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HIStalk Interviews Michael Barbouche, CEO, Forward Health Group

February 13, 2018 Interviews No Comments

Michael Barbouche is founder and CEO of Forward Health Group of Madison, WI.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’m a husband and I’m a dad. We have three kids. If you have answers on managing teenage social media, I would appreciate it. My wife is a practicing general internist. I run a company based in Madison, Wisconsin named Forward Health Group. We’re in the analytics space. Some might call it population health.

Our solutions work. I’m proud to say to you and to your readers that we have the platforms that today are helping to fix healthcare and deliver the outcomes that all stakeholders are seeking.

Has interest in the company increased following the recognition in KLAS’s recent population health management technology report?

You bet. Let me state a foundation point for this company. We look at the market and say, these EHRs are important. We need to build upon them. We need to make them successful. A big driver for us was always around clinician engagement. We saw clinician trust as this gateway to the ACOs and to the hospitals.

I can’t sugarcoat it. This is going to be an amazing transition for all of us in the US healthcare system. We will go through a reimbursement change. The feedback we’re getting, though, from groups like KLAS that you mentioned, affirms what we’re seeing. Our clients are having success. They are able to pioneer in their markets where they want to go. We love it. It’s great.

We have this energy-filled relationship with every one of our sites. We say, what are we going to solve today? What are we going to go after? The challenges that they face – other than the normal ones on the financing side and on the growth side – are still around the same things we’ve been talking about – the data. It’s messy. What do we do with our technology? How do we get it into the workflow?

The KLAS report validates, and certainly our experience with our clients reveals, that we’ve helped them figure that out. We have helped them figure out how to maximize – in their world, their own pieces – how to do this right. How to do this efficiently. How to have a strong impact on the outcomes of their patients.

What does that mean in real life?

We have this long-time client – a very rural delivery network, poor, underserved populations, lots of challenges. Sparse access to specialists, scant resources to hire additional staff. It’s the sort of system you might not expect to become the poster child of EHR success. The EHR is truly working for the care teams, not the other way around. As one of our physicians at this site always says, “We count the things that count.”

We installed PopulationManager three or four years ago, and because of very clean data and clinician-understood analytics, they’ve advanced their key metrics through the roof. Colorectal cancer screening almost doubled to over 60 percent, which if you do the math on a largely rural, mostly African-American population, greatly reduces the risk of colon cancer. That’s a lot of prevention in the population when there is limited access to screening services.

It goes on. Greatly improved pneumococcal vaccine rates, but also diabetes control, hypertension control, and more. They’re doing all this by leveraging the data we deliver to improve the data capture and the workflows in their existing EHR platform. They are making such a difference in patients’ lives. That’s pretty cool.

The KLAS report concluded that EHRs aren’t very good at population health management. As a not-huge company, how do you use that information to find new business?

The first thing that I would say to any prospect is, what data are we talking about here? Invariably they’ll speak about an EHR or two or three. But what’s so powerful for many of our clients today is claims data.

I’m an old claims guy from the 1990s. I was a shaggy-haired data guy running claims data. Claims data is enormously important to every health system, but they don’t know how to use it. It’s so important. We’ve naturally expanded to the health plan market because they’re sitting on this untapped asset of rich data.

We say to any prospect, look, you can’t get there, anywhere, with just one of those buckets of data. The EHR is rich. It’s enormous. It’s a data source unlike any we’ve had. But if we don’t bring in other clinical data, other outside labs that you haven’t yet interfaced, and, most of all, if you haven’t brought in the claims data, you’re not going to get anywhere.

The value proposition for us is straightforward. Let’s talk about your market opportunities. Talk about your market pressures. We weave together clinical and claims so we can make sense of their performance in a manner that they can leverage the data, take action, and ultimately drive outcomes.

Our initial focus in this market was around harvesting, curating, and presenting very clean, very trusted clinical data. But in the back of my mind, we were not maximizing claims data. We would incorporate claims into our builds and populate measures and metrics for our clients based on claims data as a source, but there was a richer solution to uncover.

Beginning in 2012, we began to sketch out a new path for claims data. The move to value-based reimbursement, no matter the final form of any CMS program, would place a richer emphasis on the performance and really the behavior of the clinical network. Think of where the country has spent the last 15-20 years building out the revenue cycle. Value-based care and contracting requires an x-ray vision lens on how that network is actually behaving, where the inefficiencies occur, where the care is not coordinated.

We built that x-ray vision. In 2017 we softly launched a very cool new visual platform that addresses the problem of our time. Whether you want to call it leakage, or keepage, or steerage, it is happening. We view this as a lens on the patient’s care journey. We named the platform PopulationCompass because so much of a patient’s care journey occurs outside the four walls of their PCP’s clinic. Which also means the care is often outside of the PCP’s EHR. Your clinically integrated network’s flows, in and out, come into very clear visual focus. Risk-bearing delivery systems are going to need a compass to find their way around out there.

