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HIStalk Interviews Don Woodlock, VP of Healthcare, InterSystems

July 21, 2021 Interviews 5 Comments

Don Woodlock is VP of healthcare at InterSystems of Cambridge, MA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I have been in healthcare IT my whole career. I went to school next door to where I am now, at MIT. I joined the company IDX and worked there for 14 years building applications, basically billing, scheduling, and managed care. I joined GE Healthcare for 14 years doing imaging IT –radiology, cardiology, and labor and delivery type imaging. I’ve been at InterSystems for four years.

InterSystems focuses on two areas. One is a data platform. We have software companies, maybe most famously Epic, that build their applications on our technology. Then we have an interoperability product line called HealthShare that many of your readers would use. We have an EMR that we sell outside the US called TrakCare.

Northeastern companies such as InterSystems, Meditech, and IDX had a lot of influence on today’s health IT market going back into the 1960s and 1970s. What does that impact look like from the inside?

There’s a technology similarity, but the most important similarity — at least in the original IDX – is the private company, customer-obsessed model. Epic still has that, InterSystems still has that, and IDX had that while I was there. It was a small group of individuals who were really excited about health systems and were focused on that. They didn’t want to bring their companies public. 

That model and culture is familiar to me. I had a 14-year deviation when I went to GE Healthcare, but when I joined InterSystems, it completely reminded me of IDX, that same kind of friendly, customer-focused outlook. Maybe there’s a Boston-y culture to the whole thing. It’s a nice place to be.

Technologists from outside of healthcare may know little about Caché. Can you explain its benefits?

That market has come around a little bit more. This multi-model, key-value store wasn’t popular at all in the early days when the technology got started, and was not popular during the relational days. But in the last five to 10 years, there has been more variety in the way people see databases and different models. Caché’s power comes from this key-value model, which makes it scalable and efficient. You can build an application that scales and micromanage the way your data is actually stored. That’s part of Caché’s secret sauce.

How are the company’s integration and interoperability solutions used?

Our integration engine is used by 39 of the top 100 hospitals and health systems. Your readers may know it under the name Ensemble, but we market it now as HealthShare Health Connect. It translates from HL7 to FHIR to X12, from whatever format to another format. It scales really well and is the next generation of that category.

The broader HealthShare is a data aggregation, unified care record platform. It got started in the state HIE market a long time ago. We more often use it for health systems that want to aggregate data across all their different EMR systems. We also market it to payers, life sciences companies, and regional health authorities outside the US. It focuses on unifying patient data and making it useful for point-of-care, analytics, research, and many other use cases.

With interoperability, we are in the middle of a nice, big change from HL7 — which is more of a “copy data from here and put it there” model, that copy-and-paste model — to FHIR, where you have applications that can work together and can request information from each other. It’s a much better interoperability model and it also opens up a lot of innovation, where you can treat your EMR data as a FHIR repository and build applications on top of that more easily. We are at the beginning of a next era in interoperability that will be quite fruitful and useful to our industry.

What market exists for helping life sciences companies use provider EHR data for research, real-world evidence, and product monitoring?

We’ve had a lot of increased activity with life sciences companies. There’s the research side, which is running successful trials. Using real-world data helps you with study planning. I’m looking for diabetics over 50 on this medication — how many people can I find in my population that is used for site selection? What organizations should I approach to run my trials? Then there’s the patient recruitment process, having real-time interoperability of information so that my principal investigators at the different sites can identify patients as soon as they enter the system.

This market has been aided by more healthcare information being digitized. It has also aided by regulatory agencies that are more open to real-world data being part of a research submission.

Then there’s the commercial side. You have a drug or a therapy and you want to get it out to the market, so you need to understand that market. A broader array of data helps you understand where your patients live, what other medications they are on, and what other problems they have. Having this data enables a life sciences company to more effectively operate these days, and I think that most of pharma is recognizing that now.

How has product demand and the company’s strategy changed with healthcare’s move to the cloud?

The cloud enables innovation. On-premise is like our waterfall software development process, while cloud is more like agile, lean, and a minimally viable product. It enables you, as a health system that wants to innovate, to spin up a FHIR repository, spin up a development stack, and try a proof of concept. To build a small application and not necessarily have to have pre-thought all of that and to buy a lot of hardware. You can focus on that stable environment.

You can more easily innovate and adapt in a cloud-based environment. That’s in addition to operating a data center better and more effectively with a cloud partner. The interesting part of the cloud is the innovation and the ease of starting up and taking advantage of newer technologies.

