I like to do a high-level business update about the healthcare IT industry once or twice a year. My go-to guy is always Jon Phillips of Healthcare Growth Partners, LLC. Jon is careful with what he can and can’t say (unlike me, he won’t just gleefully blurt out sensitive information to the whole world) and if you check his track record from previous interviews here, he’s done very well in his analysis and prognostications. I always enjoy chatting with Jon and appreciate his taking time to share his thoughts with HIStalk.
Characterize the M&A market so far this year.
This year, we’re looking at well ahead of recent years in number of transactions even than the markets of recent years, which have been pretty active. What we’re seeing is activity in the sub-200 million dollar range. You haven’t seen much in huge deals going on, but seeing a lot in the middle market and sub-middle market. That bodes well for continued strong M&A activity in the space over months and years to come.
The big difference this year, and there are probably three that I would consider somewhat bellwether transactions or maybe four, is where you have financial sponsors making significant plays into the healthcare IT space. One of those, obviously, is Francisco Partners acquiring Dairyland. Two is Battery Ventures acquiring Quovadx. Three is Vista acquiring Sunquest, Four is potentially Insight and the Bessemer guys acquiring Netsmart, and five could be Primus acquiring HMS.
You’ve had a lot of financial sponsor activity in the healthcare IT space this year. That means a couple of things going forward. I think that these companies under new ownership are going to see some shifts in strategy. Not all of them, but some of them are certainly going to see shifts in strategy.
Take Sunquest, for example. Now that the CPR piece has been decoupled and Sunquest has been pulled out of Misys, all of a sudden you have a business that looks very different than it did six months ago. The growth opportunities are different. You have an organization that most likely will look to acquire new assets to augment their existing position and to grow in new ways.
For each of these financial sponsor deals, you’re going to see aspects of that. They may seem like small changes at first, but over time, you’ll see more and more. Quovadx bought Healthvision. My bet is that they’ll look to buy other things as they go forward. I think you’ll see acquisition activity and interest from these new kids on the block.
The pressure that will put on the other strategic players in the market, the traditional acquirers of choice like McKesson and Cerner and GE, they’ll start seeing more competition in situations where they’re looking to buy things. If you’re a small company, it’s great for you, because instead of having one or two people to talk to, now you have a lot of people to talk to. A small company can be more bullish about exit opportunities than you’ve been able to for quite a long time.
What’s hot and not in healthcare IT?
If we went back three months before the dislocation of the credit markets, I would have said that the hot opportunities are companies that are meaningful size with strong EBIDTA performance and a conservative investment platform for investment sponsors. Dairyland, Sunquest, HMS – organizations like that four months ago were on fire. You’ve seen a little bit of a slowdown because sponsors can’t put as much debt on them as they’ve been able to earlier in the year. There still will be a market for them because when a company gets to the 30 to 50 million dollar size with strong EBIDTA performance, but you’ll see some compression in the value that people can put forward on them.
In terms of what I see as hot, if you look at where the venture investment is going into, I’d drop it in three categories and there’s not a lot of change. There’s still a lot of interest in revenue cycle. Part of the challenge is defining what revenue cycle is. There’s a lot of interest in solutions that address revenue cycle challenges. More financings will be announced of companies in technology business and services businesses that are focused on fixing bits and pieces of the revenue cycle. The large majority of them fix bits and pieces. You don’t have anybody who’s going soup to nuts. Still, those point solutions can still deliver a lot of value to customers and that’s what’s driving investment VCs.
The other areas with a little more froth in the market come back to some things that are geared toward consumer-facing solutions, things that help manage information or care in consumer-directed or higher deductible type health plan environments. There’s some strong interest there.
Others get back to clinical content and clinician collaboration tools. Figuring out different ways for clinicians to work together and to exchange thoughts and ideas and being able to capture and then present back out the resident knowledge. That’s another area that’s pretty hot.
One that I’ve heard more about, and it will be interesting in how it plays out, is the whole remote care, telemedicine, home monitoring, and different ways of to deliver care into non-institutional environments. I’d stay that’s still a little bit earlier on in terms of the froth, but you’re starting to see people get more excited about that.
What do you think about Health 2.0?
