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HIStalk Interviews G. Cameron Deemer, President, DrFirst

April 6, 2012 Interviews No Comments

G. Cameron “Cam” Deemer is president of DrFirst of Rockville, MD.

4-6-2012 3-42-35 PM

Tell me about yourself and about DrFirst.

I started in healthcare in the pharmacy benefits management industry. I joined PCS Health Systems in the early ‘90s and spent about 10 years there, largely in product management. I worked in developing what were at that time brand new concepts, like tiered formularies, closed formularies, and performance-based programs.

After the fourth acquisition of PCS, I left and joined NDCHealth, primarily to help them get their e-prescribing initiative off the ground. At the time, they were very much aiming to be what Surescripts is today. I spent about a year working on that with them until they decided there really wasn’t much benefit in continuing to pursue that direction. I moved instead to working with their EMR and practice management system strategy. In 2004, I joined DrFirst.

To give you a little background on DrFirst, the company started January 1, 2000. It was founded by Jim Chen, who is still CEO of the company today. Jim a was one of early inventors of virtual private networks in his previous company, V-ONE . He believed that he could use that VPN technology he developed to deliver affordable systems to physicians in an ASP environment.

Toward that end, in the very earliest days of the company, he went out and bought a worldwide unlimited license to NextGen and set the company up as a NextGen VAR. He quickly realized that wasn’t something that DrFirst could scale. It wasn’t really going to get the company where he wanted to be.

In 2001, the company started working on an e-prescribing system, with some early pilots at MedStar Health System and Kaiser Permanente.  They eventually developed a product with a real nice workflow that became the core technology that would take the company through the next eight or nine years.

Around 2004, we decided that it really wasn’t going to be a long-term proposition to be an e-prescribing company. It was clear even then that the industry would eventually move away toward EMR, and e-prescribing would just be a part of a larger application. That was the year we started developing our platform strategy, that we would put together a set of technology platforms to try to fill some of the gaps that other vendors had in their capabilities or strategies. 

We started with our e-prescribing system since that’s what we had at the time. Tore it apart into its constituent pieces and offered it out as a platform for other vendors.

MediNotes was our first client. Since then, an additional 249 EMRs have selected us as a technology platform to build their e-prescribing on top of. Since then, we continued forward with e-prescribing. We’ve developed a modular EHR for Meaningful Use that we consider a step up from e-prescribing. And then we have this very large set of partnerships with EMR vendors to which we can transition physicians when they’re ready to make that next step to a fully paperless office.

On the application side, we’re pursuing a step-wise approach for physicians. In the broader scheme of things we’re developing, we’re continuing to develop a series of platforms to fill gaps that we see in healthcare.


The company was offering back in 2000 what we would call cloud technology today. Now you’re moving into something like apps, working with other systems to offer specialized functionality. That’s good foresight. Do you think other vendors will build products to plug into existing products that may have shortcomings?

We’ve seen a couple of other companies get into the space, primarily around e-prescribing. For us, all of the platforms we offer reinforce one another. We don’t think there’s a lot of benefit in going at it piecemeal, just picking a technology and saying, “Hey, we’re going to do that one.”

For instance, I mentioned that we started with our e-prescribing platform. About that same time, we also offered a hosting platform for payer information — eligibility, medication history, formulary. That way, as physicians adopted e-prescribing, if there were payers that weren’t hosted by Surescripts, we would be able to provide the hosting service, so that physicians in a specific area, whether they were in a hospital or in the ambulatory space, they would be able to access this payer data they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. And payers, who for whatever reason chose not to be hosted, would have access to the technology so they could get their information out to their physicians.

We subsequently offered another platform for hospitals. It provided medication history as the front end of a medication reconciliation process and discharge prescribing as the back end. Those, of course, are reinforced by the fact that we’ve got e-prescribing out in the ambulatory environment feeding into the hospital admissions process, and then have the information coming back out of the hospital available to all those e-prescribing physicians. 

All of our platforms are like that. They all tie together in some way that reinforces the community aspect of healthcare, as well as the different stakeholders and what they might want out of the processes. So yes, I think other companies will get into the apps space. I hope we’re doing it in a more integrated way that will have lasting value to people who participate on our platforms.


