Home » Interviews » Recent Articles:

HIStalk Interviews Doug Cusick, CEO, TransformativeMed

December 9, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Doug Cusick, PharmD is president and CEO of TransformativeMed of Seattle, WA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’m a clinician by background, although I’ve not practiced for many years. I’ve been in the electronic health industry for 35 years and I have the gray hair to prove it. I spent five of those years overseas, running a large healthcare and life sciences division for a large technology and services company.

TransformativeMed was a spinout from the University of Washington back in about 2012. It was co-founded by a practicing trauma surgeon, who continues to practice, and at that time the applications director at the University of Washington, who had overseen its Cerner implementation. The two of them together quickly saw a need to make the EHR usable, primarily for the doctors.

Does offering products that extend Cerner’s system limit the company’s opportunities?

The applications director was one of the inventors of MPages, which is used by organizations — including Cerner — to develop customizations to the Cerner Millennium software. The co-founders recognized that the EHR was just a platform, and in many cases, one that was challenging for clinicians to use. They went about inventing a series of applications that are embedded within Cerner and that have bi-directional information exchange. That allows specialty-specific workflows to be built.

By example, if you’re an endocrinologist, you need certain data at certain times in the decision-making process as part of the hospital’s overall care team. You want it in the format that is intuitive to how you practice. They developed 40 specialty-specific and subspecialty-specific clinical workflows.These are embedded in the clinical workflow, where all the action happens. Those users can manage their patient lists, the rounding and hand-off process, and care team coordination. They can also take advantage of disease-specific workflows, such as inpatient diabetes management and thrombolytics.

We continue to consume more and more of the breadth and the depth of what the clinicians need in order to make the electronic health record usable. We are moving pretty broadly across that realm.

What kind of relationship with Cerner do you need to make this work? How would that translate into working with Epic?

Our solutions are built on cooperating with the large electronic health vendors. It’s like the Salesforce model, with a great platform that is open for innovations. Cerner specifically is that type of platform. We rely on the data that is populated in the EHR. Our solutions allow that data to flow between the apps and the EHR, because it is embedded within the databases themselves.

In many cases, particularly with Cerner, the client representatives themselves come to us to help solve problems around clinician satisfaction, gaining efficiencies, and delivering on the billions of dollars that have been invested in the EHR.

It’s funny that in my 35 years in this industry, I can count on one hand how many doctors and IT people have ever said anything positive about any software solution. But in our case, what was so attractive for me coming on as CEO was that I get emails and phone calls every day from doctors and IT folks who love our embedded applications products that make their EHR usable, particularly from a specialty-specific perspective. It’s pretty amazing that for the first time in my career, we get so many kudos because doctors and IT folks love us.

How do you see the company growing? Do you hope to replicate your success in having helped other companies move up to the next level?

[Laughs] Absolutely yes, and most certainly. What was so attractive about me coming on board was that I had never seen anything like it. It isn’t disruptive to IT. Doctors and clinicians truly love us because we make their day better by delivering solutions that are intuitive to how they practice medicine. That we don’t need trainers on site speaks to the intuitiveness.

We recently went through a fairly substantial series A raise in Seattle. Before that, we were moving the company forward on customer revenue, and most of those sales had been done by word of mouth. For example, clinicians practicing at the University of Washington were moving on to other health systems and logging onto the EHR and saying, “This isn’t what I’m used to. I really need Cores,” which is the name of our product line.

When I came on board, we had a pretty nice array of clients and we’ve expanded that dramatically. I think we’re up to about 140 or so hospitals in the US. We’re selling our first international deal this week, so we’re pretty excited to expand internationally as well. Cerner has a large footprint.

We will be cautiously moving into Epic. We just closed our first contract with a health system that is moving to Epic. We couldn’t be more excited about gaining that experience, especially as interoperability and FHIR begin to take hold of the industry.

What business arrangement do you have with those EHR vendors?

We do not have a formal business relationship with them. We contract directly to the health systems. But with so many articles being published around physician burnout and lack of efficiencies and crises galore, the EHR vendors are seeing opportunity to deliver more innovation through their platform. The EHR is just data storage and the ability to move data around.

Health systems are recognizing that the EHR vendors aren’t going to deliver everything they possibly need. With the amount of true innovation that is going on across the industry, how can they add applications that make it more usable in a standardized fashion, but personalized for the clinicians who have to use it?

Particularly in this era of EHR optimization, we need to move way beyond the re-implementation of the EHR as the industry currently conceives it. EHRs need a massive overhaul to make them usable by the clinical community, and we have lots of studies to support that. CIOs are beginning to recognize, along with the clinical community, that they have a responsibility to help solve some of the problems.

It’s surprising that you can work with Epic without the company’s participation, and also that you can create add-on products without having problems when Cerner or Epic upgrade their underlying EHR.

MPages allows us to be directly embedded within the Cerner databases and all clients use it. Once we are given access to the system, it becomes our heavy lift and not an IT department burden, so CIOs love us. Plus, we are delivering huge benefits to the clinical community, namely the doctors who are finding that it is much more usable.

Epic is a different model and a more closed architecture. But we’re finding, particularly today in our first engagement, that Epic has been collaborative in terms of bringing our solutions within this health system. We’ll go live with them later in 2020. We couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to move further into the EHR world. And not just here — the problems we face are being seen worldwide as more countries and systems purchase American EHRs.

EHRs weren’t necessarily designed for physician shift work and the resulting handoffs, such as hospitalists covering large numbers of patients for a fixed period, residents whose work hours are limited, and the use of multidisciplinary care teams. What does the market need beyond basic EHR functionality to support that model?

IT needs to become more interoperable. The 21st Century Cures Act is helping drive that interoperability forward, but health IT vendors as a whole are slow to comply.

I can use my phone to take a picture, edit it before texting it to my kids, share it on Facebook or Instagram, and my sister can download it and post it to her Nixplay electronic picture frame. This is real interoperability, and it should translate to healthcare because consumers expect it.

Doctors and other clinicians are spending so much time today away from the bedside and tied to a device – desktop or mobile – trying to get the data they need to make decisions. They need solutions that make it seamless and allow them to function as part of a care team. In the old days, you had just one doctor, like Marcus Welby, MD, but today that’s not the case. How do we continue to coordinate care across the health system to get the individual clinicians what they need immediately to make clinical decisions that positively affect the patient?

Our philosophy is about making that seamless communication and hand-off process as beautiful as possible so that clinicians can get back to the patient. They can deliver care as they’ve always wanted to. They are not tied to a computer to get the data they need in hunt-and-peck fashion. They go about doing their business and, in the process, become happier, and happy clinicians deliver better patient care.

Health systems, because they’ve invested so many billions, are now trying to figure out how to derive further value after these purchases. Companies like ours that are delivering innovation directly into the clinical workflow, where all the action happens, will be important. Because we’ve had such a substantial jump on it for the last seven years or so, we’re excited about the opportunity moving forward.

Beyond usability, EHR-related burnout seems related to the timing of system interruptions or guidance and the lack of workflow cohesiveness. Does that differ across specialties?

Absolutely. Consider the difference between what an endocrinologist may require when making a decision versus the oncologist. Although there are standards of practice, each specialty requires certain elements of data in a certain format that’s intuitive to how they practice medicine so that they can acquire that data with just one click, get everything they need, review the most appropriate and non-nuisance decision support, and then pass that on to the rest of the team.

That approach has garnered improvements in clinician satisfaction and efficiency. Instead of spending an hour and a half preparing for rounding, as some residents do, they don’t have to prepare. It’s right there for them, everything they need to do for rounding and hand-off. Those kinds of gains are making a huge difference, recognizing that some personalization needs to be done, but in a standard fashion.

Less than 1% of our solutions are ever customized because they are already intuitive to how the specialists practice medicine. That makes a huge difference, particularly with IT and the implementation process itself. Instead of taking 12, 15, or 18 months to implement a big EHR, we’re providing our applications from start to finish in less than 90 days. That’s a huge opportunity for doctors and executives to get those quick wins that deliver value immediately.

What prevents EHR vendors from using your ideas to develop competing functionality?

In the Salesforce model, these big vendors can only do so much, and they have a heavy lift across the entire system. As companies like ours begin to specialize and create niche markets, particularly for us around clinical workflows and disease-specific workflows, it’s easy for a health system just to drop it in and use it without the big lifts that they are traditionally used to with the big EHR vendors.

How will your business change as EHR vendors start using technologies from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft?

The difference is being truly embedded within the clinical workflows. The struggle in the industry is that a lot of great companies are doing a lot of great things, but they’re doing it from the outside, trying to get in. You have to toggle over to another system, or do something that disrupts the clinical workflow. We are clinicians and we are deeply embedded within the clinical workflow, where everything’s actionable. If you are using our secure messaging system, you get an alert that a particular patient’s creatinine level is high. It’s important to be able to take action from that message within the clinical workflow.

There’s much disruption and opportunity across the industry, everything from machine learning to artificial intelligence and certainly population health and analytics. Sometimes just getting the basics right around making it more usable in the clinical workflow for the clinicians is the huge opportunity. These players, Amazon included, are making huge strides in making the practice of healthcare delivery better. We welcome all of the opportunity, because it will change all of our lives, help us deliver better patient care, reduce cost, and produce better outcomes. We welcome the opportunity for companies like Amazon and Microsoft, which has now stepped back in in a dramatic fashion, because it means that healthcare will be better.

Do you have any final thoughts?

As we continue to see the industry mature, EHRs will become the platform where data is entered and stored. Companies like ours will make it innovative and useful to those who interact with it every day. This is the most change I’ve seen in 30 years, particularly as EHRs have become standard and problems had begun to arise that were never anticipated, problems that we have begun to fix across many health systems. I couldn’t be more excited to be in the industry. I still have the passion and the drive to deliver the change that we’re expecting, and it feels really good.

HIStalk Interviews Amanda Hansen, President, AdvancedMD

December 5, 2019 Interviews 3 Comments

Amanda Hansen is president of AdvancedMD of South Jordan, UT.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I started in the position of president of AdvancedMD in June. It represents my 15th role within the organization over the past 13 years. AdvancedMD provides integrated workflow solutions and services to more than 35,000 physicians and providers in the ambulatory market.

How is that market changing?

We are in a replacement market. We sign a couple of hundred clients per month. The new clients we’re signing are on their second or their third EHR, so they are much more selective. Where historically with EHR it was about meeting regulation and Meaningful Use and driving towards that compliance, now it’s more about usability and workflow. Doctors don’t want a solution that is going to interrupt their workflow and add significant labor and administrative work on the back end.

The need for systems to be integrated and fully connected, that all-in-one, has definitely evolved over the past several years. Specialty-specific clinical records are more prevalent within certain subsets. You get a lot of benefit from having everything connected and working well together.

Is it fair for clinicians to say that the EHR causes burnout?

I do think it’s fair. It is necessary to have EHRs and the data structure and the storage of the information. Hopefully over time we’ll be driving more towards a patient-controlled health record in addition to the clinical records from the physician, and having those work in tandem.

But when you look at the demographic in healthcare, somewhere around 50 to 55% of physicians are over 50 years old. In that segment, it has driven some degree of burnout. The millennial generation, the generation that is rising now, grew up with all this technology at  their fingertips, so those types of physicians and providers are excited about the technology. I think it’s more of a generational issue than additional work that has driven burnout.

How are consumer expectations changing with regard to how technology can allow them to interact with their providers in ways that are convenient for them?

We spend a lot of time thinking about this and building strategies. The consumerism of healthcare is here to stay. I’m the perfect demographic to talk about it. I don’t have a primary care physician. My husband and I have three kids and we have an established pediatrician that we go to. But if I get sick, I go to urgent care. I want the same thing. I want an app that I can use. I want to do telehealth or do a telemedicine visit. I want that immediate gratification, that instantaneous response and result. In the healthcare IT space specifically, vendors have to put more resources on having those mobile applications.

Even at AdvancedMD, historically we’ve focused on patient engagement. But the patient engagement we focused on was more driven about how to help physicians engage with their patients, not to help patients engage with their physicians. We need to flip the switch. It has to be patient centralized, where everything drives from that patient and how they interact with their doctors.

With my pediatrician for my kids, we got a patient portal login. We never used it because it was really complicated. We couldn’t remember it. It was dual authentication, just very complicated. Whereas if I get a simple text message that says, go ahead and fill out this consent form and confirm your visit, I’m much more likely to do that than I am to remember some login. It puts pressure on the vendors to make sure that they’re delivering technology in a way that patients want to consume it.

How should interoperability work optimally when a patient’s records are scattered over multiple providers and there’s no PCP to collect and manage all their information in one place?

This is a huge opportunity. This is the secret sauce to making healthcare IT great, being able to have that interoperability and the connectivity. To make it successful, it has to shift from a clinical record from the physician to a clinical record from the physician that the patient can take with them always. This is something that I’m passionate about.

My dad was a type1 diabetic. He got diabetes when he was 20 months old. He passed away about two and a half years ago after two kidney transplants, two pancreas transplants, thousands of dialysis appointments, and a complete loss of vision. He was a modern day health miracle in many ways. He passed away when he was 60. It’s important to me because my mom would take him to doctor’s appointments and she would literally have to bring a binder of his health information with her everywhere they went. It had the prescription history, his conditions, his ailments, the procedures that had been done. It limited the ability of his physicians – specialists, primary care, mental health, behavioral health — to focus on his care at that moment because they were so focused on what had happened historically.

With FHIR and all the standards that are coming out in interoperability and accessibility of information, it really needs to be a record that is controlled by the patient. It doesn’t mean the patient is the only person inputting information we want. There’s a reason doctors go to medical school. We want it to have that flavor and we want it to be certified in the right way, but the patient should be able to take that information with them. What’s missing in healthcare IT is that patient. Companies are trying to address it, like Apple with the Apple Health Records app, and if you’re on an Epic system, you can get your medical record history. It’s something to assemble all of those records into one place that the patient can take with them

Why hasn’t the Health Record Bank concept taken hold?

There could potentially be a role for it. No one cares about a patient’s health as much as that patient. It is like your job, where nobody cares about your career or your progression at an organization more than you do. You have to own that.

Ideally, that the patient would have access to all of their own information and they could carry it with them and be the quarterback for themselves. Some people are in a situation where they can’t do that, and then their caretaker, spouse, family, or loved ones can help drive that. I really believe that it should be patient centralized, because we care about our own health more than any physician or provider is going to.

What is the mechanism of that patient carrying their data around?

That’s the mystery that that we all need to solve. It goes back to your earlier question, which is, can you have some sort of health data bank? We believe in big data. The challenge that we have had with big data so far is it has helped us to understand risk profiles of patients and to segment different patient bases, but it doesn’t create the action plan. If the information can be assimilated, whether it’s through a data bank or something else, that’s great. But the missing link has been what’s done with the information.

We know that 20% of our patient population has a high risk for adult onset diabetes, but outside of that, there’s not anything to link to what those next steps are. It’s tying that data into proactive tools, like our HealthWatcher solution that automates some of that process.

There are hundreds of EHR vendors and healthcare IT solutions. Unless we have some sort of universal health plan where there is only one vendor, then that can’t be the keeper of everything. We have to rely on something else, whether it’s the patient to control their own fate or if there’s some sort of health data bank. But we need to make sure that whatever information is assimilated, that there are action items and automated processes that happen as a result of the information. That’s the missing piece.

Are EHR vendors backing away from offering revenue cycle management services?

There is high demand for revenue cycle management, especially with the increasing complexity of getting reimbursed. Regulation is consistently changing and it makes it more and more challenging for doctors to get paid for the work that they do.