I always tend to be a little bit skeptical of buzzwords. Some of the solutions that are out there, like the clinical content solutions that I was talking about, there are some really cool things that people are working on, When you think about the applicability of these technologies, or not even technologies but business models and care models, to the existing healthcare environment – you start getting pretty excited about that. Just different ways to give people a platform to work together and access knowledge that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.
We’re all in this to try to improve healthcare overall. You gotta think that by bringing more of that knowledge to bear, you’re going to be able to improve healthcare overall. I still think there’s a lot of noise around it and I’m not sure how all the business models will play out, but it’s definitely exciting.
We are seeing a lot activity on the interoperability and portal side. I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I’ve never run a hospital IT department, but solutions that let me manage my application migration myself on my schedule, not being forced to make changes because of interoperability requirements, those types of solutions strike me as being able to bring a lot of value. I characterize those as different aspects of Health 2.0 solutions that are clearly provider-facing, not consumer-facing, but you recognize that there’s a lot of data and information that’s already out there and tools that help you access that. They’re going to drive improved outcomes. It’s not necessarily a direct causation relationship, but the more information you have … think about clinicians. They are very smart people. Give them more information and tools to work with and they’ll use that and you’ll see that in healthier patients and better outcomes.
Private equity has gone crazy since we talked last in January. Explain how it works and how it has affected the industry.
Different private equity funds are going to have different approaches to how they like to build businesses. Some like to buy things cheap and fix them. Some buy pretty good companies and make them a little bit better. Some buy really good companies and help them be really good on a larger scale. So, you have these different approaches to the private equity marketplace.
Funds have acquired businesses in the healthcare IT space. Their focus is to generate a return in a reasonable timeframe. They may be willing to have a longer-term hold, longer than two or three years. Francisco Partners turned around their Lynx investment very quickly on a relative basis, but the investment was performing so well that it was the right time to do it and they got an incredible outcome from Picis on that exit.
These guys have made investments and the way they will make money is by really two ways. One is organic growth, the other is inorganic growth. They can augment those returns because they put debt on the company to start off and get leverage on their investment. But, the reality is that these guys need to figure out how to grow these businesses to get the kinds of returns they want to get. Companies that may have been a little more passive historically will probably get more aggressive in management and personality.
The direction for these companies is to be more aggressive toward growth. You also will see ongoing acquisition activity, especially in companies that are under $50 million in revenue, as these businesses look to add on pieces and capability so that they can take their organic growth rate, say 10 or 12%, and augment that with acquisitions and move that up to 20 or 25%. That really helps them get the returns they want to get.
At the end of the day, to get the returns they need, have to have some kind of exit. It can be an IPO, like athena. They can sell to strategic, like Francisco Partners selling Lynx to Picis for a strategic exit. Or, they can sell to another private equity firm. They have different approaches and sizes, so a smaller fund can always grow a business up and then sell it to a bigger fund. What you’ll see is a good amount of activity as these businesses position themselves for growth. Then will see those folks making the call to find a bigger home and see them making those decisions as well.
What’s the track record of private equity owners with respect to making R&D investments, keeping customers happy, and not flipping the company at the first opportunity?
I think some of the private equity folks will actually be better owners than the historical ownership, not to knock the historical ownership. The private equity owners are going to be very focused on how to grow the business. You can go buy stuff, but you also have to be able to sell more to new and existing customers. These guys are smart enough to realize that you can’t sell stuff to customers who don’t aren’t happy with what you’re giving them.
I’ve had conversations with a number of folks involved in both investors and management of these companies, and what you’re hearing about is a renewed level of focus on customers. Customers can actually be better off. When you think about it, when a strategic acquirer buys a business that’s in the same line of business of something they already have, one of those customer sets will have a migration path. They won’t want to support both customers on different platforms indefinitely. A strategic acquirer will have to manage a customer transition.
The financial acquirer wants that customer to be happy and to buy more things from me so that I can both grow in terms of selling new stuff, and on the maintenance side, I don’t have people who say they don’t want to fool with me any more and I’ll find another vendor because your product is behind and you’re not giving me decent service and a reason to stick. My argument would actually that these private equity owners can result in good things for customers.
The folks that will have the toughest time are organizations that have gotten used to operating in a certain way. You have folks coming from outside of healthcare IT, and some ways that’s good and in some ways that’s bad. Healthcare IT as a market has a lot of very unique characteristics. If you don’t understand those characteristics, you can really fall flat on your face.
