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HIStalk Interviews Marc Probst, VP/CIO, Intermountain Healthcare

February 1, 2016 Interviews No Comments

Marc Probst is VP/CIO at Intermountain Healthcare of Salt Lake City, UT.


You have a history of speaking out about Meaningful Use. How has your opinion of it changed over the last several years?

Meaningful Use came out as a stimulus package. Did it stimulate the economy and health IT? It clearly did. If that was the plan, it was successful. Did it get more EHRs in physicians’ offices and in hospitals? It clearly did.

Did it move healthcare dramatically to lower costs, or even incrementally, to lower costs and higher quality? It has not. It has a long way to go, and because of the way we approached it, with check-the-box certification and achievement of Meaningful Use, it just didn’t deal with the underlying challenges of things like standards of interoperability.

The last point on that is simply how much money we’ve spent for the value that we’ve gotten. It’s minimal. All along, I felt we should have dealt with that and that’s why I’ve been so outspoken, a thorn, probably, in the side of my colleagues at ONC.

What was your reaction to Andy Slavitt’s remarks at the JP Morgan Health Care Conference, and then in the follow-up CMS blog?

On one hand, it’s disappointing because we’d like to see the end of Meaningful Use. I don’t speak for every CIO, but the ones I know were kind of excited to see it end. It wasn’t achieving necessarily all the objectives we want to achieve, so that was the negative.

The good side is that the national conversations picked up around what is the value of Meaningful Use and how the program should be changed to become more effective. I think that’s positive. The water under the bridge is how much money we’ve spent and the steps we’ve taken to this point.

The optimist in me things we’re going to have a good conversation about it. We’re going to talk a lot more about outcomes and how organizations can achieve outcomes that are better with technology. If properly done, properly incentivized by the government or not disincentivized by penalties, I think we can make some really important strides.

How would you like to see Meaningful Use transition into something truly beneficial?

I’d like to see it become outcomes-driven. If I can prove to you that I have lowered the incidence of diabetes or some of the clinical outcomes that are associated with diabetes because I’ve used information systems and data to do that, that’s a good thing. It lowers cost for the country and improves healthcare.

If we can do that with diabetes, let’s go to heart disease. Let’s go to incidence of jaundice in or around birth. There’s so many areas we could focus on, and if we turned it to that direction, you’re going to have clinicians and technologists working together to leverage these tools we’ve put in place to improve care and lower cost.

That ought to be our outcome, not whether or not we placed 60 or 90 percent of our orders through CPOE. If we can shift that conversation and then the incentives around that, I can just see massive innovation and much more benefit come out of these systems.

Intermountain is just over two years into its contract with Cerner. How is the partnership going?

It’s going very well. I think like every other organization, our very first go-live was a learning experience. Having to help physicians and other clinicians understand how to use the system was a tad painful. It wasn’t easy. We were Intermountain Healthcare. We thought we knew everything, but we had a few things we had to learn.

We did that last March. We went live with our first two facilities on clinical and rev cycle. That was two hospitals and about 20 clinics. Then we went live in late October with two more hospitals much larger in size, one of them our second-largest hospital.

Then probably 60 more clinics and rev cycle and everything surrounding it. That one went much better because we had learned so much from our first implementation and we’re now ready to go much more quickly. We’re going to probably bring up probably 12 to 15 more hospitals in 2016. We know how to do it better now, so I would say it’s going very well.

If you had to pinpoint one lesson learned that you’d like to share with other CIOs and IT teams, what would that be?

Adequate resources on the clinical side to help physicians adopt their work flows, without a doubt. It wasn’t technical issues. Technically, this thing went swimmingly. It’s all around adoption, use of the system, and changing work flows.

Did you bring in any consultants to help with those initial implementations?

The second one we did. The first one we did all on our own with Cerner’s help. The second one we brought in Leidos, primarily, to really help us get it done. They were very, very helpful. We’ll use them going forward.

What’s the biggest lesson you think your end users have learned or are in the process of learning?

Just how involved they have to be. You must have leadership on all levels. We’re divided into regions and then those regions have multiple facilities in them. That local leadership has to participate. This isn’t something that can be done to them. It has to be done with them. As they participate, our success rate goes way up.

What sort of ROI are you looking to get from your partnership with Cerner?

I don’t think any of us have fooled ourselves into thinking it’s going to be cheaper than our self-developed systems. What we’re getting with Cerner is a much more comprehensive solution. That’s been really positive.

Given that we’ve built systems very unique to the needs of Intermountain, our concern in transitioning to a system we didn’t build was, would we be able to retain that level of … I hate to use the word interoperability … tightness between what we’re doing from data analytics and what we’re trying to do from a process and workflow perspective to obtain those levels of best practice care and cost that Intermountain is known for. It’s actually what drove us to Cerner, because we thought we had a much better chance of doing it with them than we might with one of their competitors.

To date, that’s become much less of a concern. We’ve achieved a lot. We’ve done a lot of work in enhancing the core Cerner model system to have more of those capabilities, so I think our ROI is with this more comprehensive system and the greater amount of data that it provides.

We can go to the next level of best practice care. We don’t think we’ve gotten there. We think we can build in a lot more activity-based procedures and cost mechanisms so that we can even better understand where we’re spending money and where we can lower our costs and improve our quality. That’s really been our focus and that’s where we see the ROI.

The expense of doing something like this … did we lower IS costs or workforce costs? We haven’t really focused on that and we won’t. We know the benefit comes from providing better care and doing it at a cost that’s lower than what we’re doing today.

What is Intermountain looking to accomplish from a population health management standpoint this year?

We’re building a digital health strategy, and so this year we’ll be looking at how to engage patients with portals, mobile, that kind of thing. We’re really building out the strategy on how to do that. To suggest in 2016 we’ll accomplish a ton, I don’t think so. We’re just getting our ducks in a row this year as to how we’ll pull it off.

However, from the data side, we’re looking at understanding where our opportunities are around population health. How do we get to value-based payment and how do we contract with physicians that are going to be moving to population health and value-based care? We’re working with Cerner with HealtheIntent to support that exercise, but we’re also depending upon our legacy electronic data warehouse and traditional analytics.

What will you be looking at on the HIMSS show floor this year?

Security’s going to be a big issue. In fact, I just got out of a meeting to have this call, an all-day meeting that’s got some big players in town talking security.

Also, I think anything around population health and more visible things like portals, mobile, and wearables, that kind of thing. That’ll be pretty interesting to me.

Plus, I’m looking forward to connecting with old friends. I’ve been in the industry a long time and it’s a pretty small one, all things considered. It’s a great industry.

HIStalk Interviews Charles Tuchinda, MD, President, First Databank

January 27, 2016 Interviews 1 Comment

Charles Tuchinda, MD, MBA is president of First Databank of South San Francisco, CA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’m a physician technologist. I got a degree in biomedical engineering at Harvard, where I built prosthetics and a hovercraft. Then I went to med school at Hopkins. I ultimately got board certified and licensed in internal medicine. I got an MBA at Harvard Business School, working on venture and biotech.

I joined Eclipsys many years ago and worked there for quite a few years. Then I joined Hearst, first as their chief innovation officer for healthcare, and then ultimately had the great opportunity to lead FDB.

FDB is a company that I’m very proud of and feel very privileged to be a part of. It plays an important role in healthcare. Its roots started at UCSF around medication, but today we have immense impact. We’re touching multiple stakeholders across healthcare and have an opportunity to expand beyond that. That opportunity lives at the intersection of healthcare information and technology.

Because I feel like I’m a technologist at heart — in fact, I’m a closet programmer — I feel so fortunate to be at a company that’s passionate about making a difference, improving safety for patients but also trying to drive a bigger agenda around cost-effective care and value. The way that we do it is so interesting to me because we can leverage the electronification or digitization of healthcare, but leverage the workflows and the fact that it’s applied to technology to make it easy for patients and clinicians to do the right thing.

Physicians have often expressed their frustration at clinical decision or guidance alerts are intrusive and not necessarily relevant to the clinical situation that’s in front of them. Has that changed over the past few years?

It’s a very delicate balance to deploy very good clinical decision support. You’re aiming for providing people with information that they may not have routinely thought about on the possibility that you’d change their decision-making process for the better. 

When you look back at the history of decision support, folks may have started first in a world where there wasn’t any, so the first tendency would be to add as many alerts or as many informational prompts as you possibly can. People took a very comprehensive approach to that. If you review the medical literature today, people are measuring the performance of alerting systems by positive predictive value, trying to look at when alerts actually change behavior. You’ll see many research studies.

At FDB, we’ve taken a multi-pronged approach. One of the products that we launched in the last few years was AlertSpace. It has great success today. We took an approach that first allowed for customization of those alerts, tailoring the practice with the information that’s available. But we’ve also invested heavily in trying to increase the specificity of our learning engine, having to deal with many more patient inputs.

We in fact have a whole initiative that we call Advanced Clinicals, where we’re trying to replace the older infrastructure with a revolutionary approach to alerting. A lot of times, that actually means that the guidance is not given in the form of an alert at all — that it’s a framework. Maybe a series of questions. A process. You may get that guidance at different steps in the process. We’re on the road talking about it and we have clients that deploy it. We’re pretty excited about the potential there.

A lot of the clinical decision support setup is made by people who aren’t entering orders on the front lines. Would it be safe to allow individual practitioners to determine which alerts they want to see instead of mandating the same alerts for everyone?

That’s  a really great point that often comes up when we talk to clients. Institutions certainly have a view — often around the mindset of liability protection for the institution — where they want to roll out a certain set of alerts to prevent some of the most severe or tragic consequences. Clinicians, on the other hand, especially sub-specialists, deal with some very powerful medications and very tough and complicated diseases all the time, so that balance has been hard. 

That’s where  the customization play has worked really well. The difference is that I would say most of the vendors that we’ve spoken to generally don’t like to allow for individual personal customization, even though they technically can and have had that as an option. A lot of the institutions choose not to deploy it that way.

We’ve thought a bit about it. In the way that we’re rolling out our future solutions — especially those based on our cloud technology and our Web services technology — we’ve allowed for the possibility of us learning the behavior of that individual. Following them around the healthcare system and even seeing patterns in that data so that we can give them alerts that have been beneficial to other people like them.

Although that’s not quite deployed, we’ve laid a lot of that foundation to make that a possibility in the future. That’s like personalization around the information that individual clinicians would need to deliver even better care for patients.

Have we solved the problem of getting medications reconciled for a patient across their different providers and care settings?

No, I don’t think med rec is solved. If you look at the data of the penetration of med rec, obviously it’s now a requirement or a best practice for clinicians to med rec on every transition of care. When I talk to clinicians — including my wife — it takes an incredible amount of time and the workflow around it doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

That’s where we thought there was an opportunity. In our acquisition of a company that provided the MedsTracker platform, we saw a very innovative workflow with some really smart algorithms that made extremely great use of the information that we could provide. We’ve reduce the time it takes to do med rec dramatically. Cut it in half sometimes, down to 25 percent of what it used to be.

When I think about the future and the importance of med rec, it’s a really important decision-making process that’s going on when you’re choosing the drugs and how the patient should take those drugs. It’s an area where FDB will be able to bring more to bear in the future.

The traditional FDB work clinical process is around ordering and around dispensing the drug. Med rec is doing that in bulk, when you’re thinking about the disease and then going to go communicate that to the patient. For us to be able to leverage some really sophisticated CDS and then create the documents and artifacts that gives the patient the best education, the best understanding of what they should take — that’s the right thing to focus on.

Do you see the company’s role or product line changing as healthcare moves from management of episodes to management of care?

Yes,  I do. I hinted at a few things. Maybe I’ll make them explicit.

One is when I looked at FDB and first started thinking about the strategy, I thought FDB would need to able to touch patient data. Getting into the clinical workflow with this MedsTracker platform and being very comfortable — and frankly, HIPAA-compliant — I thought was going to be an asset for the company in the long run. I thought that the future of applying information would require personalization to the patient situation.

Then when I think forward about FDB’s agenda, we have a great heritage of providing solutions that improve the safety of medications, but I thought that the potential would be greater than that, to the extent that we would have access and the trust of patients and clinicians to look at their data and give them personalized guidance. I thought that there would be a big opportunity there.

We looked into clinical workflows, which is why obviously we had an interest in med rec. The future will allow FDB to demonstrate our ability to deliver more than just safety, that we would help people achieve the outcomes that they want and look at a wide range of inputs. Hopefully we continue to earn that right.

What challenges do you see for IBM’s Watson and genomics informatics companies that are trying to take theoretical knowledge from one system and insert it into the workflow of physicians using another system?

I love that people are investing in innovating in healthcare because I think it really pushes the envelope and gets people to think beyond what they normally might.

When I look at technologies like Watson, they inspire us to think about how we could leverage that type of approach to what we do. When I look at where it could be made helpful to patients and to our vendor clients, we focus around making it simple and embeddable. When you look at our MedsTracker platform, we’ve made it very simple to put in med rec. When we look at our Cloud Connector, why I’m so interested and excited about that is because we can deliver technologies like natural language processing, really complex risk algorithms, all through a Web service interface that would be very easy for a developer to pick up.

When you think about genomics, there’s a massive database behind that. Millions of mutations and millions of mutations of variants tied to drugs, drug-gene pairs, and those disease processes. That knowledge in the old scheme is really not feasible to deploy, because in the old scheme, you would ship the information out and hope that the EMR would build that algorithm and process it. You really need technologies like Cloud Connector, like a platform that makes it so easy for developers and consumers to use it.

When I look at these companies and these trends, I like it because I feel like it’s educating the market on what people should need to improve healthcare. Then I think FDB’s prospects are great because we’re very much dedicated to simplifying it and aggregating that information and making it easy to use and then focusing it right to a very specific workflow so people can benefit from it.

FDB doesn’t just produce clinical content, but also performs the subtle activity of integrating the information into standardized databases and working with EHR vendors to present it seamlessly to their users. Will IBM or other companies look to FDB as the company that can make their jobs easier by providing existing hooks into vendor software and databases?

Yes, absolutely. We have had conversations with IBM. We’ve had conversations with other large technology companies. In many cases, they’ve licensed our content to do precisely what you’re saying, meaning bridge the expertise gap that might be at their general purpose tech company with how it might be applied appropriately in healthcare, in the workflows. Genomics companies have also licensed and collaborated with us as well. In fact, we’re very excited about some of the things that we’re planning to show at HIMSS.

People would traditionally think of FDB as a medication information company. If you’re a technologist looking at FDB, you would realize that we’re a data aggregation and normalization company that brings complex information, simplifies it, and makes it very usable for technologists to consume and deploy. That’s why we have great channel relationships with all the major EMRs. It’s something that we continue to build on.

One thing that I tell my friends about my work that I really enjoy is the type of relationship that we have with many of our clients. We’ll walk into a meeting and we’ll have an opportunity to teach them about something. We’ll say, "Hey, guess what, here is the latest approach to drug interactions," or, "Here is the latest approach to genomics. You could offer it as a feature in your software product and you’re going to have great impact where everyone’s going to benefit from it."

We teach them technically how to pull it off. We give them the information that would drive that functionality. That’s the type of impact that we hope for and the fun that we have deploying the technology to make a difference.

Your cloud-based product could collect a lot of information about what’s going on in the customer’s setting, not just in the form of alerts that were presented, but also as a snapshot of patient information and situations. Could that information be useful to drug manufacturers or for safety purposes?

Absolutely. That’s partly why we started the investment and deployed our cloud product.

I’ll give you two examples. First, on AlertSpace. Over the years, we’ve built up a lot of feature functionality. From a features and solution suite, we have the industry’s best alert management platform. It’s extremely easy to use.

On top of that, we’ve added community and crowdsourcing capabilities. You can see what other healthcare institutions like you have set and their decision-making process around it. There’s a lot of additional content to bear that not only comes from us, but comes from the community.

When you look at our Cloud Connector platform, I’ve talked about giving folks access to massive online databases and sophisticated computational algorithms, but we have this hope that we need to validate, this belief that we would could probably offer a zero-install analytics and surveillance system. Something where because we’re running all the clinical screening CDS, folks can benefit from additional analytics and reporting about their high-cost drugs, about the disease processes that they’re managing, about which physician is seeing which patient. That’s something that we hope to introduce in the future.

When you look at our MedsTracker platform, it is a platform that has a lot of patient data in it. We’ve deployed a solution, such as clinical quality measures, which is quite innovative. It’s in the ordering process. The clinician is prompted to walk through whether they’ve fulfilled the clinical quality measure. The nice thing about that approach is that it’s proactive. If you forgot to give an aspirin, it will ask you, "Did you give the aspirin for this diagnosis, which qualifies for getting aspirin in the first 24 hours?" Then you can just order it alongside while checking off that you completed it.

That actually makes a difference. Most clinical quality and analytics systems are retroactive, so they’re just looking backward and seeing what people actually did. The approach that we’ve taken is on the front end. We think that has a bigger impact.

The other big area for us is around cost of therapy. When we look at cost of therapy and the analytics potential there, not only is it trying to understand the price, but understanding the outcome and the alternatives that you could potentially use to get the same outcome. That’s an area that we’re going to continue to investigate.

How do you see FDB’s role in looking at drug cost and how to evaluate which drugs are cost effective?

We continue to monitor pricing. We don’t publish AWP and we continue the decision not to publish AWP, but that doesn’t mean that we’re standing still. We’ve worked with various states and groups to develop a “better than AWP” benchmark. Although that hasn’t materialized, that’s something that we’re actively continuing to consider and push for on a variety of fronts.

That mostly then leaves us in the area of therapeutic alternatives. In the UK, we’ve deployed a wonderful product called OptimiseRX, which helps folks select the best drug. The best drug there is maybe more easily defined because of their NICE guidelines and their British National Formulary, but essentially it will offer appropriate drug alternatives that are less costly. There they’ve been able to show significant savings in the populations that they’ve impacted.

We think that here in the US, that’s possibly another option — offering therapeutic alternatives. When you look at the data about where the savings are coming from, it’s coming from a lot of interesting places, like dosage form changes. It may not just be an active ingredient change. We’re keeping track of where those savings opportunities might be and then trying to serve them up at the right time and make it simple.

How do you see First Databank and Hearst Corporation being involved in healthcare changes over the next five years?

Hearst is still very interested in healthcare. We continue to invest through the Hearst Health group in companies across healthcare. We’ve assembled a great family of companies that span the entire continuum of care. We continue to be focused on delivering care guidance. As an example, FDB obviously delivers medication guidance across the continuum, but you’ll also see our sister companies delivering appropriateness criteria, risk stratification, and other tools to help people manage and understand how care could be delivered better.

In the future, we’ll continue to expand and we’ll be hopefully an even bigger part of everyone’s life by focusing on integration, focusing on patients, and giving value to patients and the providers that take care of them.

Do you have any final thoughts?

FDB is in a unique position. We’re a company that’s extremely well trusted by the industry. It’s because we’re unbiased and we really try to do the right thing. We’ve done that for many years.

What’s so great about FDB is that we have the scale and the passion to invest, and I think that we in fact do out-invest in innovation compared to many of our competitors. Over the next few years, you’ll see FDB getting into new areas. Not only will be continue to upgrade and revolutionize our technology approach, we’ll be in areas beyond medications.

We recently launched initiative around medical devices. We’re exploring a few other areas that we think start adjacent to medication, so we’ll have the permission and the power to deliver value. 

My hope is that FDB will be the go-to company for folks to use and deploy whenever they think about making a difference in healthcare.

HIStalk Interviews William Winkenwerder, MD, Chairman, Winkenwerder Strategies

January 11, 2016 Interviews 2 Comments


William Winkenwerder, MD, MBA is chairman and founder of Winkenwerder Strategies. He was formerly president and CEO of Highmark, Inc.; assistant secretary of defense for health affairs for the United States Department of Defense; and has held leadership positions with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Emory University, Prudential Healthcare, Kaiser Permanente, and the Department of Health and Human Services. He serves on the boards of health IT vendors CitiusTech, Cureatr, and Accreon.

Tell me about yourself and what you do.

I am the chairman and founder of Winkenwerder Strategies. We’re a healthcare advisory and consulting firm. I focus my efforts currently — and our firm does — on innovative healthcare companies. In that vein, I work with a number of leading private equity firms who are investing in healthcare companies, serve on the boards of these portfolio companies, and invest in these companies. In addition to that, I have a group of advisory clients in the healthcare industry.

Prior to this, I served as the CEO of Highmark Health, one of the largest health insurers in the United States. I also served as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs with responsibility for all the healthcare for the US military and the Tricare program. My background prior to that was about 20 years in the healthcare industry working in the managed care sector, both on the health plan side and the provider side.

I’m an internist by background and training, board certified. I also have a business degree from the Wharton School.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities in healthcare IT?

There are tremendous opportunities today in the area of health information technology. Healthcare continues to pose tremendous challenges for corporate budgets, personal budgets, and our federal budget, not to mention state budgets.

We continue to spend more money each year. We thought for three of four years that the healthcare cost growth might have been tamed, but it appears that it’s taking off again this year. We are spending now over $3 trillion a year on healthcare in the United States, representing about 17-18 percent of our entire economy. What is a really amazing fact is that over the next 10 years, we will spend many trillions of dollars on healthcare, and within 10 years, we’ll be spending over $5 trillion in a single year.

There are tremendous challenges with all of that cost growth to provide healthcare and pay for healthcare in more efficient ways. I firmly believe that health information technology as an enabler of better business solutions and better care processes is critical to that task.

Where do you think we’re spending too much and getting too little return in terms of overall population health?

We’re spending too much inside of institutions, principally in hospitals. The hospital sector is the most single expensive sector of the entire healthcare economy. More recently, we’ve been concerned about pharmaceuticals, especially because of price increases these last two or three years, but pharmaceuticals just represent 10 or 11 percent of the entire healthcare dollar. We’re spending a lot of money in the area of long-term care in caring for people with chronic conditions.

It’s difficult to put your finger on a single sector or single area within the entire healthcare economy that is responsible for most of the problem. It really cuts across all the sectors.

We can do things so much more efficiently. But in order to accomplish that task, there have to be the right financial incentives in place and the right information, not just for clinicians and administrators in the healthcare system, but also the right information for consumers to choose and make decisions about their healthcare in order to create more of an economy for healthcare services.

Until just the past few years, there has not been, in many areas, sufficient information for people to make decisions. There has not been sufficient engagement by consumers. That’s beginning to change. People are beginning to take healthcare decisions more into their own hands, principally because they are now experiencing some of the costs directly themselves through the changes in the benefit designs, which have more high deductibles and more co-insurance and cost sharing.

The individual and the family have a vested interest in getting value for their dollars. Even though that creates some pain right now, it’s a good thing in the sense that it’s going to force more economical provision of care.

You just called out the elephant in the room. Are people realizing that their despite non-profit status and source of community pride, hospitals are looking out for their own interests as they integrate to command more market power?

There are lots of shared and conflicting interests when it comes to the local community hospital or even the regional hospital system of today. The problem is that in many markets — in fact, probably most at this point — there is just one hospital system,  two, or potentially as many as three. This leaves in place a situation where there’s not sufficient competition. This is especially the case when the hospitals and doctors have come together in a community and really are just one force.

