Kaiser Permanente partners with Apigee to make information about its facilities available for mobile app developers.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

June 3, 2013

4 Min Read

Healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente published a developers' API Monday that will allow independent application developers to access its healthcare facility information and produce user applications with it.

Over the last two years, Kaiser has itself produced four mobile applications for iPhone and Android smartphones that allow Kaiser healthcare plan participants to set up doctors' appointments, see electronic medical records, view most lab results and refill prescriptions, among other things. One of those applications, Every Body Walk, has been downloaded from the iTunes store 85,000 times, while the app that allows patents to schedule appointments has been downloaded over 500,000 times to iOS and Android devices. That outcome has prompted Kaiser officials to realize what a valuable new channel has been opened between itself and its members.

But Kaiser business and marketing officials think a lot of additional creative thinking might go into additional apps if it made available the information that could go into the public realm, but without endangering patient records or histories. "We can't do it all ourselves," said Madhu Nutakki, VP of digital presence technologies, at Kaiser's headquarters in Oakland, Calif.

The first database that Kaiser is making available through its new Interchange API contains the services available at each facility, along with the location and hours that they're open. Nutakki isn't sure what developers will do with such information, but he thinks it's possible "someone might come up with an app showing what parking is nearby, or what coffee shops, or what public transit stops," he said in an interview.

[ Want to see how electronic medical records helped Kaiser get command of its data? See Big Data Helps Kaiser Close Healthcare Gaps. ]

Kaiser hospitals and clinics have in-house pharmacies, and an app that captured the hours they’re open would be useful to patients, he suggested.

But Nutakki made it clear that the facilities' information is just a cautious, first step. Kaiser is unusual in that it not only has healthcare facilities, but it's also the health insurance plan provider for the people using those facilities. "We are an integrated delivery model," able to relate a user's need for services to the scheduling and billing for those services, the existing balance in a healthcare account, the deductible required, etc.

In the long run, there's the opportunity for "a very rich user experience" to be created in mobile apps that will help Kaiser operate its facilities efficiently and help patients find and access the services they need.

The applications Kaiser itself developed illustrate some of that potential. In addition to the application that makes doctor appointments and refills prescriptions, there's one that focuses on preventative healthcare, with personalized health reminders. A third tracks a member's health account balance, including one where dependents' expenses are added into the family plan. In addition, Kaiser offers an application called Every Body Walk, which logs distances members walk, routes taken and calories burned. This application has more to do with the preventative side of Kaiser than the treatment side, but Nutakki said "the Web channel" will offer new possibilities, not only for getting people to the hospital, but keeping them out of the hospital as well.

"Kaiser has a rich history of being an information technology company in healthcare," as well as being a healthcare provider, he noted. The developer API and an API for marketers were the brainchildren of IT and business teams inside Kaiser, which are debating what additional information can be made available. Kaiser uses Apigee to manage its APIs, authorize developer applications and maintain API security and change control.

Nutakki thinks Kaiser might be in a position to offer better care if the mass of patient treatments and treatment outcomes could be made available to outside researchers. The information is stripped of patient identities and already made available through more conventional routes; why not a public research API, he asks. There's no consensus within the business to make such information available -- yet.

But that doesn't mean it won't be available at some point in the future. Kaiser is one of the few healthcare organizations to make the integrated model work and has built itself into an organization with 9 million members and an extensive chain of hospitals. To keep its track record going, "we're looking for guidance from consumers," who are concerned about their total health, not just acquiring medical services when something goes wrong.

As provider of both an insurance plan and a medical care system, Kaiser officials think they are in an unusual position to use the information they have to help customers link "the clinical side of their medical record to the preventative, total healthcare side of the record." That would be breaking new ground, perhaps, even lowering healthcare costs through incentives in the insurance plan for those who establish and document good preventative care practices in their daily lives.

It's too soon to predict such lofty results, with the initial step of opening up facilities information. But Nutakki sees a more rewarding, more friction-free experience developing between customers and the Kaiser system, aided by public APIs that enable more "guidance from consumers."

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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