There are some evolutions have occurred in other IT markets that haven’t hit healthcare yet. Some will never hit healthcare, some of them will hit healthcare and some of these folks bringing some outside perspective can bring value by saying, “This is how it played out in Market X.” If you think about your business in different ways as a vendor, you might find ways to make customers happier and grow your business.
So I think that for customers overall in the near- and mid-term, it’s a good thing. The downside is the next round of exits, because you know they’re going to sell at some point. You hope they become strong enough when they do get sold, they’re not getting sold into a situation where somebody’s just buying them for the footprint and moving you off that system and onto something else.
Give me a grade for each of these publicly traded companies in terms of market share, image, management, and return on shareholder equity:
In terms of market share, they’re absolutely getting an A because of their footprint. In terms of customer retention, I’m not sure what grade I’d assign, but what I’m hearing more of is that they’re having some customer losses. Historically, McKesson has been unbelievable in being able to hang on to customers. Traditional wisdom is that they didn’t try to find that many new customers. They weren’t trying to fight the ground war in getting new business hospital by hospital. I hear they’re starting to do more of that with some of their new capabilities that they have on board.
The Awarix deal that the did this summer … that they’re getting pretty aggressive in using that as an entry point. Awarix is a workflow tool for patient management hospital-wide, so it pulls information from disparate systems and presents it on flat screens that you have around the house. At a glance, you can understand things about census, room availability, where the bottlenecks are. It’s a patient throughput tool, very cool. McKesson is using that to push into new hospitals. They haven’t done a lot of that, so I’d give them an A in terms of what I’ve heard on that front. I’d probably give them a B in terms of customer retention because they’re losing more than they have in the past.
At this point, I’d give them a B overall. They would agree that it’s taken them a little longer than they expected to right the ship. But, I also think that they still occupy a pretty interesting position in the market. They have strong capabilities. Organizationally, they’ve made the changes they needed to make to push things forward. I’d almost give them an incomplete. The judgment is still out.
I still rate Cerner as being an A overall. Everybody you talk to, you ask them who frightens them in the marketplace, and everybody’s going to say Cerner. People can throw stones at different parts of their products and capabilities, but the reality is that Cerner, for better or worse, has defined the hospital information system landscape in a way that’s favorable to them.
Cerner’s question going forward comes back to where do you find growth going forward? When you’ve built up to be as big as they are, where do you go? I would expect that they wrestle with that internally. I’d give Cerner an A. Everybody knows about them, even outside of healthcare IT. They’re still the company to beat.
I’m going to stick with GE at a B-. I think they’re getting their arms around the assets they have, but every time they get their arms around the assets they have, they go out and buy something else, like Dynamic. When you look at where they fit, I’ve certainly heard good things about product development, but broadly I don’t feel like they’ve taken advantage of the footprint as well as they could have.
They have this incredibly strong brand, they’ve bought a lot of companies, but I would argue that, of the companies they bought, I don’t know how many you’d say were better off for having been bought by them. You can’t go through the list and say, wow, they bought that company and they really turned it into a massive business. You saw that on occasion, but they haven’t done a great job at taking advantage of the pieces they’ve put together.
I know less about them, but I would say that I’ve been surprised at some of the things they’ve done. I’d probably put them, honestly, closer to a B- or C. They’ve bought some things, but then lost one of the big contracts recently. I understand why people are in the outsourcing business because there’s huge opportunity there, but I haven’t heard that many, if any real success stories, in outsourcing. It’s an interesting thought, but then in practice, it just doesn’t seem to work that wall. It comes down to how different than other industries healthcare is, with a more complex mix of stakeholders. Aside of a few case studies, I don’t that they have a lot of folks saying, “Wow, I’m ecstatic about my outsourcing vendor.”
They continue to stick to their knitting and I think they’re doing really well. I’d give them an A for focus. Anecdotally, I would give them somewhere between a B and C for delivery. I don’t know that that’s their fault, but they have so much opportunity out there that it’s tough to deliver.
