Asif Ahmad is CEO of Anthelio Healthcare Solutions of Dallas, TX.
Tell me about yourself and the company.
I was in academic medicine for 18 years. I was a CIO and head of globalization at Duke University Health System and prior to that at Ohio State. About five years ago, I moved onto the corporate side. I had done a lot of startup companies out of academics. I was at McKesson for three years. Now I’m CEO of Anthelio. I come from 23 years in healthcare, specifically in technology, with a big focus on clinical optimization and driving efficient and effective utilization of health IT.
Anthelio is the only independent, vendor-agnostic, full-breadth IT services and technology company. I thought it would be a great marriage of my background and a company with the footprint to start defining some interesting new models of service delivery and service management with what is happening since Meaningful Use.
We are privately held and the largest technology company in the pure healthcare space. We have about 2,000 employees and close to $250 million in revenue, which makes us a pretty big, mid-cap privately held company.
We provide three product lines. One is pure IT services all the way from full IT outsourcing to prioritized IT services, including EHR implementation and optimization. Then we have a second line, which is revenue cycle and health information management, from coding to revenue optimization to clinical documentation improvement. Then we have our products portfolio, which is a vendor-agnostic patient engagement product, data solution products like data warehousing and operational data store, and our analytics products. That’s what defines the company — a IT solutions group, an HIM revenue cycle solutions group, and vendor-agnostic across the board products.
Your background as an academic medical center CIO and a biomedical engineer makes you unusual among large-company CEOs. What was the transition like and how would you advise CIOs with similar interests?
The transition for me was really easy, because even in the academic medical center, I was really the one who was going against the norm. Things can be done faster, quicker, more efficient. Cost should be an issue, revenue, opportunity losses should be an issue, and also making a bigger footprint for your academics. When I was at Duke, for example, the three hospitals weren’t integrated a lot at all, so I was brought in to bring that together. Nobody was even thinking about outpatient care — this was pre-population health — and I, working with the chancellor, put that big footprint together. In two to three years, we had full adoption of CPOE. This was all pre-Meaningful Use. We had integrated physician-hospital billing as a single CBO. We spun a lot of companies out of there like Sentillion, a company that Microsoft bought, which was out of my department at Duke. I was always working to optimize whatever the opportunity was for the parent organization.
What I would advise for a CIO is to get yourself organized to learn the operations of healthcare. I think there’s a big movement there. The CIOs don’t really get involved in learning and being held accountable for driving the operations of healthcare. At both Duke and Ohio State, I had P&L responsibility. I was running almost a billion-dollar business for Duke. I had volunteered to run the lab and radiology business, which is a very technology-based business, and my biomedical background was in imaging. I’ve always utilized my technology background to drive operations.
You are right, you don’t see too many people like me in business. There should be more of my kind because part of the problem is that CIOs are always on one end of the board room and the CEO is on the other end calling up Deloitte or Accenture or somebody else to advise them how to use technology. There’s not really that much of a connection between the two groups.
I have always prided myself in being that bridge, somebody who understands technology, but who wants to grow, drive, and be held accountable for managing the operations of healthcare. I always have had physicians reporting to me from a P&L perspective. At Ohio State, I was building the heart hospital with the doctors there. I was doing a lot of things that were eventually very strongly technology enabled, but we started first with, what’s wrong with the process? What’s wrong with the current way of delivering care? Then technology got introduced. But I was the one who drove both the clinical side and the technology side.
What is the trend for health systems to outsource infrastructure, security, or application management?
I think it’s going to start moving. There’s going to be a huge tailwind towards that. Everyone has invested a lot of money in big systems. A lot of people have bought the Epics and the Cerners and now they’re sitting with huge amounts of cost which is depreciating.
Previously most hospital CIOs were a little afraid of outsourcing because the whole idea was that you have to manage, maintain, and contain it. With cloud services and the advent of cybersecurity issues, you cannot have enough competency within your own portfolio to do it. You have to take chance of things where you think scale matters. When I look back on my days at Duke, I would never manage IT security on my own with what I know now being on the commercial side. Similarly, I built a $30 million data center. Why should you be building data centers in academic medical centers or hospitals when that’s just a huge cost sink? You should be working with somebody else to outsource.