At AdvancedMD, we’ve seen a big influx in our revenue cycle management demand. Kareo recently divested their revenue cycle management business. I don’t believe that was for lack of demand. It seemed that it was more about the financial profile of the organization, where revenue cycle management is a more expensive business. It’s lower margin. With the exception of Kareo, the main vendors that we see day in and day out all have a revenue cycle management offering.

It has helped that providers and physicians want choice. If they want to do their billing themselves, they can use the software. If they want to have someone else do it, we have billing partners, and then we also have our own revenue cycle management division.

What was the strategy behind payments technology vendor Global Payments acquiring AdvancedMD in 2018?

Global Payments is focused on integrated payment solutions. The philosophy is that if they own software companies that have payments integrated within them, customers will be less likely to switch out their payment vendor for an alternative solution. They have, I think, 10 software companies in multiple verticals. Healthcare is a strong vertical, making up almost 20% of the opportunity in the US. We were their first effort in healthcare to have the integrated payment experience.

How do companies build a development schedule around technologies such as AI and voice-powered user interfaces that may be at various points on the hype cycle?

It’s always a balance. Technologists always want to work on the latest, greatest, really cool things. Sometimes those really cool things end up not being practical, or they aren’t something that’s even needed. A customer would rather you move a button or decrease the number of clicks to do a step in their workflow process. You see that more with startup organizations, where they are developing things that they think are really cool and revolutionary and then the adoption becomes much more of a challenge.

We experienced that historically with a couple of solutions that we put out. One of those was a benchmarking solution that we felt really excited about, paired with our analytics solution. What we quickly learned is that 70% of our client base is practices of fewer than five providers, independent practices, and they didn’t really care — even in a really cool way — to benchmark themselves against their competitors.

The most important thing that companies can do is to make sure that they keep the voice of the customer at the forefront. Not only do market research, but solicit those clients, internal and external, to help drive their roadmaps and make decisions on what to invest in and what to build.

What lessons have you learned in being promoted many times within one company instead of following the conventional wisdom that you have to move out to move up?

I’ve had a lot of friends come and go at this organization since I’ve been here. I can’t point to any of them and say that they are in a better position, or better off than I am, for having worked through the inner workings of an organization to drive my way to the position that I’m in today.

The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that moving ahead requires taking the jobs that no one wants to do. I’m sure that physicians, providers, and others in the healthcare space understand that sentiment as well. Sometimes it’s not the glamorous things. Sometimes it’s the ones that seem extremely challenging and difficult, but that propel you forward.

We have a great team assembled at AdvancedMD. I am extremely grateful and humbled for all of the people that I’ve been able to work with in my 13 1/2 years at this company. Nowadays, especially, you don’t see a lot of people who are fiercely loyal in sticking with an organization. It requires your own drive and will to do it. It also requires having mentors and advocates who look for opportunities for you. Lastly, it requires raising your hand to do the jobs that that may seem impossible at the time, but they’re not. Anything is possible.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We are excited and enthused about the opportunity to help propel the consumerization of healthcare forward, focusing on flipping the switch and with the patient being central to patient engagement rather than the physician. That’s through mobile applications and various programs to engage patients to play a more active role in their healthcare experience.

HIStalk Interviews Michelle O’Connor, President, Meditech

December 2, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Michelle O’Connor is president and chief operating officer of Meditech of Westwood, MA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I took over as president about six months ago. I was previously chief operating officer over operations and primarily development. I am now being reintroduced to a great leadership team that is responsible for our customer experience implementation and client services. We are re-engineering how we look at implementation to improve the physician experience and how we can improve customer experience as we continue to service them moving forward.

It is uncommon for companies to move developers into key executive roles, and Meditech is also different in that most of its executives have spent their entire working lives with Meditech. What is the company’s philosophy as the folks who founded the company and worked early in its 50-year history are handing over the reins to the next generation of leadership?

Part of the preparation for me taking over this role has been succession planning, which has been in the works at Meditech for many years. I’ve been in development, but previously I did work in implementation and worked on human resources with our staff management process re-engineering. I’ve done a lot of work with our staff, how we run the company internally and how we operate everything.

Working in development, I get introduced to the customer fairly regularly. Not necessarily in servicing and implementation, but I do work directly with them. That was especially true when we changed to an Agile development world, which I implemented seven or eight years ago when we started Expanse development. We engage our customers directly into the development process.

The plan for me to take over this role has been very well thought out. I’m prepared for what I need to do to take on more responsibility. That doesn’t mean that we don’t still have Hoda Sayed-Friel working more directly with our business partners and our professional services division and Helen Waters working with our marketing and our sales team. Those strengths help balance my role.

How does Meditech do business differently than competitors whose executives come and go from other health IT companies?

The value that Meditech brings to the table is that we look at what we need to do, we set a direction, and we move forward. Who would have thought that our senior VP of product development would have said in around 2010 when tablets came out that, “This is what we need to do in the future. We need to have mobile electronic health records.” We had just purchased LSS Data Systems. 

Because we are a technology company, we stay abreast of healthcare’s needs. We are able to pivot, move, and make decisions that allow us to do the right thing for the healthcare industry. We’ve been in the industry for 50 years. We have a touch on what customers need. By promoting from within, we allow ourselves to grow, evolve, and change to support it.

Meditech provides systems that go beyond core clinical or EHR functionality into modules that support nearly every aspect of a hospital’s operations in a long list of non-clinical departments. How hard is it to provide that breadth of systems?

I started with the revenue cycle product, which taught me the entire system and how things all come together. I look at non-healthcare technology companies and I can’t think of another industry that has to provide the level of service and the amount of functionality that we do. Meditech is one of the only vendors left that does financials. We are competitive with Cerner and Epic in the EHR, pharmacy, and lab space, but we provide financials and general ledger as well. It helps that we have been in business for 50 years.

It’s difficult for vendors to get into healthcare because our customers expect that level of integration. They expect that when you register in the lab system and populate a document that the pathologist reviews that we also drop a charge that goes over to revenue cycle so that your cost accounting system can deal with it and your general ledger can handle it. Then you send out a check for AP to do an overpayment to a patient. That’s totally expected of any of the vendors right now.

What are the biggest changes or trends you’re seeing across health systems?

Of course there is consolidation, but in terms of technology trends, I see providers who need to outsource their IT services through private clouds or what we’re going to be offering as the public cloud. It has become so complex for our organizations to support themselves. It’s a big change for them having public clouds handling the infrastructure and some of the help desk services. That’s one of the reasons we’re getting into the hosting business in offering Meditech as a Service or through Google.

We’re also doing it because of security concerns. Security is a huge risk. How many healthcare systems have been taken down for weeks and months from ransomware, and how did that disruption affect their overall business operations? A CIO recently told me that security is outside the EHR, but I think security is something that we as an EHR vendor have to do, to provide a system that can be highly secure. How can we do that more effectively and more cost-effectively?

We’re seeing a lot of announcements from health IT vendors who are partnering with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, not just for hosting, but for using their embedded technologies to change the way they design and build their software. How will your relationship with Google change Meditech as a product and as a company?

It has already changed us, to be honest. In January, we’re releasing our first cloud-based product, High Availability Snapshot, where we are providing the ability for a customer to have access to the electronic health record through Google Cloud services. If they get hit with ransomware and their systems are down, they can go directly to the public cloud through a cellular connection and get a snapshot of that patient’s record. They can at least know what was done to the patient prior to their system going down while they recover from their disaster.

We are working on interoperability changes and API changes that will primarily use Google services. In addition, Meditech itself is lifting and shifting – I actually saw that term in a dictionary recently — lifting and shifting our EHR to run on a private cloud or on premise to the public cloud. As we’re doing that, we’re making significant changes to how Meditech systems are architected in order to run in the public cloud.

Our newest app is Expanse Now, which will be coming out early next year. It is voice enabled and it’s a Google services app as well. Creating new apps, building interoperability standards within the cloud services, and re-engineering our entire EHR to run in the cloud are the three primary things that we’re going to be using cloud services for.

How will these cloud services relationships change the health IT competitive landscape?

When we decided to write our product on a tablet and make it mobile, we made a concerted effort to build it based upon web infrastructure and not do direct apps, to allow us to have a cloud-based product working with on-prem. At that particular time, the clouds weren’t ready for us. Our goal was always to get Expanse into the public cloud. Honestly, it’s been a little quicker than I thought it was going to be.

A year ago, Meditech itself moved our entire operations to the cloud. Then we were going to move our EHR into the cloud. We accelerated that. Not only was it something we felt we could do, we found that with our infrastructure, we could do it much more quickly than we originally thought.

Expanse is getting the recognition that it deserves right now. The industry is seeing it as a great mobile platform to run electronic health records and to give our physicians mobility. Our nursing product recently gave them mobility as well. By doing it through the cloud, we’re giving our customers the ability to get there a lot quicker than they might have been able to if they were doing it on-prem.

There’s a lot more hardware and infrastructure needed to run these systems and costs are higher. By providing them through cloud services, we’re able to get them to the customer quickly without the high capital expenditure and to provide it more economically.

You’re sleeping behind enemy lines in being surrounded by a lot of Epic-using big academic medical centers. How would you, as a patient and a competitor, describe the state of interoperability in the Boston area?

You’re asking me a difficult question. I have elderly parents who have been going through the healthcare system pretty regularly over the past year. Interoperability in our industry is not good, the ability to share a record from a physician’s office to a hospital and to be transitioned to a tertiary care center or to a rehab center. We need to do better as an industry.

We believe that through our Traverse interoperability service, through using CommonWell, and by continuing to push upon using interoperability standards, that healthcare can get better if we all play together. We all work well together. We have seen a lot of the industry doing that. You see vendors coming together with CommonWell, Carequality, and things like that to push the standards. I know the government doesn’t think that we’ve been moving fast enough, but we all want to move data along more quickly to make sure that patients can be taken care of more effectively.

One thing you don’t know about me is that I really believe in what we do. Being in the industry for 31 years, we provide a tool that allows caregivers to deliver care to patients. We take that very seriously from a patient safety perspective and from a fiscally responsible perspective.That comes down to who we are as a company and who I am as a person. I truly believe that it doesn’t matter if you’re running Epic, Meditech, Cerner, or Allscripts — everybody has to be able to interoperate. Even if you have two different Epic systems, they still have to interoperate.

Are customers demanding better interoperability and system usability, or have their own internal policies and deployment choices made the EHR what it has become?

A lot of it goes back to the original question. It’s a lack of understanding of the complexity of the healthcare system and the data in which the systems are out there. Vendors are willing to share the data, especially defined data sets. It’s a matter of making sure that healthcare systems themselves understand that they have to share the data. But how difficult is it to share the data when it’s so vast and deep, and what is the actual data that needs to be shared? It’s not debits and credits. It’s not your ATM. It’s a lot more complex than that. If we all continue to work together, we’re going to get through this in the short term.

What population health management technologies are customers using or requesting?

We have a couple of perspectives on population health. There is managing patients that you’re seeing through through our registries within our ambulatory product. We have a robust system for managing the population of patients that you’re seeing. Then there’s the overarching population health, where you’re given the panel of patients that you’re responsible for managing.

We believe that we need to continue to provide the system in which you care for your patients, the system in which you are seeing what care gaps a patient might have, and things like that. But we’re not the insurance company that has the algorithms to figure out which patients are higher at risk. We are using a system called Arcadia to manage that by gathering all the claims, then providing back into the workflows of the caregivers and practice managers what needs to be done to take care of the patients.

Do you have any final thoughts?

After 50 years, Meditech has continued to evolve and change. We are the leading vendor that has been in this industry the longest. We’ve had a number of accolades. We had PCI and we had the first handheld nursing tool. We continue to use technology to move us forward. Expanse is live and people are seeing the difference in delivering care with the mobile platform that we’re providing. They continue to see Meditech provide technology to the delivery of care to provide better service than we’ve ever provided.

Our founder Neil Pappalardo always wraps up all of his conversations with, “The best is yet to come.” I truly do believe that.

HIStalk Interviews Bob Segert, CEO, Athenahealth

November 11, 2019 Interviews 8 Comments

Bob Segert is chairman and CEO of Athenahealth of Watertown, MA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been a serial CEO. I have been working in the private equity space for the last 11 or 12 years. This is the fourth company that I have had the privilege to run as CEO. I’ve been largely focused on software and services. This is my first foray into healthcare.

Athenahealth is going through an interesting and fruitful transformation from being publicly held to privately held. This is providing significant opportunity for us to rethink some of the old paradigms and the ways we thought about the business. This allows us to reposition ourselves to ignite against our new vision, which is to create a thriving ecosystem that delivers accessible, high quality, and sustainable healthcare for all.

What do you bring to the table as someone with no healthcare experience?

The real advantage I have is that I can ask all the silly questions and not feel like I should already know the answer. That allows me to get to first principles.

We are all users of healthcare, so we’re all somewhat familiar with some of it, but it’s cursory knowledge. You understand some of the steps. That at least allows you to focus in and have an objective view on the data that you hear.

The value that I bring to this enterprise is that I’ve been a longtime software and services exec and I’ve been in a lot of different industries across the United States and internationally. That allows me to think about this platform business and the apps that we have a different way.

I think about Athenahealth as being a technology company that provides solutions that help doctors be more efficient and effective in what they do. But the underlying core assets that we need to continue to improve and drive value with are, fundamentally, software and services assets. That’s where my strength and background has been in for the last 20-25 years.

What opportunities do you see with the Athenahealth network that connects hundreds of thousands of users on a single platform?

It’s the most powerful asset that Athena has. We believe in an open ecosystem. That’s why our new vision is about creating that thriving ecosystem.

Ecosystems must be dense, resilient, utilized, and open. Think about Athena in that context. We are the only platform out there that has that type of capability. We are fundamentally a SaaS-based application. All our customers are on the same code. We don’t have versions of the code. We update our software every night. Everyone gets it. You don’t have to reinstall it. If you want to get a new code, just refresh your browser and it’s there.

This allows us to powerfully change our rules and change our workflows to be more reactive to changes in the healthcare system and ways to make things better. We don’t have to wait for the next release a year from then. We don’t have to wait another three years for our customer base to adopt it.

The other thing that we’ve invested in, which is an amazing asset, is the data lake. We’ve abstracted all data out of our relational tablespaces that we have for each of our customers into a data lake. We have a full API gateway that is opened up to that. With permission, any person can get into that network of data and provide additional services, whether that’s the hospital system or ambulatory system on their own or whether that’s a third-party provider that has authorization from that practice to access their data. They can now access that seamlessly through the data lake.

Our real advantage comes from the scale of that network and the openness of that network. We have 160,000 providers that are part of our company today. We process over 10 billion transactions every year. It’s a massively scaled platform, open at its core, that fundamentally will continue to be a vanguard and leader in interoperability. Healthcare needs platforms that break down the silos, the information asymmetries, and the incentive asymmetries to enable a fragmented system to thrive.

How does Athenahealth work with vendors that don’t sell EHRs but offer add-on or complimentary products?

We have the Athena Marketplace, with almost 300 partners. Frankly, I think we have underutilized the benefit and the potential of that. I’d like to see 2,500 to 3,000 partners in our marketplace.

We want to make our network open and extensible. We will let anybody come and play in that network and add value to our customers. We think it also adds value to the healthcare system. We think it drives better outcomes, whether it be accessibility, quality, or sustainability.

We are very open to driving that open marketplace and we will continue to invest in that. That’s a key part of our strategy as we think about the business going forward.

We are also committed to driving interoperable solutions at an experiential level, at a physician level. One patient, one chart. The ability to schedule and refer across ambulatory and acute care settings. We want to be able to do that with every single EHR out there that’s willing to connect with us.