It reduces the number of choices that people have. Frankly, I think it creates a situation where there’s not sufficient room for innovation and change in the way that care can be provided. Being a physician, I think some of the most innovative models of care are through physicians driving change. I hope that, in the future, we’ve got physician-driven systems that are able to compete on equal footing with big hospital-based systems.

You worked in the Pittsburgh market, which was a bellwether for what was about to happen everywhere as providers became insurers, insurers became providers, and competition got ugly. You had UPMC as a national and even international brand. Will that also become common, where we’ll see the emergence of regional or national provider brands?

I do see the emergence of regional and national provider brands. To be clear, I don’t believe that this is all bad by any stretch. There are many great organizations that provide great care and that have developed a great brand because of their quality, their service, and their capability.

The problem comes when that entity acquires many of the resources, the assets for care within a given geographic region. Because healthcare is local, that creates a situation where there’s not choice, because people typically can’t drive hundreds of miles to receive services. It’s not like you can get your healthcare on Amazon or get the service delivered through UPS. You have to go to a local institution, a local doctor and so forth.

It’s important that regardless of who owns the assets, the rule book allows healthy competition to take place. In the absence of that, the only vehicle for control, if you will, of pricing is the government. The government typically has not been reluctant to step in to set prices or influence pricing where they can. I would expect that there will be a push to do that in other ways in other ways, pharmaceuticals, for example.

What has been the impact of the Affordable Care Act and what will it be going forward?

The Affordable Care Act has got, at best, a mixed set of results associated with it. On the positive side, we have more Americans who are insured, principally through the expansion of Medicaid, and to some extent, through the creation and operation of exchanges in most states.

The total number of additionally insured people, I think now is in the range of 16 to 18 million. Much of that is through Medicaid. I think the breakdown on that is like 10 to 12 million through Medicaid and six or seven million through exchanges. The target for the Affordable Care Act was in the range of 32 to 35 million. It’s fallen far short of the target. 

At the same time, it’s introduced a lot of requirements and burdens on employers that have not made a lot of employers happy. It’s also created a bureaucratic regulatory infrastructure that I worry introduces unnecessary costs as well as a potential for limiting innovation.

On the positive side, in addition to the newly covered lives, you do have some benefits from the introduction of products on these exchanges that take advantage of things like narrow networks or higher-deductible benefit plans that do, in fact, save costs. These, ironically, are the same things that many people complain about, but they are — from an insurance perspective — the best way to limit the cost to the individual. There’s really a Catch-22 going on with some of these developments.

Certainly this is a highly political issue. It’s been that for six years now, since 2010, and it’s going to be a factor in the 2016 elections. We’ll see where all of that goes. My expectation is that there will be a continuance of certain elements of the Affordable Care Act regardless of who becomes president, but there could be a lot of change to the Affordable Care Act depending upon who gets elected.

The middle class is being hit hardest financially with higher premiums, deductibles, and co-insurance because lower-income families receive federal insurance subsidies and high-income families can afford the higher costs. One ED visit could bankrupt the average family even with insurance. What do you think the average voter wants to happen?

You have to read lots of different polls and you get different answers. People seem to want, in my reading of all of this, coverage to be available that’s affordable, on the one hand. On the other hand, they like to have choice and they would like protection against some of these high costs of healthcare.

It’s really a double bind. There’s no way to provide a really highly affordable coverage plan, for example, in a market where there’s consolidation of providers and not much insurance competition. The cost of care is just going to be expensive.

My hope is that we set the conditions and the incentives into place such that cost of care can be driven down, not just held at bay or made to grow at a slower rate of increase. There’s evidence that care can be delivered at a lower cost than it is today, many times using good technology solutions and putting information into the hands of individuals and providers.

People talk a lot about patient engagement and consumer involvement.  Do consumers have more influence as customers and are providers recognizing that they must operate differently as a result?

I do believe that consumes are more engaged, have more influence on their care, and want more influence on their care. They are able to get their hands, if they’re reasonably educated and interested, on information about their particular condition. That’s available on the Internet. That’s available through information sources that people can easily access. People are driving decisions at a consumer level today in ways that just weren’t happening a decade ago.

People think insurance companies are the bad guys, but what are their challenges in trying to create and manage a risk pool?

This is where CitiusTech comes into the conversation. CitiusTech is a highly innovative health information technology company solely focused on healthcare and working across all sectors, providers, health plans, life sciences, pharmaceutical, and also working even with other technology companies.

What’s needed, as you try to develop new kinds of risk- and performance-based arrangements between the payers, between the health plans and the providers, and even the pharmaceutical companies, you need really good information. You need large databases. You need to be able to integrate the data. Ideally, you’re using the capabilities of the cloud. You’re delivering great information.

That’s what I found so attractive about CitiusTech that caused me to want to work with them. We started out our relationship about a year ago in an advisory capacity and then I was asked to join their board about six months ago. They’re a great example of a new kind of company that’s totally focused on healthcare and as deep knowledge of not just the bits and the bytes of the technology, but of clinical issues, clinical information, and clinical operations. When you take that and marry it to the financial side, the health plan world, you begin to create some tremendous capabilities and the kind of capabilities that people need today.

What kind of health IT companies would get you excited about either advising them or investing in them?

CitiusTech would be one for sure. I love what they do. I’m excited with what they’re doing. I think their focus is great. It’s not just the technology, it’s the services and solutions and great talented people. That’s one example.

Another great company that I’ve had a relationship with in the past, serving as a board director, is Athenahealth. Again, a cloud-based company that is on the leading edge of change in how they do things.

There are some newer companies that are focused in specific areas. Say, for example, companies like Vitalz and ZocDoc that are focused on things like the consumer and consumer choice. They’re companies that are focused on even things like personalized genetic information. That’s going to come into the lexicon and come into people’s consciousness in terms of things they want to know about themselves that may be predictive of their future healthcare issues and needs.

There are just a lot of great companies out there. Cerner is a great company, in my opinion. They just recently won the contract to create the next-generation electronic healthcare record system for the military, partnering, by the way, with Accenture and Leidos. I served as an advisor to them in their effort to win that contract, which they did.

There’s a long list. There’s just a lot of very interesting and exciting companies out there today. Obviously, if you go to HIMSS, you’ll get to see all of them and more. It’s an interesting time.

You led the Department of Defense in building their EHR that’s now being replaced. What was your reaction to its decision and the never-ending pressure on the DoD and VA to integrate their systems?

It needed to. The system that was implemented in 2003-2004 — that’s 12-13 years ago — was an earlier-generation system. It worked, but it was really clunky. It was not sufficiently meeting the needs of the Military Health System on a global basis.

It was a big step forward at the time. It was, at the time, the largest global electronic health record system in the world. People there can be proud of what was accomplished then, but rightly in my opinion, there was a focus on creating a next-generation system utilizing the resources of a world class consulting firm like Accenture along with Cerner and along with Leidos, which was formerly SAIC and had a lot of legacy relationships and had done legacy work for the Military Health System, and so knew and understood a lot of the ground-level issues. When you put those three entities together, I think you’ve got the best-of-breed total solution.

If you were king of healthcare for a day, what would you do to fix it?

Boy. It would take more than a day [laughs]. That’s my first response.

I think of the healthcare challenge in the United States on multiple levels. One is at a political level. The politics of healthcare have to be addressed and navigated. One is at a government level. We have existing government programs in place. They need reform, including Medicare and Medicaid. Then we have a private sector system that is connected to, partly governed by, and heavily influenced by government. They are moving parts and they’re connected. Any solution or set of solutions needs to take all of that into consideration.

At the end of the day, I think that what most needs to happen is policy change at the federal government level to set the Medicare and Medicaid programs on a course of financial sustainability. They’re not sustainable right now. There are policy changes that need to be undertaken, things like extending the age of eligibility to get into Medicare, other changes with Medicare and Medicaid, etc. I won’t go into all of them, but there are important policy changes that need to happen within those federal programs.

On the private side, we have to work to create a competitive system, as I’ve alluded to earlier, where there is competition between and among providers and providers and insurers. A system in which individuals can be engaged financially themselves, but at the same time, it’s a system that people of low income and little means have support and protection. When healthcare is costing $10,000 a year per person, or for a family, $18,000 or $20,000, somebody who makes $30,000 a year literally is not going to be able to afford healthcare. We need a support system for those individuals. We just must be very careful that we don’t create something that is not sustainable. Right now, we’re on a non-sustainable track.

The politics need to take ideas from both parties and it needs to be clear-eyed in its movement forward. One of the biggest faults of the Affordable Care Act is that it did not have a single vote from one member of a party that represents half of the people. It actually had votes against it from within the Democratic party. That’s not a good thing. When you want to make big changes, you really need some level of bipartisanship. I hope, as we look at 2016 and beyond, that there will be more of that mindset applied to try to solve those problems.

I’m ever the optimist. I like to believe that America is an innovative place and we want to do right by everybody, but we need to continue to develop solutions that can provide high-quality care to most or all of the people and do that at a reasonably affordable price. That’s the goal. I believe that health information technology is central to that objective.

HIStalk Interviews Gerry McCarthy, President, TransUnion Healthcare

December 14, 2015 Interviews 1 Comment

Gerry McCarthy is president of TransUnion Healthcare of Chicago, IL.


I’ve been in healthcare IT since 1991. I landed a job at HBOC right out of college, working as an installer on the Star system. HBO was eventually acquired by McKesson, where I spent the majority of my career with roles in services, sales, product management, and operations.

I left twice in the 1990s to join startup organizations, Automated Healthcare and Abaton, both of which were sold back to McKesson. McKesson has been very good to me and my family over the years. After I left McKesson, I was the chief strategy officer for HealthMEDX, a long-term, post-acute care EMR vendor. I then joined TransUnion two years ago as the president of healthcare.

Most people know TransUnion as a credit bureau, but that’s really only one aspect of the company. We have three key divisions representing consumer, financial services, and healthcare. In healthcare, TransUnion focuses on the patient access and reimbursement area of revenue cycle management. Our main solutions are eligibility, ID, propensity to pay, charity care determination, payment plan recommendation, and insurance coverage discovery.

What kind of financial pressure are consumers feeling as the health insurance model changes?

From the Affordable Care Act, there’s been a lot of unintended consequences associated with underinsured. Now that more people have access — which is a great thing — we’re starting to see that people are struggling with being able to pay their bills and understanding what they need to pay and when. From a consumerism perspective, people struggle with how they make clinical and financial decisions based on the care that needs to be provided.

Medical bankruptcy makes up a significant percentage of personal bankruptcies. How do you see that changing over the next few years?

We see it increasing, back to that under-insured component. People think about the indigent and lower income. If you look at even the Baby Boomer generation, there was this perception that Medicare is free. All of these plans, whether it’s Medicare or these high-deductible insurance plans, are causing a significant churn within the marketplace.

Because we are TransUnion, we understand the credit bureaus. For example, the average household income is roughly $60,000. Some of these high-deductible plans are reaching $5,000 for a family. If something happens in January or February, people are immediately under water from a payment perspective against their current income.

This has been a struggle for people. We’re going to continue to see a rise in medical bankruptcy.

Not only are networks getting narrower, but some insurers have quietly eliminated out-of-network coverage completely. What will the impact be?

We see more and more movement towards consumerism in healthcare in general. It has a significant impact on our business and is an opportunity. If you look at what patients are demanding, they’re demanding not only the access to care, but they want to know what it’s going to cost before services are rendered. 

Whether it’s value-based care, where there’s potentially a flat rate on a risk-based model, more and more organizations are saying, "There has to be some level of estimation and transparency up front so the patients are educated." That’s a key component of what we do.

If you look at the transparency component, what we’re seeing more and more is it’s not just the hospitals providing this information. You’re starting to see payers provide the information with both clinical and financial data to their membership so they can make the best clinical decision with the best financial outcome based on their individual plan. That’s really the goal — to get that transparency in front of the patient so they can make those decisions.

You can ask someone at the point of service what you owe and they can’t tell you – they don’t know how the encounter will be coded and everybody pays a different price based on the insurance contract. How can that transparency logjam be broken?

You’ve hit the nail on the head. You have to be able to model the actual plan information and the contract that will impact that individual. It costs more money and it’s more time-consuming to implement and do those types of solutions and services, but that’s the first piece.

The second piece is that as the patient enters the system, things change. It’s not always straightforward that this is the DRG from start to finish and this is how we’re going to code that claim. There has to be financial counseling throughout. You have to make sure that you are being transparent with that patient. As they are going through the system and the solution, financial counseling is becoming a key component of what’s happening in the care delivery model during the care as well.

Both sides want something new to happen at the point of care. The patient wants to know what they owe and the provider wants to be paid before the patient leaves. Can those interests be reconciled?

I don’t think it’s ever going to be 100 percent accurate just because of the nature of how healthcare is delivered, but based on certain procedures or certain disease states, we can get much closer. When you think about heart and ortho and standard visits are happening within the physician practice, there’s no reason why we can’t get to that level up front, where everybody can understand and ensure that you have the right patient, we’ve checked for fraud, ID, we understand the credit history of that patient, the clinical history of that patient, and we can put forth a payment plan recommendation so everybody understands that entire process all the way through.

It’s not just an eligibility check any more. It’s the ability to take all of those things into account and then also look for 501(r) charity determination. These are things that our customers in the marketplaces are talking about right now.

It’s less likely that the patient will pay once they’ve left the provider’s premises. What are providers doing to increase point-of-service collections as patient responsibility increases while also knowing that people don’t make paying medical bills a priority?

That’s key right there, to make sure that up front you’re actually providing some level of cost estimation so they clearly understand exactly what is going to happen, the care that’s going to be provided, and the potential cost associated with it.

Studies show that the patient is seven times more likely to pay the total bill on time if you receive at least $1 at the point of patient access. That whole entire step of financial counseling up front with that transparency and estimation is what drives the patient behavior.

So if a patient pays anything at all up front, they feel engaged enough to be more likely to pay the remainder?

That’s correct.

You also make a very good point that patients look at healthcare bills differently than they do everything else in their lives. Being TransUnion with our financial background and history as a company, it’s interesting to see how people pay mortgage versus cell phone versus any other prioritized account. The number one reason of whether or not people will pay their healthcare bill is if they’ve paid a bill in the past.

In the ranking of what a consumer actually will pay for, surprisingly, the cell phone ranks higher than the mortgage.

Will consumer satisfaction with providers decrease as their insurance pays less for services, leaving the patient to personally pay the provider more?

Yes. We’re starting to see for the first time within our customer base and within the market that patients are starting to shop. That does influence. They will leave a provider and go to a new provider if they’re not offering tools. For example, the ability to pay online.

The point that you’re hitting on is very valid. Patients who are dissatisfied because they’re receiving a bill that they didn’t expect to get are more likely to search out a new provider in the future for medical care.

A broader concern for me is those patients who are looking at that bill and then putting off care. It’s not even the fact that they go search for another provider. They feel that they can’t afford it, which leads us to a longer-term problem that it will be more expensive to treat that patient down the road, especially if they have some level of chronic illness.

Are some of your revenue cycle customers finding the process changing so much that they will consider selling out or, in the case of small practices, closing?

What we’re seeing right now is a trend that’s growing substantially at a 20 percent CAGR is the outsourcing of revenue cycle management services, both in physician practices as well as in the hospital setting. Many organizations are stepping back and saying, is this really core to our mission and who we are, which is truly providing the best care for the community and the health of that community? Many organizations are looking to vendors like TransUnion and others, partners of ours like Conifer and MedeAnalytics, that are growing their customer base by outsourcing their core competency of revenue cycle management.

Thinking back to the case of Accretive Health, do outsourced revenue cycle vendors have to be careful to avoid embarrassing their provider customers by using overly aggressive collections practices even as collecting the money owed becomes harder?

It is a fine line for hospitals to turn around and walk when it comes to collections. That’s why it really begins on the front end of patient access.

There’s two things that hospitals can be doing. Number one, working with your collections team at the patient access level up front and using transparency to make sure that the patient understands fully what the costs are and beginning that financial charity and propensity to pay education immediately. That’s the first step.

The second step is, before it even goes to some level of collections, we’re seeing more and more organizations … if you look at uncompensated care, one of the key components of uncompensated care is that almost 5 percent of accounts that go to bad debt have some level of insurance that neither the hospital nor the patient is aware of. Our eScan solution goes and finds all of that data and information and allows hospitals to bill that back. I was just at a hospital last week where a CFO thanked us for finding $4 million in billable claims that they were going to write off to a collection agency to go find. Our goal is to make sure that that happens before it ever becomes a collection issue where you have to involve the patient.

Will a lot of hospitals run afoul of the 501(r) charity regulations that will become a condition of their non-profit status?

We just did a seminar that you helped us put on last week. We had over 250 organizations represented on that webinar. We’ve been surprised at how much hospitals have embraced and wanted to be educated on 501(r).

We do believe that they’re extremely nervous about their tax-exempt status and making sure that they’re following up on everything to follow that law to keep that tax exempt. There’s been a couple of cases recently where hospitals had to write large checks back to counties or states or even the federal government. 501(r) is here to stay and we believe hospitals are paying attention to it.

The company offers data breach-related services. What trends are you seeing?

You can’t have a conversation with anyone in healthcare today without talking about data breach services. First and foremost, we get the first phone call when it’s almost too late, when people are calling and saying that we need to provide credit protection services that TransUnion offers to the affected population. It’s more important, obviously, to have those controls up front to manage that data and lock that down.

You’re seeing a significant spend that’s happening within healthcare being shifted away from EMR and even revenue cycle opportunities as people are investing in their data centers and their policies and controls to make sure that you do not lose access to that data.

Is is sustainable to use HIPAA to fine breached providers even when they followed reasonable standards and the type of breach they experienced could have happened to anyone?

HIPAA is actually a very solid approach, we believe, to make sure that you can maintain patients’ data rights and integrity of that information that we’re supposed to be great stewards of. When you look at, though, some of the impact of HIPAA, this information of going to — whether it’s quality indicators from a clinical perspective or getting after the right financial information — some of these are onerous and put us in a position where we know we could solve some of the problems within healthcare, but some of the regulatory components are actually holding us back from being able to do it because we can’t share and utilize the data in the way we want.

I think finding the right balance between how we manage and maintain that data for information for good versus some of the bad things that are happening out there from the hacker perspective needs to be taken into account.

How do you see the short-term future playing out?

Consumerism is going to continue to grow and influence how care is delivered and paid for. Consumers really must go through the exchanges. They’re struggling with the decision on which plan to choose with little insight as to what the plan will cost them in reality. This is similar to how hospitals are making decisions on risk-based contracting models. They’re shifting that all the way down to the patients. Payers and providers are pushing that cost out.

Patients struggle with the high-deductible plans. The reality that Medicare and ACA aren’t free is setting in. More and more we’re going to start seeing the consumerism play, where patients will want to be educated on outcomes both clinical and financial. When you look at these new “payviders,’’ when you look at health systems that are offering insurance plans, and you look at the large commercial payers, everyone’s trying to get back directly to the patient.

I think there’s going to be a huge shift towards consumerism, where we start providing more and more data and information to them from a clinical and financial perspective so they can make the decisions. Because they are the persons who are ultimately going to be responsible for their healthcare spend.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I’m very thankful for the opportunity to be with TransUnion Healthcare with its great employees and focus. We have very quietly become a leader in the RCM space. We look forward to seeing how this continues to unfold and how we can support it.

HIStalk Interviews Kim Sell, President, Clinical Computer Systems, Inc.

December 7, 2015 Interviews No Comments

Kim Sell is president of Clinical Computer Systems, Inc. of Elgin, IL.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I started working in healthcare in 1992 for our predecessor company, Peritronics. I left that company in 1997 and started a service company, Clinical Computer Systems. In 2001, we acquired Peritronics and have grown it since then. Today we are a 100 percent employee-owned company that is focused on OB data systems. We have about 100 employees and plan to grow that another 10 percent this year.

How does an employee-owned company work and how does that impact the company’s philosophy and strategy?

We can focus on the things that we think are important to our company culture, to our customers, and to our employees. We don’t have outside shareholders or an exit strategy that we have to worry about with a three- to five-year horizon. We can do what we feel is right for customers and employees at different times without the constraints of outside capital. I don’t think outside capital is wrong — we have evaluated outside capital at different times for ourselves — it just has to be done at the right time for the right reasons.

Obix is FDA approved as a medical device. How does that change how your developers work?

I don’t know that it’s a massive change, but it definitely does introduce a different level of internal review and consideration of what we’re doing for the patient, for the customer. It also helps to define the market a little bit more, where it is a market that has some risk that sometimes a larger company or a different type of company wouldn’t want to enter this space. There are some differences that it does create and it’s risk. You have a government entity that could basically walk in at their choosing and shut down or challenge the company’s premise at any time.

I think we have a more stringent review process and a more stringent testing process that goes out. Also, it gives our customers another voice. If they’re not happy with how we perform, we also have to be aware that there’s a government regulatory body that they can go to to complain about us, challenge how we do things and how we’re satisfying them. Risk review and risk evaluation.

What are the clinical and legal issues faced by your perinatal technology users that are different from the rest of the hospital?

It’s one of the few, if not the only, area of healthcare where it’s really not an illness. Having a baby, having a pregnancy in and of itself is not something that is not a defined illness. A patient goes into a hospital in that condition and exits usually even happier.

The risks that go with that, though, are that it’s also one of the most litigious or most expensive areas of the hospital. The last stat I I saw behind anesthesiology is that it’s the most litigious part of the hospital in terms of settlements and risk management. It’s an area where they have to make sure they’re covering their bases and making sure that they’re doing the right things not to create exposure for the hospital. We help with that, making sure the care protocols are right, that they’re following the right care paths, and are evaluating the patients appropriately.

Do most L&D areas use software to assist them in the perinatal process or do some still use paper?

It’s a replacement market for us. I would say probably ninety percent of hospitals that have a labor and delivery department have a central monitoring system. We maybe run into one or two a year that do not.

Where does Obix go from here?

Our history has been focusing on services and integration with enterprises. The last few years with ACA and Meaningful Use, we’ve been focusing on trying to create a product that’s fully integrated, where you almost can’t tell the difference between our product and what is … everybody’s driving towards a single source of truth type of product and trying to support that strategy and make that useful for the users.

The enterprise products, many times, aren’t developed for the work flows and some of the unique situations for certain critical care areas of the hospital, L&D being one of those. We try to tailor our product to help support the user, support that big investment that the hospital has made in the EMR.

How do you convince a hospital that it’s a good idea to go with Obix rather than a product from their EHR vendor?

Other than Cerner, the other primary vendors really don’t have an OB product. Our competition at that level isn’t the EMR, but other perinatal specialty companies or companies that have perinatal products.

We work at messaging what the strength of our product is in terms of uptime and in terms of service and support. Service and services are a big part of what the company was founded on, has evolved with, and will always work to stay with in the future to make sure that it’s not just about dropping a product in place and saying, “There you have it” and walking away, or, “Issue a purchase order for more services.” We have a very integrated solution where it’s purchase the product, issue a support agreement, and we provide all the services around that. That’s really all a hospital has to provide.

