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Creating an Ecosystem

by Jonathan Bush, President & CEO

Great news!

athenahealth hired our first Director of Ecosystem Development.

This may be great news… but what does it mean exactly?

Right now, the only people making stuff for athenahealth’s clients are… well… athenahealth people. This is good… but it would be better if there were thousands of other people making stuff, too! The most obvious and painful example is that those thousands of cool people who develop apps and work for Apple on iPads, iPhones, iTunes, and Safari are NOT benefitting the athenaNet user experience. This needs to change.

There is countless other stuff our clients need that we won’t get to soon enough or well enough. There are companies that serve up cloud-based RIS-PACS systems that allow every doc to have instant access to every image he or she has ever needed or ever read WITHOUT having to remember which hospital, center, etc., it originally came from. There are dozens of cool sites where patients can complete part of their office visit rather than doing so in the exam room or waiting room! There is no really good inventory management app for docs… and the list goes on!

I don’t want to wait for our amazing dev and product teams to build all these and I don’t want the only versions to be those made by us. If our vision is to be a national backbone of health information to help make health care work better, then we need to be a lot better about being a national marketplace for apps that need a good backbone! For example, I would love it if, in five years, there were a wide variety of competitive services participating in our “ecosystem” as well… with only a couple of them written by us.

Why, you ask?

It’s kind of the same reason why we have been going down to DC to try making it easier for other companies to compete with us on electronic coordination of care. Earlier this week, those efforts paid off.

In business—as in nature—a diverse, bubbling ecosystem is more resilient and nimble than a homogenous one. Any change in government or fashion can wipe the latter out. The former experience a change in dominant species, but the system as a whole survives shocks more easily. In short, we need to make sure that our backbone and services get as strong as possible and have the best chance of growing and surviving. We need everyone to play… and to get paid for it. 

So would this be an iTunes-like store?  Kinda, but less so. First, we are playing to a very small audience, so we don’t expect MILLIONS of developers like Apple, whose audience exceeds a billion people. Also, as enablers of health care, we have an ethical obligation to go a little slower than the average Internet player. We are, in a serious way, subject to the same Hippocratic Oath that docs are; “first, do no harm.”

Our ecosystem will contain only vetted, secure providers of health care information service. They will have their own HIPAA security teams and a strong sense of their ethical obligations as participants in the care chain. Thus there will be way fewer options, and they will evolve way slower than, for example, Angry Birds. But there will be way more than just one… and they will evolve way faster than, say, certain legacy software systems.

How are things in your ecosystem?

Jonathan Bush is the President and CEO of athenahealth.

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