Our goal is not to hoard relationships or try to be a closed system. Our goal is to enable better healthcare outcomes. If we can do that, we will prosper, and the American public will benefit.

Do you see a role in helping those companies develop a business?

We have done that in several cases, where we have worked with small businesses that are exclusive partners to Athena to help them gain traction with our customer base. We’ve provided lead referrals. We’ve provided free office space in our main headquarters building in Watertown so people can develop their products and solutions. We’ve been a big proponent of trying to help our partners be successful.

I think we have a lot more that we can do. There are investments we want to make in marketing and onboarding and enablement that will allow us to treat that with a channel support-type mindset so that we can enable the success of those partners.

Of course, there are always opportunities for us to have a broader relationship with the companies that really take off and are doing well within our customer base, for us to have a broader relationship with them. That could be a joint venture, a minority interest investment, or even ultimately an acquisition by Athena.

What is your relationship with Walmart and their use of Athenahealth systems in their Walmart Health pilot in Georgia?

We are doing work with Walmart. We see that as a significant opportunity for us as we move forward. It’s a pilot program right now, but we see that hopefully being able to expand to many more sites over the coming months. We have a lot of other programs in the retail space that will be similar. We think it will be a big growth area for us going forward.

We are seeing demand there because of our SaaS-based platform. People who are trying to use cloud-based technology, SaaS-based technology, to enable outcomes naturally gravitate towards the type of platform that we have. It is dynamic, flexible, configurable, and adaptable.

Competing vendors seem to be addressing a mature EHR market by either expanding into areas that haven’t been big EHR users or cultivating relationships with pharma. Are either of these areas attractive?

We’re not focused on the pharma space. That’s not where our strategic intent lies. You’re not going to see us pivoting into pharma, either from a data standpoint or a broader services standpoint.

Where you will see us focused is on alternative sites of care. You’ll see us increasingly in employer clinics, retail clinics, the ER, and eventually in virtual medicine and telemedicine in the home. We want to be able to meet our patients where they are and help our physicians create a seamless, end-to-end experience across the care continuum as we expand our service offerings and our capabilities in those spaces.

But fundamentally, where you’ll see us double down is investing in our fundamental clinical workflows at the front door of medicine. Peds, OB-GYN, internists, primary care physicians — that’s where we are going to focus. We’re going to focus a lot of dollars on improving that EHR, improving those workflows, and then enabling the exposure of data to help them close care gaps in real time, when the patient is in front of the doctor. That is the key thing that we think we can drive in the industry that others have a hard time matching.

It was a seemingly odd mash-up of cultures to combine the old Athenahealth with the GE business to form the new Athenahealth. How would you characterize the company’s focus and culture now compared to what it was in those previous companies?

I would say it’s evolving. We are leveraging some of the best traits of both businesses.

In Virence, the old GE Centricity business, you had some long-tenured, expert capabilities — specialty workflow experts, anesthesiology, cardiology. You have hospital-related capabilities and RCM. GE had discipline, while Athena was traditionally more freewheeling, with an entrepreneurial, founder-led culture and all those elements that has made Athena such an amazing place to work.

You take that additional expertise and specialty workflow capability and pair that with that front door capabilities that Athena had, where because of its SaaS-based platform, it could succeed with one- and two- doctor practices, because that the delivery model makes so much sense for them, whereas premise-based software doesn’t. It’s a nice mash-up between the two.

We are right in the middle of it since it has been around nine months since the transaction closed. The cultures are coming together nicely and it’s going to continue to evolve over time. You don’t move cultures quickly — cultures evolve. We’re committed to taking the best of both and bringing them together to be even a more dynamic and exciting place to work.

Athenahealth seemed to struggle in its final publicly traded days with a post-Meaningful Use mature market. How does that affect your business strategy?

There’s no doubt that Meaningful Use, the emergence of EHRs, and the incentive to adopt EHRs floated all boats. A lot of companies sprung up because of that. As the Meaningful Use hurdles get higher and higher each year and certification become more and more difficult, I think you’re going to see increasing pressure on some of the smaller EHRs that may not have the engineering wherewithal and financial background to be able to survive.

It is a replacement market. It’s going to be a consolidating market. You’ll see some of the smaller players thrive less than they did in the past. Some specialized small players will continue to do extremely well and grow based upon a focused strategy. You’re going to see some of the bigger players like Athena working to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, trying to gain relative share as these opportunities come up for replacement.

My view, and what I’ve seen since being inside the tent, is that we have amazing products that people really, really love. We’re not perfect, but people love these products. When we get into a demo environment, when we get a chance to get in with the physicians and show them what Athena can do, we win more times than we lose.

Our big challenge right now is how to get market awareness of the brand, what we’re doing and the favorability around the brand, and to get more at-bats. We know when we get in the batter’s box, we tend to get a base hit or more.

Is it difficult to get the attention of those small practices cost-effectively to earn a sale?

I don’t know if difficult is the right word. Each market segment has a different set of tactics that you need to employ. Small groups, those practices with six doctors or fewer, make up a different market mix. It’s a lot more online advertising. It’s business development resources that are calling and trying to reach doctors and try to set up meetings.

It’s very fast deal cycle. You set up a meeting, have a phone call, set up a meeting two weeks later, and go do a demo. Two weeks after that, you have a signed contract. You literally need two weeks to 30 days to sign a contract. It’s more of a flow business. You must have the resources upfront to canvas the marketplace to make those phone calls. That must be supported with good marketing campaigns that are focused, with real content and intellectual property that gets the doctors to step up and notice.

In our major cities, we just launched the “State of the Smart” campaign. You’ll see a lot of out of home advertising. We just had a full page in the Boston Globe on Sunday. We’ll have another one coming up. You’ll see a lot more Internet-based advertising and print advertising as we continue to position our brand out in the marketplace.

Enterprise is a little bit different. Sales cycles are longer and it’s more of a direct sales relationship sale. But we have a strong engine. I would say almost 40% of our bookings are coming in the small group space. We see that as being increasingly an area of strength for us as we move forward.

Who are your most significant competitors, taking into account the spread of Cerner and Epic into smaller practices and Allscripts saying it will develop a new EHR?

It’s a very competitive market. We compete with all the major players. We compete with all the specialty EHRs when it comes to some specialty practices. We compete on a broader outsourcing model with the companies that are providing broader RCM solutions. It’s a dynamic marketplace for sure.

Everyone is focused on trying to create value for customers. We’re no different. We believe that our core advantage sits around our expertise, the type of people that we have. It sits around our platform and the open interconnectedness into it. It sits around our ability to drive value from data analytics and benchmarking from the real-time execution of our processes. That enables us to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace vis-a-vis some of those other competitors.

Hospital consolidation will continue, there’s no doubt. Hospital bed stays are going down. More and more procedures are moving into the ambulatory care setting. Clinical advances, along with patient experience and preferences, are driving that. We are going to continue to see a robust and valid market in our core segment of ambulatory care. Even if there is some additional hospital consolidation, it’s not going to take the lion’s share of the market. There’s plenty of room for us to continue to grow and thrive.

Are you still planning to release an inpatient hospital system?

We had developed an inpatient EHR platform and sold it to several customers. We will continue to maintain that platform, the rules engine, and certification. We are not actively selling that in the marketplace today. We are redirecting our full focus into core clinical workflows, rev cycle, and the ambulatory care market. But just to be really clear, we will continue to support that hospital product.

We are also strong in hospitals with our Centricity assets. If you look at Virence and the Centricity Business platform, it has a world-class central billing office capability that cuts across both the acute and ambulatory care settings. It is focused on large IDNs and research hospitals. It is one of the gold standard rev cycle products out there in the market today. We are fully committed to Centricity Business. We will continue to invest in that and we see that as being a long-term part of the Athena portfolio going forward.

What about Epocrates?

Epocrates is a part of our business. It’s a relatively small portion of the company today. We see additional opportunity in Epocrates. We believe that there’s more that can be done, more that can be leveraged as we think about how to extend the value of that platform to physicians.

We know that the people who use Epocrates love Epocrates. It’s got a very good brand reputation. We see people using the product and it influences their drug prescribing decisions. It has value in the market. We see that as an asset that can be further invested in and leveraged. Epocrates is part of our family. It’s a smaller part of our family, but we believe there are opportunities there.

Private equity acquisitions often involve cutting costs and selling off non-core businesses to boost profit, then flipping the company or going public three or four years later. How do you see Athenahealth’s future given your background working with companies that grew in different ways?

The right mindset to have with private equity is that they are equity investors. Whether it’s private or whether it’s public equity, equity value and firm value magnifies itself with growth. Every great private equity investor is trying to drive growth. Our investors are no different. This is not about us trying to maximize and take every cost dollar out of the system we can.

We have seen things that we think can be done better. We can be more efficient. We can reprioritize some of our assets and investments outside of areas where we were investing and reprioritize those in other areas. Private equity has a specific focus on value levers and how you drive value creation.

That’s the way you should think about our owners, as being people who want to invest in the business. We made a big, one-time investment in technical debt to improve the platform so that we have a more solid foundation to continue to innovate on. They are very focused on us driving growth. They are very focused on us being innovative.

They have been great partners in the process, and they’re all about creating a great company. They are not about squeezing every last nickel out of the business, because that’s not the way you create long-term value. It needs to be a sustainable enterprise.

My experience with private equity has not been about crash and burn. It’s been about focus, re-prioritizing investment on the things that drive the highest level of growth, and creating the most value for customers. If you create the most value for your customers, then you get to take some of that value yourself.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Athenahealth is an amazing company. It has an amazing heritage. It’s a business that has the right to succeed and the right to thrive. We have a set of unparalleled assets in our employees, our customers, and importantly, the platform and the ecosystem we’ve built. We now have a leadership team in place, a team that’s behind us, and investors who are focused that will allow us to make the smart investments that we need to make to reposition the business for long-term growth and prosperity. That will benefit all the physicians in the United States and the entire system as we create a thriving ecosystem that delivers accessible, high quality, and sustainable healthcare for all.

HIStalk Interviews David Lareau, CEO, Medicomp

November 6, 2019 Interviews 2 Comments

David Lareau is CEO of Medicomp Systems of Chantilly, VA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

Medicomp provides a clinical engine and tools to use it that provide physicians, nurses, and other clinicians what they need at the point of care so they can do their jobs. We give them what they need when they need it, stay out of their way, and let them focus on the patient. I discovered Medicomp in 1992, joined the company in 1995, and have been CEO for about 10 years. We are continuing to build our content and tools to support point-of-care use for better patient care.

How would you characterize the EHR industry and how it has changed?

Over the last few years, I would say the last 10 years, the focus has been on getting the money. Getting the $30 billion to $40 billion that the government gave out to promote and make electronic records ubiquitous in the industry. That’s been done, but I don’t know that it has moved the needle at all in providing better patient care.

Now the industry is being forced to turn away from the number of transactions processed or encounters documented to, how well are we taking care of these patients? How do we report that? How do we measure it? How do we make it happen? How do we prove that we did it? It’s a major change to try to make these systems usable for clinicians at the point of care.

Are EHR vendors committed and capable of making usability what users want it to be?

I’m not sure they are. As part of my evidence for that, people seem to be thinking they can rely on artificial intelligence, NLP, and machine learning to solve the problem of usability. Or the use of scribes. That indicates to me that they recognize that they can’t do what it takes to make these systems, the way they’re currently constructed, usable for physicians at the point of care to meet all the requirements that they need to. They need to be efficient, effective, they need to meet these quality metrics, and they need to do it without getting in the physician’s way or slowing them down.

They seem to be turning to, “OK, ambient AI. Say anything you want and the machine will figure it out.” The problem with that is that the machines are taught by programmers, not necessarily by clinicians. So I don’t see where the ball has been moved toward clinical usability much at all in the last 10 years.

Is it fair or unfair to say that EHRs cause burnout?

It’s fair to say that EHRs cause burnout, because EHRs, as currently constructed and implemented, weren’t designed with the patient or provider in mind. They were designed to maximize reimbursement and track transactions. Clinicians they have this reputation as being difficult to work with because they are the most highly trained knowledge users in the world and the systems they are using actually dumb them down. They get no benefit from it. They pour stuff in there and they get nothing out of it that helps them, because they already know what to do. Just get out of my way and let me do it.

What value can be added to a vendor’s EHR to make it more useful and satisfying to clinicians without having the EHR vendor themselves making changes?

Every EHR should have a problem list. If there’s something in the problem list, you ought to be able to just click on that problem and see everything in the patient’s chart that’s relevant for that problem. For diabetes, you ought to be able to see on one screen the lab results, medications, symptoms, relevant family history, relevant past procedures, et cetera.

We provide a huge clinical engine that has about 120,000,000 links between problems and the other clinical concepts related to that problem. That helps people get clean data in, use it, and see it at the point of care, rather than having to go to six different places in the EHR to look at labs, meds, and procedures. It needs to be pulled together. Physicians, because of their training and experience, already know what they need to see. They’re highly trained. They know it. Just give it to them.

We’ve been working with clinicians for 41 years to say, if you’re thinking about diabetes, what do you need to see? If you’re thinking about chronic renal failure, or thinking about this other issue, what do you need to see? They know it. Just give it to them and they can focus on the patient in front of them at that moment without having to navigate through the EHR to find every little piece of information.

How has private equity and other forms of investment changed healthcare lately?

You had a nice article on Jonathan Bush where he said, boy, once you let them in the tent, they own the tent. There’s really no room for anybody else. They have a three- to five-year time horizon to get in there, get things lean, flip it, and get out. Typically. Typically. Now, a lot of them say they’re long-term investors.

We’ve been doing this 41 years. We’ve decided to keep it, and we will continue to keep it, private and closely held so that we can continue to focus on doing what we’re doing and not be distracted by the flavor of the month. “Why aren’t you guys doing NLP? Why aren’t you guys doing AI?” We have a form of AI. Our engine was built using doctors to say what’s relevant, but we don’t talk about it as machine learning. It was actually taught by our clinicians.

If we accepted private equity money or outside investors at this point, we would lose our focus on the long-term vision, which is providing tools to let clinicians provide better care for patients at the point of care. That’s really what we’re trying to do here. Everybody has their own idea of the latest thing they should focus on. We stick to our knitting.

Is it hard not to get wrapped up in the AI buzzword that everyone suddenly claims to be using in their old products?

It’s tough. What is competition? Competition is anything that causes people to not engage with you at this point in time.

People have been telling me for three to five years that, “In three to five years, AI and machine learning will be able to do what you do.” That’s competition for us, in that it causes somebody to say, OK, we will wait and see what happens with that. People are now getting used to the fact that even if you use artificial intelligence and machine learning that’s programmatically-based rather than clinically-based, if you put garbage into these systems, you get garbage out. What error rate are you willing to accept?

We don’t try to compete with AI or machine learning. I don’t want to sound like a troglodyte. It’s valuable in identifying associations from large populations of data, saying, “We need to do more of this. We need to do more of that. This is happening in our population.” But for an individual patient, at any point in time at the point of care, I don’t think it’s going to be ready any time soon.

What are the secrets of working with EHR vendors instead of trying to compete against them?

You have to provide something of value to them and to their users. We provide a clinical data capability that they don’t have otherwise. 

One of the secrets is when they say, “We have to have certain technologies. We need Angular. We need React. You have to do Docker containers. You have to host it in the cloud. It must be able to be  web-based. We don’t want to use your UI, we just want to call out to it and have it linked,” you have to  make sure that whatever tools you create allow them to stay in place to do all the things that they do well. Patient registration — we don’t do that. Storing of data — we have data services that pass it back and forth.