Who makes the decision to buy your product?

That’s a trend that has changed a lot over the time I’ve been in the industry. When I first started, it was a lot of the doctors. Then it went to the nurses, nursing staff, went to IT. Now, honestly, we’re mostly in administrative decisions because of the purchasing cycles that things are bought in. We are starting to see physicians to have a larger voice again, but that’s a more recent trend.

You mentioned malpractice. Do you have plans to integrate a video record of what happens in the delivery room?

Not for us. I would suggest that’s another specialty area. When you get into recording the actions of what happens in the room, there’s a whole different set of issues that a hospital’s concerned about that I think are best dealt with a different specialty company and product if that’s a direction a hospital would decide to go into.

Is remote access important?

Oh, very important. I don’t know that we even think about it as remote access any more. It’s just access to information. The access to the information has to be the same in the patient room as it is for a doctor that’s at home at three o’clock in the morning trying to access the information.

Our biggest challenge around that is keeping customers up to date with our most current releases that have the better functionality around that. We have a number of customers that implemented software 10 years ago and really struggle to encourage them to keep upgrading the software and keep it current.

Obix has won the KLAS rankings quite a few times in a row. How do you use the feedback from users that KLAS provides?

It’s a big part of the sales process. It’s a big part of our business process, though, too.

We take a look at the KLAS comments. It’s not just the comments about us., it’s the comments of our competitors. We try to learn from everybody ourselves and our competitors and see what the industry is saying because it is a good way to get an unvarnished set of information and feedback from customers. To pay a market research group to do your own research sometimes gets some biases involved with it, where you’re looking for some specific things. I don’t always agree with some of the things that KLAS comes out with, but it does give us some good feedback to change how we operate as a business and to try to provide the services and functions that our customers are looking for.

Where do you take the company from here? Do you just keep working to gain market share or start thinking about developing other products?

We’ve considered a number of different avenues down that path. We have decided to stick with being a niche vendor in the obstetrical space. We are looking at other products and functions down this line, but I don’t see us growing out and trying to become another multi-disciplinary, multi-area vendor. I think it’s important for us to try to hold on to our specialty and focus on creating a best product and best services in that area.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I’m very thankful for the people that we have in the company. Of all the things that we deal with — with people, industry, and customers — finding and recruiting good and talented people within the company is one of the most challenging things we do. We work at improving that every day.

I see a lot of challenges coming forth, though, for our hospitals and healthcare organizations that we support. You’re seeing consolidation or trading of organizations in enterprises to consolidate market share. That’s going to create some new and different challenges both for the hospitals and the vendors that support them. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad in terms of what that concentration does to different companies. We are making changes in our organization to support that. We’re trying to make our product lighter, faster, and easier to implement.

We just brought a new feature online called Obix University, which is an LMS platform that allows us to change our education process to be a continuous education process that’s online all the time, or it will be shortly. It’s something that helps reduce the implementation cost as well. There’s a number of other services that we’re looking at to do that. Again, trying to support that enterprise view, because part of it is about getting new customers, but part of it is also about retaining the customer base that we have and making that upgrade path a lot easier for them.

HIStalk Interviews Clay Johnston, MD, PhD, Dean, Dell Medical School

November 30, 2015 Interviews 1 Comment

S. Claiborne “Clay” Johnston, MD, PhD is dean of Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. Campus construction will be completed in May 2016 and the first medical school class will begin studies in June 2016.


How have medical schools have changed over the last 20 years and how will the Dell Medical School will be even more different?

Medical schools are changing, and I think a little more rapidly now. They certainly haven’t changed as much as they should have.

The one realization is that lectures don’t work so well. There’s a lot more emphasis on flipped classroom type approaches to teaching, small group learning, that kind of thing.

More recently, too, there’s a greater appreciation of the fact that –  the way I learned was memorization focused, just cram all this knowledge. The reality is that information is cheap today. The resources available to physicians are much more accessible and are generally more accurate than memory for things that aren’t used frequently. Therefore, the need to memorize so much stuff is really not there.

There’s been some de-emphasis of that memorization task and more about how we find the data that we need, how we integrate that data, and how we use it solve problems. Those are some of the broader trends that are going on.

Obviously we want to take advantage of those, but also we’re coming without an existing curriculum. We have a lot more freedom than existing schools, where you always have people who defend the status quo and created that beautiful lecture set on the Krebs cycle and they’re just not going to let it go. We don’t have that, so that gives us a different perspective. 

For us, it’s more about, what is it that we want from health and from healthcare as a society? Then, what is the appropriate role of the physician in that ideal vision of what the health system should look like?  Then, how do we provide the best training to meet those needs, particularly given the problems in the health system? That completely opens your eyes in terms of thinking about, what is the skill set?

From our perspective, physician leadership is a big problem. Being able to look at system-level problems, work in teams, and use technologies and other new approaches to solving these system problems creatively. Those are some of the key things that physicians ought to be involved in. Not just to not resist them, which is a common problem now, but to actually help to lead them.

That’s what we’re doing. We’ve got a curriculum that’s very much designed around training these physician leaders of the future.

A significant percentage of medical school graduates either don’t follow with a residency or they take a non-patient care role after using up a class spot and the educational subsidy. How do you set reasonable expectations, especially as prospective students hear about burnout among practicing physicians?

We need to focus on why those physicians are burned out and look at the systems that have been put in place that have led to that burnout. One of the dysfunctions of the fee-for-service system is that it does not compensate people well for things like office visits or the cognitive aspects of medicine. It  does compensate well for procedures. Over time, the cognitive aspect reimbursements have been ratcheted down for physicians, so they’ve had to see more and more patients.

Then electronic health records were introduced. Their primary function today is billing. They have eroded even further the meaningful time that doctors spend with their patients. 

Those are just a couple of examples, but important ones for how we’ve made jobs like primary care really unpleasant. There’s very short visits — the average office is now 12 minutes. Up to half of that could be spent just documenting the visit in a very dysfunctional electronic health record.

The reasons that docs go into medicine have been lost. Having those meaningful, important discussions and time with patients is much more difficult today. 

How, then, do we change the system so that docs can spend more time with patients and maybe work with patients in whole new ways, you know, like email? It’s used in every industry. Why not allow patients to email their docs and make that part of the job of a physician to manage patients by whatever technologies make the most sense?

What do we tell our students? Well we tell our students, it’s your job to keep people healthy and to get them healthy again when they’re not. In the traditional approach, that was to be done in clinic visits and in ORs and emergency rooms. Now, open your eyes up and think about how you could do that best. If I gave you a panel of 3,000 patients to take care of, what would you put in place to make sure that they’re as absolutely healthy as they could possibly be and that you have meaningful discussions with them? 

You probably build a team around yourself. You would use technologies. OK, show me what that looks like. Tell me how we can build that and that there are ways to get paid for it. 

Medicine needs to evolve that way. Then the physician burnout also can go away because that perspective is just as important to fixing the health system.

Texas makes a lot of headlines related to telemedicine. Will telemedicine and other non-face-to-face technologies be part of your curriculum?

Yes. They need to be. To say that those technologies shouldn’t be important in the delivery of healthcare is just so short-sighted.

So many of the things that are currently addressed in office visits could be addressed much more readily by email. That opens up the possibility of more frequent interactions that can help patients who wonder, for example, whether a side effect they’re having is related to a new medicine they started. If we do that, then the office visits can be much more meaningful because you don’t need as many. 

There are definitely ways to easily imagine to push things forward, including telemedicine. Yes, we need to then engage our students in that.

Do you think the low-pay, high-workload model of medical residency that’s funded by federal taxpayers still makes sense?

It’s a strange model, but the reality is that the residents have two functions. They provide real work and help, which is why we feel like they deserve some salary, but they are primarily learners. They’re there to finish up their training. That’s in the best interest of society, to have that. 

Who should pay and how? It ends up the federal government actually pays for the minority of residents. Most are paid for through the hospital system. So it’s really, truly a strange, hybrid system. Could there be a better system? Probably. We do need to pay them something, but they don’t justify getting paid at the same level as physicians who have finished their residency.

Where in a physician’s career are the majority of concepts and treatment methods developed? How can a physician who has been out of school for 20 years remain as current as one who graduated five years ago?

I think that’s a learned behavior, not a deterministic one. I don’t think there is a point at which physicians are more difficult to teach. 

Physicians in general love their independence and love to be the final say in whatever it is that they work in. Traditionally, they’ve not been so comfortable changing over time. But honestly, if you look at systems, there have been some systems that have changed dramatically and pushed more to evidence-based medicine quite comfortably, where the physicians — a whole variety of different types within that system — move forward in lock step with the evidence. A good example is Kaiser Permanente.

I think there are processes and ways of working together and teaching each other and continuing to focus on education that can encourage those behaviors.

How much of medical practice is based on evidence and whose job is it to incorporate it ongoing?

Most of what we do in medicine, there’s not solid, high-quality evidence to support. It’s done because it seems reasonable, or it’s done because it’s always been done, that way or it’s done because the science underneath it seems to probably make sense, or it’s done because another patient was treated that way and did fine so it’s probably fine to continue. High-quality evidence — where you’ve got, for example, randomized trial data — that’s a minority of the decisions and weighty decisions that physicians make.

Currently it isn’t clear whose responsibility that is. I would say that physicians ultimately have the responsibility to practice based on the evidence, to stay current and to stay true to the evidence. But it is extremely difficult to do that in standard independent practice because things move so quickly and because it requires more adjudication than just reading papers. You have to really look at the papers in light of other evidence. You have to read the papers deeply. You have to think of the alternatives. 

That works better when groups of physicians and others come together to decide what standards they will practice under. Then the system really does have some responsibility for making sure that this can happen better.

In our case, we do feel like this is a responsibility that we have back to this community — to work with the excellent physicians here, but help them to stay excellent forever. How will we do that? We’re looking at ways. They need incentives to stay current. How do we work in creating those and then create those educational opportunities and also those arenas in which they can review and judge and decide on evidence that they should all follow.

How will you teach students to respect both traditional, large-scale, well-developed studies –which are often published only if the for-profit company sponsoring them likes the results — versus self-interpreted smaller data sets that will be available almost everywhere?

Obviously you have to teach them a lot more about how you look at data and what the issues are with it. The spectrum that you just described — be suspicious about Phase 2 clinical trials. Phase 3 clinical trials, those are so expensive that you have to publish it results from a Phase 3 clinical trial. That’s less likely, but the early-phase clinical trials — that is an important source of bias, as you say.

The individualization of care is the thing that was implied by your second question, you know, "These 10 people who look like you did well" — you don’t get that information necessarily from a clinical trial. You get it from a broader spectrum of folks who are eligible. They might do some sub-group analysis, but they’re never powered to adequately show a difference by sub-group.

Then obviously the problem with that evidence is that it’s weak. Maybe it’s luck that they all did well. Maybe doing well is an expected outcome, so it would be rare to actually have something bad happen. Maybe they were selected in a certain way that made them all do well. You can’t know.

How do you teach that? Data is going to be all around us and that’s a wonderful thing, because it gives us all kinds of additional information that if we’re careful, can be extremely useful in improving care, improving outcomes for our patients, keeping people healthier. 

We have to expose our students to that throughout the curriculum and get them involved in projects in which they’re using data to solve critical health problems. That’s what we do. We take them out of their rotations and they work for nine months in innovation and leadership blocks. They solve real health problems.

If the goal is to make our overall population healthier, what’s the right blend of what you  teach doctors to do as physicians in practicing medicine versus the public health approach that might include areas such as housing, education, income, or personal behavior?

It’s important for physicians to understand the full spectrum. Healthcare only accounts for 20 percent of the potential to improve health. Eighty percent of it comes from all that other stuff that you mentioned. If the goal of the physician is to keep people healthy, they need to be aware of that 80 percent and also understand how to integrate that into their practice or into their broader, system-level solutions to health problems.

The question is, where you draw the line? Are physicians going to be proponents of income equality because income differences lead to health issues? No, probably not. It’s not about getting to the political and the governmental aspects of the predictors. 

What if it is about diet and exercise? Those behaviors, or taking your meds — those are important things in which physician interventions or system-level interventions that could include a physician on the team are important things for the health system to focus on. It makes sense for physicians to have roles in those areas.

That stuff becomes critical to our curriculum. It is far more effective and can be cost saving to keep people healthier than it is to treat them once they are sick. The highest paid health professionals are physicians. Why shouldn’t they be engaged in that? Why shouldn’t they be helping to guide it rather than just been focused on the patch-up work?

Being in Austin and being associated with Dell suggests a focus on drug and technology research, but the product of such research is usually commercialized expensively without necessarily improving overall outcomes. How do you balance the human need for research with the desire of medical companies to make big profits and raise healthcare costs even more?

That’s one of the key reasons I’m here. I was the associate vice-chancellor of research and responsible for the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at UCSF. Our job was to accelerate discoveries from the laboratory out into health improvement. 

The reality was just as you said. We could keep doing that, but they’re going to be always maximally priced. They never lower cost, but they always elevate cost of care. That’s true — they have control of the pricing, so they price it to the point that it’s somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000 per quality-adjusted life year. That makes sense from their perspective to do that, but it just contributes to the problem where you’ve got so much cost that you can’t really afford innovation any more. 

That to me suggested, gosh, we’ve got to find a new way. What we’re trying to do is set up the health system to embrace and look for solutions that drive down cost. I think that we’ve left a lot of fruit low hanging on the trees because we haven’t had that perspective.

One example is antipsychotics. We know, as we’re looking at expensive health problems in Austin, the homeless — some of whom are schizophrenic — are a huge burden. Their outcomes are just terrible. It’s hard to get them to take their meds. It’s part of their disease. But if we had long-acting drugs, that could dramatically reduce the cost compared to what we pay today, with drugs that have to be given daily and are probably taken weekly if you’re lucky. That is an example of how taking a different perspective opens up new approaches, also for research.

Our hope is to integrate those perspectives throughout the research channels that we’re developing . We know we’ll have discoveries that come out and cost $200,000 per quality-adjusted life year, but our focus is to really concentrate on those that actually can reduce cost and improve outcomes.

It’s easy in the medical trenches to become disillusioned with what physicians are being asked to do, what issues they face that are beyond their control, and how the US healthcare system compares to countries that structure things differently. What will you tell students they need to do to improve it?

This is the absolute best time to go into medicine. We’ve gotten a point where we’re at the precipice — where physicians are unhappy, patients are unhappy, and we’re still costing the country a huge amount, 40 percent  more than Switzerland and that’s the next closest country. We’re at this crisis point. That means this is the time at which we can really push forward the creative solutions to healthcare. 

What are those solutions? Some are  easy to imagine, and as soon as we change the payment schemes, they become obvious and we’ll catch on. The payment schemes are changing. Some are not so obvious. It’s early days in what will be a really exciting point in medicine. I don’t think practicing medicine will look like it does today even 10 years from now.  I think it will be much more technology enabled, much more data enabled. The physician will be a true partner in improving health. That transition will be wonderful for those in practice and for the population.

HIStalk Interviews John Halamka, MD, CIO, BIDMC

November 23, 2015 Interviews 8 Comments

John D. Halamka, MD, MS, is chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and chief information officer and dean of technology at Harvard Medical School.


What responses are you getting from your suggestion that Meaningful Use be dissolved and rolled into other CMS programs?

I would say 95 percent of the responses that I’m getting are very favorable. They say that the last five years has been like running a marathon every day. There’s a point at which you’re tired. You have to step back and say, "We’ve run a long distance." Now, how do we take that next step?

People of course say there’s some subtlety to moving forward, such as the Medicaid program was really about taking those without resources and funding them, as opposed to the Medicare program, which was initial funding followed by penalty. So when you say, “eliminate the program,” do you really mean no longer pay Medicaid providers to finish their implementations? 

That’s not at all what I meant. Which is to say, let’s get away from the idea of penalties on the Medicare side. Keep our Medicaid program still going, because if you’ve not finished your implementation, we’ve got to get that done. Instead of being highly prescriptive about the Medicare must-dos and the penalties resulting if you don’t, let’s offer some outcomes and let’s offer some variability. People have made that subtle comment.

One of the things they’ve also made a comment about is that I have recommended this FHIR standard. It’s something that is seemingly forward-looking. It’s the sort of thing Google and Amazon and Facebook would do. Some in the industry have said, yes, but there are some existent standards that are widely deployed. So maybe instead of just saying it must be FHIR and only FHIR, can you tolerate a transition period where some of the incumbent standards are used where they’re appropriate?

Of course. Being a reasonable person, I recognize change doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t go from a skateboard to a flying car. You might have some intermediate states. That’s recognized.

People have also commented, "Did you really mean to be negative about ONC?" What I tried to say … you write a lot, so you know it’s hard … I absolutely am not critical of any person. All I’m asking is, is the set of ideas, of getting very prescriptive and elaborative about the certification process, really a good idea? I think the answer with the certification rule is, it’s just too expansive in scope. It’s just  going to be too hard for stakeholders and especially developers to hit all the details that are in that rule.

The problem is that every time you give a developer an “or,” it means “and.” They’re going to say, "You could do it this way, or you could do it this way, or you could do it this way." There are customers who are going to ask for each of the variations. Really what it does is it takes our healthcare IT developers out of commission for a couple of years.

That’s really what I was getting at. People at ONC are very hard working and very well meaning, just probably as you pointed out early in the conversation have been so heads down in the details that they didn’t really look at the forest — they were looking at the bark. So, let’s step back.

Another thing that people have said is, "Did you really mean to eliminate all kinds of certification?" What I was getting at by saying let’s focus — if there were just three goals, maybe the right answer there is there’s still some kind of certification process, but it really is very narrow.

An example I can give you is if you went out to Best Buy today and you bought a DVD player, it will have a little Blu-ray symbol on it. You can expect that when you get it home and you plug in a Blu-ray disc, it will play. What I was saying is that we should focus on three things, such as can you use FHIR to do a push of data or a pull of data or get a patient to pull their data? You could imagine — of course I’m making this up as we go — that there are three little labels that you could be putting on the EHR package analogous to the Blu-ray label, so that you know when you got the package home, I will be able to push a payload to a trading partner or pull data from a foreign EHR.

Certification today is a multi-man year exercise where you are asked to enter a ZIP code and come back the next day and prove the ZIP code is still there. It’s just onerous, as opposed to a very narrowed set of, “When you take this home, it will do this.” Two or three things, not a thousand.

That’s the feedback. That’s the summary of what I’ve heard back.

You seem to be frustrated lately that the government is more involved in everything: HITECH, HIPAA, and  ICD-10, all enforced through Medicare. Do you think CMS has too much influence on what happens in the exam room between a provider and a patient?

I do. I’m not partisan in any way. It’s not that I have a Republican agenda or a Democratic agenda. I just try to have a multi-stakeholder agenda.

Here is an example. If Meaningful Use said, "We’re going to count the number of transactions you did,” but yet those transactions which I counted were actually not helpful to coordinate patient care or respectful of the patient’s wishes, was it really meaningful to count transactions? Here’s an example. You must, for a transition of care summary 5 percent of the time, ensure that from Provider A to Provider B, a package of stuff is sent. It turns out that package of stuff may be a bag of smelly garbage. That is, it’s 1,094 pages of completely unhelpful information, but I can count it in my numerator.

Wouldn’t a better measure be as a doctor, nurse, social worker, or physical therapist were you actually able to coordinate the care of this patient because you received the information that you thought was helpful to do so, somehow? As you know, I don’t have stock in any company. I don’t endorse any organization, so this is an exemplar. KLAS gathered together Cerner, Epic, eCW. Meditech, Athena, Surescripts, and others. If we want to look at the experience of data sharing rather than transaction counting, what questions would you ask?

Here’s a perfect example where the private sector said, we are very willing, in a Consumer Reports-like fashion, to have an independent entity call up 100 of our customers and ask them all these experiential questions which then will reflect — almost like a Yelp review — on the experience of interoperability with our product. That to me is a far better approach than CMS counting the number of bags of garbage that you sent.

What KLAS is proposing presumes that providers really want to share data with their competitors, at least on some occasions. Do you think customers are really demanding interoperability?

The United States has global capitated risk, bundled payments, and valued-based purchasing that’s been going on for five years in Massachusetts. Yet you go to the Midwest and there’s still fee-for-service.

Let me reflect on New England. We today at Beth Israel Deaconess have 1 billion dollars per year of bundled payment, risk-based contracts. We have told every doctor in our community it is not possible to manage risk unless we have, at every transition of care, about 150 data elements to understand what care was delivered. What’s the care plan? Who’s the care team? What’s the next bit of care the patient needs? What are the diseases we’re monitoring?

What you find, at least in our area, it isn’t even a question of siloed data, information blocking, or competitive whatever. It is an existential question. If you do not share data, you can’t survive, because we are paid for wellness, not sickness. I think a much more potent motivator than Meaningful Use or stimulus or compliance or penalty is this idea of, I will pay you when the patient is healthy or give you a fixed amount to keep them healthy. That eliminates these competitive kinds of barriers in information exchange.

Health systems haven’t done a good job at managing wellness or overall health outside of their own facilities. Are they capable of making the change from episode-driven care to population health management?

I just looked at our Pioneer ACO experience. I recognize that the Pioneer ACO program has very mixed outcomes. But at least at Beth Israel Deaconess, where we have 450 locations of care, we have gone beyond what we would call the EHR and now focus on the care management medical record. 

At our ACO, we have a single, normalized database that receives all the Meaningful Use transactions from every one of our clinicians and hospitals and urgent cares and SNFs and all the rest. Then the care managers are looking for variation. They’re looking for gaps in care. They’re looking for opportunities. They’re looking at risk and these sorts of things. 

I’m told we’re the #3 ACO in the country and the #1 in New England because of our capacity to reduce cost and improve quality with this care management medical record approach. You’re correct that the off-the-shelf products that exist today don’t do that very well, but it is certainly possible to use technology to accomplish the goals of, as MACRA will suggest, value-based purchasing.

The mainstream press and politicians seem to be paying attention the reactive phrases “gag clauses” and “information blocking.” Are big health systems using their EHRs to reinforce their market power?

When I say I’ve never seen information blocking — this is like the Loch Ness Monster, often talked about, but never seen — people do comment that information blocking can take many forms. Like a hospital that is technically not capable of sending information or a hospital that is 200 miles away from a referring physician and hasn’t quite got to the data transmission to those in the periphery. Again, speaking from Massachusetts, I have not seen hospitals and doctors use information blocking as a competitive weapon, thinking that if it’s my data, I will retain the patient and I will make more money.

In fact, I’ve quite seen the opposite. That is, there is this sense that if I need data for managing care and you need data for managing care, we had better bilaterally exchange data because it is no longer a competitive advantage to maintain a data silo.

The only time I’ve seen sluggishness in the transmission of data are for the reasons that I mentioned. That is, technically maybe a vendor or an IT department isn’t quite familiar with the technology. Or that there’s a Pareto diagram of all the clinicians we interact with and we’re going to start with the ones that are close, while the ones that are 200 miles away, we’ll get to. It’s not volitional. It’s just a function of resource.