There are people who are critical of almost any given technology, from CPOE to Meaningful Use, but e-prescribing was such a natural that nobody seemed to rally a defense against it. Do you think the battle of getting e-prescribing adoption has been won?

Absolutely. It’s a very interesting point. It’s exactly true. If you think about the claims side of the business, pharmacy actually was well ahead of medical claims in getting their act together in that space. Again, I started healthcare with PCS, and even back in ‘90s, everything was pretty buttoned down as far as pharmacy claims. 

It was no big surprise to me that pharmacy got out ahead on the e-prescribing side as well. They had a well-established standards-setting organization in NCPDP. They had a track record of cooperation between vendors and payers. So yes, I think the battle actually was won a long time ago, but we’re just continuing to watch it play out now as we move to the mainstream of physicians.


The next level of value added could be detecting patient non-adherence, treatment conflicts, or medication reconciliation. You also have your RcopiaAC product that allows hospitals to get a full medication history from outside their four walls. Other than patient convenience, what do you see as the next level in terms of patient benefit and improvement of outcomes?

The next level of value that we’re trying to provide is what we call our Patient Innovations platform. This is where we look at the whole compliance and adherence process for the patient and we work to have some impact at each point in that. This is different with e-prescribing versus working off pharmacy claims. With e-prescribing, you have a chance to move the whole thing further forward in the process, because now you’ve got a record of the physician intent and not just what the patient did later.

We have an opportunity when the physician writes a prescription to really give the patient information they need to be comfortable with a therapy. Provide inducements to get that first fill done, which is a big part of the battle, with estimates between 20 and 30 percent of scripts never being filled. And then as the patient is out receiving therapy, we can continue to message the patient. We can provide additional information.

But most importantly, we can give the physician feedback in real time on how the patient is doing in compliance with their therapy.  The next time that the patient comes in to see the physician, they’re sitting face to face, the physician looks at his e-prescribing system, and he can see right there whether the patient has been compliant with therapy and can have an interaction.

Giving the physician the tools they need, helping the patient stay highly informed, and then providing rewards and incentives … we’re trying to put that all together into a single platform that we can offer out to the industry rather than just use it inside our own application.


It’s an interesting point from the physician’s perspective. They don’t know if the patient received what they ordered unless the patient tells them. In this age of trying to be accountable for overall coordination of care and wellness, that’s going to be a huge weak link if they don’t even know whether the patient had their prescription filled, their labs drawn, or their images taken. Are physicians ready to take that role on, to get all this information but then be required to follow up if something doesn’t happen?

I’ve been in a number of focus groups or informal discussions with physicians. DrFirst works with many large enterprise organizations, which gives us an opportunity to have talks with people who are pretty sophisticated about this. What typically happens in one of those meetings is the physicians will all agree right away, “This is a great idea. We want to know whether the patients are compliant with therapy.”

And then one physician will sit back, kind of cross his arms, and say, “Now wait a minute. Are you creating a whole new demand on me? Are you creating a liability, where I’m going to have to chase down my patients and make them do what I told them to, or that’s going to come back to me in court sometime?” That will generally start a big ruckus in the room. 

About half the docs will line up on that side and say, “Look, my patients are adults. They’ll make their own decisions. I just tell them what’s best in my opinion and it’s up to them whether to comply.” And the other half will say, “No, I want this information no matter what.”

This was confounding for a while. But we found that what would work for all the doctors we talked to was, “When the patient’s back with me, that’s when I want the information. I don’t have any problem at all knowing it when they’re sitting in my office. I just don’t necessarily want to be expected to track them down outside of my regular encounter time with them.” So we’ve designed our platform specifically to give the physician information when they’re actually engaged with a patient. That seems to meet everybody’s needs.


How would your platform fit in with interoperability projects like HIEs that try to collect a bunch of different information and put it all together?

It’s going to be a little funny to list off platform after platform here, but that’s really how we’re structuring the business going forward — as a series of valuable platforms that people can tap into for the APIs and be able to offer these things up in a way that makes sense within their own systems.