You’ve got to be willing to not enforce your vision of what their application should be. You’ve got to make your tool customizable enough and flexible enough and you’ve got to constantly redevelop your technology so that it meets the latest requirements for integration with these systems.

With these systems, the concrete is poured. They’ve got a bridge in and the concrete is poured. They want to improve their roadway? Yes, we can put down parts of a roadway, but we can’t rebuild the bridge, and nobody wants us to. So you’ve got to be willing to be part of their implementation. And in our case, our clinical stuff becomes a core piece of what they do, but it doesn’t look like it is to their customers. It just does what it needs to do and sits there. You’ve got to make it work in their environment.

Health IT vendors are making splashy announcements about embracing Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, or Microsoft Azure and using their tools for AI and speech recognition. How will that change your business?

We’ve already begun part of that. We already have people using AWS and Microsoft Azure to host our stuff, or their applications with our stuff in it.

We will probably be asked very shortly to provide some sort of a clinical relevancy service to some of these people who are making announcements so they can find anything they want with just one or two words. For clinicians, finding anything you want means finding the things that are relevant to that, given the fact that somebody has asthma.

Over time, probably in the next two or three years, we will probably have to split our stuff into separate consumable services, one of which we’re already doing with our HCC and Medicare Advantage service, so that people who aren’t even using our concepts, engine, or terminology can do risk adjustment reviews if you just give a problem list based on SNOMED or ICD-10.

Microservices was a big buzzword a few years ago. We’re probably going to have to be willing to work with not just vendors, but suppliers of technology to those vendors, by allowing people to consume services from our engine, but not necessarily the whole thing.

Google has expressed interest in creating an EHR search engine, but it seems like it would find “patient denies chest pain” just as readily as “patient complains of chest pain.” How important is the contextual element of the search?

There is no question that natural language processing, based on noun phrases alone, is not going to work in medicine. You need context, you need to know relevancy. Is pain relevant for somebody with asthma? Yes, chest pain. What about wheezing? Did it start suddenly or not? The more that people drill down into this, the more they realize that you really need the clinical context within which the phrase you’re looking for exists.That’s a big part of what we provide.

What do you expect to see at HIMSS20?

A lot of the vendors complain that the CIOs, CMOs, and CMIOs don’t go to HIMSS. I think that’s true more and more. If they already have a platform — Epic, Cerner, Meditech, Allscripts, some of the big guys — there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve got it. They might go to HIMSS looking for the ancillary vendors to add on certain products. We’re still seeing those people come through.

Ten years ago, health systems would send like 15 people, and say to the 15 people, “Fan out. You check this out, you check this out, you check this out.” You’d see them meeting at breakfast and planning their day because they were going to switch vendors. They were looking for a vendor. You don’t see that much any more. Because we’re not there to replace vendors, we’re there to have our stuff in as additive value, the fact that those people aren’t there doesn’t affect us so much any more.

Going into HIMSS last year, I was thinking about downsizing the booth. But by being there and by making a stronger statement about what we do – “We fix EHRs” — people said, “Finally, somebody says what they do. No buzzwords.” We met two major new accounts and opportunities that we have license agreements with. I decided for the first time to splurge and get a booth on the main aisle, because if you’ve got a good message and you know who your target market is, it’s still worthwhile for people like us. But boy, there’s a lot of noise. 

Half the team you bring is there just to figure out, “Somebody just stopped by the booth. Are they serious, or are they not?” We’ve been going to HIMSS since 1996, so we’ve gotten pretty good at that.

It’s worthwhile for us still because we’re solving a problem that everybody has, and they know they have, which is clinical usability. We’ve managed to hone our message on that in the last few years, so it’s effective for us. But if I was going in there for the first time, it would be like a deer getting caught in the headlights.

How do you see the future of the company?

We’ll continue to do what we do. We’ve been doing it since 1978, 41 years. We’re really starting now to benefit from people realizing, “We’re not just tracking transactions any more. We’ve got to manage the patients better. It takes really good data to do that. We’ve got to make it usable at the point of care. What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

This, I think, is our time. We’ve got to stay focused on what we do. Going after outside investors, changing ownership, changing leadership would just distract us from our mission. One of my main challenges is identifying and nurturing the next generation of leadership here, because we’re going to continue to do what we’re doing. I look at the senior people at companies to see, how long have they been there? How many generations of those people have they been through in the last 10 years? If it’s more than two, that’s a bad sign for continuity. The only way we can continue to do what we’re doing is by continuing to do what we’re doing.

HIStalk Interviews Scott Shreeve, MD, CEO, Crossover Health

October 30, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Scott Shreeve, MD is CEO of Crossover Health of San Clemente, CA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I am an emergency medicine physician. I was one of the co-founders of Medsphere, the first open source enterprise electronic health record. It was built and based on the Veteran’s Administration software system that was in the public domain. We had a good experience commercializing that software for hospitals and health systems that couldn’t afford the Epics and Cerners of the world. We had some nice success and early wins. I left the company under some challenging circumstances, but I’m thrilled to see it go on to be successful.

After I left Medsphere, I became interested in healthcare delivery and primary care. I was doing a lot of reading about re-architecting and designing new types of health services. I had read “Crossing the Chasm” and “The Innovator’s Prescription.” Primary care has always been such an important part of the foundation of a good, strong, healthy healthcare system, and if we could design that primary care foundation in a better way, with new payment models and a new care experience, that could be the basis of some great innovation.

After speaking, consulting, writing, and blogging about those topics for several years, I decided to take the plunge in 2010 to start Crossover Health. It began as a direct primary care practice. We had some initial success after opening up our first store in Aliso Viejo, California, but quickly learned that going directly to the consumer was quite challenging. We pivoted our innovative primary care model to address the needs of self-insured employers. Crossover became the medical group that provides services to companies like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Comcast, and others. We’ve been on quite a run since then.

Crossover Health describes itself as a digital-first national medical group. How does that work in terms of access, provider licensure, and use of analytics?

Crossover is focused on Fortune 50 companies and Fortune 500 companies that are looking to bend the cost trends in healthcare, that want a different experience, and that want to get more involved in healthcare delivery. They hire us to do that. We’ll come onto their campus or near their campus to build these health services.

What we find, though, is that most of the employers we work with have scattered pockets of employees all over the country. We were addressing only 10% to 40% of their populations by building near their headquarters. That was great for the patients who had access, but it didn’t address the needs or solve the problems of all of their employees. What they’ve asked us to do, and what we were doing on our own, is to extend our care model by adding digital-first as a strategy to capture the rest of the population.

That move is critically important. Telemedicine has been around for years. A remote employee in Georgia might work for Facebook in Menlo Park, but they can pick up their phone to immediately access their dedicated care team for the designated Facebook population and get the care they need right off the bat. We can either address is then or have them follow up locally where they live in Georgia with a curated network of specialists.

We have built a consistent care team that is licensed in all the different states. It is available to the people throughout the country who are covered by the benefits of that particular employer. Because we’re not physically in Georgia, we then have to steer, navigate, and coordinate the care for them when they access care that they may need locally. 

It’s an interesting solution. We either come on your campus or near your campus and provide a set of services, but now we are meeting the patients where they are, and that is digital-first. People are comfortable coming online. It’s  how they work in the rest of their life. Now we’re allowing them to work with their dedicated care team in the same way.

Surveys have shown that Millennials love technology and the immediate gratification it can provide, but don’t have much interest in cultivating an ongoing relationship with a primary care provider. How do you work with those employees?

I love the quote that “nature finds a way.” Everyone finds a way to get care. Millennials are comfortable getting online and asking things. If there’s not a coordinated, organized way in which that happens, they will meet their needs their own way.

What’s fascinating to me is that when you give them the opportunity to interact with a primary care physician and a consistent care team, they love it. It’s simple to them. They want to establish a relationship, but it has to be convenient, accessible, and in the way that they normally live their lives.

Our technology isn’t an electronic health record designed for billing. It’s a more like Slack, asynchronous communication with a consistent care team, where we can have that constant communication as needed. Then guide them in their local geography.

We’re finding that Millennials really do care about their health, but they don’t care for the traditional system that doesn’t provide access and tools. If you can meet them where they are, it’s very effective, very powerful. They are used to picking up their phone, logging into an app, texting their provider with a question, getting a response, and then digging in deeper if needed or being guided and steered to a local, curated specialty group. They are very comfortable with that. That’s not foreign to them, that’s expected. We are having a lot of success with that population.

Each employer has their own fingerprint and demographics. Some have older employees, such as in manufacturing and retail. We’re finding that those people very much want a relationship as well, and they are becoming comfortable with the tools. It’s almost like you are looking at different ends of the spectrum. You have the Millennials, who are very comfortable with the tools, and by the way, the relationship is great. On the other end, you have “I really care about the relationship,” and by the way, the tools are great. It seems like we’re crossing the generations through this type of a care model.

What are the contrasts you’ve seen as a former EHR vendor who now has the luxury as a provider to build the exact systems you need?

We’ve always had an electronic health record undergirding the foundation. But we built our own patient technology. Our patients never see the electronic health record. They see our tools, our patient engagement platform. With Jay Parkinson coming on board and all the work that he’s done at Sherpaa, we are building more tools and capabilities for our team members, our provider groups, to interact in this more asynchronous, structured question way.

Most of the care that we provide is through asynchronous means. Someone says I’m not feeling well, so we get orientation of what that is through this asynchronous communication. Once we’ve narrowed it down to a diagnostic category, we’ll send a structured question set, say, for stomach pain. Patients will take their time to answer that back. Based on that feedback, we’ll take the next step. We may need to see them in person and we ask if we can schedule that right now, or it could be that we suggest waiting for it to declare itself over some period of time.

We look at the electronic health record as the Slack channel. Each episode of care that we open up is its own project. We have tools that are effective at managing projects. Over time, we see replacing bits and parts of the EHR infrastructure with this patient engagement tool set because we are so focused on that. That’s where we see the evolution with Jay and with Sherpaa coming on board. Jay has taken on the roles of our chief designer and is building and extending what he did at Sherpaa, on a platform that has both a digital and now a physical presence. That combination is where he gets to play and innovate now.

Why is there a disconnect between widespread availability of virtual visits and the low percentage of Americans who have used them?

We are finding that it is not in the human experience, certainly not in the cultural experience in America, to get on the phone for 10 minutes with a random physician that you have no relationship with. We see 2% to 5% utilization. There are clearly situations where that is fine and where it works for the 30 set conditions that you can manage. What we’re really talking about here with our model is full-blown primary care that has, as its basis and foundation, a physical visit that’s done a little bit differently. Better, we think. But now purpose-building in the virtual connection as well and delivering it in the same way.

It’s a known care team that now has new capabilities. It can extend to individual patients and interact with them in the way that they do in every other aspect of their lives.

Traditional telemedicine — when it is disconnected, when it’s a random physician that you don’t have a relationship with, and when it’s not endorsed from your provider — is only going to have a certain percentage of pickup. Our thesis has been that you can develop trust in a medical group that is endorsed by your employer; that you have met, touched, and felt; and that now has the ability to extend the technology to you. That is really powerful. The person is at home and can access us. They know us. We get back to them. We’re on call 24/7. They have this connected experience wherever they are in the country. That’s the difference that we are banking and betting on.

How do health systems that make big money selling those questionably necessary visits react when you sign on with a big local employer?

Comcast / NBCUniversal is a huge player in all these different markets. Every health system wants to cater to their business. Our other employers are similar.

A lot of the health systems don’t really know what to make of us. If your business is built on sick care and you’re dependent on me feeding your MRI machine, that business model is doomed. The health systems that we do have a chance to work with are really innovative. They are very much based on value-based healthcare. They are realizing that while having a incredibly full hospital has historically been a big part of their business, I don’t really want that for the overall health of populations and value-based contracting.

We’re somewhat of a nebulous group to interact with. Some know that it’s a great model and a great primary care foundation, but it’s also challenging for them to understand how to work with us. Some innovative health systems know they haven’t been able to change the fundamentals of primary care in their own markets, so let’s do something totally disruptive outside of our system, but in partnership with a primary care group that is value-based and will send us the right referrals. It might initially look like that affects our immediate, short-term bottom line, but over time, given the new financial models that they’re moving towards, this is exactly what needs to happen, and they are embracing and endorsing it.

How much of Crossover Health’s identity do health systems use when announcing those services?

Most health systems have a lot of equity built into their brand from the trust and years and decades of work in that community. We have the option, and we do this with our employers as well, to white label our services, so it is very strong on that particular health system or employer’s brand. We can go all the way to the other end toward Crossover, because there are advantages to being totally separate, new, and different. In different settings, the privacy and the security and having a separate entity provided is useful.

We find that most strike a middle ground, where they want to have their name. but also our name together. It becomes a “powered by” situation. We leverage the good name and goodwill of that institution or brand from the employer, the health system, and then you can also show and highlight that you have this innovative collaborative partnership as well. That’s where we see most people land.

You’ve been out of health IT for a long time, but how do you see that landscape developing, especially with regard to what investors are funding?

This is like a view from 10 years ago since I left the industry when I was following it closely, but a couple of comments, maybe. One is that I’m surprised, but also not surprised, that Epic essentially has eaten the entire medical space. I think Judy’s concept of having a fully-integrated, comprehensive suite and then being able to get ahead of that is amazing. The value of the integration has been greater than any limitations of their underlying technology or otherwise. That’s been impressive to see from the outside.

Conversely, these monolithic kinds of system are incredibly hard to work with from the outside. It’s not that they are so technically hard to work with, it’s that they flat out don’t want to work or integrate with other people outside. That’s the negative side of how big they have scaled.

It’s interesting to see where Cerner has continued to evolve, along with Allscripts and others. I’m still a huge advocate of open source technology and love to see that Medsphere and others are out there still doing it.

Where my perspective has changed is that I see healthcare IT as simply a tool. Whether I have this tool or that tool, it is a tool that enables the information, the sharing of information.

The problem I see with health IT as it is today is that if architecture is destiny, then the way that these systems have been architected is highly concentrated around billing and other things. They have added other clinical components that are important, but that overemphasis and tying it to a fee-for-service system, which I also feel is doomed, impinges on the potential impact of where healthcare IT can go. What we are working toward and building is trying to get things that are more consumer-centric, where consumers can be more involved with their care, the record is really theirs, it is shared with their provider groups, and they have modern tools for interacting with their care teams.

Where IT has always been strong and remains strong is that you can aggregate the data, analyze it, and provide advisory services back to the people who need it, both providers and patients. I am pleased to see where that’s gone and where it hopes to go with machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other ways to introspect the data that has been gathered. That is really promising.

One of our big collaborators is Health Catalyst. Some of these big-iron tools that do deep-dive data analysis for big health systems are getting to the point where smaller providers like us can access them and put them to work. So much of our care is not about reacting to what’s on our schedule that day, but proactively reaching into the population to find those people who we need to be seeing that day. Then using digital-first tools and otherwise to get the people who maybe are less acute, but still have needs. Can we address those another way so that we can reserve the in-person visits or our concentrated efforts on those people who need us most?

How can technology overcome the fact that health system consolidation and the involvement of huge for-profit companies have left patients dealing with ever-bigger and potentially more bureaucratic organizations in their moments of need?

Privacy and the value of healthcare data is incredibly important. How you manage it, and the trust and confidence that people have to have and who’s storing the data, is critical. We work with some of the biggest technology companies with amazing amounts of data on different customers and the lives of all the people who use their platforms. We’ve learned a lot from watching how they do that.

There needs to be a role for a new type of health service that you join that keeps you healthy, that is independent of CVS, Walmart, and the insurance companies. People could join an organization that is purpose-built to manage their health information at their request. Who will be the first health banking service that is a trusted, independent third party that can aggregate your data and that you can assign in a permissioned way to allocate access to your data at certain points in time? Whoever creates that is going to be powerful.

