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athenahealth and Mashery: So What’s an API Anyway?

by Chip Ach, Architect, More Disruption Please

Yesterday, athenahealth announced an agreement with Mashery, the world’s leading provider of API management technology and services. This news got us thinking…

Quick show of [virtual] hands: Who really knows what an API is? Not 100 percent sure? Well, read on as our architect (or, as he says, “one of the geeks”) for More Disruption Please tells you everything you need to know about this commonly-used acronym. - Michelle, Social Media Manager

What's an API? Let’s start by decoding the acronym: Application Programming Interface, a well-defined and well-documented way that two different computer programs talk to one another. For example, have you ever seen those pop-up messages that appear on your iPhone home screen when you use Facebook? Those are the result of Facebook’s app developers leveraging Apple’s iPhone API to make that happen.

However, when we're talking about APIs at athenahealth we’re speaking to something more specific called web-services-based APIs. In short, these make it easy for one website to exchange information with another, over the Internet, giving rise to the term “programmable web."

Let's take a step back with a brief history lesson: The “old” way of doing this was for two companies to privately agree to exchange data, establish connectivity between them (what we call “point-to-point”), and redo the same thing for each new partner.

If you’ve used an app, such as a game on Facebook, and have seen your scores listed with your friends' scores, you’ve experienced a web-services-based API in action. In this case, the app developer used Facebook’s API to figure out who your friends are. APIs are also used by directory sites like yelp.com to overlay custom information -- that's how we can see pizza places near athenahealth’s Watertown, MA office sitting on top of Google Maps.

Okay, to get a little more technical (don’t worry, this is great geek-talk fodder for your next cocktail party), athenahealth is using a RESTful API, which is, stay with me, an even more specific type of web-services-based API. You may recognize a URL (or, as humans say, web address), such as "http://athenahealth.com/blog/."

When we talk about a REST or RESTful API, we are talking about URL that has a particular format -- among other more complicated details -- that is easily read by computers and the humans who program them. For example, if you saw a URL that looked like this: "https://api.athenahealth.com/appointments/newpatient," you might guess that it returns available appointments for new patients. Another example is "https://api.athenahealth.com/patients/active/male," which might produce a list of patients who are active in the practice and are male.

Why are we so excited about APIs? One main reason is they enable us to do the work we carry out with our innovative More Disruption Please (MDP) partners. And, thanks to our recent announcement with Mashery, we are able to open our API to partners like iTriage; patients who use iTriage will be able to directly book appointments with athenahealth providers directly from within iTriage's app.

We have other ways of doing some of these things today. But through our partnership with Mashery, we’re opening up a wider array of options to allow developers, both from traditional health care and outside of it, to create more disruptive solutions. Please.

Want to learn more? Follow Chip and his team on Twitter at @athenaMDP.

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