What do you think of ONC’s proposed health IT safety center?

I have to read more about that. As I’ve read the various presentations about it, the concern that we have is that as we introduce new processes and technology, sometimes we create new errors and that we don’t really discuss those new errors in an open way. In New England, we have a patient safety organization which comes together to openly discuss these in a what I call a blame-free environment. I think that’s the notion of what ONC is trying to do at a national level.

I’ll give you a silly example. It’s not true, but it would illustrate the problem. If you came to me with high blood pressure and I wrote you for atenolol, which begins with A-T, I would never on a piece of paper write anything other than atenolol. Of course you couldn’t read it, but it would say atenolol. Whereas if I had an EHR that had a Google-like look-ahead feature and I started typing A-T and the first thing that came up was Ativan and I clicked on it and I was giving you Ativan, I’m giving you now something that’s an antianxiety drug instead of an antihypertensive.

That is a an error of commission. That is an error of technology that would have never happened in a manual process. I think those are the sorts of things that we identify locally in Harvard that ONC wants to see at a national level and Congress wants to see at a national level, enumerated and fixed.

Are EHRs poorly designed or are doctors just unhappy with the information insurance companies and the government require before writing them a check?

Probably there are a couple of answers to that. This usability question … I’m sure you’ve heard many, many people quote Justice Potter: "I have no idea what usability is, but I know it when I see it." Having an objective metric of usability … NIST is trying, but it’s hard.

Why are there usability challenges? I could argue Meaningful Use itself creates usability challenges. If, for example, there is a quality measure that says I must, in my denominator, only include people that have had strokes less than two hours ago. "Mrs. Smith, did your husband start talking funny one hour and 59 minutes about or two hours and one minute ago?" I now need to literally build a pop-up in the middle of my EHR workflow with a question about the timing of the stroke. It would never be part of my normal clinical data workflow.

As we do all these quality measures, as we do more and more structured data capture, what you find is that these vendors are having to add on all of these fields outside of workflow. That creates enormous usability problems.

One of the members of the Standards Committee said that they had actually done a usability analysis of how many clicks a nurse must use to admit a new patient and to document that new patient admission. The answer was 523. That was really just a function of all the regulatory mandates that require all the structured data capture.

I think we would all agree that each of the federal mandates on its own is a noble thing. All of us think domestic violence should be identified and treated, but that is just one of 100 structured things you ask on admission, "Do you feel safe at home?" That just creates real usability burden. Of course, one asks, are there other ways one can do this, such as a natural language processing or ways in which a free text entry is parsed by a computer and the clicks are reduced?

One of the things that I have suggested to Karen DeSalvo — and I think she recognizes it as a good idea —is maybe a certification criterion for the future is, “Did you eliminate the number of clicks by 50 percent?” Part of that has to be that the regulations were simplified so that we could.

I always assume that if one EHR requires 523 clicks, others might be 518 or 591. It’s not as though one vendor approaches things so differently that only they have problem with the number of clicks.

I would agree with you. Although, I live in a Web-mobile world. If you look at the user possibilities in a Web-based or mobile-friendly framework versus one that was more based on a client-server framework, I think you can probably achieve a better user experience on the Web than client-server. Many, many people debate that and I have no objective evidence to back it up, so it’s purely my bias. 

First, reduce regulation. Secondly, as we move to different kinds of technologies on the client side, probably the user experience will be enhanced.

Direct messaging never seemed to get the traction people expected, maybe because nobody ever took the responsibility to publish and manage a Direct address directory. Does Direct still have relevance in interoperability?

Here was the problem with Direct. As you say, whatever we chose — it could have been FTP, it could have been REST, it could have been SMTP — it depends on an ecosystem, not a standard. Dave McCallie, I think, wrote a guest post on my blog saying, “Standards are necessary, but insufficient.” So to say, “We will mandate Direct" was a lot like saying, "We will mandate you to drive a car, but we won’t have any highways.” How come you aren’t driving? Well, let’s see. We don’t have road signs and we don’t have maps. We don’t have any laws or governance. It’s pretty hard to drive. 

What should have happened with Direct is it should not have been mandated as fast as it was. It should have been encouraged and an ecosystem developed first. You’ve seen what I’ve written about things like a provider directory. It’s pretty hard to have successful Direct messaging in a community unless somebody has a directory of places to message to. DirectTrust, of course, is trying to work on the directory and certificate bundles and that sort of thing. When the Meaningful Use Stage 2 requirement was launched, DirectTrust didn’t have all that stuff built. Surescripts is trying to do the same thing.

You’re starting to see private industry building the missing enablers. As I wrote in the blog piece, some enablers may be government based. Some may be private industry based. Or you might have both. But it’s pretty hard to mandate the Direct protocol before the enablers exist.

Healthcare IT always gets stuck with some mandate that moves us sideways instead of forward. Are you concerned that we’ll chase data security with nothing really different than it was before?

You might guess that I spend a vast amount of my time on information and security. The challenge is, I mean, sure, go invest $5 million in technology. That won’t help you so much. You are going to be as vulnerable as your most gullible employee. What we’ve found is that you must invest, sure, in detection, prevention, and all the good things like firewalls, antivirus, and malware prevention, that sort of thing. But you also must educate every member of your workforce and you really have to reinforce that education.

For example, we have an internal, self-created phishing campaign that we use to test our employees’ knowledge of, “I just emailed you a password reset message with a URL in China. Did you click on it or not?” Of course, beyond that, you need very good policies, policies that people can actually comprehend. When I tell you, "You had better not show up at work with an unencrypted device," what does that mean? What kind of encryption? How do I do it? Be very specific. It’s hard to hold employees accountable for doing the right thing unless you show them how to do the right thing.

I tell people security is a process that will never be done. It isn’t a discrete project that you do once and forget. It’s technology. It’s education and policy. We can do it, as you say. It’s certainly an effort. It takes a lot of resource, but done right — and I think we can do it right — it’s an enabler.

Some of your CIO peers have told me they don’t stand a chance in trying to defend against a nationally sponsored, sophisticated cyberattack. Does government have a role or can something else be done to help individual health systems protect themselves?

There’s probably a couple of answers to that. Threat notification — that’s certainly important. That’s where, yes, the government has now crossed multiple industries, tried to create enabling legislation to share cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities and do that in a way that can protect us all. So yes, we probably need to do that.

Harvard was attacked by Anonymous in 2014 with a massive distributed denial of service attack. This was published in The Globe, so I’m not revealing anything that is a secret. Was Harvard ready for a massive denial of service attack by a hacktivist group? That wasn’t one of the threats that anyone had enumerated as likely. So sure, the government can help us with that. If there is a mechanism of using government to help with forensics when you’re getting these kinds of attacks that are virulent and new, probably the government has more resources than an individual hospital.

I suppose one thing I would say is enforcement by OCR and OIG and other folks has to be done with an eye to, what is the community standard? If I see you as a patient and I do everything per the community standard but you still die … I mean you could sue me, I suppose, but generally malpractice looks at, was the standard of care followed, regardless of outcome achieved? If I put in intrusion detection and prevention and malware this and that and mobile encryption but still a state-sponsored cyberterrorist penetrates me? Probably I did everything I should have and I couldn’t defend again this highly virulent attack. Not my fault. You sort of hope OIG and OCR and others recognize it’s a community standard question not a, “I avoided all breaches forever,” because we will never all avoid breaches.

Do HIPAA fines and regulatory action need to be changed in some way to be less punitive and more constructive?

I certainly think that government regulators have to enforce based on volitional, “I spilled data because I actually gave it to somebody that I shouldn’t have,” or what I’ll call egregious malpractice. "I bought a wireless access point at Best Buy and put it on my data center," as opposed to, “I’ve had two publicly reported breaches over the last two years, neither of which I could control.”

As an example, if a doctor goes out to the Apple store and buys a device and thinks that adding a password to the device is the same as encryption and then the device is stolen but it was a device I didn’t even know about. Of course today, I the CIO am accountable for this device purchased at the Apple store that wasn’t encrypted. Of course, we do everything we can to now educate and anything we buy we encrypt, and all the rest. We did our best.

So, guys, what should we do? Tackle every individual who enters our building carrying a non-encrypted technological device? It’s not technologically possible. Recognize that there are gradations of things we can do and can’t do. Hold us accountable for the things we can do and recognize that education is often the best we can do in many circumstances and decide that that’s OK.

You mentioned in your write-up about the Meaningful Use program that it may have stifled innovation. What kind of innovation do you think healthcare or healthcare IT needs and what’s the best way to achieve it?

I have 19 developers total at Beth Israel Deaconess. Remember, we still self-build our EHR. It isn’t that Epic and Cerner and Meditech and Athena and eClinicalWorks or whoever are doing a bad job. It’s just that the kind of things that our clinicians have demanded and the prices we can afford to pay mean that building still works for us.

Look at the Meaningful Use “Statement of Burden.” I’m sure you’ve read all those thousands of pages. You look at these burdens like, “It will only take you 30 man-years to certify your EHR.” You’re like, "I have 19 people, total." Instead of working on Apple Watch medication reconciliation for elders in their home, I am now doing certification scripts. That’s where it has truly paralyzed my development shop for the last three years.

The kinds of things that our patients are asking for are more mobile technologies, more patient and family engagement, more what I’ll call family decision support, better access to information. There’s all these things that you would think, “Oh, if we were a customer service-driven organization, we would naturally offer them.“ But we have a choice — customer demand or federal regulatory stimulus and penalty. For the moment, we’ve got to go with regulatory demands.

People will then criticize me and that’s OK, saying "See, you shouldn’t self-develop. You should just go buy Epic and Cerner or whatever.” That’s fine, but Beth Israel Deaconess for 30 years has had this idea that innovation happens in the trenches, and that probably it’s a good idea to have a doctor code and come up with something that is solving a problem they saw today rather than wait a few years for a vendor to include it as a feature. Wouldn’t you love to have doctors and pharmacists and nurses and social workers creating software that solves real-world problems? Isn’t that the kind of innovation that we want to support?

What patient-facing technologies are you using or considering?

Recently we launched a program in our ICUs called MyICU. You’re familiar with various patient portals and these sorts of things. If you’ve ever had a loved one in an ICU or been in an ICU yourself, you know there’s a dizzying amount of data, but not a whole lot of information and wisdom.

What we’ve done is create an iPad app that shows patients and families –we’ve just written a paper that you’ll see published in JAMIA shortly about how we decide, based on patient privacy preferences, to share information with what family members and how does that work if the patient is intubated debated and that sort of thing – but it’s essentially a real-time dashboard saying, here are the goals that you have for today in this hospitalization. Here are your preferences for care. Here’s how the patient is doing against those goals. Here are the events of today. You’ve built this closed-loop information system with messaging back and forth between care team and patient and real-time interpretation of data into wisdom. Suddenly patients and families are saying, wow, I’m really an equal partner in my care here.

My father died two years ago and was in an ICU. Of course they said, "You know, his ejection fraction is 20 percent and his O2 sat on a non-rebreather is 82 percent and his creatinine has gone from three to five." Of course my mother goes, "Uh, and?" This app wouldn’t show you that. It would say the goal was to get him off a ventilator and that’s now red, so things aren’t looking so great. Or, we want to make sure that his organs are doing well, but that’s red, so they’re not. The kind of thing we’re focused on is not just raw data, but wisdom.

Is it hard to reconcile the science of informatics that could be versus the reality of what has to be?

Doug Fridsma, who is now the CEO of AMIA, and I had this discussion during the conference. He said that AMIA is striving to pivot from being a research-oriented group — the sort of folks that are in a lab and they’re more or less trying to push the envelope of possible — to a gathering of applied informaticians who are asking, how do you take Epic and optimize the care plan? Or, how do you take Cerner and do population health?

It’s exactly the point you make, that it’s probably a great use of all the smart people in our country to optimize the things we are seeing in the trenches as opposed to just work in the laboratory. That’s really what they want to do.

Do you have any final thoughts?

You may glean from some of my writing that there’s a hint of pessimism. We have been overwhelmed with Meaningful Use, ICD-10, the HIPAA Omnibus rule, and the ACA. The government has co-opted our agenda. Many of those great people in government who we worked with early in the Obama administration when there was hope and change have left.

I want to make sure the readers know that I’m incredibly optimistic about the future. What I see is that we are going from an era where we’re following regulatory requirements to an era where we, in theory, will be incented to innovate based on new kinds of payment models. Therefore, we actually will see – not one top-down command and control, this is what you must do, enumerated list of prescriptive regulations – but if you want to give all the 80-year-olds Apple Watches and monitor their vital signs and have visiting nurses come to their homes and keep them out of the hospital, we’ll reward you for that. Oh, but you don’t like Apple Watch? That’s OK, you can do something else.

I really feel that we’re on this cusp of moving to a new kind of work where we’re going to run lots of pilots. We’re going to learn. That’s really, I think, what the Institute of Medicine ultimately wants us in the next 10 years to be, is this learning healthcare system that tried a lot of things. Many of them will fail, but when they succeed, we’ll share them broadly.

That’s why I maintain my optimism. That’s why I come to work every day. That’s why, after 20-some years, I’m still a CIO.

HIStalk Interviews Michael Pirron, CEO, Impact Makers

November 18, 2015 Interviews 3 Comments

Michael Pirron, MBA, PMP is founder and CEO of Impact Makers of Richmond, VA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I am a former Andersen Consulting professional who has done both an undergraduate degree and MBA at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.

Impact Makers is an IT consulting firm, fully owned by two public charities. If we’re sold, all proceeds from that sale will go to make in-perpetuity community  impact as well as to impact investments in social enterprises.

Our work is project and program management, process improvement work, management consulting for the CIO, governance risk and compliance, and security work. Also digital strategy and mobile and web implementation. The majority of our work is in the healthcare space, both payer and provider, as well as healthcare governmental agencies.

Why would a for-profit company donate all of its profit to charity?

I guess it started with me. I’ll take full blame. I was fascinated in my undergraduate degree with reading a business case on Newman’s Own. We are essentially the Newman’s Own of IT consulting. Newman’s Own is Paul Newman on the side of salad dressing, but they’re a for-profit company that gives all profits to charity and is fully owned by a foundation. I was fascinated by that business case.

I went to work with Andersen Consulting, overseas mostly, and found that I was good at what I did. But I wasn’t necessarily values-aligned with some of our clients that I worked at. As well, the company culture tended to be very money-focused and individual-focused. I found it compelling to think of an idea of creating an Andersen Consulting on the Newman’s Own model. I wrote a paper about it when I went to do my MBA with that in mind.

Non-profits and government do a lot in the world to solve social and environmental problems. I am a capitalist. I have business degrees. But figuring out how to use the power of the free market to solve social and environmental problems instead of  government handouts or non-profits is something that spoke to me. It has actually gotten bipartisan support, which doesn’t happen much these days in the world.

I guess that’s the purpose. How do you transform individuals’ skills, experience, and training through their professional work every day to not just deliver client value and do all the things of job creation that any other for-profit would do, but also not be just a good steward in the world, but actually make a real impact in the world at the same time. Then what does that do for our employees in terms of personal growth and satisfaction? Not just job satisfaction, but speaking to everyone’s desire to leave the world a better place than the way they found it.

It’s interesting that your company is a for-profit that acts like a non-profit, while your non-profit health system customers make dozens of millions of dollars just like a for-profit company. Does it seem strange to explain to a non-profit health system what it’s like being a mission-driven organization?

That’s why healthcare has worked so well for us. So many people in the healthcare industry really care about patients, really care about patient outcomes, and have a deep culture of caring for their members and patients. That culture of caring and wanting to make a difference is pervasive in healthcare. It’s the reason we like working in the healthcare space and why it’s been such a good market for us.

It’s obviously an easy sell to the non-profit healthcare organizations we’ve worked with, although I would say it’s probably about 50-50 in terms of nonprofit and for-profit. We work with large national payers, providers, and healthcare government agencies. Probably a little bit more than half are on the non-profit or governmental side. Newman’s Own, which is a wonderful organization, sells using not just that it has a good product, but it uses cause-based marketing. There’s this class of conscientious consumers that buys socially impactful products.

We’re B to B — we’re not B to C — and we’re services. Our clients buy on capabilities and price. While our model is interesting to C-level folks who care about the company’s community impact footprint, really we’re competing on capabilities and price. As a for-profit company, I think that’s a good thing.

Sixty percent of our work comes from existing clients. It might get us in the door to talk to a C-level person or it might be a tie-breaker on a competitive bid, but that hasn’t been the reason we’ve won work. Although there’s been this immediate mission alignment with some of our non-profit healthcare partners, as you mentioned, which I think helps with the relationship long-term.

An article announcing that you’ve been named to the Inner City 100 list of fastest-growing inner city businesses had a picture of your cool offices. What attracts an employee to a fun, urban location instead of a faceless glass building in a suburban office park?

We’re in Richmond, Virginia, in a warehouse district that’s being renovated. All the warehouses are being turned into breweries and various interesting businesses. It is also a big hipster community. It’s a trendy area in Richmond, which is a wonderful place, You don’t always associate Richmond, Virginia — the home of the Confederacy — with hipsters.

It’s a really neat space. It’s accessible to public transportation. We have solar panels on our roof, which provide 25 percent of our electricity. It was aligned with being in the city. It was aligned with our values and with environmental impact standards. We’re founding B Corp, so we try to not just focus on social impact, but environmental impact and all of those things as well.

It was a good space. It was aligned with our values and aligned with a lot of our staff’s values. It’s an open office environment. People like to work in the space. Although our clients don’t hire us for our model as an IT consulting firm, we’ve had amazing retention. We’ve been Inc. 500 three years in a row and  Inc. 5000 four years in a row. 

The reason we’ve been successful isn’t our model, but because employees want to come work for us and stay. We’ve had 10 people leave in nine years. If you know the IT consulting industry, that’s an unbelievably amazing retention rate. People want to work for a company that’s mission-valued, mission-aligned. That creates values for our clients because our clients get employees that stay for the entire duration of a project. Mission-aligned teams outperform ones that aren’t mission-aligned, all else being equal.

What’s the state of healthcare IT consulting compared to a couple of years ago when everybody was mostly focused on Meaningful Use and ICD-10?

We’re seeing this tremendous interest in transformation, as a keyword, caused by a bigger interest in consumer-focused healthcare and this whole interest in the Triple Aim concept that we’re seeing from our clients – quality, access, and reliability. Those things combined are creating this enormous interest in transformation, whether that’s digital transformation or even just core operational function. Looking holistically at the organization, doing organizational assessment work to align around those goals and values.There’s also the obvious trend of mergers and acquisitions going on across the space.

Those three things — Triple Aim, mergers and acquisitions, and the focus of on consumer-focused healthcare – are revolutionizing the space and creating these large transformation projects that look across security, digital, organizational structure, and how to best align both from an IT perspective as well as a business perspective for delivery. We’ve been really focused on these large, enterprise-wide transformation projects for assessing, planning, designing, implementing these efforts and managing the delivery of those efforts.

Slow-moving and change-resistant health systems are being asked to respond quickly and to assimilate cultures thrown together by merger and acquisition. What are they doing to address their cultural lethargy?

I think it’s streamlining. We’re helping both payers and providers in these transformational roadmaps. We’re seeing a common denominator being, whether it’s Triple Aim or others, that technology needs to provide the right customer engagement, the right information at the right time with optimal cost. It all sounds so obvious, but as you said, they’re really moving into a brave new world that maybe other industries has already transformed themselves and healthcare is being pulled into that same transition.

Providers are suddenly interested in patient engagement now that there’s a financial carrot in place. Why did it take so long to bring patients to the table?

We’re seeing governmental programs and payers creating a financial incentive for providers – whether it’s accountable care organizations, medical homes, or any of the various models – in paying for performance and paying for outcomes. Those things require direct patient engagement and consumer focus, almost like a retail organization would. They need to be creative and not only to do the right thing for the patient, also to be successful financially.

What are providers doing to change from a "here we are, come knock on our door to get services” model to reaching out like a traditional company might do?

There are a number of trends. The one that we’ve been focused on is making sure that we make that connection between the patient and provider. Not the hospital provider, but the individual physician or specialist. Interactive smart provider search engines that are very specific and unique that  make sure the patient with the right keywords get to the right specialist they’re looking for at the right time. Trying to make sure that that interaction happens. For health systems, that it’s the physician that’s within their health system. There’s a desire to ensure the patient stays within the system.

Secondly, using mobile technology to interact with the physician specialist and patients in a way that enhances clinical outcomes. It has to be a secure way, of course.

Those are the areas where we focused within the digital framework to ensure consumer engagement.

Short of changing their business structure, what can companies do to make a social difference beyond the usual employee volunteer day?

We have the ownership structure, but we also give up to 30 percent of our operating margin away to local charitable organizations that are secular, apolitical, 501(c)(3), local to where we do work, and that help people help themselves. We’re governed by a volunteer board. I’m the founder of the company, but I don’t own any of it. Our volunteer board chooses these partners.

Whether you give 30 percent or 10 percent, choose mission-aligned partners that might be aligned in the healthcare space — if you’re doing healthcare consulting  — to support. Make that part of your brand. That’s meaningful to employees. You don’t have to do 100 percent over the life of the company like we do. Even 10 percent or 15 percent is meaningful. Doing good is good business, too. It adds to the value of the brand. It adds to your own employee engagement in what you’re doing.

We also do pro bono consulting for our charitable partners. Having employees being able to, during work hours, work at client sites is meaningful to employees and is a benefit to employees and creates community impact. Having a mission and leading with values. We started with mission and then our values came from that. That’s been the true reason why we’ve been successful, because we are absolutely values-based. Doing the right thing is critical for both clients and employees.

Our executive team says, do the right thing for our client. Do the right thing ethically and morally. If you have to make a decision with the client without going up the chain and you do it, as long as you do the right thing, we’ve got your back.

Having those strong values and articulating those values often. Our performance review process is tied starting to our values at the highest level, and everything follows from there. We repeat that often at every company meeting.

Then the final thing is we’re a founding B corporation, which is a certification standard for companies that aren’t just about making profit, but also taking into consideration the environment, employees, and community and aren’t just about maximizing shareholder value, although they’re all for-profit companies. Companies like Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s, and Etsy that just went public are shining examples of B corporations. It’s a community, internationally now, of 1,400 companies that are focused on making a difference using the power of the free market to solve social and environmental problems. Any company that has a mission to make a difference can consider that to be part of something bigger than just the company that they’re doing and help spread that ethos within business.

Do you have any final thoughts?

What we’re doing is pretty game-changing. It’s pretty disruptive, actually. If you think about what we’re doing, we’re a group of middle-class professionals doing the same work we’ve always done, but structuring it differently, and collectively making the same impact in the community as foundations, and eventually large foundations.

Our goal is to have, in the next seven to 10 years, a sale of the company that puts $120 million into these foundations that will make in-perpetuity impact and create more Impact Makers through the investments that they do. Not doing it at the expense of employees, because we pay market salaries to employees, and have employees share a little bit in the value that’s created. At the same, have a way to raise capital from the capital markets. We’re in the process of raising preferred stock equity in a way that is still aligned with our model and is largely from the non-profit world.

