Readers asked me during the HIMSS conference to check out Pensacola, FL-based Cogon Systems, Inc. I was vaguely aware that the company was doing some Florida RHIO work, but that was all I knew about them. HIStalk readers are talented at sniffing out up-and-comers that have the potential to be disruptive, so naturally I was up for learning more, even though I never did arrange a HIMSS rendezvous.
President and CEO Huy Nguyen was agreeable for a chat when I e-mailed recently. I appreciate his taking the time to give me some background on the company and to peek inside the mind of a Navy doctor turned entrepreneur, which I found fascinating.
First, help me pronounce your name and that of the company. Is it Hyoo NWEE-un?
Yes, and the company is pronounced COE-gun.
Tell me about yourself and Cogon Systems.
I’m a physician by training and I still practice part-time in the emergency environment. I like it because, at the end of the day, what we do in healthcare as well as in business has to translate to better patient care. It’s nice to continue to focus at a very trench level on what the end game is about.
I was a Navy physician. I became immersed in HIT because growing up as a military doctor meant cutting my teeth on an EHR. I always assumed that the market had systems as robust as the military’s systems.
Being an attending physician in the Navy, I was taught that, if you want lab results, you don’t go to the chart. You go to the computer and look it up. You certainly don’t query someone else to look up your data. Sometimes a doctor’s idea of an information system is to ask a nurse or clerk to bring up the information. In a naval career, you couldn’t ask that nurse because she might be a commander and you might be a lowly lieutenant. You knew better than to use her as an interface to your information system.
The Navy, early on, was an early adopter of new technology. One of the things it adopted early on was PDAs. In the early Palm and Handspring days, we bought into it hook, line, and sinker. At Naval Hospital Pensacola, the commander bought all the doctors PDAs. With your taxpayer dollars, I became enamored with the idea of mobile healthcare.
Those were glorified toys at that time. You stored everybody’s beeper and your calendar. That planted the seed in my mind – wait a minute, should this be an interface to the clinical data, just like the desktop was to the military’s CHCS clinical system?
I broached the idea of a mobile interface to clinical data with a friend of mine named David Hsu. We built a prototype and took it to the military. In typical bureaucratic fashion, they asked, “Aren’t you a doctor? Why are you building prototypes in your off hours?” They didn’t allow us to take it to the next step.
David and the engineers took it to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. This was in the pre-HIPAA era. Today, they’d laugh you out the door for asking for access to live data to build a system. They thought it was great that young engineers and I were interested.
The engineers took a prototype and brought it to production level. Once they had a working product, it was up to me to decide about my involvement with the venture. The guys approached me about running the thing, even though I didn’t come from a business background.
My wife and I thought about it. The military sent me off to Iraq in 2003 in ground support for the Iraq war. There’s nothing like war to make you a risk-taking entrepreneur. After seeing the fighting, I told my wife, “Heck, let’s go for it.”
I left the Navy in 2003 and took Cogon to the marketplace. At that time, we were mostly focused on mobile technology. We had to learn to integrate back-end healthcare systems, focusing on clinical systems. We became adept on variants and flavors of HL7. To stage the data to our mobile platform, we created a CDR.
We had a bunch of guys so focused on the mobile interface that they didn’t realize they were creating a robust back-end world. As we grew, we realized that the value isn’t moving clinical lab results or exposing them to front-end PDAs. The potential value is all the back-end stuff we did and the ability to integrate it into a comprehensive CDR.
I started to realize the true value of what we did. What about the possibility of integrating data from multiple providers? We became early thought leaders in Florida on health information exchanges. We grew our technology and moved way from an enterprise level platform to a Web-based platform.
We have a contract in South Florida and have integrated eight clinics, Mercy Hospital, and soon Jackson Memorial. We take data in HL7 or CCR formats and store those data in separate accounts. Once they’re in those repositories, we have a record adapter service.
We have a service-oriented architecture. We’re able to take data and adapt it to CCR and then move data within our own platform. Our Web portal is almost treated like a third party application. We don’t care which application we’re working with.
In the past four years, we’ve taken a mobile enterprise play and migrated to back-end clinical data integration and now have gone completely Web-based with it. We’re keen on SOA and standards like CCR. Hopefully, we can create a Web-based milieu and can launch potential other partners off that platform.
We’re not a RHIO company. We don’t send sales guys out to find RHIOs. Interoperability, especially with ONCHIT, is too much about RHIOs. A community is defined in different ways.
How is the Moment of Care product different than the usual physician portal?