We have a messaging platform that hasn’t quite launched yet. That’s the product that will tie all of our data back in the HIEs. We’re in the process of just cleaning up the APIs and getting our software toolkit together. We’ll be making that available to the industry very soon. It’s a very flexible system, with some really exciting capabilities well beyond what anyone else is doing. we believe. We’re excited to offer that. We see the need and that’s why we put the additional platform together.


You mentioned that you’re looking at different elements of missing functionality. What areas do you think could be improved that there might be an opportunity for DrFirst?

In the industry today, there are just some structural problems because of the large number of EMRs, EHRs out in the market. We count about 600, of which 250 are our current clients, but we’re broadening our client base now to include EHRs who don’t necessarily want to do e-prescribing with us but would find some of our other platforms valuable. If those 600 EMRs, for instance, want to tap the data analytics market, there are a few very large ones who already have projects under way, but it’s questionable whether some of them are big enough to really do this in a serious way.

We hope to be able to bring things to the market that make it possible for a large number of EMRs to band together and access sources of revenue that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them, whether that’s revenue in the payer space or the pharma space. Help them have access to sophisticated technology.

Let’s say the sophisticated technology is related to patient communications. Things that they may not be able to develop themselves, but would love to have as part of the way they interact with patients. We want to bring those things in. The idea is to create a central point where every EMR in the country can come to get the service they would like to have. And on the other side of that, have a single point of contact for other entities down into the EMR community.

We feel DrFirst is very well positioned to do that by virtue of our track record of success in working with a large number of partners. We’ve clearly shown that we’re a company that can be trusted. We have the best interest of our partners in mind. We just want to continue to bring a series of valuable revenue and technology opportunities to both sides of the equations — to the EHR, EMR, hospitals on the one side, and to payers, pharma, patients, pharmacies, everyone else who would like to tap in to that community on the other side.


I noticed on your site that you have a tool where you can search for EMRs by capabilities. I suppose they are your customers more than the end users, although you can help them create demand for their products. Being in a neutral position supplying a number of them with technologies, how do you see those 600 EMR vendors differentiating themselves as the market evolves?

That was the purpose of that evaluation tool on our website. One of the things that we offer to bring to the EMRs that currently work with us on e-prescribing is that we would be more than happy to be a point of lead generation for them. We talk to physicians all the time through our own sales force. Often, physicians are not looking for e-prescribing or a modular EHR such as we offer. Instead, they’re looking for an EMR. We happily point them to our partners, because we like for them to be successful as well.

If you look through the tool, you can see they’re distinguishing themselves on the basis of specialty focus or functionality, support, certification. We try it to make it possible for them to be able to position themselves however they’d like to position themselves. We try very hard to not play favorites.

As a platform vendor, we would like them all to succeed. We’d like to be that rising tide that lifts all ships. They really do need to pursue their own individual business strategies as well.


If you look down the road five years, where do you see the industry going and what must you do to be competitive?

I think the whole industry will continue to be impacted by Meaningful Use for easily the next five years. We would expect to see a lot of creativity around EHRs going forward. A lot of startups — lots and lots of startups – are still entering the market. People are bringing in new technology to replace old technology. We’re pretty excited about the level of energy that’s still going in to this market.

I’m very encouraged by the direction the ONC is taking. They seem to be stepping back a little from a very onerous “one way fits all” strategy and instead are making room for people to do similar things, but in different ways. We think that’s very positive.

We as a company would really like five years from now to be a part of more than half of the EMRs– hopefully 75% of the EMRs offering one or more of our platforms. Helping them be successful in this space.

We really embrace the fact that there are such a large number of EHRs because it shows that no one’s quite yet figured out exactly how do healthcare IT right. There’s room for lots of differences of opinion. We’d like to help them all be successful at driving the business the way they want to drive it.

I get asked a lot about who our competitors are. It’s very difficult, I think, to find another company in this space that sees it quite the way we do. It is an interesting task trying to find a way to stay neutral, but yet help people really feel that you care about what happens to them as a business. But it’s a lot of fun seeing so many creative, smart people trying to figure out ways to do things better than other people. It’s been really great to have an opportunity to work with so many of them and be a little part of what they do.

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