If we can solve that, that’s creating a new model that no one has ever done before. It’s democratizing philanthropy in a way that’s not even done. I think that’s the disruption, that group of middle class professionals structuring things differently and collectively making an impact in the community like has never been done before.

HIStalk Interviews Joshua Mandel, MD, Harvard Medical School

November 11, 2015 Interviews 2 Comments

Joshua Mandel, MD is on the research faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the lead architect for the SMART project collaboration between HMS and ONC.


Tell me about yourself and your job.

I am on the research faculty at Harvard Medical School. I’m in the department of biomedical informatics there. I work on making it easier for patients, clinicians, and researchers to work with electronic health data. I got there via medical school, where as a medical student I realized there was a lot more that computers could be doing for us than they were doing.

Describe the SMART project and how it relates to FHIR.

SMART Health IT, which is an acronym for Substitutable Medical Applications and Reusable Technologies, is a project that was originally sponsored by the federal government, by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, with a goal of building an app platform that allows third-party apps to plug into various kinds of health information systems. We specifically focus on apps that plug into electronic health records, which might be apps that clinicians use, apps that plug into patient portals, personally-controlled health records the patient would use, or apps that plug into data warehouses that researchers might use.

The goal is to provide apps with everything they need to be able to present a consistent user experience. The apps shouldn’t have to know about all the internal details of each different health IT system. The goal is to abstract the apps from those details. That’s the high-level goal of SMART.

We use a number of technologies under the hood to make that work. We use a set of open technologies everywhere we can. We use an emerging specification from HL7 called Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIR, to provide the data layer of access. FHIR gives us a set of data models and it gives us a Web-oriented REST API that application developers can use to query an electronic health records system for data.

Then on top of that, we layer a security model using OAuth 2 and OpenID Connect so that users can sign into apps using their existing accounts so they don’t have to create a new account for every app they want to use. That includes a permissions model, so you can give apps access just to the data that they need and you don’t have to give apps access to everything in your system.

We wrap all that together with a little bit of glue so that we can actually plug these apps into, for example, an electronic health records system. You might be a clinician working with an EHR system from Cerner, Epic, or any number of vendors beginning to implement these specifications. When you’ve got a patient record open inside one of these systems, you can launch an app and it knows about the context of what you were doing inside of the EHR, so that app can launch directly on the patient that you already have open and help you get some new jobs done that the original EHR didn’t have any functionality for.

How will that be positioned against vendors who have declared themselves to be open and created their own equivalent of an app store or an ecosystem with partners that they’ve approved?

We’re seeing interesting trends from the electronic health record vendors towards allowing certain kinds of third-party tools to integrate with these EHR systems. There’s still some big, open questions about the extent to which we’ll see standards as the basis for that integration versus vendor-specific data access.

We can actually separate out two questions. One question is, what are the technical mechanisms by which the access works? Are we using standards like FHIR? Are we using vendor-specific APIs? That’s the technical piece of it.

Then there’s a policy piece. Regardless of whether you use standards or whether you use vendor-specific APIs, there’s a policy piece about which apps are going to be allowed to talk to a given system and how are vendors and healthcare provider organizations together going to control that access.

What levels of capability or interest in SMART are you seeing from the three significant inpatient EHR vendors?

Overall, the goal of SMART is to provide an interface where apps can plug into outpatient systems, inpatient systems, and various other kinds of health information systems, including health information exchanges and researcher-facing systems. We don’t have an exclusive focus on the inpatient world, but of course it is an important area.

We’ve been very encouraged over the last few months by the participation of a number of the big EHR vendors in a project called Argonaut. Argonaut is running an open implementation program, where anybody who’s building an app or an EHR can join for free and go through a series of development steps with us, where they can build out support for SMART on FHIR one step at a time. We’re running this open implementation program and we’ve had a couple of dozen organizations actively participating. That includes many of the big-name electronic health record vendors.

EHR vendors and even providers themselves don’t have much incentive to let patients choose and use whatever apps they want that tie into their legacy systems. How hard will it be to gain traction when the patient is the only obvious advocate?

There’s a lot of moving parts to an ecosystem like that. I talked a little bit about what’s the technology to make the platform work. I talked a little bit about what’s the access control policy. The other big question is, who’s the audience? Who’s using these apps?

We see a very clear motivation on the side of provider organizations to be able to rapidly adopt, and even to build, new applications that serve direct business interests or direct clinical interests. We see a strong internal motivation from healthcare organizations to be able to launch new apps.

For example, we have an app that we deployed at Boston Children’s Hospital that helps take better care of children with high blood pressure. It takes data from the EHR and uses them to compute blood pressure percentiles, which are normalized by a child’s age, height, and gender. That’s how you’re supposed to make a diagnosis of high blood pressure in children, by calculating those percentiles.

The EHR has all the data, but it doesn’t do the calculation, so we built an app to do the calculation. There’s a very clear motivation on the part of the clinical organization to be able to deploy an app like that –it runs inside the hospital, runs on top of hospital data, helps take better care of patients. We can think about other kinds of apps, which might be patient-facing applications, where a patient says, "I want to use this new health management tool I found." That represents a paradigm shift for provider organizations.

It’s still an open question how internally motivated these organizations will be to let patients bring these apps to the table, but I’m very encouraged by the recent Meaningful Use Stage 3 final rule, which came out and said that patients should have the right to access their own health data using whichever apps they want.

It’s been said that people didn’t know they needed an iPhone until it came out. What would be the equivalent that would tell patients that they need interoperable health apps?

I don’t think we’ve seen our first killer app, so to speak, in this space yet, but we certainly see a strong interest along the lines of patients who are managing chronic diseases, where they have to see a number of healthcare providers and the system is not tight knit enough today that the healthcare providers from these different organizations really communicate very well. A patient is very motivated to improve that communication, so apps and tools that help them do that are a powerful selling point.

Another area which we’re only just beginning to explore is apps that help you shop around for the right healthcare services, whether it’s deciding on the healthcare insurance that’s the best fit for you given your actual usage patterns or shopping around for a procedure or drug given the insurance that you have. The more data that apps can access, both about you individually and about other patients in the ecosystem who might be like you, the better you’ll be able to make decisions that work for you.

What data sources would you need to provide an estimation of utilization? Would it be claims data plus EHR data?

I think looking at a combination of electronic health record data plus insurance claims is a very good place to start. There are some open kinds of claims data at the population level the government makes available that you can use for a very rough cut, but I think we’ll also see more partnerships being formed with aggregated data being shared that can help compute better decisions.

Geisinger formed XG Health to commercialize their apps that tie into Epic. Is that an early example of the kind of ecosystem that could be created around legacy EHRs that aren’t necessarily done through vendor-specific proprietary technology?

We’re seeing a trend in several places and Geisinger is a great early example of an institutional drive to innovate and to find a broader market based on these innovations. If you invest a lot of institutional time and money building a tool that works inside your own organization, that’s great — you can reap the benefits internally.

But more and more, there’s a desire to be able to share these tools, or sell these tools, outside of an organization. Anything you can do to build apps in a vendor-agnostic way, to build them in a standards-compliant, openly integrated fashion, lowers the cost of integrating this app with more systems downstream, makes it easier to export innovations beyond your own organization.

Vendor of mobile apps haven’t usually done the research to prove that the product improves cost or outcomes. They also often seem to target users who are already health focused. Will app developers need prove the value of what they’ve created?

I think there’s a few ways to measure the value of an application. One is to figure out how people like it and how they perceive that value. Two is to try to measure objectively how the app performs on some metrics that you define.

One of the really exciting things about this health app ecosystem is you can start to use apps as the instruments of research. We see examples of this happening along traditional institutional lines. For example, Duke Medicine has built an app that they’re using as part of a research project to evaluate how well patients know their medication regimen — how well they know which medications they’re supposed to take at which time of day. They’ve built a tool as a SMART on FHIR app that provides a patient with an interface for saying, "Here’s what I take in the morning, at noon, and at night." They’re able to drag and drop pictures of pills from a virtual pill box into these various categories. Then researchers can correlate how well patients perform at this task with other measures of medication adherence and start to figure out whether tweaking the parameters of this task can lead to improved adherence.

Whether you think that’s a great idea or not, the fact is we can use an app to do a measurement and to produce a traditional clinical research result, which you would never be able to do if you had to start from scratch and integrate this thing into the EHR just to fetch the med list. The fact that you can get the med list from the EHR and get all the patient demographics from the EHR out of the box with standards is what makes that kind of research possible.

Then we also see research happening in other new and exciting ways, for example, with mobile applications that collect data explicitly through surveys and implicitly through sensors. There’s a lot of good work happening, for example, on the iOS platform with ResearchKit in that direction today.

Are patients involved enough in the design of what they want, need, and will use instead of letting health systems manage app design?

I think the healthcare industry always struggles to figure out where and how to involve patients. Frankly, there’s a lot of bottom-up work that’s happening today in the patient application space, where companies are starting to build consumer-facing tools that don’t always make sense to the traditional healthcare ecosystem. But as consumers adopt them, we have a better and better idea of what’s really interesting and useful from the patient perspective.

I think it’s very hard for institutions, in a lot of cases, to do the right thing by involving patients. But we’re seeing very good bottom-up innovation that happens from outside of the institutions, and that might be the best indication we have of what really matters.

What do you expect to hope and see in the next five to 10 years in terms of how systems are opened up or interconnected?

Looking out to the longer term, my main hope is to see connectivity become more and more invisible, to have established pipelines where data arrive where they need to, and are available at the point of care, and are available at home without our having to take many explicit steps to make it happen.

What I’d like to see are clinical systems that understand the job that a user’s trying to do. Understand what it means to make a diagnosis or choose a correct treatment, taking into account clinical practice guidelines, the particular clinical situation at hand, taking into account patient preferences, and making it much easier to understand the risks and benefits across the board.

We need readily accessible data, both from the individual patient level and from the clinical knowledge domain. We need all those kinds of data available at the point of decision-making. My hope is that, by standardizing the core of these data access protocols, we can get there in the next five to 10 years.

Do you have any final thoughts?

From the perspective of the SMART Health IT project, we’ve seen an incredible amount of interest and enthusiasm around these APIs that, when we started building them in 2010-2011, the feedback we often got was that it felt like a science fair project and it wasn’t ready for the real world. The interesting thing is that not that much about the technology has changed, but given the overall landscape of EHR adoption and an increasing level of demand from end users for tools that fit their needs better, suddenly this technology has become incredibly mainstream in really short order. It’s been really humbling to be part of that experience.

HIStalk Interviews Joseph Pocreva, MD, Colonel, US Air Force

October 26, 2015 Interviews 3 Comments

Joseph Pocreva, MD is an emergency physician at Keesler Medical Center at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, MS. He is a colonel in the United States Air Force. His views and opinions are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of the Air Force.

Tell me about yourself and your job.

I’m an emergency medicine physician. I’ve been practicing for about 15 years. I am in the Air Force. I have been working in various emergency departments, Special Operations, and different areas of the Air Force.

I have been here at Keesler for approximately five years and have had various roles while I’ve been here, including flight commander, medical director, and a practicing doctor on the floor.

How much of your career is more military than medical?

Sometimes it’s not very easy to answer that question. There are some physicians who feel like they’re more doctors than they are officers. Some feel they’re more officers than doctors. I have felt both ways.

Obviously when I’m on the floor and I’m engaged with patients, I’m a doctor. Yet when I walk away from the floor, I have to interact with other places, not only in the hospital but throughout the Air Force or with engagements with the Army or the Navy. Then my role oftentimes becomes more of an officer in the Air Force. That’s in my current position.

I’ve had other positions where I had no medical role at all. It was all about being in the military and functioning as an officer. It is a switch that gets toggled quite frequently. I’m not sure if I answered the question very well. I wouldn’t be able to give you a 60 percent, 40 percent answer — it all depends on the day and the demand.

You served on a humanitarian mission to Haiti, correct?

I was in Haiti. That was in 2010, just months before I was assigned here. I was the lead medical officer in Haiti when we went into the country to open up the airfield.

Have you had other assignments or deployments to other locations?

Oh, yes. If you’ve spent any time in the military in the last 20 years, you will have deployed.

My initial assignment was at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. I deployed to Iraq in that timeframe. I was also stationed at Hurlburt Field, which is the Air Force Special Operations base. I did a lot of shorter missions, primarily to the Philippines. That’s where I went to Haiti as well.

I’ve traveled quite a bit doing a lot of diverse things. A lot of forward medicine, dealing out in the field without a lot of hospital support, just “what I can carry on my back” type of medicine.

How have you used that front line experience from Iraq in your ED job?

I was in a forward hospital there. We had a pretty decent sized staff, but we didn’t have a lot of resources. Practicing emergency medicine in today’s world is very lab- and radiology-intense. In those settings, we just don’t have those kinds of resources. You have to rely on your clinical abilities and your ability to make a decision, which is oftentimes paralyzing to the younger clinician who depends a lot on labs and radiology and their consultant staff.

If you don’t have it, you have to make decisions. Your decisions have serious implications, because if you want to transfer somebody in that setting, you have to get an aircraft to come in and take your patient away. If you can take care of them there versus putting them on a very expensive aircraft … You have to make those kinds of decisions. There’s a lot of differences between forward medicine and medicine back home.

What it’s like practicing in an Air Force hospital ED versus a civilian one?

Some very important key differences. We practice socialized medicine. We have a very captive patient population. They all have primary care doctors. They all have access to medications. There’s a social structure which is well defined. All of our active duty people have supervisors who we can call.

It’s a very different world from the outside. I’ve worked on the outside as well. I’ve moonlit for years at many different institutions and things.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both settings, but working inside the military is what socialized medicine is, in a nut shell. Actually, I would go on to say that, as far as I can tell, it is the best example of socialized medicine that we would be able to maintain.

People forget that military medicine isn’t just taking care of active service members, but their entire families as well, so you have pediatrics, oncology, and other services.

Right. The active duty population is only a small portion of who we take care of. The majority are their dependents and then our retirees as well. It’s everything from cradle to grave.

Is military medicine care at least comparable to what is offered in civilian settings?

It is somewhere in the middle. I’ve worked in plenty of hospitals that had nowhere near the capability that we have. Then you go to some of the major medical centers which have comprehensive care … When we have patients that are beyond our capability, then we will refer them to, in our case, the University of South Alabama or the Jackson Medical Center up in Jackson, Mississippi or over to Ochsner in New Orleans. We rely pretty heavily on them.

As far as the bread and butter basics of medicine, into surgery, into your medical specialties, and what have you, what we have is quite comprehensive.

What technologies and IT systems do you use in your practice?

We have CHCS, which is our basic underlying database., It’s been in place since the late 1980s and we’re still using it to today. That is where we record all of our labs and radiology and that’s where we do our prescribing from. As old as it is, it’s solid as a rock. It never goes down, ever. Everything else can go down, but CHCS still manages to keep plugging along.

On top of that, we have a graphical interface software solution called AHLTA. When it works, it works all right. [laughs] It is a program which is designed to interface with CHCS and pull data from it, as far as all of CHCS capability. But it’s also for record-keeping and and electronic medical records. We use it primarily just as an interface to get to the CHCS data.

In our emergency department, for our recordkeeping, we use T-System, which is hands down much better when it comes to data entry than AHLTA is. Much, much, better.

Those systems may be replaced in the DHMSM project. Are you looking forward to that or concerned by it?

I don’t really know a great deal about it. I understand that Cerner won the contract to provide the next generation. There’s generally the understanding that it’s going to be coming sometime in the future. After that, I think I know enough in my career that I don’t get too excited about dates of when it’s going to come, so I don’t know when we’re going to actually see that.

I would be very surprised if it has an interface which is more user friendly than T-System. Hopefully we can find a way to integrate T-System into it. But beyond that, that’s just all conjecture, and I don’t know — I’m not a part of that whole process.

I’ve read that 60 percent or more of care delivered to military members happens outside of military facilities. How do you communicate with external providers?

That 60 percent probably reflects most of the places not around the larger institution. Around here, we probably deliver considerably more than that in our facility. But so many of the smaller bases have been reduced to clinics. A lot of that referral work and surgical procedures and things are going to be done on the civilian side, so I think we do a great deal more of it here.

However, when we do refer people out to the community, they are not on our informatics databases. We have to rely on them doing a consultation and sending the reports back to us. Then our information people enter that data back into our system. It’s a rather slow and cumbersome process.

Do you have a lot of overlap in the information that you either need from or provide to the VA?

No. We see a lot of VA patients. We have a pretty robust interventional cardiology practice here, so virtually all of their cardiac caths come here. We have a lot of vascular surgery. A lot of the VA patients come here, but we don’t use their systems, nor do they use ours. If we want that data, we’ve got to go and request it old-school style.

How long do you plan to stay in the military?

I have been in the military for 23 years right now. I will be getting out next year. I’ve already put in my paperwork to retire. I should be retiring somewhere around the first of August in 2016. I will likely be joining a local practice here in the area.

What will you miss in not being part of the military?

The people, without a doubt. My grandfather was career Navy. My father was career Air Force. I’ve been on the Air Force welfare system since I was born. I don’t know anything different.

Not only taking care of this population, which is something that is very important to me, but working alongside a lot of people who really care about being here and doing the mission and being part of something much bigger than themselves is one of those intangibles that is very difficult, if not impossible, to find anywhere else.

It will be a sad transition for me, I’m sure. Although the local hospitals around here are wonderful by any marker, it’s going to be difficult to walk away from an institution like this.

People with no military connections admire the patriotism, discipline, and sacrifice involved. Is it equally impressive from the inside?

Oh, yes. Yes. You see people with talent and abilities and what have you. You look at them and you think, "Man, you could be making a million dollars on the outside, and yet you’re in here doing this job.” I really appreciate it.

That really comes through and shines when we’re deployed. When you’re out there and you’ve been away from your family for a couple of months and people are still putting their shoulders to the grindstone and just working hard.

Sometimes the situation and the environment we’re in is less than ideal. We’ve yet to go and occupy a really great place. [laughs] We tend to deploy to less-than-ideal locations. It’s very impressive when you see people step up and do the amazing work that they do. It’s an honor to be a part of that.

HIStalk Interviews Mike Nelson, CIO, Universal Health Services

October 12, 2015 Interviews 3 Comments

Michael Nelson is CIO of Universal Health Services, a publicly traded, Fortune 500 hospital management company in King of Prussia, PA that is also the parent company of Crossings Healthcare Solutions, which offers advanced clinical decision support software for Cerner Millennium users.

Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been with UHS for eight and a half years as a chief information officer. In those eight years, the company has doubled in size from $4 billion to $8 billion in revenue. We’re a healthcare provider-based organization with roughly 25 acute care hospitals and $4 billion in revenue for that division and 215 behavioral health facilities with roughly $4 billion in revenue for that organization.

UHS is the parent company of Crossings Healthcare Solutions. Crossings is where we’ve had the most clinical innovations that we sell to the market, but that functionality was all created and embedded for UHS use. We’re not trying to make a material profit with our Crossings subsidiary, but rather subsidize having a lot of clinicians involved in IT. That’s the real purpose.

You’ve worked for both non-profit health systems and now a publicly traded, for-profit one. How are those settings different?

Prior to working at UHS, I worked for the Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte, North Carolina, a well-run, large integrated healthcare delivery system of hospitals, physician practices, etc. They are a well-run not for profit. As I transitioned into the for-profit sector, I had curiosity as to what the differences may be.

The founder of UHS is still here 35 years later, Mr. Alan Miller. I think UHS is a little different from your standard for-profit company in that it has been established and it operates for the long haul. We insource and operate the majority of our IT. We pay Cerner to host our EMR platform, but we run our own help desk. We run our own help desk for the Cerner platform. The PC tech team is ours and not outsourced. We look to operate efficiently and effectively, providing good services from an IT perspective.

Even though we’re for-profit and publicly traded, we are operated for the long haul. In my eight years, I was never asked to decrease staffing due to a challenging financial market. If you think back to 2008 and 2009 when times were tough, we did not reduce head count because we’re very careful in what we add. We want to operate efficiently and continue to serve the customers and the physicians well.

I think UHS is a little different in that regard in the for-profit world. I’ve found that our goals are substantially the same — quality, patient safety, and have IT deliver effective services to the customers. A lot of those themes are exactly the same in the for-profit world, even though I would say there’s an incremental focus on expense management.

For-profit healthcare IT technology deployments seem to have been selective, with less investment in clinical and patient-facing systems. Did you find that to be the case at UHS?

When I got to UHS, they had a best-of-breed focus, as did many organizations  back in the early 2000s. We had an opportunity to reconsider that approach.

As I joined the company, the revenue cycle was stable and effective. There had been a major investment in what used to be the Siemens Invision platform, which is now owned by Cerner. The corporation needed an improved clinical IT, so we went down and determined our strategy was going to be a more innovative approach.

As we started the Cerner EMR implementation, I advocated for – and the president of the company, Mark Miller, supported — adding a chief medical information officer. Until we started our Cerner deployment, we didn’t have that. We added that one physician. Then that physician was so effective for us that we added three other full-time physicians in IT.

As far as I know, we’re the only for-profit that has four physicians full-time embedded in IT that sit across from my informaticists and my programmers on the same floor in our building. Our cycle times to make modifications, customizations, and enhancements is reduced because of the close physical proximity and the alignment with IT.

I think your characterization of for-profits is generally accurate. Between the work that Tenet and Community and we at UHS have done in the last four or five years across those organizations, there has been a huge focus on clinicals. We added clinicians into IT and I think that’s the secret sauce to having enhancements that we’re able to sell to other people.

You mentioned that you have a lot of behavioral facilities. Is the technology deployment different there as it usually is outside of the hospital setting?

We have different IT in the two divisions. We run different registration and clinicals in behavioral health as opposed to our acute.

In the behavioral health division, we have been piloting a couple of different EMRs that are better adapted to that environment. They have some documentation requirements and clinical processes that are materially different than acute care. A standard acute care EMR has not worked well in the behavioral health division. Lately, we found a vendor that’s a pharmacy IT vendor that has CPOE, etc. and leveraging that specialty system into our behavioral health has produced the best result so far.

They’re not running ORs, typically. They don’t have a lab. They’re not running radiology. Finding a good niche pharmacy system that has a CPOE component that allows the behavioral health to be effective with patient medication management — that’s really been the right piece for them. But we do have EMRs in select facilities. Then our acute care division is very standard with the rest of the acute industry.

There is separation differentiation at some of our large acutes. We have behavioral health pavilions, large inpatient units. At those locations, they use Cerner. We’ve worked to enhance Cerner so that it can meet the majority of their needs. We’ll continue to do it as we go forward.

What can you do with Cerner’s MPages and Advisors?

We can aggregate data that are on multiple screens within the system into one unified view. Instead of a physician having to go through seven clicks to renew a medication order that’s about to expire, we can have an MPage that displays all the med orders or any other orders, such as restraints, that are going to expire. Basically in one click to two clicks, they can renew all those orders when typically they would have to navigate to the orders page, review all the orders, determine which ones might expire, select those individual ones, and approve them.

