Matt Patterson, MD is president of AirStrip of San Antonio, TX.
Tell me about yourself and the company.
I’m a physician by training, with a background in head and neck surgery and as a Navy physician. I spent some time with McKinsey before joining AirStrip.
I’ve been here for four years. I was with the company during the transition from making the first FDA-cleared mobile applications for waveform-based data into a full platform called AirStrip One, which can accommodate essentially any clinical data source in a single workflow to enable a variety of care collaboration and innovation workflows.
Mobile health was a specialty niche when AirStrip was started, but now it’s a given that any software has to work well for mobile users. How is the industry is doing in that regard?
What we’ve seen is the continuation of a pattern that was around when we first started. There certainly is a push to provide a mobile extension of health IT stacks. What we are ahead on still to this day is the ability to aggregate across multiple, disparate sources of data and to stream that data to analytics, third-party, and decision support platforms, in addition to providing just the essential elements that are important for decision-making in a clinical workflow. I think that is quite distinct. We’re ahead on that, but in general, most people recognize that having a mobile extension of the software stack is a valuable addition to healthcare.
Is the Apple-like ecosystem of third-party healthcare apps real or is it just wishful thinking?
It’s more the latter. As a physician myself, I’m always skeptical about having to have too many applications to go to. It’s akin to having too many pagers on my belt walking around the hospital. Most clinicians are not necessarily looking to segment their workflow experience if they can avoid it.
That said, no single vendor is going to be able to accomplish all the things that any one clinician needs to do at any given point. You’re always going to have a number of different applications out there that are each trying to satisfy certain elements of the clinical workflow. But the concept of having a clearinghouse or a hosted environment that somehow corrals all these beasts is missing the one key point, which is, how do all of these things work together? It’s the interoperability piece that the industry is way behind on.
We have dedicated our entire mission and product evolution around solving for the interoperability. I’m OK with whatever it takes to address the clinical workflow. Different vendors and different applications can lift different parts, but it needs to feel like a singular, unified, coherent, and elegant workflow for the clinician. Otherwise, you’ll never get adoption.
What steps are needed to open up EHRs to those third-party applications?
The most powerful lever in my mind is to make the ask with a powerful health system client at your side. What’s become very, very clear is that, despite the numerous promises of these large EMR vendors that either they can do what the health system wants them to do or that another smaller innovative company is already doing today, most health systems are waking up and realizing, "You’ve been telling me this answer for 10 years and you still haven’t delivered on the things that are already out there in the marketplace that more nimble companies are accommodating.”
The time is now to open up complete, bi-directional APIs to allow these innovative firms to plug and play nicely with the EMR environment. That’s the most important thing. The reason I focus on that is that the typical answer that you’ll hear stems around technology standards, policy, government, and all that type of stuff. I can tell you right now the tools exist today to do complete, effective, bi-directional, Web-based APIs to all the major EMR vendors in the market.
I applaud things like FHIR and other standards. They’re a step in the right direction, but they are years and years away. The tools already exist. It’s simply the blocking that is getting in the way. The data blocking can manifest in not only technical ways. It can manifest in political ways, and it can manifest in financial ways. We’ve experienced all three.
How do you approach that issue? Are you all set in dealing with Cerner and Epic, or is it a battle every time you need to connect a new client?
It gets easier and easier. The work that we’re doing today, I never would have even imagined possible three years ago. It is absolutely moving in the right direction, albeit it much more slowly than we would like to see.
What we have done is always use our clients as the voice, because it is the client’s voice. It’s not just AirStrip that’s out there asking for this and looking to monetize it. This is really about our clients coming to us trying to solve the problems that they have and AirStrip having a willingness to innovate through providing interoperability and workflow solutions.
We have developed very, very important strategic relationships with large IDNs across the spectrum of large healthcare IT vendors. Not just EMRs, but also on the monitoring side. We absolutely are side by side with our clients in the requests that we make, which are quite reasonable and are based on sound clinical and business cases for workflows that are in demand in the marketplace.
Are people distinguishing between interoperability as in sharing patient data among sites vs. snapping applications together within the same health system?
I don’t really see much of a distinction. Increasingly where I’ve seen the conversation turn is a patient-centered approach to interoperability. The answer is all of the above. The more that we take a more consumer and individual orientation towards data ownership and stewardship, that should be the North Star. All things should bow to that.