The biggest risk Quality Systems and Allscripts and eClincalWorks and folks like that, that the more successful you are on the sales side, the more risk you’re taking on because you’re signing people up and it will take time to implement them. The longer that delays, you start digging a hole for yourself. It’s hard to argue that they’re doing the wrong thing based on the business they’re doing. From customer perspective, I get a little nervous about how long I’ll have to wait to get my system.
I follow them a little bit. I think they’re probably a C to a D. Not through all the fault of their own. They stepped into a tough situation. They’re an example of an organization that stepped into healthcare most likely thinking it had some real similarities to other small and medium business, and they’re finding that the physician business is a challenging market.
Medical Manager had a great footprint, but those customers didn’t get a lot of care and feeding. When customers aren’t expressly unhappy but at least not happy and there’s a technological inflection point like the EMR hitting your sector, you’re in trouble. Your customers are going to go and you’ll lose more than you keep. That’s what they’re running into.
I think their new focus is good. I’d give them a B with little bit of an upward trend. They have this great asset in terms of the physician installed base. They just need to make sure they don’t run into the same issue that Sage is running into. If they can keep their customers happy enough so they don’t see them walking away. As customers go through technology replacement cycle, I want to make sure I’m on the winning end of a disproportionate share of my customers as they make those choices. They’ve got a fair amount of risk in front of them, but the focusing will help them out.
I thought it was good to seem them start to focus more. The real question is, can they really figure out how to get some growth back? They have some interesting assets, but have to put them on a C on growth side until the most recent quarter. It’s good to see that most recent deal they did was focusing back on blood bank. It’s a good thing to reinforce what you’re good at and they’re good at that. They have an upward trend in front of them, but the jury is out.
Boy, up until the most recent quarter, I probably would have tagged them with an A based on what I was hearing in the marketplace. They were going a great job in getting big wins and were a really tough competitor. That doesn’t change with one quarter’s results, but you get a little concerned when a company operating in this great sector of healthcare stumbles. You wonder, is it due to growing pains, and if so, then look at them getting whacked 20% on stock price, then buying that’s a great buying opportunity. Otherwise, if it’s something fundamental, you get a little nervous. I’d probably give them a B, but I’d keep an eye on them because it could be opportunity to get in at the right price, but you have to see if the quarter was an aberration and not a trend.
I’d give them a C. You get the sense that they’re buzzing around a lot, but you don’t get the sense that much is happening. They’ll have to continue to wrestle with whether this is a market they’re committed to long term. The answer has consistently been yes, but you keep asking the question because you’re not seeing them just rip it in the marketplace.
What do you think about big acquirers like InfoLogix, Nuance, and MedAssets?
I don’t know much about InfoLogix.
Nuance is really focused on strategically to be willing to be aggressive to build out a strong position. As a banker, you love to see that, but being a strategist as well, you wonder how all the pieces fit together at the end of the day.
MedAssets is especially interesting to me because they’re really a non-traditional player. Given the fact that they’re going public and they’re going to have lots of money and lots of margin and footprint, they could be a really big competitor for folks. I think it’s just a question of what they want to do. Do they want to focus on revenue cycle, or get into broader information systems in hospitals?
Given that they can touch so many hospitals, if I’m sitting in the competitive intelligence department of McKesson or Cerner or one of those places, I’d keep a very close eye on MedAssets. I’d want to know what those guys are doing. They’ve been pretty creative and can they certainly could continue to be creative.
In terms of other players, you’re going to see more and more offshore organizations looking to buy entry into the US market. Indian companies and other Asian organizations looking to take advantage of the labor force that they have and looking at the US market and trying to find targets that have a labor component that they could offshore.
When you think about situations with labor requirements, where you have systems that you can deploy that have labor associated with them. Revenue cycle is a good example of this. You can put the technology in place, but if you don’t have people to run after the claims or other aspects of it, you’re leaving money on the table. I think what you will see is a continued push by offshore organizations to find US targets where they can get some of that offshore arbitrage.
Are Microsoft and Google serious about healthcare or posers?
They’re serious about it, but I also think that they consistently underestimate the complexity of the market. A lot of people do. Microsoft has certainly done some interesting things with the businesses they’ve bought in the space, but they have to figure out where they’re going to fit and who they want to be. Are they going to be an enabler or in the application space? You look at them and they’ve got brand and reach, so they should be able to do things in healthcare.