It’s unique because it has the ability to give the end user control. In Miami, we have funding to establish information sharing between military and civilian providers. The portal can pull disparate records into a cumulative view. It also allows a provider to titrate how much data he wants to view.
Let’s say we have robust RHIO and a Nationwide Health Information Network. Let’s say the user can turn on the fire hose and we can bring in that patient’s clinical data, local and from all around the country. You’ll have to comb through that to make an assessment and plan. We drive our end users to an encounter-level screen to show what they’re interested in – a visit or a lab visit. We bring in the in-depth clinical data from only those encounters. So, what’s unique is the ability to leverage the Internet and control what the user wants to see.
Some would say that physician portals are obsolete in an era of interoperability, where information should be placed directly into EMR systems instead of just being read-only for those who go out looking for it. Do you agree?
I agree. It’s our plan as part of our continuing development. HIS is moving so fast that you always have to stay ahead of the curve.
I’m in complete agreement. I’d love to get to the point when the only people who look at our portal are those without EHRs. We serve as a true data hub. We take data from our trading partners and parse out data based on defined rules to entities that are authorized to take the data from us, consume it, and transiently display it in their own system – electronic health records, disease management, pay for performance, whatever. We would then supply data to those applications.
Once you create a good interoperable platform, it’s not just the Cogon portal. They key is to create a milieu that can grow a wide variety of value-added applications.
As a small company, how can you market and sell your product?
We think of ourselves as a healthcare interoperability solutions partner. One of the things we do that allows us to compete in our regional markets of focus is that we look at ourselves as a partnership. We have a cost-effective application platform that allows people to integrate into the exchange and from there. We are keen in almost liberating the data in a secure manner.
We’re pretty flexible, being privately held, on the best business model that fits a particular community. Is our platform a shrink-wrapped package? Yes, but what are we going to do with it and what’s the endgame? We spend time helping client figure that out. We don’t go into a relationship and say “This is what our package does.”
In South Florida, that community and the folks involved in that RHIO were very forward-thinking. Think of your major metro areas. I don’t think there’s a consensus yet or even close on sharing health information. Miami is quickly coalescing around this. We were fortunate to be early thought leaders. From the get-go, the RHIO has always gotten a sense that we were more than a technology vendor, we were a partner in the deal. As long as I’m running the company, that sense of customer relations will be part of our way of doing business.
A lot of companies are committed to the RHIO vision. Some of their commitment is not straightforward. Others are committed, but don’t have the wherewithal to get the job done.
Earlier versions of the company’s web page list a co-founder and several other executives. Has the management team changed?
Companies, certainly entrepreneur efforts, go though phases of development. The first phase is all about the vision, the conceptual idea and the visionary leader’s hopes and dreams. It was mobile technology in healthcare.
Then, you go to the prototype phase, where you get something to work. Then, the initial market phase, where you have no clue what the market wants, but you think you can teach it what it wants. That’s completely ineffective.
At some point, you go through a process phase, where you realize your prototype isn’t scalable to production level, and the market is telling us our true value is elsewhere. In our case, the market was telling us our mobile technology was gee-whizzy, but it was our integration they wanted.
Then, you reach production. You’re not prototyping any more. You’re delivering the product plan.
Then, you reach nirvana – churning it out, being good partners, delivering on a tight timeframe. Execution is incredibly important.
We have undergone personnel changes as we entered the different phases. As a physician, I realized that it’s great to have clinical knowledge and insights, but at the end of the day, if I wanted to keep running the company, I had to evolve. Vision is great, but execution is better. Was I a manager or a doctor who happened to run a software company? My job is to be a great manager. I have evolved and changed personnel to evolve. The processes for prototyping to delivering widgets is a totally different mindset and sense of purpose.
From the perspective of both headcount and the bottom line, we’ve grown nicely. My #1 growth need is good people who want to work in a culture of quantifiable accountability. This is a company where we are very metric-driven. It’s transparent and achievers are rewarded. I’m looking for developers and sales and business development people.
When I Google Cogon Systems, I get an ad for Patientkeeper. Is that surprising?
That does surprise me, but I think people still think of us as a mobile technology play. A lot of us have realized that mobile technology itself is not a sustainable model. We started to make the move away from being a pure mobile technology play in about a year and a half.
Managers don’t bury their heads in the sand. If you’re a good manager, you read what the market is saying, not what you hope the market is saying. For a lot of us purely focused on mobile technology, too many people hung in there thinking it was going to be rampant when that’s not what the market was seeing.