The future health economy will be built on the currency of trust. One of the things that we sell quite a bit to our clients and employers is that Crossover is an independent, tech-enabled, data-enabled, national medical group that is independent of payers and health systems. We are a potential candidate to become that trusted intermediator of your health data. To bank your health data in a way that you trust and to allocate and invest your health information based the permission and rights you have. We are excited to see where that goes.

HIStalk Interviews Kavita Bhavan, MD, Chief Innovation Officer, Parkland Health & Hospital System

October 16, 2019 Interviews 2 Comments

Kavita Bhavan, MD, MHS is associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and chief innovation officer at Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas, TX.

This interview was conducted by Vikas Chowdhry, MS, MBA, chief analytics and information officer of Parkland Center for Clinical Innovations in Dallas, TX.


Describe how your career led you to become a chief innovation officer.

I started out as a graduate student in public health at Johns Hopkins and then pursued my MD at Penn State. After completing my residency training in Internal Medicine at Ochsner, I chose infectious diseases, at Washington University, as a subspecialty because it is an area where public health and medicine naturally interface. I joined the faculty at UTSW in 2009, working in an HIV clinic at Parkland.

Shortly after joining the faculty here, I was asked to work in a smaller capacity with a great team of pharmacists on ways in which we could improve delivery of care for uninsured patients that require long courses of IV antibiotics in the outpatient setting. The existing disparity between this group of patients and those with adequate insurance was that they could not access standard forms of outpatient therapy, such as infusion centers, home health services, or skilled nursing facilities.

Prolonged inpatient care is difficult for an individual patient since it limits their ability to return to work or care for family at home. It also impacts the safety net system, where many patients may be waiting to be admitted in the ER. We innovate in this kind of an environment out of necessity and can only succeed when we are given space to rethink care delivery with support from leadership and key input from frontline providers.

What does innovation in healthcare space mean to you?

Innovation in healthcare can present itself in a various forms. While many people associate technology with innovation, I’ve been increasingly interested in thinking about another aspect — low-tech, low-cost approaches to patient-centered innovation to address disparities and improve health equity. The most natural place to start seems to be effectively engaging patients in care processes to reconfigure existing resources to improve high-value care.

What does that mean? In healthcare, we often talk about empowering nurses, social workers, and physicians to practice at the top of their license. What does top of the license for patients look like? Innovation in healthcare includes co-designing care with patients to improve access and address other existing problems. Better clinical outcomes can be achieved with such co-production of care.

There is a shift that occurs when a patient is providing care for themselves at home, as in our home IV antibiotic program. They move from being a passive recipient of care in the hospital to being an active participant in their care at home. We have observed better clinical outcomes over the years while also seeing enhanced engagement and management of one’s health, including other chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Innovation is usually thought of as synonymous with technology. While technology is important, we need to make room for another model of innovation that is even cheaper and easier – recognizing human potential.

How does engagement that goes deeper than “use this app to check your lab results” or “use this device to report your steps” work in practice?

Our self-administered outpatient antimicrobial program at Parkland has become a new standard of care for our patient population and is an example of effective patient engagement. Typically, patients with infections that require long-term antibiotics receive intensive diagnostic and therapeutic services in the first several hospital days. Afterward, they remain in the hospital only to receive antimicrobial infusions.

Insured patients may be discharged early to complete their antimicrobial courses at home with contracted nursing assistance or in lower-cost nursing facilities, but uninsured patients usually remain in the hospital because they cannot afford a healthcare-administered outpatient parenteral antimicrobial therapy (H-OPAT, overseen by the healthcare system).

Those uninsured patients have limited options and may be confined to the hospital, which prevents them from resuming work or other activities of daily living or caring for family members at home. In the safety net hospital setting, this can be a challenge in terms of capacity and the ability to care for other patients, in the ER for example, as a sub-optimal use of resources such as beds.

We approached this problem by piloting our program with a few patients in 2009 with the goal to teach and train the method of self-administrated IV antibiotic therapy by gravity at home. We started the program with minimal resources as patients did not have a home visit or access to home health nurse, infusion center, or devices such as pumps / elastomeric balls (S-OPAT, overseen by the patient themselves).

We began with four patients as a proof of concept and have now cared for more than 4,000 patients through this program. Along the way, our multidisciplinary team listened and learned from our patients what works and what doesn’t work to further refine the process.

We translated education material to appropriate levels of health literacy for our population, achieving a fourth-grade literacy level in English and Spanish and including pictures. After a few years, we moved to an audiovisual process where patients can scan a QR code on the back of an IV bag and be sent to a teaching video on their smart phone where they can watch the process and review all of the steps for infusion at their own pace. This has been effective not only for patients who speak other languages, but also for those who prefer visual learning.

We developed a competency checklist, and using the teach-back method, had patients demonstrate all of the steps of infusion and PICC line care needed to ensure safe discharge from hospital to home.

After the first four years of operation, we tracked clinical outcomes for our S-OPAT patients compared to patients with insurance who left our hospital for healthcare-associated OPAT such as home health or skilled nursing facilities. We were surprised to find that our S-OPAT patients had a 47% lower 30-day readmission rate along with higher patient satisfaction.

How is that possible? When we talked to our patients on return visits, we found they mastered all of the steps and took ownership of the process. It was clear they were more invested with effective engagement. One patient actually said she thought she did better because “it is my own body” versus a nurse coming out to the home to perform a job. We began to appreciate the positive impact of patient engagement with meaningful results.

How do you scale the program?

One of the interesting aspects of this program was that after learning about the success of self-administration, other patients who were insured with access to healthcare-administered therapy wanted to participate in our self-administration process. I have since learned from others that this may fit a model of disruptive innovation. You create something that is useful for a small section, usually a bottom tier of your consumers, that eventually becomes attractive to the broader market. However, unlike a consumer market, adoption by the broader market is determined by a lot of other factors, including existing health policy, reimbursements, etc.

There has been other interest in promoting patient engagement as seen by the recent CMS position on encouraging at-home dialysis. The proposed ESRD Treatment Choices model will give patients an ability to choose at-home dialysis, which may potentially improve satisfaction, lower costs, and improve outcomes.

Could your work have been done at other institutions?

UTSW and Parkland’s partnership is unique because we are committed to caring for a large population of uninsured or underinsured patients with health disparities. Innovation centers attached to larger health systems may have greater investment in technology-based innovation. Our approach has been more patient centered. Our CEO, Fred Cerise, MD, MPH, described another way of looking at innovation that does not need to be driven by profit in his Harvard Business Review article a few years ago

We are likely in the minority coming from a safety net hospital in the larger healthcare innovation space, but there is a need to grow across the country since safety net settings innovate out of necessity.

What’s the most impactful book you have read in the last 12 months?

“The Moment of Lift” by Melinda Gates. She articulates the value of inclusiveness and educating and empowering women to fully recognize our collective potential as a society. There are examples of how impactful this can be around the world and here in the United States.

How do you remain optimistic as a physician when working with a population whose inequities and social disparities are root causes that you can’t address?

The problems are far reaching and there is no simple solution. We are increasingly aware that social determinants affect health and outcomes. Just because we cannot do everything to solve these problems does not mean we cannot do something, to do some small part to help address a given problem to improve the status quo.

I’m lucky to work in an environment where I and many others have the opportunity to make some small difference as we strive to improve patient care.

HIStalk Interviews Karly Rowe, VP, Experian Health

September 30, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Karly Rowe, MBA is VP of new product development, care and identity products, at Experian Health of Franklin, TN.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been with Experian for eight years. I oversee all of our new product development, the processes, the teams, as well as our identity and care management portfolio. Our Experian Health business is represented by the areas of revenue cycle management, identity management, care management, and analytics. We started in the market serving a group of providers.

What are the chances of the US implementing a unique patient identifier?

Now more than ever, there’s an openness to consider a national patient identifier, especially as topics of interoperability are getting more and more advanced through things like TEFCA. There’s a new acknowledgement within the public sector, the private sector, and the healthcare industry as a whole that a lot of the things that we want to achieve — in terms of true interoperability and improvement of care for patients and care coordination – all foundationally stem from having a national patient identifier in place.

I don’t have a crystal ball to predict whether that time will be tomorrow, next week, or a year or two years from now. But I do think that there’s been a significant shift and an openness, to where we are closer now than we ever have been to getting to a point to embrace the national patient identifier.

How would that change the company’s business?

I don’t see a large pivot. Our position is that there isn’t one key-holder to this identifier. It’s more likely and more beneficial that it’s a handful of vendors, of organizations, working together to provide it. 

We collaborate with vendors across many other lines of business. Our core business is as a credit bureau. If you look at that model, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian work together, collaborate, and share information as it pertains to individual’s credit to ensure that the information is the most accurate when going out to consumers.

For us in a healthcare setting, do we provide identity services? For sure. Would we be open and accepting to collaborate with other key leaders within the industry to make this something that could truly help transform the healthcare industry? 100%. There’s precedent that has been set across multiple aspects of our business. That credit example is just one of many.

Online services often ask people to verify their identity by choosing their previous address or a car they used to drive from a list of choices, something that they know that others would not. How is that being used in healthcare versus just taking a patient’s driver license or insurance card?

That’s a service that Experian Health has been providing to the healthcare industry for several years. We work with a lot of the patient portal systems and are integrated directly with them. We can help provide the confidence to our healthcare clients that the patient is who they say they are, before you then open up access to all of their personal health information that’s highly sensitive. 

That’s something that we have carried over. Banks and financial institutions probably paved the way and were pioneers of setting that precedent. Healthcare is adopting that, as patient information is no longer on paper and it’s all electronic records. Access to that information needs to be protected and treated with the highest degree of security and sensitivity.

Surveys have shown that consumers, wisely or not, are willing to share their private information with companies that give them something in return. How will that play out in healthcare?

Even speaking for myself as a consumer, there’s a general frustration that we all feel when we say, “I can’t access all of my health information, my historical information, anywhere.” Unlike when I go online to look at my credit card statement and I can see all the transactions and I can look across multiple credit cards. The history, credits, and debits are all there.

It is absurd in healthcare that from a consumer perspective, if I wanted to do that today, I would have to individually reach out to find every doctor, every pharmacy, every lab test that I ever got, and manually go ask for that information. There’s a convenience where I would love to know that the care that I’m getting, the decisions that the doctor who’s standing in front of me is about to make on my health, are the best decisions.

The way for that doctor to make the best decisions is for me to provide the consent to say, you have access to that information, and there’s a way to pull that all together. The only way that that really happens is if you have an understanding of who I am as a patient across all of the different encounters that I’ve had. That stems by speaking the same common language, and the problem that we have today in healthcare is that we’re all speaking different languages. Everybody’s got a different way of identifying a patient and none of them interact. It’s like one health system speaking French, one speaking German, and another speaking Italian, all trying to talk to each other about a patient. It’s impossible.

Are health systems interested in using outside consumer information for patient engagement, marketing, or other communication that doesn’t involve only what the EHR contains?

Some are, but there are clear lines of distinction. This is where the patient plays a role in what information is being shared and for what purposes. There’s that clinical aspect of saying, I just want to be able to provide the history of my health so that that doctor has seen every lab result, every test, every procedure in their hands.

There is another element where, like in many other facets of our lives, we like the customization of the ads that are being sent to us, the coupons that are targeted to services that we enjoy, or the commercials. That transcends every other part of our life. In healthcare, there is an interest in saying, “Maybe there are pieces of who I am as an individual and the likes that I have. I’m OK with you having so that you can tailor my experience when I’m a patient visiting your portal or when I’m interacting with you as a healthcare system.”

That starts to get into things that could improve the patient experience and their overall engagement. A lot of topics stem around overall care management, care coordination, and how that patient is being treated and receiving care. There are broader socioeconomic data factors that can assist in that. But I draw a line of distinction between those. For a lot of consumers and patients, clinical information is different and feels different than your lifestyle, behavioral, and socioeconomic type information. Patients may want to choose to share those things differently for different purposes.

Some of the first uses of commercial consumer information I saw in health systems were as simple as verifying a patient’s identity via the address they provided or to determine their propensity to pay. Is it a big leap from there to using social determinants of health?

We talked about having a patient identifier. Studies done by ONC on patient matching show that having reference data, knowing more about a patient than what’s present within a healthcare system, can help you get a better match. It’s the same in social determinants of health. They say 80% of health outcomes are attributed to non-clinical factors. That means the socioeconomic factors that surround someone.

If you take a step back and say, what am I willing to give to get, it is like what you said about consumers. If a consumer knows that they could receive better care or have better care decisions made for them if they allow the caregivers or the healthcare organization to have a more complete picture of who they are as an individual, I don’t know who wouldn’t sign up for that.

Protections need to be in place to make sure that there isn’t abuse. Organizations like ours take it very seriously — the types of data, how that data is being used, and adhering to all of the regulations that are set forth. One of the things that we stand by very strongly is that we’re an original source compiler, which means all the data that comes into us, we have direct relationships with all those data furnishers. That allows us to ensure the integrity of that data, how it is intended to be used, and the regulations that are involved.

Others are buying data from somebody who buys data from somebody who buys data. The further downstream you get and all those different extensions, the higher the risk goes in terms of that data being used for the wrong purposes and for purposes that wouldn’t make a patient feel good.

What trends are you seeing in the increasing number of uninsured patients and high-deductible health plans that leave them paying more?

Patients have two pain issues – paying a larger percentage of the total and wanting visibility earlier. Sometimes it’s not the total of my bill that bothers me, but rather that I don’t have visibility before I get that bill in the mail. We do a lot of work with many of our clients to put patient estimates in the hands of consumers so that they are not surprised by what a particular procedure will cost or what their bill will look like. That goes a long way in helping them have a dialogue and a conversation with their healthcare provider to understand whether they have options or flexibility. 

That becomes critical, because it ties directly to the overall amount that the patient will ultimately be burdened with. There may be things that are optional within a patient’s care plan, there may be things that aren’t, or maybe there’s a drug that’s getting prescribed where there’s the option for a generic. Having that patient visibility into the cost up front allows that dialogue to happen, and maybe downstream to reduce that total burden and allow the patient to play an active role.

What is the expected outcome of Experian Health acquiring patient scheduling vendor MyHealthDirect?

What MyHealthDirect does is synergistic with what we do. We provide a lot of services that fall into the patient access realm. Bringing in the scheduling component to our suite of solutions, providing that ability to schedule a service, combining that with our matching and the correct identification of that patient, and then being able to facilitate the registration process, which starts to include running eligibility, looking at coverage, and providing those estimates. It’s really just continuing our breadth and advancing the more holistic solution of the patient access services that we can provide to our client base. 

All of this ties around our broader vision of of helping improve the care coordination for patients on behalf of our clients. It’s a natural fit and tie-in with many of the services that we provide today, but it also allows us go back to our clients with a solution that helps them manage that upfront interaction with a patient from the point of scheduling an appointment.

Do  you have any final thoughts?

We at Experian Health are excited about how we can help transform the healthcare industry, providing services and offerings to the market that are unique to our business. How we combine those, how we help solve challenging problems. One of the reasons I got into our healthcare space is that we have unique data and unique capabilities that, when hearing the challenges that our clients are facing, allow us to provide a differentiated solution. We’re excited about where we can help take the industry as we go forward.

HIStalk Interviews Jeremy Pierotti, CEO, Datica

September 16, 2019 Interviews 2 Comments

Jeremy Pierotti is co-founder and CEO of Datica of Minneapolis, MN.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been working in healthcare IT for about 20 years. I started off working at Allina Health in Minneapolis and ended up doing consulting. Then I co-founded Sansoro Health. Sansoro and Datica merged in June 2019, with the go-forward company name being Datica. We help healthcare move to the cloud by addressing compliance and data integration challenges.