Our goal using the Cerner tools has been to reduce the clicks for the physician and present information that they can take immediate action on and solve the conundrum of "Yes, the EMR has what needs to be done, but it’s not easy to get to it, it’s not easy to take that action, and IT, you guys aren’t providing me any value with the out-of-the-box EMR."

Do inpatient EHR vendors offer enough tools and technologies to allow users or third parties to extend or modify their basic functionality?

I can speak from my experience with the Cerner EMR, having implemented that at the Carolinas and at UHS. The MPages functionality, the Cerner Command Language CCL Programming tool set, has allowed us to extend the functionality of Cerner and address workflow issues that we see. That’s been good technology that when properly leveraged, adds real value.

Other vendors might not have been flexible enough early, but you’ve seen Epic adapt to that. They’ve rolled out equivalent functionality from what I understand, but I haven’t used it directly. How much or little Meditech does, I don’t know.

A lot of vendors that are smart realized that healthcare is not one size fits all. You don’t want to just let them have configuration choices — you want to let them enhance the tool. The direction is more positive as opposed to less. I’m pleased with Cerner. We’ve been able to get real value from that.

Are you hungry for additional capabilities to the point that you’re asking Cerner for more openness or APIs? Do they see that as competitive with what they want to offer the market in general?

We are actively working with them on some technical tools that are going to provide better alerting and information from a technology perspective.

I worry about end-to-end response time. Our end users in the hospitals are on a PC. They’re going through a Citrix session. They’re connecting across our wide area network to the Cerner data center. There’s an application set of functionality and  there’s a database server. I care about that end-to-end response time. Cerner has got great tools to manage the database and tell us what the database response is, but they can’t tell us Citrix session response times front to end in our facilities. We’re working on trying to get them to allow us to do some different things and installing tool sets in their managed services environment.

We’re pushing and advocating for the things that we need from an IT service delivery perspective and I think they’ll react to that. It will take a while. There’s still continued tools that we need, but it’s a step at a time. It’s a journey with the EMR stuff. Nothing is ever done overnight. if you think about client-server, that was the rage, but eventually people wanted to push everything to the cloud. You go through technical changes, but what you want is effective IT delivery for your end users.

Was it different to have to take a vendor mindset when developing something new that could be used, hopefully in shrink-wrapped fashion, by another health system?

Absolutely. We added several technical staff members to help package up code sets so that it would be deployable to other organizations. Cerner’s EMR and other vendor EMRs have configuration choices. Based on those configuration choices, our enhancements may work more straightforward –out of the box, if you will — or we may have to modify those enhancements to meet the configuration choices that a customer made.

We invested resources and time to package up the enhancements so that they were more readily usable. We worked to add some user admin tool sets so that they could modify some functionality without having it have to be hard coded and programmed into those solutions.

Absolutely, you cannot just take an enhancement we’ve made and plug and play it somewhere else. You need to think through that commercialization and how do you package that up and get it ready with release notes, etc. We went into with a mindset that we would have to, for our Crossings subsidiary, invest in commercializing the software, which meant packaging it up, making it ready for deployment, and usable. We’ve worked hard to make that effective at our first customers.

Vendors are announcing customer partnerships, like the Cerner-Intermountain one, where they’ll work together to develop intellectual property that will be added to the vendor’s base product. Is that a growing practice? How will it affect the industry?

Through the years, you’ve seen an increase in that. Cerner previously had a relationship, I believe, with the Chicago Institute of Rehabilitation. They had a rehab-specific module that Cerner customers could purchase. Other vendors have had different types of announcements with third-party organizations. I think that will continue in a limited fashion, where that third party can help the vendor create functionality that would have otherwise taken the vendor too long or they might not have gotten to and lost a market opportunity.

Cerner has worked with Advocate on the population health side. I think that’s helped  Cerner move more rapidly than perhaps they could have on their own. I think it’s a smart move from the vendors. They’ve got to pick the right organization that has similar business needs to other possible customers to create products that offer real viability in the market. It makes sense on a limited basis where they can control and manage the scope. It keeps them ahead of what customers are demanding.

I think it’s in my personal best interest that Cerner has as many products as I might want. It’s my personal opinion. Some of it will apply to us, others of it may not, but I think you’ve definitely seen a continued trend to do that in a focused manner.

It’s disillusioning to a clinician who moves to the vendor side to realize that what’s holding innovative functionality back isn’t always a shortage of good ideas, but rather navigating through convoluted internal development, testing, and release processes. Have technologies changed so that a good idea be turned into a software enhancement quickly and reliably?

Technology has given us capabilities to decrease the time for that development cycle. But there is still idea generation and requirements definition and modification that still takes time. That human side of coming up with a better idea, working through how it could function, going from a verbal design discussion to a technical set of specifications that you can program for. I think there’s still real time in that. 

Once you get to the programming side of the house, there are some tool sets, testing tools, testing environments, and repeatable test data. That technology has shrunk down that total development time, but I don’t think it can necessarily eat into that timeframe that’s on a front end, to come with the idea and create something that’s viable that then you can handle the technical life cycle on. I think we’ve made some progress.

Within our organization, there are more good ideas than we have people. Most IT shops probably have that problem. You prioritize them and work through them in as smart a manner as you can.

What will be most important for you to accomplish for UHS in the next five years?

For IT, I want us to be flexible and responsive to the organization, which everybody certainly wants. But where I see our business and clinical priorities are increasing are focused on population health. We as an organization purchased an insurance plan. We are offering Medicare Advantage plans. We are working to provide narrow networks. 

As we in the IT realm move from having an EMR deployed that we believe is relatively effective and physicians inside the four walls of our hospital using that relatively well, we need to then look outside of those four walls to the post-acute world. We need to look to managing that population health, providing the quality, and having the data and information to do all those things.

I don’t believe that’s necessarily materially different than other large providers. Working to align IT and making sure that we can effectively support good decision-making, quality improvement, and quality patient care delivery. Those are probably the most important things at the top of our list while continuing to be effective inside the four walls of the hospital.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I’ve enjoyed reading HIStalk for a long time. I think you bring a nice breadth of practical and honest information-sharing across the healthcare IT space. I appreciate what you’ve done. We hire kids out of college. We work to train them and grow them and try to create their interest in healthcare IT and you are a great source of information for that. I know a lot of others read what you  have. You know I’m a long-term reader and I appreciate what you’ve done. You’ve made it very practical for people and cut through the BS, which is great.

HIStalk Interviews Bill Anderson, CEO, Medhost

October 5, 2015 Interviews No Comments

Bill Anderson is chairman and CEO of Medhost of Franklin, TN.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been involved with Medhost since 2007. I was originally an investor and a board member. We’re about a $200 million revenue company with both enterprise products and population health and consumerism products.

What has been the market reception following the company’s name change a little over a year ago?

We’ve acquired two different companies to go with what was originally Healthcare Management Systems. One being the original Medhost EDIS company and the second one being the Acuitec perioperative system, which was the old Vanderbilt system. Simplifying our inpatient system has been well received by the marketplace. The consolidated branding makes the company much more understandable to our customers and other constituencies.

What are the steps involved in kicking off talks about an acquisition?

We believe that we’re as much a distribution company as a technology company. The number one criterion for either buying a company or spending money internally is to try to understand what our customers’ needs are. Ideally we can anticipate those needs before they actually understand they need them.

In those two cases, for instance, these were very critical profitability centers for facilities. We believed that offering not just good enterprise departmental solutions, but best-of-breed leading solutions, was something that was going to be important to our customers. The ED and the operating room are two places they have to make money to make money. It’s really very customer driven.

You told me when we spoke last time that your main acute care enterprise competitors were McKesson Paragon and Meditech. What has changed since?

They’re both still substantial competitors. We are seeing some more competition from Cerner’s Works product, but it is in many cases more difficult to come down-market than it is to go up-market because of the complexity of the product. But largely the competition is very similar to what it was the last time we talked.

The inpatient market differentiators are usually facility size and the complexity of the app as well as the cost of buying and running these applications. How has the dynamic changed as Cerner and Epic push into smaller hospitals and large hospitals are buying their smaller competitors?

I may give you more of an answer here than you’d like. One of the things we are very concerned about is the profitability of hospitals in the middle market. Let’s say that is 50 beds to 150 beds. What has happened today is that regulations have increased the fixed costs to those facilities by mandating a lot of different systems — mostly in the IT area — and other activities. At the same time, the average revenue per customer is dropping. You see a continuous stream of news articles about the crisis in rural hospitals, particularly.

As a result, I’ve seen analysts say things like, we’re going to take 40 percent of the total facilities out of the system or 30 percent of the beds out of the system in order to get facilities to a reasonable profitability. We look at this and we say, the total cost of ownership is something that today is not only a good business practice to be conscious of, but it’s absolutely essential to the survival of these hospitals.

We’ve tried to have — and I think hospitals in general are looking for this — what I would call segment-appropriate features. Physicians, for instance, would like to have all the features you can possibly get, but the more complex the system, the more cost is added to it. We believe that total cost of ownership is a very key thing. We’ve tried to manage our systems to be able to help our customers do that.

One of the things that I always point to is that back in the mid-1980s — I used to be in the banking software business — there were about 18,000 banks in the United States. Today there are about one-third that many. If you look at the reasons that happened — increased regulations, access to capital, all those types of things — the same types of things are happening in the inpatient facility business. We’re very conscious of trying to help our facilities control costs because it’s in our self-interest to have them survive.

Banks invested heavily in technology to keep customers from tying up an expensive live person, such that most people now hardly ever go into the physical bank. Does healthcare have the incentives to deploy that kind of automation?

I’m not sure that you can have the same level of automation in healthcare that you have in banking with self-service. But one of the reasons we’ve heavily invested in our YourCareUniverse product suite is to help facilities manage two different digital communities, which we think are important to them — a digital community of consumers and then a digital community of providers and patients who are actually in the healthcare arena.

We think that is the analogy to the banking industry. Our facilities are going to have to learn how to manage these digital communities. It’s not going to be so much of a community-based facility as an area-based facility in the past. For instance, we have a little hospital out in Texas that covers eight counties in Texas. There’s a lot of real estate in eight counties in Texas. They need the ability to not only interact with the community, but with their patients.

The second thing we’re starting to see and having our customers tell us — particularly our big customers – is that consumerism is really starting to bite. Similar to the banking industry, you will see that things that were previously done inpatient may be moved to outpatient, whether an ambulatory surgery center or a physician’s office or some other venue outside the four walls of the hospital. Things that may have been done in a physician’s office are going to be moved out to things like MinuteClinics and urgent care offices and maybe even to self-service with the consumer, with the patient. I see very clear parallels to the banking industry. 

Healthcare providers in general are saying, we’re going to be ready for this shift, because while you see it starting to happen, it’s going to take some time. The people who are preparing for that shift today, we think, are going to be the long-term winners as the market consolidates.

Are your clients confused about who their competitors and potential partners are?

It’s very challenging environment. Because of things like access to capital and the systems that are required, you see — not only in the large integrated systems, but in geographic areas — hospitals partnering up with larger facilities. You mentioned Epic moving into the smaller facilities. This is an example of how large geographic areas are handled by a large facility integrating in smaller facilities. That’s what’s happening a lot.

I think it is going to continue to be a challenge for healthcare providers to understand what the best partnership strategy will be for them. Some of these customers of ours are going to end up being purchased by other customers. Some of them are going to affiliate with ACOs or large facilities. Some of them may be in an area where they can go it alone. I don’t think there will be a single strategy because there are so many different factors involved about what the market is, the financial strength of the entity, and what the competition looks like.

We have significant EHR adoption in the inpatient and ambulatory markets. Are post-acute care, home care, and behavioral the next frontiers in trying to move patient information from paper to electronic so that it can be shared?

Yes. We’ve got a number of really large customers and they have many different types of facilities as well as clinicians and ambulatory systems. One of our frustrations — even though we’ve built tools to help tie all those together – has been getting cooperation from other vendors. No one wants to be disintermediated away from their customer.

What is clearly the right answer for the facility and the right answer for the patient — which is to provide a totally integrated system that exchanges data and allows you to make orders and do all sorts of other things — is really very difficult to execute because there’s not alignment of economic interest there.

Companies ranging from tiny app developers to big enterprise companies like Salesforce are trying to figure out patient engagement. What technologies are needed and what will determine whether a vendor is successful?

We think that there will be a market evolution similar to what happened in the inpatient business. Many facilities, particularly big facilities, used a best-of-breed strategy and effectively brought components of a total system based upon individual features of that system. I think in the long run, customers are going to say — just as they are starting to say in the inpatient market, in the enterprise market — that it’s really difficult to manage a system that is cobbled together from a number of different vendors. The clear trend is a single provider for your inpatient systems.

Our approach — and what we think will be most likely to win in the long term — is that we have focused on not just having good individual components like analytics or a CRM system, but that we have a totally integrated system. That’s what the customer is going to ultimately demand.

For instance, when we did our patient portal, instead of having a tethered portal to an EHR, we built a private HIE. We’ve got both an ambulatory and an inpatient-certified Meaningful Use portal on top of that. On top of that, we have both an analytics system and a CRM system that allows you to not only track patients and all their data, but to aggregate data within a community.

Where I believe this is going to become particularly important is if in fact the Meaningful Use guidelines for view, download, transmit actually go to 25 percent. Our understanding of the regulations is that in a community, if you had information as a clinician in the hospital system and you had a single portal for both the ambulatory and inpatient providers in that community, you could effectively pool traffic. There are going to be instances where not only the market, but regulation is going to require that you have this totally integrated system, because otherwise you’re never going to get to a 25 percent view, download, and transmit standard, for instance.

What possibly unusual assumptions are you using for the company’s next five years?

Our assumptions are threefold. In the inpatient market, we believe that there are probably at least 1,000 facilities in our relevant market space — the short-term, acute-care market — that have not made durable enterprise product selections. While it is a mature market, at some point in time, as customers and the market get over the Meaningful Use trauma, they’re going to start replacing systems that are not going to meet their long-term needs or they will have a question about whether that vendor is going to be there for them five to 10 years from now. One of our assumptions is that consolidation in the vendor market — just like consolidation in the provider market — will happen sooner rather than later.

The second assumption we’ve made is that while people talk about population health, and while we have a complete population health solution, we think the most important thing is going to be addressing the consumerism needs. Specifically as more and more healthcare moves out of the inpatient setting, in order to survive as an inpatient provider, market share is going to become increasingly important. Therefore, the number one skill set that our customers don’t have today that they need to build is marketing.

We’ve started to provide tools to help them to market to the community. That includes our YourCareEverywhere content site, which is a co-branded content site. If you’ve looked at most hospital Web sites, it’s about the hospital, not about the consumer. We’re big believers in that if you’re going to engage with a consumer, you have to provide them continuous value — not just value when they’re a patient — as well as an analytical solution and a CRM solution that allows you to market to the community based on needs.

We think our focus on the consumerism side of the equation is much different than most of our competitors in the middle market.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Today I believe there is a determination being made between the facilities that are going to be survivors in consolidation and those who are not going to survive as standalone entities or even as entities at all. In many cases, unfortunately, the management of the facility does not really understand that that’s happening today. If you’re too late to address these specific issues, such as consumerism and partnering and things of that nature, it may be  too late by the time you are willing to address the issues.

HIStalk Interviews John Kenagy, PhD, SVP/CIO/CISO, Legacy Health

September 21, 2015 Interviews 3 Comments

John Kenagy, PhD is SVP/CIO and chief information security officer of Legacy Health of Portland, OR.


Tell me about yourself and Legacy Health.

Legacy Health is headquartered in Portland, Oregon. We’re a health system that operates in the southwest Washington / Portland area with six hospitals — two urban, a children’s hospital, three suburban hospitals, and a number of clinics. It’s a typical community-based health system with employed physicians and clinics, moving towards population health and more risk. A very traditional health system founded in 1875.

I have been the CIO here for about three and a half years. I’ve been a CIO for 26 years and have had the distinct honor to have worked in interesting organizations that were each very different. First in the VA system — I worked there for 13 years with my final job as a regional CIO, Then Oregon Health & Science University, the academic medical center here in Oregon. Then Providence Health & Services, a Catholic system throughout the west. Now Legacy.

What discussions are you and your peers having about how the organization should look in five or 10 years and IT changes that will be needed to support those changes?

Two themes are recurring and they’re very interrelated. One is the whole area of population health and risk. Value-based purchasing is risk, taking the entire premium and accountability for lives. That transition from paying for providing healthcare to maintaining health and what that implication is organizationally and of course from a technology perspective. The other one is around insurance. We’ve been a traditional healthcare provider for many, many years. Do we — through either partnership or de novo creation — get into the insurance business? 

Let me start with the first one, because I think it’s challenging and fascinating. I think all my peers are working on the same kind of issues, which is, as we move from patient care to population health, it is forcing us to look beyond the four walls. Whether that’s accountable care organizations, bundled payments, or again risk for care not only delivered in your organization, you want to do it the best value — the optimal quality at the lowest cost.

What happens when that patient is on vacation and goes to an ED? That cost is now attributed to your bundled payment, readmissions, and working outside of just the four walls. If you are a traditional organization like Kaiser or the VA, which has all that care within its organization, that’s one thing. You can control the IT, systems and access. For an organization like ours, which is very much a community-based hospital system, we employ 500 doctors, but our medical staff is 2,000. Those other 1,500 are not on our EMR. They’re very independent. They value their independence and worry about when the hospital tries to get more into that.

In the future, with population health and new payment mechanisms that focus on the overall quality and experience of the patients, it’s really a good thing. We’ve been working many years on integrating all of our data into a single system. We are an Epic shop and love the fact that we have an integrated information system, but now with population health, we are consciously moving away from a 20-year ride toward integration into a single database only to say, "That’s great for our hospital, but now we need to play well with every other EMR and now claims data and insurance information."

The complexity of how to do that is extremely challenging. We’re working through that right now, as I think many vendors are, and of course the EHR vendors as well.

Some publications and Epic detractors claim there’s a backlash against Epic after all these years. Is that the case? What is Epic doing right and wrong?

I see that a lot. The paparazzi follow the popular stars. Bad press comes to successful people. It’s our sick culture of wanting to kick the person in the top primary position. I think that’s what’s happening with Epic right now.

I am very pleased that we have Epic as our partner here at Legacy. I think that makes our healthcare better because of the integrated system across inpatient ED and outpatient, not to mention revenue cycle and all the other things. It’s an amazing organization that is very dedicated at its core to a patient care, but also to the success of its partners. I value that greatly.

I wouldn’t say this is what they’re not doing well, but they are burdened by the fact that they are a fully integrated system and have everything from hospice and home health to very acute ICU. You have niche players in the population health space that are coming in a little bit with snake oil and saying how fabulous they are and it’s very easy.

These other vendors, these competitors — particularly in the population health space — are 100 percent dedicating all their energy, all their R&D, all their engineers on that niche product. That’s hard for Epic because they need to do that and other innovations while also making sure that we successfully meet all the Meaningful Use requirements and the transition to ICD-10. I wouldn’t say that that’s something that Epic is not doing right. 

When you have an integrated system — CIOs deal with this all the time — we’re having to re-market that value of integration when in a niche clinical practice, operation, or this case pop health, our operational colleagues come with, "Here’s a vendor that’s promising to make it easy and doable." Everyone says they interface with Epic, but that makes it hard.

Which systems do you think you’ll need to buy from somebody other than Epic?

The big one, obviously, is blood bank. The easiest answer to that are the areas where Epic doesn’t have a product. If you’re a Meditech hospital, you can run payroll, materials management, and general ledger on your platform. Epic doesn’t do the administrative systems. They don’t want FDA regulation — not to speak for them — so they don’t have a blood bank system.

Obviously the items that are closer to clinical care and quasi-biomedical and quasi-EHR. One I’m thinking of is Provation for gastroenterology. We have a number of specialty clinical systems that attach into that system. Fetal monitoring, for instance.

The one that is challenging is business intelligence reporting and population health, where so much of the data resides in Epic but there’s also an incredible amount of data that is community EHRs and insurance information, payer information, and claims data.

We’re actually running two horses in the race. One is Epic and one is a different partner. Seeing where our long term is. I believe we’re in such the early infancy of that BI population health analytics world that I don’t think there’s a clear winner yet. We are exploring both Epic and partnership with Evolent in parallel.

Are genomics and personalized medicine important to your clinicians?

I don’t hear it. I love the way you phrase that question. Is it on our radar screen, or is it something that I’m being asked by our clinical folks? Not yet.

As a CIO, you’re always worried that there will be a sleeping giant, and then at the eleventh hour, we’ll get a knock on the door and they’ll want it in two and a half weeks. We’re keeping our ear to the ground, particularly genomics and how it would relate to pharmacy prescriptions and treatment planning. I think it’s probably end of the decade at the earliest. That’s kind of an off-the-cuff answer, but I think it’s going to be on our radar screen, but it’s not immediate.

If I’m a health IT vendor or consultant, how will my business change as big health systems get even bigger and swallow up what would have been their smaller competitors or different types of providers?

I’ve heard this era called the post-EHR era, which is funny, because it’s more like the post-EHR sales era. We’ll always have our EHR. 

The challenge for us as providers and what we seek vendors and consultants to help us with is a combination of merger and acquisition. The bottom line of this is all the data needs to come together at the right point for making decisions, whether that’s a broader decision around going into a business or what do I prescribe to this patient right in front of me. As I said, our industry’s had this 20-year march towards moving from best-of-breed and integrating into holistic systems that see the patients together, a Cerner or Epic or Allscripts where you have a fully integrated record.

We are at Legacy at HIMSS 7 across all of our hospitals, so it’s a really successful deployment of Epic everywhere. Now we’re saying, we’re going to merge with a smaller hospital that has Meditech. We need to work very collaboratively within our community, within the larger ecosystem. Inherently that is 45 deployments of about 15 different EMRs and how to do that well so that the data that are relevant to making a clinical or operational decision is readily available.

That challenge, while we’ve been focused on integrating to a single system … the funnel has become narrow, and as soon as we’re at that narrow point, now it’s open wide. Get data from, as I said earlier, claims, other EMRs, and even people who are not yet automated. That’s a big challenge. We’re all forging this new ocean independently and a little bit alone. It’s interesting to be Christopher Columbus in this era.

What kind of services or service venues will be developed in recognizing that a hospital’s future isn’t just keeping beds filled?

That’s a great issue. It is something that’s on the top of mind of our leadership team. Moving even the paradigm from beds and hospitals being a profit center to being a cost center.

We’ll always need beds. America is aging. Acuity rises. What we’re doing is taking low-cost, low-acuity out of the hospital and even outside of the ambulatory to the home. What you’re left with is beds that are incredibly required and incredibly acute. You become an inpatient because you need nursing care, not for almost any other reason. Very high-tech stuff that happens in the hospital, but also around-the-clock surveillance by nurses. That challenges us to be able to incorporate data from the home and ambulatory and get that to clinicians so that people are being able to look at change in status regardless of the venue.