We haven’t given up on mobile technology. We have a project with the Army on mobile technology on our common Web-based platform, so we’ll continue to drive the possibility of mobile technology of healthcare. You just can’t base your whole business model on it.
The iPhone is just the beginning. This is the second or third inning in mobile technology. In healthcare, we’re in the first inning. It has a very promising future in healthcare and we’re interested in driving value-added solutions from our health interoperability platform.
You were a Navy physician before starting the company. What do you like and dislike about being an entrepreneur?
I dislike, as is typical as someone from a physician background, that things never happen as fast as I’d like to see them happen. The great thing about medicine is that there’s always a conclusion at the end of the day. In business, I learn every day to be patient.
Like South Florida. The people who audit the project would say it’s impressive what we did, indexing live data in six months and in production use. For a lot of people, that would be a fairly rapid implementation. Six months for a doctor is still a long time. Sometimes I find that frustrating.
I’m frustrated both as a doctor and as someone on the technology business side that we’re not as sophisticated as other sectors, like retail and banking. I see much greater interoperability and the power of the Internet. I’m involved in healthcare as a provider and as a technology provider, and at times it hurts me that we’re dealing with people’s health, more important than banking accounts, and we’re not as sophisticated.
What’s exhilarating is that drive for greater performance. If you’re a good company, it takes on a new life of its own and it’s greater than any individual component. If I’m not the best manager, Cogon will replace me. The challenge is on me to keep up with the growth of the company.
That drive always to be bigger, better, more profitable … it’s never enough. You can go talk to the CEO of GE and he’s in the same boat. You can make 10,000 times Cogon Systems, but he and I still share the same fundamental drive – how can I be better and bigger tomorrow?
Executing as a team. Medicine is an individualistic endeavor. If you come into my ER unresponsive, I’m not going to survey my team and ask if should start CPR or intubate you. I’m going to tell people what needs to be done and we’re going to get to it. It’s exhilarating motivating people toward a common goal and delivering it. That’s the most rewarding aspect of business. We’re at the stage of execution and we have an advanced platform, but at the end of the day, what are we going to do with it for a particular client, on time, as promised, and as defined by cost.
What’s the five-year plan for the company?
I’d like for us to be the leader in healthcare interoperability solutions at either a hospital level or even a community level. I’d like for us to be extremely competitive in using the best of the Internet age and the best of creating an interoperable world.
Just as importantly, we’re looking at creative business models to facilitate people getting into this interoperable world, with minimal cost to get on board to trade data as a community. Creating an environment where we have a lot of partners that can drive solutions off that platform, with a whole host of companies that use our platform to create disease management modules or take our data and present it inside their EHRs and facilitate better patient care.
Finally, as a physician, my hope is in five years that our technology has very direct implication on patient care and a more sophisticated, empowered consumer.
What healthcare IT people and companies do you admire?
I particularly admire GE across the board. I think GE always has that drive to be bigger and better. If you’re in this business, your goal is how to serve the market better. They have a diverse portfolio and their ability to manage that diversity is incredibly impressive to me.
What could we do better as an industry?
I would like to see a greater level of consensus and collaboration of emerging standards or a drive toward an interoperable world. We still have a tendency to think about “our solutions, our clients, our turf”. I’d like to see us make greater inroads to lead the charge to facilitating patient care with an interoperable stance. I’m glad the government is leading the charge, but we have to decide if we’re a market or a government endeavor. I’m a proponent of healthcare as a market and I’d like to see the market take the lead in driving the issue of interoperability.
As a doctor and someone in business, what are your thoughts about the role of HIS in healthcare as a whole?
We ought to be clear to the healthcare market and the country and political leaders. There’s a lot of inefficiency and we know it. But, information technology is not the panacea to the underlying healthcare issues.
As a doctor, one thing that always concerns me practicing in the emergency environment is, “Does the patient have access to care and can they afford care? Can they afford a $100 antibiotic, do they have insurance?” No matter how good our common dream of an interoperable world, it doesn’t solve the basic problem of whether that patient can afford the antibiotic.
When I see during the selection cycle using health information technology as a possible panacea, I think it diverts people from some basic underlying issues. Is it a right or a privilege? If it’s a right, how do we pay for it? If it’s a privilege, how do we help people who can’t pay for it? If we’re thinking about HIS as a means to improve cost containment, that’s one thing, but if you’re focused on that as a way to solve the overall problem, you’re being completely disingenuous or naïve.