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HIStalk Interviews Brian Phelps, CEO, Montrue Technologies

March 14, 2012 Interviews 1 Comment

Brian Phelps MD is co-founder and CEO of Montrue Technologies of Ashland, Oregon. The company’s Sparrow EDIS for the iPad was the grand prize winner in the 2012 Mobile Clinician Voice Challenge, presented by Nuance Healthcare.

3-14-2012 7-02-41 PM


You’re an ED doc. Why did you develop Sparrow EDIS?

I’ve been in practice for 10 years. I’ve had the good luck — or bad luck, depending on your point of view — of being involved in a few software implementations. One of them failed spectacularly. I felt like I learned quite a bit about the good and bad of software in the ED. I thought about the culture of the companies that are offering software and how to make the culture better suited coming into that environment.

When the iPad came out, it was pretty obvious that that was the future for us. I assembled the team and here we are.

Is the iPad application just for presentation using other systems or is it a completely separate application?

It’s a native iOS application that communicates with the Sparrow Server that then integrates with the underlying EMR. It’s an abstraction on top of the underlying EMR, but as far as the user experience is concerned, they’re in a purely Apple environment.

Describe the product and how they’re using it.

The Sparrow Emergency Department Information System includes patient tracking, order entry, physician and nurse documentation at the bedside, discharge planning, and prescribing. They’re doing all that on the iPad at the bedside. You don’t have to interact with the PC workstations any more with our system.

Does everybody use it? Is using it mandatory?

We’re the whole product, so we come in with the devices as with the software. We’re in pilot phase now so there’s some details to be worked out, but the idea is that that we provide the whole solution, including white coats that have pockets big enough to hold it and the stylus if you want it. Doctors and nurses and registration all are using the devices. 

At HIMSS, I learned a lot and met a lot of great people. One of the themes that kept coming back was getting doctors on mobile devices and the “bring your own device” mentality, which I think is a symptom of a disease and not a cure. The disease is that consumer technology has so rapidly outpaced enterprise technology that it’s making end users crazy. They’re coming in with these personal devices and they’re demanding to connect. They’re using Citrix and whatever else they can and it’s not providing a very good user experience. 

Nobody ever asked me to bring my Dell on wheels to the hospital. Ideally the hospitals will recognize that the users have spoken and these are the tools that they think are right for the job. That’s where we come in and deliver the right tools and the right software, all locked down in a secure environment.

How do you determine the success of the product if users can still use the underlying systems directly?

They can use the underlying systems to review records and place orders in the hospital information system, but we have order sets and a workload that is specific to emergency medicine. There are no longer paper charts when we come in. If they want to use the order sets that they have created, they would be using the iPad.

What tools did it require to create the iPad application?

It’s a lot. We have a server that runs SQLite. All of the devices run our application, which is in Objective-C for iOS. Our server and our iPads come in. There’s an interface that’s required to exchange data in HL7 with the inline EMR.

We have a strategic relationship with Nuance and they’ve really helped build out our product. Their SDK was very easy to use — it literally it took a few hours to get up and running. We have a relationship with LexiComp to do medication interaction checking and allergy checking on the devices and several other strategic business relationships that flesh out the product.

3-14-2012 7-14-59 PM

So it was easy to integrate speech recognition using the Nuance tools?

It was great how astonishingly easy that was. We had planned on speech integration from the very beginning. For all their wonderful qualities of iPads, the input mechanism for narrative is one of its minor weaknesses. We always knew speech was going to come into play. In fact, we built our application around it before we even knew that it was going to be technically possible. 

We had our eye on Nuance. When they released the mobile SDK, we snapped it up. The next day, we literally had a fully speech-enabled application.

Describe how the application uses speech recognition.

The thing about speech and documentation in medicine in general is that it allows you to capture the narrative. The patient’s story is really the heart of the patient-doctor relationship. There is no way that can ever accurately be captured by pointing and clicking. I can give you several examples of where template-driven documentation of the patient’s story led to harm. 

Building in speech recognition for the history of present illness and medical decision-making is really important. But we have to balance that with structured data to meet compliance and other measures, and also because there are some areas where structured data is perfectly appropriate. Medication reconciliation, for example, or even in our case we have templates for building physical exams and reviews of systems. 

Finding that balance between the unstructured narrative and the structured data input is what the iPad is ideal for, because as you’re sitting there with a patient, you basically can tap along and review their history and enter the important information. Then as you’re going to the next patient, you can speak in the parts of the encounter that are unique to that patient, namely their story.

What advantages does the user get from using an iPad application?

The biggest advantage is using the Apple navigation paradigm. We’ve been in a design relationship with Apple for about half a year. They’ve been advising us and getting it to be simpler and faster and more intuitive. The fact that it runs natively on the device means that it is incredibly fast and easy to use. Anyone who has used an iPhone or an iPad and used any of the native Apple applications knows immediately how to use our system.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having something that sits in your lap while you’re engaging the patient. We’ve been speaking and poking at things for a million years as humans. We’ve only been pointing and clicking for 20. When patients are scared or in pain or feeling vulnerable, it’s almost cruel to turn away from them to click away on a QWERTY keyboard.