All efforts to monetize simple movement of data from Point A to Point B should be eliminated. The only thing that deserves monetization these days is adding value, creating workflows, and doing things with the data that are meaningful for patients.
If you take a patient- or consumer-centric view of the world, you recognize that there are challenges not only in connecting all the existing stacks within a particular health system together and making them work seamlessly, but it also includes situations like you describe where you have different facilities on different platforms and those need to communicate effectively as well.
What is the right level of FDA oversight for IT systems that have a biomedical component?
The FDA aligns themselves in the spirit of patient safety. That is appropriate, and that should be their mission and guiding force. It’s interesting when you get into things like what happened recently with the non-binding guidelines around interoperability, that the focus was on devices and how they communicate with the outside world. Interoperability was the focus. Somehow, that came under the realm of patient safety. I have a lot of things that I could go into on that topic, but I’ll pause there and not do that now.
Sticking with the question, there just needs to be a certain degree of risk that you cross, regardless of what you do from an application standpoint or device standpoint, where the FDA should regulate and should provide guidelines in the interest of public safety. I think that that’s appropriate. Most importantly is just to be very clear about what those situations are and then to make it as efficient as possible for innovative companies to submit their applications when appropriate and get approval.
Do you think the government climate supports innovation in healthcare IT?
I have been incredibly encouraged by what I’ve seen come out of the Capitol recently. In particular, I’ve been very encouraged with the work being done by Senator Alexander and the HELP Committee. We were referenced in a recent letter to Secretary Burwell by several members of the House of Representatives in an urgent plea to address interoperability and data blocking. There’s a lot of very, very positive momentum towards opening things up and allowing innovation to take place.
That’s another reason why just the timing of the release of the FDA’s non-binding guidelines recently on interoperability is very, very interesting to me. In some ways, I see it as a potential foil on the good conversations that have been taking place. I certainly don’t fault the FDA for wanting to address patient safety. I think that’s what they should do. But the timing is interesting. Similar to the way that HIPAA and Stark have been misused and misunderstood and that has stifled innovation, I could see almost safety blocking – that’s the only way I can put it — stifling innovation. “In the name of safety” type of thing, that the recent guidelines might have an unintended effect.
How has your experience as a Navy surgeon shaped your career?
Gosh, it did in so many different ways. I was fortunate enough to be an undersea medical officer while I was in the Navy. That allowed me to work with the fast-attack submarine group. It also allowed me to work with the Special Forces. I was the medical director at the Naval Special Warfare Center, which is the first training area for the Navy SEALs.
Navy medicine shaped my career in a few important ways. One, the concept of a flat team structure is prominent, particularly in the Special Forces community. I know that may come as a surprise when thinking of the Navy as a hierarchical place, but it’s surprisingly flat when it needs to be. There’s just an incredible esprit de corps and sense of teamwork that can happen in crisis. That gave me quite a bit of perspective on what’s important and what’s an emergency. You learn relative degrees of emergency very, very quickly in Navy medicine.
A second big thing is that it was my first introduction to telemedicine. It’s uncanny that I find myself in the situation I’m in right now, because AirStrip is obviously used a lot in various telehealth scenarios. My very first experience with telehealth was working up patients preoperatively remotely, even using scopes and some pretty advanced technologies, and never laying hands on the patient. The very next time seeing that patient was when they showed up to get an operation. Being that confident in my pre-surgical exam remotely had a profound effect on what I envisioned could be possible with application technology in healthcare. Both of those things I carry with me to this day.
Do you have any final thoughts?
We are at an important turning point when it comes to interoperability and innovation in healthcare. It’s going to take more than government regulations in order for us to get to where we need to be in the marketplace. I’m very, very encouraged that interoperability is a prominent part of the conversation coming out of HHS and coming out of the Senate and the House of Representatives. I’m very encouraged by work being done by interested parties like the Center for Medical Interoperability, because I think that what you’re seeing now is a much more patient-centered approach to the problem. When we focus on the patient, when we focus on the individual consumer, we cannot be wrong.
I envision a world very soon where consumers will essentially be allowed to hit the virtual “record” button on their medical data any time that they want to. Then have the ability on the fly, using plain English opt-in and opt-out types of scenarios and technology, to subscribe their data to anyone they want — vendor, health system, payer, provider, innovative company, you name it. Not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of society at large. The only way we get to that place is by allowing wide-open interoperability among all of the technology players out there. We’re privileged to be a part of that ecosystem.