What can the merged companies do more effectively than they could have done as separate organizations?

We knew that healthcare is moving to the cloud at an accelerating pace. As Travis Good and I started talking, we recognized that we had a complementary set of products, technologies, and team talent, and that if we put the companies together, we could help digital health engineering teams address the two challenges that they have to solve. Those are cloud compliance — which increasingly means meeting the HITRUST CSF requirements — and data integration, being able to exchange data bi-directionally between lots of different digital health applications. Electronic health records, but also all the different supporting systems that every health system runs.

How far along is healthcare in its seemingly inevitable move to the cloud?

It is toward the beginning of its journey, and it’s going to move fairly quickly. We’ve read lots of reports that show anywhere from 10 to 20% CAGR growth over the next five to seven years, and we’re experiencing that ourselves.

Like every other industry, healthcare is recognizing that what the cloud brings is not just running your software on somebody else’s computer in a data center that they manage, but providing access to a whole new set of tools for data analytics, supporting mobility, and integrating lots of types of data from lots of sources. You just can’t develop software with those features using an on-premise architecture. You are increasingly seeing large companies develop their new applications on a public cloud framework because it gives them the flexibility and the power of the toolset to leverage the capabilities of engineers and development teams all across the world.

How does the work of Cerner, Epic, and Meditech fit into a strategy of making their data available for use by cloud-based services?

They are moving deliberately and cautiously, understanding that they can’t make dramatic changes overnight. Their customers are big, complicated provider organizations for whom stability is enormously important. They are all looking for the right balance of making new capabilities available and taking advantage of cloud functionality that will give customers the features that they want, while at the same time, keeping their core systems stable. That means something a little bit different to each of those vendors, but they are all trying to find and strike that balance.

Would a move to the cloud change the exclusive relationship between a health system and their primary EHR vendor?

In the short term, I don’t think it changes anything significantly. I certainly don’t think it makes it more exclusive. In the long term, I think it makes it less exclusive.

I was listening to a podcast from Andreessen Horowitz, where Mark Andreessen was talking about how in Silicon Valley, you have this rich ecosystem of API-driven data exchange and whole companies that have been developed just to facilitate the development and management of APIs within industries. What we see in other industries will come to healthcare, too. When you have increasing adoption of cloud-based application development, you end up stitching those pieces together with API-driven data exchange. We’re seeing that same thing in healthcare as you look at the emergence of FHIR and other API toolsets for patient data exchange.

A move to the cloud by Cerner, for example, is not going to tie the hands of Cerner’s clients and make them any more dependent on Cerner. It is just part of the the slow, steady move toward health systems being able to choose from a variety of tools and integrate the tools that work for them best.

What is creating the demand for cloud-based services?

My colleague and our chief medical officer, Dave Levin — who used to be CMIO of at the Cleveland Clinic – says he spends all day working in healthcare and then he goes home to the 21st century. The reality is that it’s consumers. It’s our everyday experience with smart phones, tablets, and advanced software that we run on whatever device we choose and that allows us to move from one device to another almost seamlessly.

Those experiences that we who work in healthcare have every day in every other part of our lives make us realize that we need that same type of functionality when we’re delivering healthcare services to patients. When we’re managing populations of patients or health plan members, we need those same capabilities, those same toolsets.

To take the simplest of examples, there’s no reason that if I’ve been to the same doctor’s office six times in the last year, that I should have to fill out the same piece of paper on the same clipboard the seventh time. When when I walk into all sorts of other businesses, they know who I am. They have read my license plate or I’ve agreed to have my smartphone notify them when I walk in, so they know from the beacon  at the front door that I’ve arrived and they’re ready for me. It’s those kinds of experiences — the scalability, the mobility — that is driving healthcare organizations to create software with those same capabilities.

Will it be hard for healthcare IT vendors to move their systems to the cloud?

Vendors are looking to do that module by module. I don’t have deep insight into the Cerner-AWS announcement that came last month, but the way I understand it, Cerner is not saying that all of a sudden they’re going to move all of their clients who use Cerner Millennium onto AWS servers or AWS services. But they will be increasingly developing new software capabilities on the public cloud. On AWS specifically, for Cerner.

Going back to what I said earlier about the need for stability and reliability by providers and payers, but especially providers, our expectation is that you’ll see vendors developing their new software, their new modules, in the public cloud, taking advantage of those capabilities. They will work deliberately over time to figure out what makes sense in terms of potentially migrating their legacy products to a cloud infrastructure. I’m not sure I have any unique or special insight into that, but that’s the trend I’m seeing, health IT companies developing their new stuff in the cloud and migrating their customers who want those new features to that new platform.

Health IT vendors seem obligated to name-drop AI and analytics in their cloud announcements. What kind of learning curve will they and their cloud services vendor encounter as they modernize healthcare applications?

I wish I knew the answer to that. There clearly are some tremendously exciting applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning in healthcare. I’ve also read many pieces recently about the need to approach it carefully. Any time you’re going to train a machine to learn something, you need to make sure that you’re training it in the right way, otherwise you can create more problems than you’re solving.

But the cloud is a big part of that, because there are so many AI and ML services that are available through a public cloud infrastructure. AWS announced Comprehend, their natural language processing service, a couple of years ago. It allows users to train it and it comes at a competitive price point. That’s an example of how cloud service providers and application developers in AI and NL are looking to leverage the cloud — making those services available, allowing lots and lots and lots of engineers and creators to experiment with those services, test them, and determine what can have a real, positive impact on patient outcomes.

Big provider organizations are announcing their own cloud partnerships, such as Mayo Clinic and Google Cloud. How will those organizations work directly with cloud providers?

It speaks to the amount of data that providers are accumulating. They need to find ways to support the efficient storage and analysis of that data so that they can learn from it as quickly as possible and apply that to better operations and better patient care. It’s not surprising to me at all and I think we will see more of it. It’s understandable, because in other industries, you have big players, big companies that are on a daily basis using cloud platforms and the analytics capabilities of cloud platforms. To improve their products, to improve their customer service, and to improve their deployment of personnel.

Healthcare has the same needs and the same demands of end users to capture those capabilities without having to invest in standing up a new data center full of physical hosts and a big huge team of devops engineers, DBAs, and others to manage all of that traditional infrastructure. You’ve got all of that data and you need somewhere to quickly and efficiently store it and analyze it.

What impact do you expect to see from the federal government’s implementation of the interoperability and data blocking implications of the 21st Century Cures Act?

We’re waiting just like everybody. Our sense is that when the final rule is released, it will raise the floor, but it won’t necessarily raise the ceiling. We are looking to continue to push the ceiling with innovative solutions for integration.

We recognize that even when ONC and CMS release those new rules, it’s likely to be several years before they’re enforced. It’s going to take the vendors time to develop the technology and capabilities that those rules may require. We’re not waiting. We are working every day with health systems and innovative health IT companies to figure out how they can make the most of the data exchange capabilities that exist today.

The bottom line is that we’re eager to see what comes out. Industry discussion of those rules has been robust and the public itself is highly interested in it. Every person has a personal investment in being able to get access to and make portable their health information. So it’s fascinating, but we recognize that it will be years before anything is actually required and implemented. Our goal is to help our customers, providers, and payers take advantage of what they’re capable of right now.

Is the federal government at risk of oversimplifying the interoperability challenge in declaring mission accomplished just because the use of APIs and FHIR has widened?

As I listened to the debate over the last several months, and certainly after the draft rule was released, I was struck by how thoughtful and mature the discussion was across the board on these rules. There is a broad recognition within health IT that if this were easy, we would have solved it.

I’m not saying that it’s challenging mostly from a technology standpoint. It’s challenging mostly because there are lots of competing interests that have to be resolved, and they’re not necessarily easy to resolve. There are ways to do it, and our company and I personally have our own views on how to address some of those challenges. But it’s been a robust, mature discussion about how we balance the interests of different players, always keeping in mind that the goal here is the delivery of better patient care at lower cost and having better outcomes.

Do you have any final thoughts?

My colleagues and I are excited about the pace of innovation in health IT. If we weren’t, we would go find something else to do, since goodness knows the world has plenty of other problems to solve. I look forward going to work every day because of the opportunity to partner with people who feel emotionally compelled to bring positive change to something that impacts every single person — the delivery of quality healthcare.

HIStalk Interviews Steve Shihadeh, Founder, Get-to-Market Health

September 11, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Steve Shihadeh is founder of Get-to-Market Health of Malvern, PA.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’m the founder of Get-to-Market Health, a consultancy that helps healthcare technology companies accelerate their growth and revenue. I got my start in healthcare IT as a sales trainee with Shared Medical Systems, and through a series of growth experiences, ended up being their leader for commercial activities. I then had that same role at Siemens Medical after they acquired SMS, at Microsoft Health Solutions Group, and then finally at Caradigm, a population health company.

About two years ago, I formed Get-to-Market Health. I have a passion about the business and what technology can do. I also have a strong belief that high-quality commercial activities are an important part of any successful healthcare technology business.

What advice do you give a startup or a company that is getting into healthcare for the first time?

A big part of what we do is help people understand the market, but equally, help them understand how the market looks at them. Healthcare buyers are different. We will often have clients who want to enter a new space and it’s just not the right fit, or they need to make some adjustments. Lead generation, building a pipeline, qualifying — all those things are important, but the most important thing is figuring out where their product fits.

What help do companies need in deciding what product to bring to market or how to get it in front of the right people?

The healthcare market is incredibly complicated, in a good way. It’s not just hospitals and doctors any more. Trying to figure out who the real buyer is, who has the authority to buy, who has the budget to buy, and how to present a product in its best light is an important issue for any company, but especially smaller companies that are trying to grow.

How should companies approach a market in which Cerner and Epic have become dominant and may become even more so as providers consolidate to create a customer base that has fewer, larger players?

It’s funny how the market has swung. It used to be that everything was interfaced and people bought best-of-breed. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, where a few large companies dominate the space. But I don’t think you can keep innovation or innovators down. 

A lot of the work we do is coaching and helping innovators figure out whether they should have a relationship with one of those big companies. If they are going to compete, how? And if they are going to get out of the way of the big vendors, how do they do that and still be successful? It’s a tricky landscape.

I think of the relationship between newspapers and companies like Facebook or Google that send them much of their traffic, but also take a lot of their revenue. How can companies figure out how to cooperate with those big EHR vendors while remaining aware that they also compete with them?

We see that every day. There is coopetition, where companies are OK that you compete or you partner. But I think vendors and also providers are trying to watch the way the landscape is moving because hospitals and health systems have that same issue around digital traffic as well. It’s a pretty interesting time to be in this space.

Will big health systems succeed in their for-profit efforts to create IT companies, invest in startups, or run accelerators and incubators?

That’s the multi-million dollar question. The organizations you’ve written about, which I know well, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to incubate businesses. They are  becoming the investor. 

I understand the argument. To have a strategic investor behind a product like that is a big deal and will clearly help with other providers deciding to do business with them. 

It’s early to declare success. You can certainly point to some great examples – UPMC, Providence, and Northwell  have made some  good investments. It’s a clear trend because they aren’t able to make the margin they want on the core business and they have valuable intellectual property that they want to leverage.

How do companies that bring in new investment money meet the accompanying heightened expectations for growth?

It may be a little overused term, but it’s clearly an inflection point. The investor is betting on a multiple and a growth that wasn’t there before the investor showed up. Often the company that has taken an investment hasn’t really thought through how they’re going to make that growth happen. It is a point in time where the business evolves. Sometimes the players stay the same but just change what they’re doing, sometimes there are new players, sometimes there are new markets. But generally when an investor writes a big check, something’s going to happen.

What catch-up work do small companies need to do once they’ve hit a higher revenue level and have to start behaving like a bigger company?

We generally get called in when there’s a realization by the leadership team or the investor that they want to do more in terms of marketplace growth. What got them to that point isn’t going to get them ahead, so they want to try something different. It could be new markets. We have one client that is bringing in an AI machine learning platform from Europe to the US. People are taking products up into the enterprise space where they just used to work in community hospitals. It’s a realization that they want to do something different and they’d like an outside point of view as they do that.

How does a company formalize its sales process?

That stereotypical sales guy or sales gal from the past still exists, I guess, but they are a dying breed. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my career is how much more capable providers are getting as organizations and as buyers. They are pushing and demanding more from their salespeople than just buying lunch and overseeing a good demo. It’s clearly gotten better. Often we get called in to help them improve the deliverable that their sales team provides to the buyer.

How much of a company’s success is based on the skill, personality, or perseverance of a superstar salesperson whose traits can’t be easily replicated or obtained elsewhere?

It’s an interesting point. I suspect that the head of engineering has a few people he or she really relies on. The head of services has a few key people they rely on. I can’t argue against salespeople who are stars.

However, it’s more of the whole commercial mechanism —  how the company presents the product to the marketplace, how it prices it, how it creates product awareness, how it names and positions the product, and how it approaches buyers. You have to approach the CIO IT shop with your act together. You have to be able to answer the security questionnaire. You have to answer how it integrates with the EMR platform. You have to be pretty buttoned up in order to be successful today. It takes more than just a great salesperson. Although they are good to have and everybody wants them, it’s far bigger than that.

How do you advise companies to fit user surveys from companies like KLAS and Black Book into their marketing plan?

Really small companies don’t have to worry about KLAS, but they have other activities. Big companies have to invest in KLAS, Black Book, and various awards. Folks on the buying side really do use it. You may not be number one, but you had better not be off the list. It’s an acquired skill to be great at both delivering customer satisfaction and managing your relationships with those companies.

Do vendors call you because they haven’t done a good job at developing relationships with their existing customers?

One of the cool things we’ve been doing a fair amount of lately is running focus groups with clients and potential clients, to help them understand how they are perceived and how their product comes through. It gives them a safe zone to test ideas and get honest feedback. We facilitate that and help them hear what the potential buyers say.

Cerner hired KLAS to convene some of its big customers to tell the company how to improve its revenue cycle product and to ensure accountability as they did so. Will other companies do something similar instead of just talking to those customers themselves?

I’m not sure I fully understand the Cerner-KLAS thing. I was reading something about it this morning, in fact. One of the most important things a healthcare technology company can do is to get honest feedback about what’s working and what isn’t working. However you do it, I think it’s great. We seem to be getting more and more requests to help with it.

How do you see your business changing over the next few years?

It’s an exciting business. I have learned over the years that I don’t know as much as I think I know. It’s going to change in different ways. You look at some of the big companies that are spending money and hiring people and doing things and clearly there will be some shakeout from that. I hope they have the staying power and don’t get exhausted before they deliver some real products and capabilities. With the IPO activity and the buyouts that have happened, there will be more investor appetite for innovation. That guy or gal with a great idea won’t have any problem finding investors. It will be interesting to see where the products have an impact.

What goes through your mind when you walk the HIMSS exhibit hall?

I’m one of the people who actually enjoys going to HIMSS. Not because of the environment, but because it’s the business I’ve been in my whole career. I love the energy. You can clearly see who’s doing it right and who’s not doing it right. There’s a bunch to be learned from it. It’s a pretty amazing business, and a fun thing about the business I’m in now is that I can have a broader view of it. The roles I had before, in hindsight, were fairly narrow considering how wide the healthcare space really is and all the ways it is interconnected.