I tend not to get too excited about some of the big healthcare initiatives these guys put out there. On the PHR side, I spend a lot of time around PHR businesses. It would be great if everybody had a personal health record and they all do it with Microsoft HealthVault, but you think through the challenges of how you get information in there. You don’t want to type it in, but because of privacy issues, you don’t want to have someone do it for you because who knows where the information will end up. You have challenges on the personal side of healthcare that won’t be resolved for awhile. For Microsoft and Google, I think they absolutely have huge opportunities and they recognize there’s a lot of money to be made in the space, but they will have to go through a bunch of iterations to get there.
There were rumors going around that Google was going to buy WebMD. Let’s say they did. What does that really do? How many people do you know who are using WebMD for more than a basic reference tool? The consumer market is tough. You haven’t had people have a lot of success there for a reason. As fragmented and challenging as the provider market is, it’s far simpler than consumer side.
If someone wanted to invest in early-stage companies but doesn’t have the $1 million it takes to be an accredited investor, what are their options?
It tends to be pretty tough. To get into a private equity fund, you must be accredited, and even then it can be pretty tough to get into private equity funds. The other part, in terms of direct investing, you still have the issue of being accredited.
I spend a lot of time thinking about that. One of the great opportunities in this space is that there’s such grassroots knowledge out there that it would be great to capture that and to let people invest and to be able to get return for the fact that they know what’s going on. Mechanically, it’s tough.
One of the challenges is that, in the early stage of healthcare IT investing, it’s a pretty small universe of funds that will do that. You and I know some of the characteristics that will make these small companies successful, but from an investor perspective, you have a whole raft of risks. If you’re not living and breathing healthcare technology, you’re not comfortable with a lot of those risks. You don’t see a lot of funds that have made plays in early stage healthcare technology because a lot of them made bad investments and lost money. It’s hard to find funds that are interested in doing that, much less putting your own money to work.
If I can figure that out, I’ll let you know, because I think there’s a great opportunity there in working with early stage companies. It’s not formulaic, but there’s a lot of common problems companies have. We see it in our client base. The challenges aren’t that different between companies. So there’s some benefit you can add just having that knowledge, saying let’s figure out how to apply it and help those companies grow and the best way to do that is as an investor.
How about the practice management market? Any projected winners?
I still think on the practice management side that you’ll continue to see a divergence, guys who will be software-focused and those will be services-focused. So not just services in terms of the subscription model for software, but bringing a broader set of services to the physician practice.
Take athena vs. Quality Systems. Athena uses a lot of technology and maybe they’re a technology company, but they’re really providing services, whereas Quality Systems is a technology company. In terms of who will win, I come back to that scale is incredibly important in the physician market. There are a lot of companies that have 200 or 500 docs, but you have over 200,000 practices. It can be a high cost of sales to go after those practices and try to convert them. Scale will be a big differentiator. Product will continue to differentiate, but a bigger company with a weaker product will still probably have a leg up over a smaller company with the best product out there.
Do you still like Teletracking, DR Systems, and the handheld vendors?
I do. When I come across a company that is bringing a fresh perspective and making money while they’re doing it, I love to see early stage companies that don’t have a lot of revenue that have cool technology because some of those guys are going to make it. The difference between making and not making it is picking the right strategy.
When I look around, I’m still a fan of the privately held businesses that keep plugging along and doing their thing, focusing on being the absolute best at what they do and not necessarily saying they have to do everything for everybody. Lots of companies that fall into that category. Those are businesses that you like to be around. You go through the KLAS rankings and see how many companies are out there and how many of decent size with really happy customers. That’s pretty cool. If you look at the top-ranked vendors, you get pretty excited when you see them serving customers well and growing their business and making money.
Instead of saying I like specific kinds of companies, I like companies that have strong technology and really happy customers who are really using the product. There are a lot of technologies out there where they get a couple of customers who aren’t really using the product. All the stuff we’re trying to change broadly – if people won’t use the technology, it’s still worthless.
What is athenahealth’s IPO telling the market?
To people who are either owners or employees of healthcare businesses, the capital markets are pretty interested in stories that help them. Jim Cramer said he’s a fan of any company that addresses the cost problem of healthcare. That’s a pretty blanket statement and a lot of people believe that. The stock came out at 18 and is over 40 today. Athena is trading with the expectation that it’s an option on improving efficiency in healthcare.
