dashboards for the ultimate quantified self geeks."