One of the themes that kept coming back at HIMSS was patient engagement. It means different things to different people, but in my line of work, I’m trying to engage the patient who’s sitting in front of me. I don’t think that you can engage patients with technology or with the latest application. You engage them by looking them in the eye and asking good questions and listening carefully and showing compassion.

Technology has only interfered with that process. The advantage of our system is that we get out of the way and allow doctors and nurses to interact with their patients in a way that they know how to do.

During your pilot phase, what are you measuring and what kind of response are you getting back?

We’re integrating the back end and we’re not live with patient data yet, so that’s coming up. When that happens, we’ll be measuring productivity, patient and physician and nursing satisfaction, and of course compliance with Meaningful Use.

Did you form the company just for this product or you have other products?

We formed the company with the goal of bringing mobile technology to emergency medicine. We had thought about strategy of having different sub-modules, but when it comes down to it, if you’re going to be successful in emergency medicine, you have to completely replace the three-ring binder. We spent two years building out every aspect of what had been a paper interface into our system. We are currently a one-product company and that’s our emergency department information system.

You said you designed the product around speech recognition even though it wasn’t available at the time. Do you think somebody could develop a comparable product without using it?

I think it could be done, but I think that the narrative input mechanism would be challenging. One possibility would be to have Bluetooth keyboards in each room and you pop the iPad in and type away your narrative, but I don’t see that it would be as effective. The combination of tappable templates plus speech for narrative on the iPad is really a match made in heaven.


At HIMSS there were companies at different stages of doing work on the iPad. What was your general feeling about where the industry is right now with the use of iPads? Did you expose your product to anyone to get a reaction?

We had an opportunity to present at the Venture Forum as well as on stage at the Nuance booth. We got lot of great feedback.

I think it’s very exciting what Epic is doing with their iPad interface. PatientKeeper has an excellent product. Nobody is doing exactly what we’re doing. We’re pretty thrilled that these other companies are demonstrating that there is a large, important market here. Beyond that, we take all that energy we might be thinking about competition and try to drive it back into our product and make it better.


Were you surprised that you were named the winner?

[laughs] I thought there was a pretty good chance we had a shot.

How will you use your prizes?

The best thing that came out of this was a deeper relationship with Nuance, who has been wonderful and supportive throughout. Just the recognition that that has brought to us has been phenomenal.

Assuming your pilot is successful, where do you go from there?

We’re making the product back end-agnostic, so any hospital that has an EMR that is struggling with workflow in their emergency department is a potential customer. There are at least 3,500 hospitals that meet that description. We’re pretty confident that as this wave of mobile devices washes into the mainstream, there will be a significant demand. The next step for us is to continue to make the product simpler and faster and more intuitive and then to connect with paying customers.

Typically that’s hard for a small company because it’s difficult to mount up a sales force. Do you see yourself selling directly into individual hospital emergency departments or partnering up with a specific vendor to make it an add-on?

We have been working on some channel partners. One strategy for us has been to look at the relationships we have with interface vendors to assuage the interoperability concern. We are pretty excited about the relationship that we built with Apple and we see a lot of ways that they — as part of their ambition to enter the enterprise space — could really be helpful for us getting in the mainstream market.

So far, our feedback from doctors and nurses has been fantastic. We’re pretty confident that we can leverage that groundswell of enthusiasm from end users to develop a relationship with their executives. To them, we will be focusing on our profound return on investment, which comes through improved charge capture.


I’m glad you mentioned that since I assumed the pitch would strictly be clinician satisfaction.

When software deployments fail, that’s the majority of the time due to physician rejection. Clinical informatics people really do have an incentive to make sure they’re finding a product their clinicians like to use. That’s one part of it.

The other part is that we capture charges just through the process of simple tap documentation. One of the commonly missed charges is IV start and stop times. Our system triggers the appropriate documentation, which we think will improve charges by about $40 per patient. There’s a thoroughly profound return on investment for executives as well.

The big challenge is that the gatekeepers tend to be the folks who have the least direct benefits from the application. Our goal now is to try as best as we can to understand what their needs are and meet those needs while still delivering a very usable product for these doctors and nurses.

Do you have any final thoughts?

This may resonate with you and what you’ve done with HIStalk, which has been phenomenal for me to learn about the industry over the last couple of years. When you really believe in something strongly as we do and you‘re willing to work at it, if you’re on the right track, doors start to open and more opportunities present themselves. That’s where we’re at with Montrue. We’re pretty happy that we’re on the right track and we’re excited about what’s to come.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. What do you think is the future of mobile medical software? In what ways will mobile devices transform the healthcare industry? It seems that home healthcare will be the next big boom if it already isn’t considered so. Will the cloud be able to keep up with all the data moving around from place to place? It seems an ecosystem based system similar to Itunes/Icloud will be the true winner in the upcoming battle in mobile healthcare.







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