It’s nearly impossible to justify that price based on the fundamental performance of the business today. But, if you look forward, athena is a leader in a market that has a massive amount of opportunity, and as such, people are saying they’d rather in invest in Quality Systems in 2001 than in 2007. If you can communicate your business model and deliver numbers, there’s money to be had to fund it.
What’s the best M&A deal of the year so far from the buyer’s perspective?
I would probably say that the best one for the buyer is the McKesson Awarix deal. Awarix certainly wasn’t a $100 million business when they bought it, revenue-wise. McKesson was willing to make a strategic change in terms of what they were looking to do. They’re effectively rapidly going to market with that. It could be the most transformative and impactful of the deals.
What other industry segments are going downhill and likely to take some companies with them?
I think you’ll see a shakeout on the physician software side. I don’t think the segment is going downhill, but will see a shakeout there with all those CCHIT-certified vendors. You haven’t seen much consolidation there in a long time.
You’ll see that in the RIS-PACS marketplace. The aggregate enterprise value of Merge, AMICAS, and Emageon is less than $200 million. Each of them were valued at multiples of that not that long ago. Some of it’s the impact of the DRA, others because of company-specific things. A lot of people are still buying in that sector, but those guys have had a rough road. AMICAS is turning the corner, Emageon had a rough quarter. Merge is caught in challenges. The sector has been challenging, but it can’t be that challenging since GE bought Dynamic.
What changes would you predict for the upcoming year?
I think you will see sharper competition for new customers and for holding on to existing customers. It’s always been competitive and a highly fragmented market with a lot of small and large companies that run around. You can have a hospital systems vendor that can really make a go of it with three or four hospitals that they sign up from the start and bootstrap from there.
I think you’ll see a paradigm battle between best of breed and enterprise continue and probably heat up. Since so many hospitals have made large scale systems decisions and picked their big player, you will see a lot of fighting to capture the IT dollars around that big investment. The private equity investment … some companies that might have been a little more laid back will have pressure ramped up to deliver growth and profit. From a customer perspective, you might find that this next couple of years is a good time to be a customer, not that you didn’t have people fighting for your business before, but they’ll fight even harder.
I think you will see more of a focus on getting value from IT investments already in place. You hear a lot about healthcare technology investments, “We bought the system, but it’s not delivering even the soft ROI that we justified the investment with.”
This is part of why you’re seeing consolidation on the consulting side. People are realizing that consulting organizations are they’re bringing value in getting systems in place and some specialty firms actually help out with the adoption. That will be a bigger and bigger thing. If I’ve spent seen or eight figures on IT investment and it’s not being used, I have to figure out how to get people to use it. I can’t just throw it away and start over.
Given the issue with bond insurance companies, I think you will see capital constraints because of capital markets and operating pressure because of reimbursement trends from third-party payers and self-pay. You must be more efficient with the resources that you have.
The Huffington Post is a blog that raised $10 million in VC money. Is this a sign that exuberance is irrational enough for me to take HIStalk public?
I think if you took HIStalk public, you could expect a valuation that would be at a significant premium to the athena valuation. I would argue that you could go ahead and start interviewing bankers for this. I would say you’re worth somewhere around two billion dollars. [laughs] I’ll get a call from Jon Bush after this, asking, “Hey, are you saying I’m overvalued?”
People focus on return. In terms of what you’re building, you’re not just grabbing eyeballs and clicks. If people are looking at the information and the content that you’re bringing together … and this is in all seriousness … and you’re capturing decision-makers as they’re looking it and shaping their decisions, there’s a lot of value in that. Seriously.
You’re jumping off the $2 billion thing, but there’s a lot of value in the fact that you’ve got an audience who are really influential in the healthcare space. The challenge that you have … you’ve done a great job of monetizing it, because you’ve done a great job balancing it between making money without compromising the integrity of the commentary. The challenge in putting venture money in … I’m not saying that you’d ever compromise the integrity … is that the pressure goes up to find more revenue and be able to continue to grow that revenue line.
I think you’re doing the right thing the way you’re doing it, but I tell you what, if somebody comes along and offers you $10 million for it, you probably should think pretty hard about it. [laughs]