Rob Culbert is president and CEO of Culbert Healthcare Solutions of Woburn, MA.
Tell me about yourself and the company.
I started my career in healthcare IT back in 1986 working for what at the time it was called IDS, which later became IDX Systems and now is part of GE Healthcare. I spent about nine years working for them at a time where they were growing fast and furiously, selling large practice management and managed care solutions to the academic medical centers and large physician groups and medical centers around the country. Then for the last 20 years, I’ve been in the healthcare consulting world, with the last eight being on my own with Culbert Healthcare Solutions.
My history there has covered the gamut of helping large hospitals, academic medical centers, and physician groups through a wide variety of business challenges ranging from IT to revenue cycle to strategic planning, the whole bit. I cover a wide spectrum of areas and our company does the same.
We broke our business into two pieces. We have a very strong IT consulting component that helps Epic customers, GE customers, and Allscripts customers. On the management and strategic side, we help customers with developing medical groups, fixing a billing operation, creating an central billing office, and a wide variety of management and interim management type needs as our customers look to do different things.
You are privy to those conversations about what hospitals and IT departments are planning strategically. What are the themes?
In an older time, physicians and hospitals operated very separately. In my old IDX days, it was all about control or a fear of control. They went out of the way to keep systems and knowledge very separate. What’s really great is that it has come full circle. In the world of Meaningful Use, PQRI incentives, and focusing on quality outcomes and taking good care of the patient, you have to be able to work together and share.
What we have been doing along that line is helping hospitals become better partners with physicians, providing better services, whether it’s IT-specific in terms of an EHR that has clinical integration with the inpatient data, so that a physician is able to look at a complete patient chart instead of having to go to an ambulatory system for their office notes and switch over to a different hospital system to get access to the inpatient data.
A good chunk of what we’ve been helping people with and we see over and over is, there are many, many different ways for hospitals and physicians to join forces, either officially or unofficially through IT management services and sharing of clinical data.
In those relationships that may vary from hospitals buying practices outright, some sort of affiliation agreement, or an ACO model, what technology challenges do you see most often?
It ranges quite a bit, but I think the common one is cost. Everyone is extremely price sensitive, and rightfully so. A hospital traditionally has a larger infrastructure. It’s got its own campus or set of campuses. They’ve got a large volume that they can make their IT dollars work really efficiently.
Now you ask that hospital to serve a three doc-practice that’s affiliated with your hospital that’s 20 miles away, They just don’t share the same cost structure that a hospital does. They can’t just hire IT analysts. On their own, they have to be able to share those kinds of resources. They have all kinds of issues with being isolated and having to deal with networking issues and the basic infrastructure before you can even get near the application. Then on top of that, they don’t have the ability to be close to the campus to get access to a lot of the training that might be traditionally available in a larger environment.
There’s a bunch of challenges around getting those affiliated practices up to speed and comfortable using the technology, no different than someone that’s in a hospital setting. The cost of serving a small group that is way out in an outlying area is very different than what a large group environment in a campus setting would look like. Those sensitivities around how you provide good service at a very, very cost-effective way is the biggest challenge for hospitals and those affiliate physicians working together.
Do you see a lot of practices replacing their systems, either because they affiliate with a hospital and move to theirs or they get disillusioned with the one they have?
I do. Some for the reasons you mentioned, but sometimes it has to do with who they’re aligning with from a health system perspective. We’re starting to see, for example, independent Allscripts customers where one buys the other. Do you keep the two separate systems or do you bring the two systems together?
It’s the same thing in the Epic environment. Epic is typically in very large health systems. It’s not uncommon for us to see small- to medium-sized practices that are aligned with one health system on an Epic practice that for very good business reasons and strategic reasons, chooses to switch their affiliation to a different health system. The first question that comes up is, how do I get my Epic data from the one Epic system over to the second system? Getting the HR data as well as the registration and billing and practice management data.
They talk about that at some point it’s going to be a replacement market in the EHR world because everybody is getting close to being on at least their initially EHR. Switching alignments and having to switch your systems potentially to fit with those alignments is going to be a big challenge for organizations in the future.
What factors will have the greatest influence on the hospital CIO in the next one to three years?