It’s clear that companies need to have their A-game for HIMSS or they shouldn’t go. We’ve helped several clients get ready for HIMSS and to do it right, but we’ve also counseled some clients not to go to HIMSS. They wouldn’t be heard above the noise. Awareness and creating client interest is a key opportunity for any company. They really have to pick their spots, whether it’s HIMSS or HLTH or any of the other regional or local shows. They have to have their act together.

Do you have any final thoughts?

You and I are fortunate to work in a business that’s evolving, growing, and consuming technology. It’s a business that all of us will depend on at some point in our lives. My view is, let’s make it better. We get to work with diverse business leaders to simplify the complexity and buying patterns of the healthcare technology market. That simplified buying process, with a clear understanding of what a product does or doesn’t do, is good for everybody. It’s win-win. No one, especially today’s providers, has time or money to waste. We think effectiveness and efficiency matter. That’s what gets us up and going every day.

HIStalk Interviews Ken Misch, President, Medhost

September 9, 2019 Interviews 3 Comments

Ken Misch is president and CFO of Medhost of Franklin, TN.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I began my career on a traditional finance and accounting track with Price Waterhouse in Cleveland in the late 1980s. After going back for my MBA in the early 1990s, I determined that I wanted to do something other than just auditing.

For the last 20 years, I’ve worked with smaller, growth-oriented, private equity-backed companies, either in the technology or the healthcare space. After a personal health issue surfaced about 15 years ago, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my career in the healthcare industry. Obviously since Medhost is a healthcare IT company, I’m fortunate that I can combine my interest in tech with my passion for healthcare.

Medhost serves over 1,000 facilities. We provide these facilities with inpatient electronic health record systems, related implementation, revenue cycle, patient engagement, and hosting and other managed services as well.

How would you characterize the market that you serve?

Medhost mainly serves what we would consider to be the community or the rural healthcare market, which is a different market than the traditional tertiary care market. The urban academic, large research healthcare facilities that you find in very large cities, is a different space than the healthcare facilities that we’re serving, those out in rural America. Those facilities are really challenged. Maybe all of healthcare is challenged to some degree right now, but rural healthcare probably more than others. Rural America is shrinking, but there’s still a need for providing healthcare in those communities.

Al the IT vendors that serve the healthcare space have been challenged recently by the increased regulation that’s been coming out of DC with respect to Meaningful Use, interoperability, et cetera. All of us have had to spend and invest significant dollars in upgrading the systems. Not only to comply with increased regulation, but hopefully provide better optimization and efficiency for our customers.

How has the move of Epic and Cerner into smaller facilities as well as Meditech’s efforts to rejuvenate its business changed the dynamic?

Certainly competition is increasing and is getting more intense every day. Epic and Cerner have tried to provide offerings to come downstream. They’ve had different degrees of success with that. We’ve had customers that have tried both and have come back to Medhost. We’ve had customers that have been forced to do one or the other through a health system connection. We typically get feedback on how that’s going. 

We think we provide the right solution with the right level of functionality at the right price point for these community facilities.It’s hard for these larger systems to come downstream to de-feature those systems at a price point that makes sense for these community hospitals without cannibalizing their existing base. It’s challenging for those facilities to come downstream.

Meditech is is trying to do more with some of their current offerings, but they still have three basic platforms out there that they’re supporting. Their SaaS offering might add a fourth to that mix.

The marketplace is competitive. We recently announced a large win with Quorum Health. Quorum was spun out of CHS. They needed to find their own standalone platform. They went out in a competitive and rigorous bid process and eventually selected Medhost to be their system of the future.

Why do investor-owned health systems almost never choose Epic or Cerner when their large, non-profit counterparts almost always do?

You’re touching on the basic point — it’s about who you answer to. The investor-owned facilities or the investor-owned providers are answering to a group of shareholders and stakeholders. A lot of their systems and their choices are being run by processes that look at return on investment or cost.

It’s hard to justify a return on investment in any IT space in healthcare right now, but looking at it from a cost perspective, those other systems are at a price point that might not make sense for an investor-owned provider organization, whereas the not-for-profits don’t exactly have that same mission. They both have a mission of taking care of patients, but the investor-owned providers probably have a little bit more of a financial hurdle, as they need to answer to their investor group.

Do hospitals worry more about their image in buying Epic or Cerner because their large competitors did instead of looking hard at return on investment?

In the urban communities, the bigger metropolitan areas across the US, that might be more relevant than in some of the spaces that we’re serving. We’re serving communities that probably only have one hospital and the next hospital is 50, 75, 100, or 150 miles away. There isn’t a lot of true provider competition in the markets that we’re serving.

I could certainly see when facilities are competing for talent in a large city that they might want to recognize that physicians seem to have a preference for one or the other. Physicians don’t like really any system from everything I can read and gather. They have more of a tolerance than a preference. Perhaps they have a tolerance for one more than another, and perhaps they’re getting training on one versus another as they come out of med school. That could be a decision for competing hospitals.

We have a large, investor-owned company here in Nashville that we talk to on a regular basis. A lot of what they talk about is providing the physicians with some tools. They may not need to invest in the largest system that’s out there, that may be run by some of large health systems in the country. They may choose to go a different route, but provide their physicians with robust tools that they need to do their job. But the back-end engine might be something a little bit different.

What are small health systems that are too successful to close yet aren’t being considered for acquisition doing to remain in business?

It’s tough for them. They’re facing a lot of challenges. A lot of those facilities are going to be more heavily Medicare and Medicaid versus commercial reimbursement. That’s been getting squeezed. There is more competition and some of their higher-value procedures are being siphoned off by the urban centers. They’re still being forced to comply with the same regulations as the large facilities. They still have to chin the bar on all the various regulatory items with respect to Meaningful Use and the other items that have come out of DC.

We’re seeing innovation starting to happen with some of our customers. How can they innovate their business model? How can they come up with strategies to help their communities? How can they engage a little bit more with those communities to help offset some of those challenges? It’s tough in the rural space right now.

We are seeing rural aggregators that are popping up and buying some of these facilities. They’re not going to be as big as a CHS or even a Quorum, which has about 25 facilities currently, but they’re acquiring maybe a handful to 10-12 facilities. They are realizing they can run those with scale. They can leverage some of the infrastructure and spread that investment across numerous facilities. We’re seeing some degree of private equity money coming into that, although most of that is an individual investors or small partnerships.

What vendor service offerings can help small hospitals gain some level of scaling?

We’ve been investing heavily in our service offerings. It started with the IT and hosting side and other managed services. As facilities were forced to upgrade their IT platforms, they were staring at either investing in hardware to put on-premise and then they would have to have the resources, both from a human and a capital perspective, to support those and maintain those technology resources. These small facilities realized that they would prefer to have somebody else do that, so we started to invest heavily in our hosting services about six or seven years ago. Now we’ve built a world-class hosting operation here at Medhost. Most of our standalone facilities have now elected to move into our hosting environment. In fact, we’ve had some of our recent corporate customers make that same decision.

More recently, we’ve started to expand our revenue cycle services, our back office services, and business office services. The smaller rural aggregators want us to do that for them because they don’t have the skillset that they need in the facilities. They don’t want to make the investment at the corporate location, so they are outsourcing that to companies like Medhost.

Is technology, specifically maintaining IT infrastructure or supporting regional interoperability, a big driver of small hospitals affiliating with larger ones?

At times. But technology replacement is a disruptive activity. A lot of the facilities, especially the inpatient facilities, have a system that they’ve chosen here over the last three to five years, maybe even longer than that. They have  decided who their partner is going to be. They are looking for that partner to help optimize the system.

The government, with the 21st Century Cures Act and a lot of the regs that are coming out with respect to interoperability, are requiring vendors like Medhost and others to make their systems more open and to begin to share data. That it isn’t going to require significant investment on the facility side to just link up a similar system. The systems will be able to communicate with each other, so that they can get the largest return that they can on the existing investment that they’ve made.

Typically there has to be some type of triggering event for a customer to make a change with an EHR. Maybe they see an end-of-life coming at some point and they will need to make a different choice, so they may go out to bid. It could be through a merger and acquisition, where they’re becoming part of another entity that wants to consolidate on a single platform. It could be dissatisfaction. Certainly not all customers are always happy, and so they may just get fed up with the existing system. But it takes a lot to get to that point because of the disruption that rip-and-replace causes.

What is the demand for interoperability in your market?

We’re not seeing a lot of proactive demand. A lot of it will be reactive to what regulations comes out  to make sure that they can comply.

As these community facilities evolve, being able to capture some information from other providers, other avenues, and other platforms will be helpful for them. They’re going to have to evolve from the traditional episodic care center that they’ve been in the past. The community hospital of the past will certainly change into the future and will need to provide different kind of tools and services for the residents of that community. Opening up the systems to enable them to capture patient data — or resident data, let’s call it — from other systems will be helpful for them. In the mean time, what they’re thinking about right now is just, how are we going to be able to comply with this?

Do you have any final thoughts?

I mentioned that I had a personal health issue surface about 15 years ago. It presented again about three and a half years ago. I have an extreme case of coronary artery disease. After receiving all the best possible surgeries and treatments from the best possible physicians and facilities, my symptoms continued to present, even with the smallest exertion, so I was forced to look for alternatives and to think differently.

I was fortunate to get connected to thought leaders and researchers who suggested a significant lifestyle modification. It involved a complete overhaul of how I thought about nutrition, fitness, and stress management. After three years of adopting this lifestyle, I’m off all medications. I have no symptoms, and I have a vigorous daily exercise routine that serves as a stress test for me.

It might be a stretch, but I look at the challenges that are facing rural healthcare today in a similar fashion. Traditional strategies, business operations, and the wonderful clinicians at these facilities are being stressed every day. It will take innovation led by the residents and employers within these communities, in partnership with local civic and government leaders, to identify business models that can help these organizations not only survive, but hopefully to evolve and thrive in the future.

HIStalk Interviews Vince Ciotti, Retired HIS-torian

September 4, 2019 Interviews 17 Comments

Vince Ciotti retired from a 50-year career in health IT in 2019. He documented the history of the industry’s companies, people, and trends over that time in his HIS-tory series. He can be reached at vciotti@hispros.com.


A reader of your HIS-tory emailed me to ask that I provide more information about you, which is why we are talking today. Describe your background.

I started in the business 50 years ago, in 1969. I was an English major at Temple University. I couldn’t get a job in any kind of English. There was an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer for a programmer trainee that said, “see Clyde Hyde.” He  was one of the three founders of Shared Medical Systems. The rhyme caught my eye — Clyde Hyde.

I went up for an interview and Jim Macaleer, the president, was dumb enough to hire me. I didn’t know squat about hospitals, computers, or accounting. I learned it pretty quick and had 10 great years at SMS. Then I left them and went to about half a dozen smaller vendors. The first 15 years of my career were with vendors selling to hospitals, the usual job.

Then I got into consulting, first with Sheldon Dorenfest. I met a guy Bob Pagnotta up in New Jersey who’s a real HIS pro, one of the veterans in the industry. We started our own consulting company in 1989, HIS Professionals. It lasted for 30 years, which is probably a world record for consulting firms. Sadly, we just shut it down this year. Now I’m retired.

What will the future hold for health IT consulting firms?

When we started 30 years ago, there were small firms that gave advice to hospitals who were experts in HIT. Sheldon Dorenfest is a classic example. He started many vendors. He started telling hospitals how not to get snookered so bad. Other guys like Ron Johnson, a whole bunch of individual experts, were consultants. Today, I used the word in quotation marks because consulting firms are merely staffing firms. They’re gigantic, billion-dollar corporations that sell you people to do an implementation or to staff. They charge you roughly twice as much as the salary they pay and they make billions.

I’m a little out of touch with this stuff, but the four biggest, I think, are Computer Sciences Corporation, Xerox, Dell — which used to be NTT Data — and Leidos, which got the big Cerner DoD contract. They’re billion-dollar firms that just sell people. Their services are simply to do the implementation of Cerner, like they’re doing for the DoD. Whatever vendor you have, they’ll claim to have somebody that knows it. It’s probably a junior who you’re going to teach to become a more expert person, who they will then charge you more for in the next engagement.

Consulting has gone downhill in my mind. In the early days, it was wonderful. We gave hospitals good advice, saved them a ton negotiating contracts, and felt good at the end of the day to collect our few thousand dollars, not the few million dollars these guys collect today. A different world.

Is it inevitable that a company, regardless of its principles, will eventually get big enough to sell or perhaps to be managed differently?

Two-thirds of hospitals are not-for-profit, one third are for-profit. The non-for-profit ones just don’t know what life is like in a proprietary company. You start a tiny consulting firm, two or three guys, you barely make a few thousand each per month. You struggle to get into six figures. You start hiring a few people, then a few dozen people, you sell more and more, and you grow to hundreds of thousands of revenue, millions of revenue. The next thing is, let’s try to find a sucker to buy us and we’ll get $10 million for our pension fund.

It’s inevitable that a small firm — be it consulting, HIT, or whatever their business happens to be — grows. If they succeed, they’ll look for a buyer, because the original people are now getting kind of old and approaching retirement, like they have a huge stack of funds. So yeah, I’d say it is inevitable. Small consulting firms sadly grow, become giant consulting firms, and look only for the money, not for the good that they could do for their customers.

Your HIS-tory suggests that the same people repeat their success at making fortunes by selling companies that hire them as executives to do just that. What’s it like for the employees who have to just keep rowing down in the galley?

If you could see a bar graph of salaries, it’s mind-blowing. A typical vendor’s C-suite makes tens of millions a year, the managers make high six figures, and what the employees who do the bulk of the work get either in the five figures or just about $100,000. It’s a staggering variance and proportion of income from the C-suite to middle management down to the rank and file.

Where it’s nicest is the tiny startup firms. I was so lucky. SMS was almost a family, just wonderful people. They really gave a damn about their customers. Made sure they delivered the product. The first five to 10 years were just glorious. Then slowly they went public, became a giant, billion-dollar company, and those standards changed. It was purely the money. How can we cut costs and increase income? I bet that’s the truth of almost any company, be it a vendor, consulting firm, or even a for-profit hospital.

How has it changed as hospitals are seeing dollar signs in innovation and startups?

Not much. Every small firm that started way back then had the intention of making money. The successful ones did and got bought up, or bought up others, and eventually sold out themselves for even larger sums. I don’t think that has changed. That’s part of capitalism. I don’t mean to be critical. Believe me, I’m not a communist. I hated communism and Gorbachev is gone. But capitalism has its flaws, too. If making money is the only goal of everybody on earth, it’s a pretty ugly society. It’s the small firms that really care. That family kind of orientation that I really loved. They were the best years, the early years of a small firm.

Last time we talked, I threw out a few company names for you to react to. Let’s start alphabetically with Allscripts.

I get confused. They have bought so much stuff and have so many products. They’re a confusing company. Cerner, Epic, Meditech keep saying just what they are, just what they have. But Allscripts is a little more complicated. I wouldn’t be too optimistic about their long-term future compared to the monsters, Cerner and Epic. But they’re pretty good capitalists and I’m sure they’ll keep making money. I just don’t get too excited about their product line.


They’re the monster. My god, the VA and DoD will keep making billions for them for decades and it’s our tax money. Very sad.

In the original DoD contract, the majority of the money went to Leidos. Of the $8 billion contract, Leidos is going to get something like $7 billion and Cerner only $1 billion for licensee fees. For the VA, wow, the opposite. I think the last note on your site was something like $15 billion is the latest budget estimate for the first part of the VA to go on Cerner. Most of that money is going to go to Kansas City. So I’m very bullish on Cerner from an economic standpoint.

From a product standpoint, they still have a terribly weak revenue cycle. You seem to get a headline every couple of months of a hospital with a catastrophe. Great EMR, solid clinicals, but they still haven’t fixed what used to be called ProFit that’s now called Cerner Revenue Cycle. It still seems to be their weak link.