Do you think providers know how sloppy their data is and how hard it is to move it around in a meaningful way?

I cannot begin to tell you how eyes have opened in the last three or four years. Years prior, we had some intuitive tools, some beautiful visualizations that were basic and simple. I call them poor man’s QlikView. We thought the user was a medical assistant or a nurse or whatever.

But now you can’t get into a conversation with any system without immediately being challenged on data quality, data completeness, and other data integrity things. When we first started hearing those questions in the field, we were jumping up and saying, “Hey! Who told you about all of our speaking points?” It’s wonderful. It’s refreshing. We teach all of our clients about data quality. Teach them about this beautiful asset in their electronic record and say, we’re going make this thing hum.

We’ve got sites — and I’m just tickled by this — visited by the NIH and CDC so they can learn how they’ve improved outcomes so quickly. Trying to learn so these big organizations can help the country learn to maximize health IT. They say, how the heck are you screening this many people in this rural area where there’s no access to colorectal cancer screening? Well, for some of our clients, we have mapped 187 different nooks and crannies where we can find a hit on a colonoscopy or a FIT test or what have you in their EHR. And that number will only go up. We’re weaving in data from the three different health plans to say, somebody was screened over here at this other hospital. “You need to get that properly registered in the patient’s record in the EHR.” Continually helping them narrow in on this smaller and smaller cohort of patients that they need to target and that they need to bring in.

It’s refreshing and exciting as heck to have a prospect challenge us and say, “You know what, buddy? Our data’s a stinking mess. How are you going to make sense of it?” That’s where we stand up and thrive.

Where do you think we are in the trajectory to value-based care?

We’re in a period that we haven’t had for quite some time. I will call it a period of the least uncertainty we’ve probably had in 10 or 15 years. The move to value is certain. The path to value is fraught with unknowns.

I can tell you candidly from my observations from working in multiple markets that the delivery systems, the health systems are not at the forefront. They’re struggling with this. It’s difficult. And by the way, they’re still making too much money on fee-per-service. So what do they need to change?

We’re seeing more and more that market pressures are being introduced. Health plans are getting more anxious and getting more involved. We’re involved in numerous incentive programs, Medicaid waivers, and other market shifts. The pressures are growing, but the delivery systems are not making rapid progress.

This is probably the most exciting time that we’ve ever had as a company. We are now positioning every one of our clients to take action. We tell them, “You don’t get to wait around. You signed up. Now step up. We’re working together. We’re going to play offense here. We’re going to be the aggressor.”

We have clients that are meeting with the biggest of the big, hairy health plans, the scariest national ones of all. And saying, “Hi, I’m from an FQHC and I want to set incentive terms with you.” Do you know what the response is every time? “Let’s meet quickly.”

We tell the health plans that the gating item is the claims data. Send us the claims so everyone can go to the meeting and talk to about how attributions are all screwed up. About how assigning a bunch of patients in a vacuum isn’t working. About how prior auths are occurring in all the wrong places. And by the way, these are the quality incentives that we should be looking at. And by the way, these are the diabetes patients both sides should support and the health system needs your help managing them.

What we see right now is a window, probably three to five years, where health systems can call a meeting with their health plan partners, roll up their sleeves, and say, let’s do this together. Let’s sit at the table. Let’s talk about what our priorities are. Let’s figure out how to coordinate the improvement journey.

Will the announced healthcare cost reduction focus of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan struggle with getting data out of potential partners?

I’m a Minnesota native, I grew up in the Twin Cities. I went to grad school there. The Minnesota Business Group on Health was talking about this stuff in the early 1990s. I welcome it. I’m excited.

Tell the Amazon folks they should give us a call. We’ve solved it. We want to visit with them and tell them how to do it. JPMorgan as well will be very interested. This is an important event, along with the craziness about Apple’s recent announcement, which isn’t so crazy. The data is still a mess and we’re not aggregating the data and using the data to drive decision-making to drive the markets.

The Amazon, JP, and Berkshire announcement represents a stake in the ground, a shot across the bow to a lot of the incumbent analytics players. The reports you’ve been sending them in the three-ring binders? They’re not right. We can tell you they’re not right, because when we look at the data and we peel it back, we are able to identify risk and identify exposure in a way that says, “This list right here of 61 people? That’s what you guys need to be working on.” Anything that helps us see the purchasers exert more and more interest and influence in demanding outcomes is for the better. I’m glad they’re here.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We’re optimistic about the future for our clients. We’re excited that they have the opportunity to go after change in this value world and do what’s right for their organizations. And, do what’s right for their insureds or their patients and have at the forefront a focus on improving patient outcomes.

We’ve known for decades that we need to go there. We’re excited to see that happening, day after day, for all of our clients.

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