Once you’re discharged after an MI, are you gaining weight? Are you retaining water? Is there an issue with taking your medications? Being able to intervene in a trajectory earlier on rather than waiting for it to become acute and come back to the ED and have a readmission. From a data perspective, it really is a challenge to bring all that information and analyze it with machine code to inform and give the right care manager information at his or her fingertips.

Will costs eventually go down? Health system budgets always seem to grow no matter what reimbursement pea is put under what shell.

The cost of healthcare is interestingly a big topic with our board. Our management has been working on it all along, but it’s raised the attention to the board as the cost of the healthcare in America and what percentage of a company’s employee costs are going into the healthcare costs.

Our board members are community leaders. Some are physicians, but a number of them run their businesses. They’re great leaders in the Portland and southwest Washington communities. “It’s costing me more, so what are you doing, Legacy, to help bend this cost curve?" When the board has a focus on something, we in management pay attention as well.

I think that there will be improvements in cost. Not in the sense of quality, so that’s what the balancing act is. Value is a mathematical equation with outcomes and satisfaction on the top and cost on the bottom. You reduce value by increasing cost because the denominator goes up or you decrease value if outcomes and patient experience go down as you put too much attention to cost.

We’re working with a company called Strata Decision. That’s our financial management system. We’re one of the pioneer adopters of what they’re calling continuous cost improvement. It is a way to bring clinical quality and cost data together and inform managers of needless variation and where costs are going up. I’m very excited about it. I think a year from now, we’ll have rich information in the hands of managers, the OR, the orthopedic product line, and the cardiology product line that will inform them of variations in quality, variations in cost, and focus their attention on doing things that reduce needless variation.

Measuring patient satisfaction gives patients a voice, but there’s the question of whether they are qualified to evaluate anything beyond the hotel part of their hospital stay. Do you talk a lot about how to balance patient satisfaction versus the quality metrics that they probably wouldn’t even comprehend?

We do a lot. The interesting driver of that is transparency. Patients trusted their doctor. They certainly didn’t trust their insurance company and they barely trusted the hospital, but they certainly trusted their physician. When the physician said, "You need to become hospitalized and I’m referring you to Legacy because I value them," patients assume a level of quality because they don’t have the data. They don’t understand what quality looks like.

As information becomes more transparent about outcome quality, whether that’s Healthgrades or HealthCompare, we’re doing a lot to engage patients. We’re starting to deploy GetWellNetwork at all of our hospitals to get real-time patient feedback from inpatients. Rate your pain. How are we doing in terms of informing you of what’s going on? It’s not just TV and infotainment. It really is a way to get patient engagement real time.

It is a national commitment, particularly in Medicare, to do post-hospitalization surveys. You get that survey and it runs through their process, so you know six weeks later how the thing was. That’s driving the car looking only in the rear-view mirror. Being information driven. Being able to solicit information and feedback from the patients during their stay about how informed you feel, how satisfied are you, is there pain and other experience during the inpatient stay. Being able to intervene on that real time is a big driver for us.

How does a health system avoid becoming the next front-page breach victim?

You can’t, which is a bleak answer to that. I’m beginning to hear in the CISO industry in healthcare the need to change the paradigm from villain to victim.

The one that I am very concerned about is that the breaches that are happening now are very concerted, usually foreign, usually well financed. It’s not just the simple hacker that’s trying to get something or the “I Love You” virus that someone gets their jollies putting that into the email system and that propagates around the whole Internet around the world. We’ve got a lot of things that solve that. It’s the persistent phishing, very pernicious attacks, Anthem and the very big ones.

I don’t know how I alone at Legacy with my information security team – a great team of five people and our 300 people in IT – can be our own shield against the People’s Republic of China. I just don’t know how that is the expectation. We’re fairly sophisticated in terms of our information security portfolio compared to a smaller hospital or a physician’s office, but if the commercialization of medical record numbers becomes 20 times the value of a credit card number, how am I supposed to defend against literally a foreign invasion done through electronic mechanisms? I think there needs to be a lot more federal attention to that.

If we have a violation like that, because of HIPAA, we become a villain. Turning a blind eye and basically saying, "There’s no defense and I can’t help myself" is an abrogation of your responsibility. But putting in the normal standard things and even advanced systems and surveillance and protections, you still get violated by persistent attack, a foreign-generated persistent attack. We have started changing our language from “if it happens” to “when it happens.”

Should there be a different level of concern or public announcement if information was actually used versus just exposed?

Right. Both our laws and the way we deal with it need to step up to where we are in terms of the real risk. All of our laptops are encrypted. Flash drives are encrypted. All of our actually desktops, so if you break a window and steal a desktop, data aren’t stored locally on drives any more and all that sort of thing. That kind of due diligence.

Like you said, it is the persistent attack. That’s a different level of breach. This whole cybersecurity thing has been a boon to the identity theft industry, because the first thing you do when you’ve lost medical records is pay for everybody having identity theft protection. I personally probably have five offers of identity theft protection at probably $2.30 a person from five different companies, including my insurer, Target, and Home Depot. There should be a minimum on that for the whole country rather than every organization paying into that sort of thing.

What are the biggest threats and opportunities in healthcare IT as you see it from the CIO’s chair?

The biggest opportunity is bringing in additional data. Building off a platform, for us as a provider system with an integrated electronic health record and a fabulous partnership with our vendor, to springboard that. To just bring more information that improves the care of patients, inclusive of claims data and data from other EMRs where the patient is seen. Being able to coordinate care better across a large ecosystem that is very independent.

It’s not a single national health system. We have a multi-faceted delivery of healthcare. Being able to use information and data to enhance that coordination of care in a way that masks the organizational complexity of the healthcare industry. That is exciting to me because I think that that will improve care, reduce cost, and deliver on the Triple Aim that we’ve all been striving for and that is so data dependent. That’s both the threat and the opportunity. The opportunity is that we know what we want to achieve, and then the complexity of having to get to it.

Another threat that I see on the horizon between now and the end of the decade is, for me at Legacy, retirement of very good IT professionals who have more than two decades of experience with our organization. The complexity of hiring people, finding talent, finding talent in unique places like nurses who come in to the organization to become IT analysts. How to marry the phenomenal skills of clinical practice and information technology.

That whole theme is staffing and resources because technology is the simple part. It’s the people. It’s the change management. It’s translating imprecise needs to our physicians and nursing clinical partners into what we need to do for IT. That takes a very amazing talent that’s built over time. As I lose about a fourth of my staff for retirement, how to build that in in the new generation where there’s a competition for resources with consulting firms that are trying to recruit the best talent. That’s a big threat in my opinion, against that opportunity of weaving together all this information that resides in multiple different systems and databases in order to provide better patient care across our ecosystem.

HIStalk Interviews Beth Wrobel, CEO, HealthLinc

September 14, 2015 Interviews No Comments

Beth Wrobel is CEO of HealthLinc of Valparaiso, IN.


Describe what HealthLinc does.

We are a Federally Qualified Health Center. The federal government realized that there was a need to build a national infrastructure for the underserved, which up until now was the uninsured, Medicaid, and Medicare, although that’s changing.

HealthLinc was one of those free clinics back in the 1990s. In early 2000, we applied to become a Federally Qualified Health Center. We get a little bit of state funding and some federal funding, but most of our funding comes from patient fees — Medicaid, Medicare, or a sliding fee basis.

We treat the whole body. We have medical, dental, and behavioral health on site. At one of our sites, we have optometry. We have on-site pharmacies. Truly we’re a one-stop shop for those who are underserved. 

We’ve seen a huge change as people get $5,000 or $10,000 deductibles. In my mind, those are becoming our underserved. At least in Indiana, we’ve been able to get a lot of the uninsured to get services through what they call the Healthy Indiana plan. We’re not supposed to call it Medicaid expansion, but it really is our Medicaid expansion. We’re a healthcare provider that treats the whole body.

What lessons have you learned in managing health and not just healthcare episodes?

It goes down to data. A lot of times the healthcare system sees bits and pieces of that body and they don’t communicate. The number one thing that we have learned even internally is to see that person as a whole body.

I like to tease when we talk about optometry, behavioral health, and dental that we put the neck back on the body. The human body is intertwined. If you treat one part of it but don’t look at the other, you could be hurting that person’s outcome. At HealthLinc and with Federally Qualified Health Centers, we look at every part of that and help them.

The other part that is different for us is we never start with, "The patient will…" You can say until you’re blue in the face, "The patient will go get their meds. They’ll exercise." We have people that help them set goals and help them understand that. Treating the whole body and communication are the two things we do best.

What technology do you use?

We have a practice management system that talks to our electronic health record. That’s from Greenway. They have three platforms, but the one we use is called Intergy. We use it for optometry. We use it for behavioral health. It’s very flexible. We just switched to a new dental program, MediaDent, so that it talks to it.

Our medical providers can see what’s happened over on the dental side, optometry side, or behavioral health side and vice versa. It’s very common during flu shot season, which we’re just starting in, for dentists to say because it pops up in their side, "You haven’t had your flu shot. I can call someone if you want to get your flu shot right now." That’s just not heard of. It takes the IT infrastructure to be able to leverage that and to be able to do what we do.

How are you using your technology to reach out to patients?

About a year ago we got a call from The Guideline Advantage, which is a consortium of the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association. They had received a grant from the GE Foundation to work with Forward Health Group, a software company, to do population health.

That patient can look great in our electronic health record, but you can’t see what that population is going through. What are you doing? Are there things that we could be doing on a population-wide basis through this Guideline Advantage and Forward Health Group software that would improve not only that patient, but all the diabetics or all the hypertensive patients? That’s our next step in improving our patients’ health.

We’ve also found — I like to joke about this — that once we put in the PopulationManager of Forward Health Group, we were able to see data that wasn’t put in correctly. When we started looking at the population of a site and the BMI of patients in that site, we saw someone that had a 30,000 BMI, which is pretty much impossible [laughs]. It wasn’t me — that was the good news, there’s somebody worse than I am. We were able to start to clean up our data. We’re starting to do a lot more interfaces that go right in to the system and see that the medical assistant typed in the number wrong. Instead of maybe a weight of 130, they might have done 13,000. That doesn’t always come through, but it did in PopulationManager.

Our providers want to give the best care. but sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know. By looking at PopulationManager and seeing that maybe Dr. Smith — we don’t have a Dr. Smith, so I’m going to use that name — his hypertensives are not under control. We can go in there and see why. Is it the population? Is there some additional training? Something that he didn’t know? Is he using the wrong drugs?

We code everything green, yellow, and red. Green is the good — meeting your goals. Yellow is kind of, “You’re almost there.” And red. They all want to be green. When you start to show them a population, it motivates them. It gives them a better picture than what they have when they look at just each patient. That’s making a huge difference, having the TGA people working with us with Forward Health Group.

How would you describe your relationship with traditional health systems and how does the technology fit?

I used to always say we were their safety net, because the Medicaid and Medicare population and the uninsured weren’t the patients that they really wanted. We still have great partnerships. At HealthLinc, we’re pretty well spread across about 100 miles of northern Indiana, across the top of the state, and probably another 80 miles down.

We work with five hospital systems. With some FQHCs I’ve heard of competition, but we work with them more. But I could see as we start seeing these more of these commercial insurances come to us, there is the potential of that.

I have heard stories – again, I’ve never been able to document it — that the primary care aspect of a hospital system is the loss leader. They make money on everything else. My dream someday is to get a hospital system that says, "You guys are really, really good at primary care. You’re a patient-centered medical home. You have the infrastructure and everything. We’ll let you be that primary care infrastructure. You’re going to send labs and things like that to us."

From a community financial standpoint, that makes more sense to me. Of course, that’s me talking and not a hospital CEO. But looking at those relationships and what we can do to improve the health of the community, because we have been doing this infrastructure where we treat the whole body for a while now, it’s hard to catch up with that, but we’re there. So far, so good. We aren’t seen as a competition, but I could see where that could happen down the line.

FQHCs are required to have strong patient representation on their boards, which isn’t common with health systems. How does the patient perspective influence how your operation is conducted?

Patients of the clinic are 51 percent of our board. That makes a huge difference. I’ll give you an example. Before we had optometry, we had an eye doctor who would see our patients. It was in another town. There were transportation issues and things got in the way. Every time they had a no-show, they would call up. For $35, you got an eye exam and glasses. She would fund-raise on her own to pay for the glasses. 

I brought that up to the board. I said, "I’m really struggling. I’m afraid we’re going to lose this doctor. Any ideas?" One of the patients on our board said, "Why don’t you charge them the $35 up front and make them sign and if they didn’t go, they lose it?" Not that $35 is much money for someone with means, but for them, it meant a lot. Once we implemented that, the no-show rate dropped drastically. We got our own optometrist. We were able to keep that eye doctor.

Social determinants of health are becoming very prevalent now. Are you close to a grocery store? Do you have transportation? Do you have babysitting services? You can’t come to your appointment because you have to drag six kids, but Medicaid only pays for you to bring one kid in transportation? Those kind of things. They can really help us with that, too. It’s a win-win because we understand more of what it is for our patients. But everybody has those social determinants sometimes, whether you have money or not. That’s an aspect that isn’t there in primary care.

We’re open until 8:00 four nights a week, 6:00 on Friday, and open on Saturday. A lot of primary care hospital-run systems are not open that late. They want you to go to urgent care. Urgent care can take care of your urgent needs, but they’re not going to take care of your diabetes or hypertension and do your well checks.

In one of our sites that we were able to build about two years ago, we started seeing more commercial insurance patients. They’re at work and they can’t get to the doctor, but we’re open until 8:00, so they can come to us. Again, they have money. They could go anywhere. They have insurance. But because of our hours, they like to come to us. It’s bringing in what that patient needs.

Do patients who could go anywhere consider your services to be at least equivalent?

When they get through the door and they see the one-stop shop, they are like, "Oh my gosh, this is great." A newspaper editor came and we went, "Wow, I’ve never seen something this nice." We treat them with respect. We treat everybody with respect. That comes through very quickly to people.

It’s been a journey. At one time, we wouldn’t take commercial insurance. We started before the marketplace, but a lot of our patients were over 200 percent of poverty, which is $24,000 a year, approximately. When the marketplace came, they were able to get some insurance, but they stayed with us because they liked it. They felt like they were getting good care. Our hours were convenient. We treated them well. That’s important. If you feel comfortable where you’re going to your doctor, that helps with keeping you in good health, or if you’re sick, improving your health.

Where do you see the healthcare system in 10 years?

My crystal ball is broken, but I guess what I can say is that we’ve got to do something. We cannot continue for these costs to go out of control.

What I’d like to see is that every system has population health, that patients can get the healthcare wherever they want, whether it’s going to the doctor or doing telehealth. Until we get to the point where we can control the cost and use these population health programs like Forward Health Group and through the TGA, we’re not going to do that. My dream is that we will see the costs go down and that our health improves.

HIStalk Interviews Sean Carroll, CEO, Arcadia Healthcare Solutions

September 9, 2015 Interviews 1 Comment

Sean Carroll is CEO of Arcadia Healthcare Solutions of Burlington, MA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

Arcadia is an EHR data harmonization and analytics company. We focus on building high quality, highly usable data assets for risk-sharing entities such as health plans, IDNs, and IPAs. The scope of the business has us covering 20 million patients, 40,000 providers, and 4,000 practices, both owned and affiliated.

As for myself, I am a lifer in health IT. I’ve been at it for almost 30 years across six companies. All of those companies have had some principal focus on data and some form of disruptive technology or business model component. I’ve been here at Arcadia for two and a half years.

Your solutions connect to the back end of EHRs. Interoperability seems to have settled on two sides of the equation, one being real-time integration that requires vendor participation and the other being to extract information in some other way as needed. Do you see that perhaps the market forgets that external applications can sometimes access EHR databases directly?

Yes. That’s been our focus, certainly for the last decade — working quite deliberately on the back end of the top 30-plus electronic health record systems in the market. I think right now the standard is less about two-way operability, especially between EHRs. That’s very rare if not non-existent. But more so the kind of deep integration that is needed to execute against the kinds of measures that are emerging in the marketplace largely driven by value-based care.

Do you need the EHR vendor’s help to understand their data catalog and metadata or can you discover that on your own?

We don’t need their help, necessarily. We certainly need a customer who has invested in electronic health records to work with us to make all parties helpful to the process, because in the end, it’s the patient we’re trying to help, and it’s the customer who has made that investment who needs to drive how to get at that data to provide quality care and lower cost.

You connect to 30-plus data sources. How much information outside the EHR is needed to give you a complete picture of a patient or of quality?

Right now I would say it’s very helpful fringe-level data. Most of the market is still reconciling to the notion that deep clinical data from electronic health records is paramount to creating a high quality, highly usable data asset. We do have clients who are already well into that path, of course, and have asked us to pull in data from practice management systems or other systems that have bits and pieces of information that might not exist elsewhere.

What insights are customers discovering that they wouldn’t have been able to figure out just by looking at the EHR?

A simple example would be if you are looking at claims data — which is principally how people begin to think about analytics around healthcare data that’s been the standard for so long — you would be able to see from a claims component that someone had a cancer screening test done. But without the integrated EHR data in that analysis, you wouldn’t know necessarily whether they have cancer. If you think about where healthcare is trying to move to in terms of closing gaps in care and being efficient, the combination of those two things is what’s really needed to be more timely and efficient in how you handle the patients. That’s a very basic but I think a very important and high-profile example.

Providers often don’t know what questions to ask until they see a report that, by definition as a canned report, reflects the collective best practices of the vendor’s other customers. Are your off-the-shelf reports a surprise to providers who wouldn’t have thought about looking at specific information on their own?

Absolutely. Some of that is driven by the breadth of the information that results from that combined data set. But oftentimes with electronic health record data in the mix, you’re seeing things much more real time than you would from claims-based analysis only. They’re in a position to react to situation much more quickly through deeper and broader information that is much more timely, as most of our data refreshes every 24 hours.

EHRs focus on transaction management and data completion. They don’t do a lot on the front end with patient engagement and then on the back end some of them don’t have robust analytics. Do you see the post-EHR era being three legs of a stool with the EHR vendor providing just one?

Absolutely. The future would suggest that it’s the next generation of systems that have the capability to harmonize data from a variety of systems and draw insights from that aggregated data set. That was the original thesis for the electronic health record. Given how adoption has been less and it has taken the time that it has and the business model of value-based care and global payment is now in the driver’s seat in the marketplace, I see the electronic health record systems as a source of information among many. Albeit a very very important one and with a great deal of the necessary information, but still just a source.

EHRs were supposed to be different from EMRs because they would collect and present health information from many systems in many encounter locations outside a given provider, such as dental offices, drugstores, and long-term care facilities. That EHR concept was sidetracked when ONC decided to certify the same old EMR products and call them EHRs. Would you agree that no provider has deployed what might truly be called an EHR under that original definition?

There are unique deployments of electronic health records with unique organizations that have gotten close to the original promise of what they were intended for, but the vast majority of the market has not realized the original dream. Based on the slow march towards value-based care, we’re going to see a reset where next-generation technology is going to drop on that substantial footprint of EHRs that exist, but it won’t be the single answer. It will have to be compiled with clinical, business, and claims data from other systems to affect and support the change that’s required in the healthcare model.

Is it common now to incorporate claims data?

It’s more common. Certainly the payer marketplace is recognizing that their data coupled with clinical data is a great asset in the marketplace. About half of our clients are payers and some of the more advanced ones — like a large Blue Cross organization in New England that we work with — use aggregated claims and electronic health record data to support the administration of a very creative pay-per-performance program. That’s been very successful in bringing together providers and in the plan on the premise that if we share information carefully and appropriately, we can in fact provide incentives, control costs, and affect quality in the way that we want.

There are certainly real things happening out there with data when it comes together with the provider side of market and the payer side of the market. It works the other way, too. We have direct clients who are large provider organizations or large ACOs who are doing the same thing for similar reasons. But the concept is very much the same – the datasets together provide the lens into what’s happening across principally their ambulatory networks and they can see and manage at the population level.

Are providers are getting into the payer side of the business?

Sure. We talk to provider organizations all the time who are contemplating moving toward building a plan.

We see this in both directions, but the trend we’re seeing more is a much stronger willingness to come to the table, provided that the technology exists and there is the presence of some form of trusted third party — which is a role that we typically play — to help aggregate and arbitrage the right data to the right people in a very trusted and appropriate way. We’re seeing that trend more than providers standing up plans or plans somehow getting closer to providers.

What factors should a provider consider when choosing an analytics vendor?

It’s a very needed competency. It truly is all about the data when it comes to being effective in a value-based model. I would make sure that a supplier can connect you up with clients who’ve really put the technology to use and have seen tangible outcomes. Many organizations in the market are still early stage in the development of their technology. Secondly is the question of the source. The source in our mind is electronic health record data.

It’s very customary for us to engage in a dialog with even a medium-sized IDN who might have 50 different EHRs across their network. When you think about extracting the right data from 50 different systems just at the EHR level and getting that harmonized appropriately, it’s very heavy lifting. I would make sure that who you’re talking to can demonstrate that capability in a real way and with references.

The last piece goes back to the provider themselves. Do they have a clear strategy? Because what we’ve found is that many organizations know that they need to move in this direction and they know that data and technology in particular is important or perhaps even a backbone, but they haven’t fleshed out their full plan yet. Therefore, they’re not quite ready for the technology. That’s one of the reasons we acquired the Sage business — to help those organizations who are just a little more early stage to move closer to value-based or risk-sharing before making the investment in a solid data asset on which to drive the strategy.

How did the Sage Technologies acquisition change what you offer?

It added a deep tenure in managed care through this Midwest-based business that provides end-to-end services to provider networks that are engaged in risk-based contracts with managed care payers and ACOs. They provide everything from claims processing, network administration, utilization management including case management, customer service, data management, reporting, and critical care management. Really a full suite of supporting services that are required for an IPA or some form of other provider network to execute when they’re engaged in risk and to be good at it.

A large part of the market is still in that state, thinking about more aggressive moves and deeper risk arrangements where technology starts to become more critical. We wanted to have an ability to serve those clients now and also to make sure that we had the resident services to offer some of our technology clients in support of their activities. It has helped us with a little bit more of an end-to-end capability serving a larger portion of the market,  which is very much in transition with a variety of different maturity levels amongst the organizations as it relates to risk-based contracting.

How would you like the company to change over the next five years?

We’re very dedicated to the notion that clinical data in particular — for the next five years and perhaps beyond — aggregated from electronic health record, is fundamental to an effective data strategy. A data strategy is fundamental to being successful in value-based care. We’re focused on that.

We certainly understand the necessity to deliver on the full outcome, but our focus will remain on solving this important and fundamental challenge that organizations have, which is, "I’ve made huge investments in my electronic health record strategy. I need the information out of all of them. I need it timely. I need to be able to then process it right it away in much broader ways, including looking at the full population that I serve. That’s the only way that I will be effective in executing in any sort of risk model."

Our focus will stay there. We hope to be the recognized leader in that particular competency. We’ve been at it for 10 years. We have quite a bit of intellectual property in and around that process. Beyond that, our mission is to help patients and help the system evolve in a high quality way and to deliver to providers a useful tool that will be efficient in the way they provide medicine as these models evolve.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We’re very enthused that the market is signaling clearly that value and value-based models are the landing spot. We see that through multiple things happening with CMS, including recent announcements about supporting value-based characteristics and Medicare Advantage. That’s just another signal. We’re very curious about that. We think that that is where healthcare should be. We think we can play a significant role in assisting in that journey.