Our predominant model of healthcare applications, like HealthShare, is to offer it as a service. Customers may choose on-prem, but generally speaking, most of our new projects are us managing the entire environment for a customer. Then we are starting to introduce cloud-based services. Earlier this week, along with Amazon’s launch of HealthLake, we launched our HealthShare Message Transformation Service, which allows HealthLake to speak HL7. You can see it in the AWS marketplace. You can spin it up today and start using it.

We anticipate that more and more of our offerings will look just like that. We’ll offer it in the cloud stores. Customers can spin it up and start using it. The amount of friction needed to get started with InterSystems technology will be lower.

Healthcare users may not be aware that InterSystems has customers in other industries.

InterSystems is a multi-vertical company. We have a lot of experience in healthcare, but we are building up a more robust financial services business. The majority of trades that happen in the US stock exchanges go through InterSystems technology. We have another interesting customer who is basically the NASA of Europe. The European Space Agency tracks all the bodies in the sky using InterSystems technology. We have a lot of neat customers in other verticals as well.

TrakCare is a fully functional EHR that is in the top three in the world. We sell in 28 countries. The root of that business was a customer of ours named TrakHealth in Australia that had built an application on our technology. We became closer and closer with TrakHealth and eventually acquired them and made them part of InterSystems. We have a big business in the UK, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Middle East, and Chile. We enjoy having a global EMR product, but having a level of what we call local editions that tailor it for these specific markets.

Would you ever develop or acquire domestic healthcare applications, or do you have agreements with customers such as Epic to avoid competing with them?

We don’t have an agreement, but we feel like the EMR market in the US is pretty well saturated and pretty well taken care of, including by our good partner Epic. We don’t have any plans to launch TrakCare in the US. I don’t think it would add a lot to the market, honestly.

It must be unusual for a company that is approaching $1 billion in annual revenue to be owned outright by a single person, Terry Ragon in the case of InterSystems. What are the advantages of that form of ownership and how does it influence the company’s long-term plans?

There’s nothing like the private company model when the company is profitable and doing well. I enjoyed my time in GE Healthcare, but you have this other stakeholder, which is the shareholder and quarterly earnings concerns. That’s another kind of stakeholder that you need to worry about, please, and perform for in addition to customers, which is this other sphere. That was the only sphere I ever cared about, honestly. It’s nice to be in a private company with the one owner. It’s a simple model, where I can focus on customers all day long and not really worry about the rest.

We don’t have any concerns about the long run. We haven’t made it a priority to figure out the long-run transitions. We’re happy now. My boss, the CEO and owner, comes in every day. I just met with him earlier. We have a fully staffed senior leadership team, a 1,600-person-strong company, and a great customer base. We are enjoying ourselves pleasing customers.

How will the company’s healthcare strategy change in the next few years?

We are migrating more and more to analytics. That is natural in our industry. We’ve collected all this data, we’ve digitized our workflows within health systems and providers, and now we want to get more out of that. A lot of our customers are migrating to using their data for analytics. The types of things we do around interoperability, data aggregation, and normalization are all useful for the analytics use case. We have been focusing on a lot of projects and offerings in that respect.

Even our underlying data platform historically has been that online transactional processing system, and more and more customers want to build analytics solutions on it. We’re adding a number of features around self-service analytics, Python, integration, and embedded machine learning, a number of things that are more analytics-oriented to our product line. That is a big part of the future.

The other would be what we talked about concerning cloud. Having more and more of our offerings be click-click services that you get in, start up, and start to use instead of larger decisions that involve a larger monolithic type of implementation.

Do you have any final thoughts?

It’s not InterSystems related, but I wanted to thank you for publishing HIStalk. I’ve been in health IT for 33 years and I have been a dedicated reader of your publication since it started. Healthcare IT is such a community, and while my former colleagues and I from other companies run into each other all the time, it is nice to read about folks and see what is happening across the industry. HIStalk is one of the most important things that bind us all together. It has been a joy to read, and I look forward to it every day.

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. Hi Don,

    I worked with you years ago when we worked on integration between SMS HDX and IDX.

    Your practical approach was terrific and refreshing…. much like this interview!!

    All the best, Jeff

  2. Hi Don,

    I loved reading your comments, and I am very pleased to see that you are at InterSystems now. I am not surprised to see that you continue to excel.

    All the best,

  3. Don-

    Great interview. Your reminiscing and comments on our old IDX days were spot on!

    For readers not having the privilege to know or to have worked with Don; great person, more often than not the smartest person in the room and a great leader.

    Take care,


  4. Great Article. I have heard of you, Don, but do not recall interacting with you. I have been with IDX(GE Healthcare) now athenaIDX for 24 years. IDXers are known for their obsession with customers. Great to know that you are a leader at Intersysrems.

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