They’re going to get more involved, if they haven’t already, in the physician side of the business. It’s a very different business from running a hospital. It takes different skill sets to run a very effective professional billing office compared to a hospital billing office. The same with setting up a clinical system — it’s a very different environment.
The old mentality of hospital IT is going to change. You need to be able to factor in a physician’s side to the business that’s a more nimble and more sensitive to the fact that the physician side changes more frequently than the hospital side of the world. You have less control, because you could have a physician group today that is a member of a different competitor and an affiliation is created. All of a sudden they’re now in your network and you have to service them as a good customer.
That’s going to be a challenge for hospital CIOs — making sure they have that good balance of having physician expertise and hospital IT expertise on staff to be able to meet everyone’s needs.
What are their biggest challenges in getting that job done?
Resources. Money. Probably the biggest challenge is that still today, many of the healthcare organizations have a large mix of IT systems that they’re having to maintain.
In many cases, they have the same system, say for example a GE or an Epic system, and they may have two instances of the same vendor. Potentially those instances could be on different versions. Being able to manage multiple systems and all the nuances of those systems for the various entities within the hospital CIO’s responsibility is going to be a big challenge.
Second is how a hospital CIO can make effective decisions on consolidating some of those systems so that you aren’t managing 20 systems when you ideally maybe should be managing four or five. What is the migration path that you have to go through when you’re consolidating so many systems to one? There are so many business issues that you have to be sensitive to that, unfortunately, it’s not a simple as, “We’re going to turn this system off tomorrow and turn the new system on.” You have to to be able to interact with the entire operation department to make sure that you’re not creating business problems while you’re making those system changes.
Will maintenance costs with these expensive systems change the way hospitals manage their vendor relationships?
In my IDX days — when IDX was growing by leaps and bounds and was grabbing a lot of market share, particularly in the academic marketplace — once we got to a size where we were considered the leader, similar stories that you see today about Epic and expensive and is it going to make sense came up with us that we had to deal with.
I don’t think that’s totally fair to say the vendor is the sole problem an organization could look at supporting their systems and say it’s expensive. There are many savings to be had any time you switch to a new system that a lot of organizations the first time around in implementation don’t get the opportunity to implement, because they’re so busy trying to get the initial system up and running, which is why you hear so often that organizations go back through with these optimization teams to make sure that they’re getting the benefit that the systems are providing.
We did an ROI study for one of our customers that helped them in the process of earning a Davies award where we were able to show that the Epic system where they had spent somewhere in the range of $150-plus million over a 10-year window, their total cost was going to be $13 million. We were able to demonstrate dollar savings of that minus $13 million over a 10-year period. Then if you look at all the patient safety and patient satisfaction opportunities that the Epic system had the ability to create, there’s a lot of intangibles that, one would argue, the $13 million was a very, very good investment for the organization.
What trends would you advise a CIO not to jump on in the next year or two?
The ACO and the population management area certainly has a lot of buzz. There are a lot of things going on that, in the very near future, will be very important to every hospital’s CIO’s agenda. But I don’t know if right now there’s enough bandwidth, with everything else that they have going on, that you can jump into those systems and be able to do an effective job.
As the next year or two goes by, that those systems will mature. The vendors will be stronger. They’ll be able to provide more knowledge along with the product.
That’s an area where, given everything else that they have on their plate, one could argue that they’ve got plenty to keep them busy without having anything for the next couple of years.
Do you have any final thoughts?
It’s a very interesting time. Our customers are doing a lot of great things, but they’re struggling with too many big things at one time, whether it’s ICD-10 or Meaningful Use. We talked about where, if they’re trying to consolidate systems, the amount of work that they need to do to upgrade to a new version before they could get access to the ICD-10 technology is definitely creating a lot of angst in the marketplace.
The typical hospital CIO and the IT department have got more than their hands full. It’s a very crazy, hectic time. I view our job as to try to alleviate some of that stress, but I don’t know if there’s really any way to do it other than to plug ahead and do a great job with the projects that they’re working on. Eventually, we’ll be able to catch up to the point where they can have a little more control over the priorities that can really make a difference for the organization.