Similarly, application management and application hosting. Why would you want to put an Epic and a Cerner or whatever else out there with the SaaS model? Take it out of your portfolio. I have to manage everything close to my chest because the whole technology evolution has told us that that’s not the way to manage in the most cost-effective or effective way because you’ll have a lot more downtime. You put all your eggs in one basket in one building and one server.
Everybody invested a lot of money, and yet the cost of IT has not borne the benefits that one was to see in how the impact of these EMRs were to be had from an outcomes perspective or what needed to happen from patient safety or better financial outcomes. People are not seeing it used for that. You’re seeing post some of these big implementations hospitals taking a hit on their credit ratings. So I think you’re going to see a lot of trends towards outsourcing. I’m able to relate to it because I was also on the other side and we work with our clients now.
But the plan is not to fully outsource everything you have. Take the pain points, take where the scale matters, and let’s take that. That’s where the idea of productized services solutions comes in. It used to be that everything needed to be outsourced, that you would give me everything because I can’t do just parts of this business. Now we’re in an ecosystem that CIOs of the health systems can work with companies like Anthelio and we can take the headaches off you because we have the scale. Then you should focus on clinical optimization, driving changes with your physician behaviors and the patient engagement. We talk about population health, but yet a patient portfolio itself doesn’t give you that. You have to have the patients engaged in some kind of mobility solution. So focus your interests there and then companies like ours handle the back-end infrastructure. Historically, everything had to be very close to you, but now because of the cost structure and evolution of technology, people are easing up on that. I think it’s the right thing to do.
Is offshoring increasing or decreasing?
I’m glad you asked. Almost 30 percent of our workforce at Anthelio is based out of India. The whole trend for offshoring is different. Ours is growing because we don’t think of it as an offshore. I always tell my team that Mumbai is no different than Michigan. By the way, we have a huge delivery center in Michigan, so that’s why I use that analogy. If you align operations tightly, you don’t think of India or Philippines or wherever else you’re offshoring as some destination or location where there is a buffer and a black box. If you tie every community working from home and diffuse services, big vendors have already shown that it can be done. You don’t have to be in one location. The fact that you could have a remote workforce really changed offshoring. That’s one thing that is helping offshoring at the moment. If you align your accountability, it doesn’t matter where the employee is with the right confines in place.
The number two thing that helped us is that it’s not just a cost arbitrage to us. You look at where the best talent is, where the best access to talent is to scale, and how to drive growth from there. People used to send just the back-office jobs to India or somewhere else like that. I’m going to send my billing clerks to India, for example, with ICD-10 coming. I think that has changed. India has some really good talent. I have turned India into an innovation hub for us. We do combined product development. We do combined software delivery as well as service delivery there, not just cost arbitrage.
Offshoring done right should have never been an issue, but the problem is that it wasn’t done right. People took chunks of cost — the quarter end is coming, so let’s just thrown this out to India or wherever else and let’s drive the cost. But it’s not a cost equation. It should be a value equation. Where do you drive the most value? The way we have done offshoring is to balance that out. You can have access to some lower-cost talent in India, but what should that be, and how do you mix that talent then with the talent pool in US so it’s one combined talent pool and not just this bifurcated or trifurcated talent pool who never see each other?
In our case, the people at all levels between our teams in India — in two locations in Mumbai and Hyderabad — and our locations here Dallas, Tennessee, Michigan, Chicago — they keep going back and forth. There’s a true sense of one combined team. Offshoring is going to continue, but in the context of where the value is driven. It’s not just a cost arbitrage, which is bound to fail. It needs to be seen as value arbitrage.
What will the most important healthcare IT implications be over the next five years?
There’s been this big push to buy new integrated EMRs, and yet you don’t see an impact of it to the outcomes. I think there’s going to be a litmus test. Patients are going to push to ask for more access to their information. The traditional EMR systems can’t provide it, so I think there’s going to be a disruption.
I see in the next five years there should be a disruption in how we manage health technology in the US, which is done in vacuums and silos still. It’s gotten somewhat better, but you’re not going to get your value-based reimbursement. There’s going to be more consolidation, but at the same time, I think the patients themselves are going to push for a much more holistic kind of view. More mobility solutions are going to come forward, not just the enterprise systems that are out there.
In five years you should see a lot of non-profit and for-profit collaborations in a very meaningful way, and hopefully more transition of roles going back and forth. There’s a big vacuum in what the actual understanding of healthcare delivery is versus what the vendors perceive, both on the service and the product side. Hence, many products don’t work. The ones that do work are the ones who understand.