I occasionally do some work for EHR vendors. Sometimes I help with usability studies or provide an opinion on workflows. Other times it’s more straightforward marketing and communications work. I may have even ghost-written a blog or two for a company who was experiencing some clinical leadership challenges.
Given my background helping practices with system selection, one of the things I enjoy most is helping companies look at acquisitions or potential partnerships. I recently had the chance to evaluate a potential solution for a mid-tier EHR vendor looking for a patient engagement partner, and it was quite the experience.
I’m definitely a process kind of gal, so the first question I usually ask is whether I will be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and whether there are any agreements in place between the vendor parties that I should be aware of. Since my business is fairly vendor-agnostic, we need to make sure that anything new we take on doesn’t come into conflict with existing clients.
In this situation, the companies had been talking for some time and had been doing some work on what seemed to be a handshake basis. They seemed surprised that I would even be asking about a NDA and the fact that I thought we should have one in place. Although neither vendor is a publicly-traded company, both of them have multiple external funding sources and should see protecting their intellectual property as a priority. Once they agreed to create the needed NDA, it took several weeks to get it drafted.
In evaluating the discussions that had taken place to date (and which continued despite the lack of NDAs) most of them had been of a technical nature. There was plenty of understanding on how a potential integration would take place and the best ways to leverage interfaces vs. APIs and how to handle discrete data. There was a striking lack of discussion on whether the EHR vendor’s clients would even be interested in such a solution or how they would use it in daily practice operations. The potential partnership was being driven almost entirely by the secondary vendor, who was clearly looking at this as an opportunity to catapult their solution to the next level.
I recommended some facilitated conversations between clinical leadership of both companies so that everyone could adequately understand what a partnership might bring to the table for both companies and how the EHR vendor’s clients and their patients would benefit. I also asked for reference sites that we could contact and see how the solution was working with other EHR vendors.
As we were working to get both of these sets of discussions scheduled, someone mentioned that a pilot was already in place. Since we still didn’t have a signed NDA, I was shocked to hear that the EHR vendor had identified a client who would agree to install an unproven solution with questionable value that not only had the potential to disrupt their workflow, but also to push data into their EHR database. Even if the solution was being provided for free, just because something is inexpensive doesn’t make it a good idea.
I pushed again for the reference calls to be scheduled. The first call was less than stellar, with the provider stating that they had difficulty adopting the solution because patients didn’t want to work with people outside the practice. In a small family medicine practice, the patients generally know all the staffers, so I understand their skepticism at talking to people they didn’t know and who weren’t part of their small-town community.
My biggest takeaway from this less-than-stellar reference call was that this client should never have been put forward as a reference site. They only had a handful of patients using the solution and the process wasn’t working, to the point where the vendor was considering changing its model altogether. Why would anyone think that is a good idea to use this practice as a reference site? The second reference call was scheduled and canceled twice, and then the reference site became unresponsive. Again, not a good sign.
The potential partner continued to push us to have conversations with its clinical leadership, who continued to talk about their vision but couldn’t answer many of our questions on actual strategy and deliverables. The EHR vendor team responsible for vetting the potential partner continued glossing over the third party’s shortcomings, minimizing the clinical concerns and focusing on the idea that, “We need to strike while the iron is hot.” I was part of more than a few discussions about needing to lock in with the partner before another EHR vendor started talking to the company. However, when the conversation was steered to the actual commercial potential of the solution and the ability to deploy it to the EHR client base in a sustainable fashion, those concerns were also minimized.
The partnership continued to move forward in a nearly-unstoppable fashion, with a plan to bring pilot sites live that didn’t have support from the clinical leadership committee, the VP of implementation, or the VP of client support. There was zero documentation on the actual ROI and value proposition for clients, and the EHR vendor began to lock in on the fact that the sales team thought it was a cool solution. Since logic wasn’t giving people pause, I tried to use automotive industry examples to show the difference between “cool” and “useful” and “valuable,” but that didn’t work either.
Meanwhile, the pilot project (again, done on a handshake) was failing and it didn’t feel like there were resources on either side to try to save it. The lack of strategy was obvious, and the finger-pointing began with each vendor accusing the other of not being fully invested. The poor client was caught in the middle, with a half-implemented solution held together by duct tape and Band-Aids.
I tried to appeal to the EHR vendor to stop the madness, but the project had by now taken on a life of its own. The sales team had already gone out and identified additional prospective pilot clients who had received demos and offers of free installations, but the implementation team had withdrawn from the discussions due to lack of clarity on the project. It’s hard to implement something when you can’t figure out what had been promised or how to make it a reality.
At this point, the NDAs were finally complete, but the initiative was falling apart due to lack of leadership on both sides. Another external consultant and I continued to encourage the development of an actual business plan and commercialization strategy, but we both agreed our recommendations were being ignored.
I was glad that I had made this a time-limited contract, allowing only 120 days to work with this vendor. I was left with a sense of frustration and disbelief that two organizations could operate like this and not change course when confronted with expert recommendations if not outright failure. It felt like everyone was racing to the endpoint without a plan, which is never a recipe for business success.
When the EHR vendor asked me to extend my engagement and to help rectify issues with the pilot, I respectfully declined. I didn’t want to continue down this maddening path and am beginning to question whether I will even consider working with this vendor again.
Watching seemingly savvy business people run headlong into a mess was difficult, even though it was fascinating from an organizational psychology perspective. It made me wonder whether living in the world of speed dating and Internet hookups has spilled over into the corporate world, with the focus being on a quick connection rather than a longer courtship with appropriate discovery. At the end of the day, both companies spent time and resources on something that fell apart and probably shouldn’t have been contemplated from the beginning.
As my contract expired, they were continuing to try to patch things up. I’ll have to check back in a couple of months and see if they figured out how to take things forward or whether they continued to throw good money after bad.
Have any good stories on due diligence? Email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.