Clinical data from EHRs is a difference-maker. We’ve seen it over and over again with our 40 clients. The speed, the depth, and the comprehensiveness of that data, coupled with payer data and other sources, is critical. We  believe plans and providers can and will — and in fact, must — come together to share the kind of information that will make all this possible. We’re seeing that happen more and more in the marketplace. We’re looking forward to being a part of this tremendously positive momentum that’s occurring.

HIStalk Interviews Joshua Newman, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Salesforce

September 2, 2015 Interviews 6 Comments

Joshua Newman, MD, MSHS is chief medical officer and GM of healthcare and life sciences at Salesforce.


Most healthcare IT systems involve back office functions that are, to patients at least, invisible at best or intrusive at worst. Do you see that changing?

We do. The proof point is that we’ve been doing it already. We’ve been doing it for five or six years. But we also see it changing because the current needs of healthcare seem to be much more around that kind of end-user experience and less about the back office stuff.

If you look at where the reimbursement’s going, if you look at value-based care, or if you just want to look at the competition that’s being caused by the ACA and all the new people with insurance and so on, you see that it’s around patient experience. It’s around consumer expectations. It’s around value-based reimbursement and outcomes. It’s about helping people take care of themselves at home, responding to their text messages, being able to send a message of support, and so on.

Johns Hopkins posted a study saying if you have a relationship with a doctor, you lose more weight. It’s just one example of how relationships, patient outreach, devices, mobility, all of those kinds of things are starting to be the coin of the realm. What I mean by that is not only are they they right thing to do for health, but they’re also being reimbursed.

What are Salesforce’s major efforts in healthcare?

You may know we’re the number one CRM company. We’ve got this very broad platform that does a lot of things. Outside of healthcare, it’s marketing, sales, and service. There’s a Communities app, which is like a portal. We have analytics and an app development platform.

What we want to do for healthcare is what we’ve done for business, which is to enable those relationships. Service Cloud is our product name. It’s like a call center app, but customized for healthcare so that everyone can have that same relationship with the patient wherever they are, on any device, to support healthcare. Not the stuff the EMR does — not medication ordering, laboratory ordering and resulting, or procedure ordering or notes — but the interpersonal communication that supports the success of those other things.

Will it be difficult for providers to make the transition from one-time billed episodes to developing ongoing, health-encouraging relationships with consumers?

It’s funny you ask that question, saying it’s the new thing. The reality is it’s the old thing. It’s the original thing we were doing before we had any technology or anything.

I was trained as a family doc. I had other faculty members, like the wise old family docs, who used to tell me not that long ago, "Write in the margins of the paper record the patient’s occupation, their kids’ names, their pets’ names.” All those things. That was the beginning of my exposure to CRM. Understand who this person really is so you can build a connection and have an impact on them.

I think because the EMRs are so focused on those kinds of fee-per-service, episodic elements, it took away a lot of that. Frankly, those systems weren’t that flexible, so it made it harder to do those things. I think now with this and with the reimbursement that’s facing it and the value of it, people are amenable to it.

The second part of your question, though, are people going to be able to do it? That’s going to be a hard thing to solve. Work flow changes in healthcare, new innovations even when they’re proven … even a medication that’s proven to be great with no side effects still takes five years to diffuse. Something like this that’s a little more complicated, that takes new jobs and new training, is going to be a little harder. Our thought is the technology is going to be able to help people do it.

What we’ve seen outside of healthcare is that when people have really good tools that make it easy to use and to succeed, they’re a little more willing to change. In fact, we see that all the time.

Just so you know, I’m not under any kind of false hope that it’s going to be simple. Healthcare changes slowly.

In healthcare we individually feel that we have a relationship from our providers and caregivers when we’re receiving care, but in that 99 percent of the time we’re not in the ED, an exam room, or a hospital bed, the faceless bureaucracy doesn’t care about us. If hospitals turn this relationship function over to the marketing department, will it feel genuine to patients or will it be like receiving unwanted calls from an aggressive telemarketer?

I’m not seeing this as like cold calls or marketing. I’m seeing this more as when you’re on your bank website, you can’t figure out what to do, and all of a sudden the chat window comes up and there’s someone who can answer your question. It feels really good.

I use an application called TripIt that brings together all my travel plans in one place. I don’t feel like I’m in a herd of cattle running through the airport. I know where I’m going to go. When I land at the airport, if there’s been a delay, I get this alert automatically sent to me saying the gate’s over here, the gate’s been changed, or you’re late, so go here or do that.

Those simple kinds of tools are available. The data is available, although the systems that own it aren’t flexible. But if you put it in something like Salesforce or any kind of modern tool, the possibility exists to make people at least feel like the system is understanding them.

That’s from the technology side, a little more of the impersonal side. Then when you want to add the idea of, if I ever have a question, I can text message a care coordinator. If I ever have a problem, I know who to call and they have instant visibility into my clinical systems; who my informal caregiver is; what language I like to speak; or what my preferences are for communications, whether it’s mobile or email or phone. Even those simple, simple things would be profound in healthcare because they don’t really exist.

It’s going to enable the kind of change of change from where I only care about my doctor and I only relate to my doctor to there’s a whole team that’s willing to talk to me, and by the way Nurse Sally is really sweet and really great and she’s the one I ask questions to because she’s willing to listen.

Salesforce and a lot of other non-healthcare technology companies scaled themselves up by opening up their systems to partners and even competitors to create an ecosystem that benefited everybody. Healthcare hasn’t embraced that concept. Do you see that changing?

Yes. I see it hugely changing. What I see in the marketplace, and what a lot of us think about is, imagine the gates or the walls that have been erected by Epic. There are throngs of companies and experts and innovators and entrepreneurs who are banging on those walls trying to get in in every single healthcare organization in every single market everywhere. They just can’t do it. Sometimes because there’s not enough patients that are using a certain service. Sometimes because the CIOs are afraid of the risk and the cost of building an EMR connection and all that. We’ve already seen it in some cases. We’ve got a use case with UCSF where they’re using a third-party decision support tool to get data collected into Salesforce to make a risk score and have it come back.

The old days of decision support tools were that you put a CD that comes from someone and you put it in your EMR. It’s usually for drug-drug interaction or drug-allergy interactions. You know about the Framingham Study, I’m sure. There’s a guy in UCSF named Jeff Olgin who’s head of the cardiology department. He’s doing an e-heart study, which is going to be a million-person Framingham Study. Gone will be the days when the cardiologist has to remember the journal article that said this or that. They’re going to start using databases of hugely valuable decision support tools. We see it at the National Cancer Institute with some of their cancer data or even this breast cancer study.

We’re moving to a time when people are realizing that a single doc with some information in their head is not enough. Allowing them to take the time to go to different journal articles and figure out what the best treatment isn’t also the best.

We look at mortgage bankers. We see that they use impressive calculations to figure out where people’s risks are. We don’t really have that in healthcare yet and I think we’re going to have it more. Then you include the device managers, you include the rehab centers and the home health agencies, and all the different people that have to collaborate.

There’s no way that’s going to happen unless there is an open system, an ecosystem, and some friendliness between parties who all want the same thing. Fortunately, the money is there and the bundled payments are going to make it a little more likely.

We really have only three large inpatient EHR vendors in Cerner, Epic, and Meditech. Does that make it easier or harder for a company like Salesforce to come in and try to open things up and collaborate outside their walls?

The irony, and it’s a little bit controversial, is the fact that there are three almost makes it like an Irish potato farm. I don’t like that analogy so much because it makes us all look like we’re going to hurt those, but we’re really not. We want to connect to them.

It makes a certain kind of standardization, and to be frank, I think the closed histories of a lot of those vendors … their strengths and weaknesses are all different, but the fact that an organization like Epic has such a mind share among the very top hospitals and yet they don’t have the flexibility to open up gives us a great opportunity to extend what they do, to connect to what they do, and to bring these organizations into a modern technology space.

By the way, we don’t have to worry about working with them directly because middleware solutions are making it easier than ever to get data out and in some cases get data back in, even if it’s in the form of unstructured text or something like that.

I suppose for CRM-type purposes, you wouldn’t need real-time EHR access or for the vendor to provide APIs to everything. You could work around that.

We can start with just an ADT feed just to identify who the person is. You’re right, we can start small. But what’s cool is at a place like UCSF, for example, they started with the ADT feed. Just tell us who they are, who’s taking care of them, and some demographic information. But then they add more data to that pipe and they’re including prescriptions and diagnoses.

It doesn’t take much. We don’t need everything. We certainly don’t need the notes. We don’t need the medication administration record. Between diagnoses and medications and maybe some lab tests, we can do a ton.

That’s how Salesforce works. We’re not like Epic where we’re going to make someone write a $200 million check or a $1 billion check. We’ll start small. We’ll solve problems with the simplest of connections and then we can move on. Frankly, there are some folks who are doing it without an EMR connection. They just use it as their engagement engine, and then over time they grow those kinds of connections to the legacy systems.

Would a typical health system CIO look to Salesforce for solutions? Is it hard to get in front of them since you’re not a traditional healthcare vendor?

If you ask me in a year, I’ll say absolutely yes. I think we’re in a transition period. There are a bunch of CIOs that I talk to who say, "Wow, I had no idea you did healthcare." Frankly that’s our job and that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing this the way we are. But there are a bunch that do know us.

It’s interesting because our pioneering customers, the people that gave us credibility and confidence that what we have is of value in the marketplace, have been organizations that say, I’ve heard of Salesforce,or I know Salesforce, or I used to be a CIO of an insurance company and now I’m the CIO of this big hospital system, I know what you guys can do and relating to my patients is very similar to relating to customers.

There’s a great quote from an academic medical center CMIO friend. He says, "We’ve got to treat our patients like customers. They’re consumers and we may treat them better than we treated them when they were patients." They know we’re useful for this and they want to customize what we have to make it work for them.

Our new product is around making those customizations built into the product so that it’s credible and relevant to healthcare. I think with the new announcement, there’s going to be a real excitement for this because people know we’ve figured out how to do a lot of this stuff.

Salesforce offers the Chatter application. Do large health systems and practices use collaboration tools as well as they should?

They don’t because they don’t have them. They know what the inbox is. One CMIO says, "We keep getting older and the residents keep getting younger. It’s really funny. My residents ask me, where’s the feed? Why do I have to use email? Why do I have to use pagers? We’re the only occupation that still uses pagers. The drug dealers don’t even use pagers."

What’s happened is a lot of these hospital systems and residents have adopted these systems just because they want to. We see the proliferation of a lot of these things that were ground-up or viral and people started using them. Then the CIO will say, "Holy smoke, what can I do here?” They use them because they just work better.

In Salesforce, we’ve gotten rid of like 40 percent of our emails using Chatter. I actually wasn’t that big of a fan of it because I use email and I’m sort of an older guy, but I’ve been convinced by what we’ve seen in Salesforce. Now we’re starting to see people in hospital systems take this up.

When we show it to them, everyone gets it because it looks like Facebook. All these kids know how to do it. They know how to do @ mentions to include other people on the feed. They know how to do other kinds of things from that feed post. Marc Benioff, our CEO, did a lot of work to make Chatter not only something that’s good for communication, but you can do links, polls, forms, fill out all kinds of stuff, and actually do your work in it.

The more helpful it is and the more it saves people time, the more they’re going to use it. We know it’s something people cotton to as an interface. To the extent that it’s helpful for their business, the uptake is going to be significant.

Where do you hope to see healthcare in the next five or 10 years?

The cues or the things that inform my answer are every other industry in the world, on one hand, and then my oath to make health better. What we see in every industry is fluid data. We see open APIs. We see hybrid information systems. We see things coming together in all kinds of ways to solve problems flexibly. If there’s a new genetics test, it should come in there. If there’s a new partner you want to work with, it should go there. If you want to get a coupon for your home health needs. If you want to have someone deliver your bandages by drone. 

Healthcare is still stuck in an earlier era because they’re stuck in this client-server technology that’s not open, that’s not flexible, and that doesn’t give people the confidence that they can safely open up to partners. I see a future where hospital systems are as open and as nimble as Amazon, Gmail, or Salesforce.

HIStalk Interviews Tom Zajac, CEO, Wellcentive

August 31, 2015 Interviews 2 Comments

Tom Zajac is CEO of Wellcentive of Alpharetta, GA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been in healthcare for a little over 30 years. I’ve had the great fortune to be on this journey of transformation. My first role at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia was when DRGs first came out. I moved on to things like cost accounting and looking at efficiency of care and effectiveness of care management. 

At Wellcentive, our focus is on population health, which we’ve been doing since 2005. We don’t focus on the technology as much as the outcome. We try to help our customers drive true quality improvement; revenue growth, especially with the value-based care initiatives that are going on now; and business transformation, which is where I think the marketplace needs to be.

A Wellcentive tagline is “quality equals revenue.” What aspects of quality can be defined and measured and how should the patient’s point of view be incorporated?

Quality has historically been something of need for healthcare, but now with reimbursement, fiscal incentives are sitting there in the system to be able to drive those kind of capabilities. We have that tagline of “quality equals revenue” because the programs are now driving people to make better decisions. What are gaps of care? How can we look at patient engagement? How can we make sure that there’s better compliance for our patients to try to keep them out of our EDs? At the same time, it’s also driving them to look at better ways to focus on population health, not just on care.

The early years of my career were focused on how well we delivered care. Now with population health and this movement to value-based care, the focus has to be on how we’re treating holistically the entire needs of the patient. As healthcare organizations expand, their focus is not just on a hospital. There are multiple modalities of care among the primary care providers, specialists, urgent care centers, hospitals, etc. How do we best move a patient through that process so they not only get the most effective care, but also the best outcomes? Because it’s not just all about financial outcomes and not even just about clinical outcomes. It’s about human outcomes as well.

Is there enough incentive for providers to manage population health instead of just cherry-picking a particular metric or element they can latch onto to generate income?

You always wind up with that case. Sometimes the industry gets driven by federal mandates or insurance mandates. Typically the industry actually does the transformation. Healthcare has been very viable from that point of view. Exactly what you were saying … with some of the programs that initially come out, you’ll have a rush to revenue. I would almost make an argument some of the early ACOs were like this. Their interest was more in how to maximize revenue.

The more recent model that we’ve started seeing has an example the Delaware Valley ACO, one of customers. It’s a super ACO formed by trading partners in the Philadelphia area, such as Jefferson Health and Main Line, who are bringing together the right intentions — focus on care, focus on population health, making sure that you’re driving the best access, the best experience, and the best capability of healthcare for patients going forward. That is usurping just running for dollars going forward.

Even though a lot of these programs have been formed, we’re in a situation where organizations are forming with the right intent and the right purpose going forward. A lot of times, it’s Maslow’s hierarchy. PQRS is a perfect example. It’s a starter set, a gateway into focusing more on quality. It started out as a carrot, but now it’s starting to become a stick, and as the MIPS program is going to drive people to make sure that they’re measuring the right levels of quality.

One area we work with our customers on – and one that most healthcare organizations have to consider — is that you shouldn’t just be reactive to what programs and approaches are out there. By looking at population health, assessing data, and bringing together great analytics, you can start assessing where you operate best and how you can best treat those patients. Then use that in your dialog with payers going direct to employers to be able to set up better reimbursement approaches and better focal points.

If I were a skeptical consumer, which I often am, I would say that hospitals and medical practices could have been managing my overall health all along but didn’t until someone wrote them a check. Does population health management need to to be explained to consumers?

This is not a one-stakeholder issue. All stakeholders have to participate. We as patients have to take active participation in our health as well.

You can look at that and say that the healthcare system historically has been more fee-for-service based, so therefore they’ve only been interested in volumes. That’s not true. There are huge numbers of people in the healthcare process who’ve been trying to make sure that we put the right care together. However, now with better data and better analytics, we’re starting to be able to look at what decisions we should be making earlier. 

For a 50-year-old hypertensive diabetic, how do we make sure that they don’t wind up trending into a case for stroke? How do we get ahead of that? It’s not just the physician’s responsibility or the hospital’s responsibility. The patient has to be part of that responsibility as well, making sure that they’re complying with their treatment protocols and having active discussions with their physicians and their providers.

The one thing I worry about is the consumer or the patient being passive in this model. Nothing should be more active than your own health.

Most of what constitutes health doesn’t involve the medical establishment, such as consumers who make unhealthy choices. Are we giving providers health responsibility without authority?

Providers are now in a role of trying to also be mentors for patients to take more control of this situation. There’s a huge amount of data out there and sometimes it can be purposed in the wrong ways. A lot of the point about population health is to try to create better dialogs, better outreach, better collaborations among patients, providers, physicians, and payers as we go through this overall process. 

Hospitals are trying to focus on quality. Quality creates revenue. They also need to focus on access. They’re starting to look at where to treat patients. They’re starting to look at their markets. Where else they should compete? How should they keep an affinity with their overall practice?

For the patient, they’re trying to decide how to apply their affinity — their relationship with all of those various stakeholders — and how to get the best information. There must be a mentoring capability between providers and physicians with their patients to get the best overall outcomes.

We’re starting to hear more about the idea of consumer workflow. We focus quite a bit on physician workflow, maybe a provider workflow or payer workflow. You’re starting to see the rise of the CVSs of the world. They’re able to be successful because they’re focusing on consumer workflow — when healthcare is needed, when it’s convenient, how to get information out to patients, and how to help them focus on compliance.

Population health has to wrap that all together. It’s basically got to be able to help providers, organizations, and even payers focus on how we get the best information and aggregate information about longitudinal care, not just episodic care. Those are two different DNAs. An EMR being able to track episodic care is obviously focused on the episode. Population health has to also focus — not in conflict with — on the entire longitudinal path. What clinical data do we have? What claims data do we have? What personalized data might we be able to pick up for the patient to be able to use that to hone the best approach and the best knowledge you have with the patient? If you do that, then you’ll start to get a win-win strategy.

Employers and employer-led coalitions were not long ago seen as the best hope for influencing cost and outcomes using their purchasing power. Do they still have a role in what now constitutes trying to manage the health of populations?

Yes, absolutely. There’s been a lot of conversation, especially with the ACA, around what the employer’s role will be. Employers are still extremely important and they’re acting that way.

For example, we’ve got a customer, Blanchard Valley, who is working a care management program for Whirlpool in the Ohio area. Their role is to try to engage patients in their health. What we were just talking about before — making sure everybody has active participation. To do that, though, they’re putting in an active care management plan. They’re doing outreach, they’re following up with patients, and they’re making sure they’re complying with the visits that they need. 

It’s not just that the employers are the stopgap for the cost of health. They’re getting directly involved in that. You’ve probably read recently about Boeing’s message that they’re going to look more as an employer direct to provider or employer direct to health system to try to make sure that they create the best cycle and the best access for their patients. They are in direct dialog, for example,with Evergreen Health to be able to talk about how to best treat their patients. They continue to be active participants, but not only from a dollar point of view. 

The consumerism you were talking before has both of those relationships as well. With higher deductible plans, patients are now starting to focus on the financials and some of the decisions that relate to financials, but they also have to focus on compliance to their overall care patterns. It will impact employers and employees not only with regard to productivity, but also the well-being of their employees, which is an affinity or retention between the employee and the employer.

Are you seeing that analytics tools have improved but the underlying data are still of questionable quality?

Yes. When we start an implementation or a partnership with one of our customers, one of the key issues is trying to focus on that longitudinal DNA. Most of the larger healthcare organizations that are creating their future success are a combination of the original hospital as well as physician practices, urgent care centers, and extended care. All of that comes with disparate modalities of care and disparate data within that.

All of that data needs to be brought together and it has to be as complete a picture as possible. It can’t just be EMR data or specific EMRs and their data. It’s got to be all of the data sources that are out there – EMR, clinical, patient claims data — to try to build the richest picture that you can for those patients.

Realize that for some organizations, this is the first time they’re bringing together that type of disparate data. It’s not just aggregating the data. You have to focus on data quality and making sure it’s complete, it’s contextual, it gives you the best picture of those patients, and it’s accurate. A normal conversation I have with physicians is whether or not they trust the data they’re seeing.

Data quality is such that, as we’re going through an implementation, you’ve got to look at grabbing and aggregating that data together. Normalize it so somebody can use it in a focused pattern, and then from that point of view, figure out where the holes are.  We’re not getting allergy information. Maybe the information that we have on patient outreach is weak. How do we improve that information?

Then we can go to the quality set and look at the measures we’re trying to attack. Are those measures, in fact, giving us the right information? Are they complete? How do we now turn them into programs?

Data quality is actually a journey. Sometimes people think that integrating the data is simple and it’s going to happen overnight. More times than not, it’s a journey to try to not only aggregate the data, but make sure we’re focusing on creating the best set of data and the most complete set of data. That does take work.

What’s on your technology capability checklist when you choose your own medical insurance and providers?

I may shift that question just a bit. Let me try this, anyway. In a lot of ways, there’s been a lot of conversation about big data and analytics and the technologies behind it. Those things are important and they’re necessary for this next step, but the real importance has to be transformation.

When I look at providers or I look at health systems that I want to work with, I want to make sure that they have a comprehensive view of care management. The Holy Grail for healthcare in general is true integrated care coordination. So many of us are polychronic at this point. How do all of those things interact? How do the various physician and the various caregivers we have interact with that information so that there is a holistic view of me going forward? 

I don’t necessary look at an organization based on the technology they have, but rather the intent and the capability. It’s important to have big data and analytics to be able to drive a comprehensive approach to things like care management, being able to focus on quality, making sure we’re looking at transitions of care, and trying to figure how to best interrelate with me from a patient engagement and provider engagement point of view.

Where do you see the company in five to 10 years?

Population health has been a term. It’s turning to truly support value-based care. In supporting value-based care, Wellcentive has the ability and the intent to be the command and control across the longitudinal pattern for population health and value-based care. What we’re looking to be able to do is focus on quality programs and make sure that organizations are optimizing revenue. Focus on readmission, cost, and utilization so patients are getting the best experience. Focusing on care management and patient engagement so we know we’re getting the best compliance. Making sure that we’re combining the stakeholders — employers, payers, providers, and patients — so the communication is creating the best clinical, financial, and human outcomes that we can possibly create.

People have been saying, "We understand population health and value-based care. I’m not sure if it’s time for me to get into it." From what HHS and the commercials are doing, the incentives to move and the incentives to act are now. People have to realize that we’re losing time. We have to be able to act on value-based care now. The incentives are in place. Healthcare can be, because of what we deal with — privacy, patients, etc. — a little bit risk averse.

Really strong examples are forming on how organizations are putting care management in. The super ACOs that are forming. The trading partnerships, trying to figure out how to work between employers, payers, and other trading partners. The examples are there. Your peers are starting to work through that. This is really our time. I keep telling my staff that it’s not only our opportunity, but it’s our responsibility to drive the transformation in healthcare, and our time is now.



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