How will the company’s culture change now that Neal Patterson isn’t involved in running the company his way as the passionate founder?

Brent Shafer was an odd choice. You would think Zane Burke as president would have been the perfect person to be the CEO. He knew Neal real well, knew the culture and all that stuff. Then for some reason they go with this outside search and bring in an outsider. He’s going to be a pure revenue guy who will just want to make money. He doesn’t know much about hospitals or Cerner’s product line. That’s the classic capitalism problem, pure dollars. I don’t think they’ll sell many hospitals, but they’ll make a fortune out of the taxpayers on the DoD and the VA. They’ll stay at the top for a long time.


Oh, Judy. Such a miracle. No sales and marketing. She’s so different. It’s just staggering that she’s made such a success and I think it’s going to continue. You know, the large hospital sales are all going to Epic. Many from Cerner, many from Allscripts as the old Siemens customers buy a new system.

Judy has a stunning future. Staggering success. It’s true hospital businesses, not taxpayers and DoD and VA. It’s really hospitals. She refuses to buy another vendor. Has had the same product now for almost 40 years, but the only vendor that has never acquired another vendor. I can think of no other that has been just their own system, period.

They have their weaknesses, too. They’re human. The kids, the young youngsters that they hire that don’t have much experience. The partner consulting firms that rip you off to give a lot of staffing for an Epic conversion. They have no homegrown ERP. Just like Cerner, you have to go buy another ERP and build interfaces. But boy, overall Epic … if I were a large hospital, that’s where I’d go.


Neil Pappalardo gave Judy a lot of advice when she formed Epic. She has followed his rules, which was never acquire anything, just build your own product. In those days, Meditech hired their own people fairly young like Judy did. Built all their own products, no interfaced partners, and they’ve got a complete set of applications.

Meditech probably has the most comprehensive set of apps of any vendor out there. With Expanse, they finally came out with a physician practice system. The last piece they were missing was an integrated doctor piece. So I’m very bullish on Meditech. Their sales were slow for a couple of years. I think for four years in a row, their sales declined, their revenue declined. Last two years, its finally come up. So hats off to Ms. Waters. 

I’m fairly bullish on their future. It’s just, darn, there’s not a lot a hospitals that are going to change EMRs. They stick with what they have. They spent so much money on it, they’re reluctant to go to the board and ask for a couple of million dollars for a new system. It’s just hard to get sales.

How much weight do you give technology when you choose your own doctor or hospital?

None. I go for the personality of the doctor. Do you like the guy or the gal? Does she like you? Can you get along with them? Can you smile? Can you talk?

I’ve got a family physician here in Santa Fe who’s so good that I’ll fly here from Florida 2,000 miles just to see him if I’m sick and then fly back. The ones I have in Florida suck. I just can’t stand them. To me, for a doctor, it’s the human side, the personality. Can you talk and you trust them? Do you think they really care about you?

For the hospital side, I had no choice. You may remember that I had a grand mal seizure in January. It’s kind of ironic. After 50 years in hospital computers, I retire and I go to my doctor’s office for a checkup and I have a seizure and they put me in a hospital and stick a computer in me. I got a pacemaker inserted in me and it saved my life. I’d have probably died. Still don’t know the cause, some kind of micro-stroke, but the pacemaker has been a damn miracle. Doctor’s say the battery’s good for 14 years. I told him I may not be good for 14 years. I’m thrilled to have it and it’s working like a charm.

The technology for the patient, when it’s interfacing with you personally, is priceless. Boy, the advances are glorious. You know, my father or grandfather would have dead with this seizure, and I’ll probably get 10, maybe 15 more years. So I love technology on a personal standpoint. But as far as the hospital’s computer system, I couldn’t care less.

I went to UCLA Medical Center and they have Epic. It was phenomenal to be able to see my whole chart on the screen with the security code and all that stuff. That was nice. And if I go to other Epic hospitals, they’ll know all about me. But a fourth of hospitals are are Epic, a fourth are Cerner, a fourth are Meditech, and a fourth are CPSI. If you’re admitted because of an emergency, you have no choice. If I had the choice, I would probably go with Epic now that I’m on that with my UCLA record, but again, when there’s an emergency, you have no choice. You go where ambulance takes you.

How do you see the dynamic among health IT vendors, salespeople, and health system executives?

In the early days at SMS, I was an early education manager. I had to train the new installers, as we called them then. Today they’re consultants, I guess, but then they were IDs, installation directors. I had a two- or three-week class to go through every single report, every single profile option, every master file, every transaction, whew. Took two to three weeks to train them and then they could still go out and botch up their first install. Took a couple of installs before they knew what the heck they were doing.

We hired salesman at SMS and they spent one day walking around all the offices, saying hello, shaking hands. Who are you? What do you do? Oh, OK. Then boom, after one day, they were out there selling. They had no idea what they were selling. It doesn’t matter. Sales is commissions. If you sell a lot of systems, you make a lot of money and you get promoted and you become a big cheese. If you don’t sell any systems, you get fired. You’re going to go to another company and try again.

You don’t learn the product. You haven’t been an installer or a customer service rep. You haven’t worked with the system. You have no idea how the system works. What you know how to do is smile, be pleasant, buy lunch, buy dinner, shake hands, be charming, have people trust you, get them to sign the contract, and then run like hell because you’ve got to make some more sales. 

That hasn’t changed to this day and never will. It’s capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just what life is like. Think of a used car salesman. What does he or she know about the engine, the transmission, or the differential of a car you’re buying? They know that they want you to sign quick before the end of the day. It’s not immoral. It’s not nasty. It’s just the truth.

Hospital, it’s so sad, they just spend time talking to salesmen. Hospitals should ask to talk to their installer. Who’s going to put the system in? I want to see him or her, have them walk around my hospital and tell me what good or bad things are going to happen. No hospitals do that, but that would be the dream, to see your installers before you sign that contract. Salesmen again are not immoral. They’re not liars or nasty people. It’s just their job. The job of used car salesman is to get you to sign that contract and HIT is not much different.

What do you think about the recent health IT IPOs?

It’s part of capitalism. Initial public offering is inevitable. The reason you form a firm is to get that stock on the market. Get double, triple, quadruple and away you go.

I joined in SMS in 1969. I got the 200 shares that Jim Macaleer gave to every new employee. I went to my boss and said, what’s a share? He explained it to me, and I said, what’s it worth? He showed me that it said 1 cent per share, so my 200 shares were $2. I was going rip it up, but he said wait five years, you’ll  be very glad. Sure enough, we went public around 1975. I think it was $14 a share. The stock had split several times before then, so my 200 shares were now like 800 or 1,600 shares. I was suddenly a very rich man. That’s the goal of capitalism, money, and it’s going to be the future as well as the past. That’s the American way. Nothing wrong with it, nothing immoral, it’s just the truth, it’s what our economy does. Nothing but money.

The only time I’ve sensed that you were star-struck was when you visited Judy Faulkner at Epic’s campus as you described in your HIS-tory. What surprised you about that visit?

She’s a very humble person. I walked into the lobby. There’s nothing massive, it’s just a lobby. Usually what you get is that the executive secretary comes over, asks if you want coffee, takes you into some big, glamorous conference room, and then after five minutes — there’s always a delay — in comes the executive. Shakes your hand, has two or three assistants on either side of them because they don’t know all the answers to your questions you’re going to ask.

I walked into Epic. I’m sitting in the lobby, you know, handsome couch. I look in the bathroom over there. There’s only a toilet, there’s no urinal. It’s a very female-oriented company. It’s kind of cute. All of a sudden, across the lobby, here comes this lady walking towards me. I suddenly recognize that it’s Judy Faulkner. No executive secretary, no setting me up in a big conference room.

She walks over, shakes my hand, takes me into her fairly small office, sits down, and says, “What are you here for? What do you want to do?” She’s such an open, humble, honest person. If you went to visit Brent Shafer at Cerner, you would probably get 45 minutes of introductory talk from other people before he finally came in the room, with seven assistants to answer all your questions. Boy, she just sat down and talked and said such honest comments. It was amazing. So yeah, she’s unique in our industry. Very a wonderful lady.

The one sad thing about her and Epic is that she is the company. I think she’s as old as me, 74, 75, something like that. At some point… she won’t retire. She’s not that kind of person. Epic has been her life and she’s very proud of it. I don’t blame her. But at some point, she’s human. She’s going to die, she’s going to retire, she’s going to have a heart attack. Who knows? Her successor can be nothing as good as she is. The company cannot have as bright a future once Judy is gone. She is the company. The company is her.

Sort of like Cerner and Neal Patterson, maybe Meditech and Neil Pappalardo. Neal and Neil slowly started to give the power of the company to their subordinates. I think Judy still runs Epic completely. I just can’t see a replacement for her. She is the company, personally.

Who are your heroes of our industry?

The folks at SMS, just because it’s the company I knew. Jim Macaleer and Harvey Wilson were the two bosses. Jim was just an incredible guy. He could be a mean son of a gun at times. A real Theory X manager. He was tough, but then the other half of the time he was funny, he was charming, he was pleasant. He just died, I think it was last year, 18 months ago. I’m really sad that we had to lose him. Harvey’s still around and doing wonderfully well. He not only helped form SMS, he was the number two at SMS, but then he formed Eclipsys and sold out to Allscripts.

We’re having our SMS reunion in a few days, the 50th reunion of SMS. One hundred and fifty people are showing up in King of Prussia and Harvey’s giving an introductory speech. To me, that’s a wonderful life, to have such a success and so many people coming to see you again and such a family feeling.

I can’t think of too many others that I really respect, that is until you get to the current vendors, and Judy would be at the top of that one.

How has retirement been versus what you thought it would be like?

Well, that’s an interesting point, because frankly I’m bored to tears. I’ve always been into motorcycles, Honda motorcycles. I started as a kid and that’s become my full-time occupation. I have six of them. I just sold one. I used to have seven, one to ride every day. 

I literally do ride a motorcycle every day. I get home about 1:00 or 2:00 from lunch and then wonder, what the heck am I going to do? I usually take a nap on the couch and I’m bored to tears. So I’m looking into some hobbies, other hobbies, maybe learn the piano, some other stuff. I love to look your site every morning, five minutes to get an update on what’s going on. Still keep up with a lot of good old CIO friends and consulting friends and even some people from vendors and we get together often.

Retirement is a bit of a shock. I had no idea what I was going to do and I still don’t. I work one day a year. I teach a class at Brown University, in their MHA program. I’m going out there two weeks and I probably spend about a week updating my vendor review and present it to the students. I should say “students” in quotes because they are CFOs, CMOs, CNOs, very sharp people. I probably learn as much from them as I teach them. But that two-hour class is the only thing I do all year.

When you meet someone and they ask what you do, they expect you to describe your job as your primary identity. How do you introduce yourself now?

I’m usually on a motorcycle when I meet somebody. We start talking about Hondas. I don’t meet professional business people any more, but if I sit next to someone on an airplane who wants to know what I’ve done, I tell them that for 30 years, I was a hospital computer consultant, and then for 20 years, I used to work for vendors in hospital computers, and now I ride motorcycles. That kind of sums it up.

You’ve got to think ahead of retirement. I didn’t and I’m sorry for it. I didn’t have any plans at all and I’m struggling with it now. If I didn’t have the Hondas, I’d go crazy.

Do you feel any springtime pull toward the HIMSS conference?

I live down in Orlando right next to HIMSS. I used to go every year, and the thing got so big. I started to get totally bored to tears with 40,000 people in one hall and hundreds of vendor booths. At the booths, the few old guys or ladies I knew were just not there any more. Dozens of young sales reps. So no, I have lost my affection for HIMSS. When it was small and you knew everybody, it was wonderful. It was glorious. It was a family kind of thing. As it has grown to the gigantic size of today, I haven’t gone for the past two or three years.

When I presented there, that was a lot of fun. Thank you for having me to do that HIS-tory presentation there and dress in the wacko hippie suit. Got me into the whole HIS-tory file, those 120 episodes you ran on your website, but I had never presented at HIMSS. If they wanted me to present the HIS-tory thing again, I would do it. That I love. But to just walk around the halls and meet all those green salesmen who I never knew and they never knew me bores me to tears. I can’t stand it.

Not many people seem to be interested in health IT’s past. How would you convince someone to read your HIS-tory, either now or 25 years from now?

It’s the same as reading the history of the human race, history of America, history of Europe, history of homo sapiens. You can only learn from the past. You can’t learn from the future. It’s not here yet. The mistakes made in the past will be made in the future unless you learn from them and change them. It’s such a priceless thing.

I just bought a book on the history of warfare. I’m a reader, I own thousands of books. And the first page has an incredible statistic. Of the past 5,000 years of human history, roughly back to 3000 BC, only in about 300 years have we not had a war. If you haven’t read history and learned that, you’re not going to appreciate the risk that we’re going into World War III with nuclear weapons and all this horrible strife between small countries around the world. You have to learn from the past to be able to avoid those mistakes in the future.

In HIT, what vendors did back in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, they’re doing today in the 2010s into the 2020s. Only when you read it and learn what they’ve done will you know what they’re going to do in the future and how you can avoid it. You avoid being a victim and help your hospital get a little bit of its money’s worth. I think it’s priceless in any industry — automobiles, transportation, education, automation, you name it. You learn from the past to do better in the future. If you just go into the future blind, you’re going to make the same mistakes.

What will your epitaph say?

If I could be remembered for anything, it would probably be my HIS-tory files, which I thank you for posting over such a long time, two and a half years. I hope some of the future CIOs read them and learn from them. I hope that’s what they remember me by, the guy that warned them about not repeating these mistakes of the past.

HIStalk Interviews David L. Meyers, MD, Emergency Physician Leader

August 28, 2019 Interviews 4 Comments

David L. Meyers, MD is retired from a long career in clinical medicine. He continues to consult, serves as a board member of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, and is pursuing a master’s degree in bioethics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Tell me about yourself.

I’m an emergency physician. I trained at Cook County Hospital in internal medicine, before there was a board exam. Emergency medicine was emerging as a specialty. I stayed in Chicago and went right into emergency medicine practice instead of doing internal medicine. I dabbled a little bit in internal medicine at Northwestern and did some research, but basically I’ve been an ER doc all my life.

I ran an ER in Chicago for about 20 years and then came to Baltimore to run an ER here at Sinai Hospital . After a few years, we brought in EmCare, a private medical management company, to staff the place and hire the docs. I went to work for them and did a bunch of executive-type things over the next 10 years, including running a malpractice insurance company operation, their risk management claims management. It was a publicly traded company at the time and still is.

I continued to practice clinically once a week, commuting to Dallas for five years and coming back here after my Friday night in the ER so I could keep my hands in the nitty gritty of what’s really going on in the field. 

I retired a few years ago and decided I wanted to pursue medical ethics in more depth. I had been on ethics committees all my clinical career and found it really interesting and challenging with what is going on in healthcare. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. I have some ideas about the discrepancy between business ethics and bioethics. There may be some opportunity to blend those kinds of things to have a more humane and better healthcare system.

How extensive is misdiagnosis and how do you assess the market for artificial intelligence to improve it?

Huge and huge. Misdiagnosis or diagnostic errors make up at least 50% of all harm-related medical errors. Most of the reliable information is based on claims data from medical malpractice, which is not a great marker for total number of diagnostic errors. But the ones that people are really concerned about are those that cause harm – significant disability, loss of limb, loss of the ability to work, and even death. Diagnostic errors are the most frequent cause of those high-harm results.

A recent study published out of by Hopkins David Newman-Toker and his associates looked at what turned out to be the Big Three conditions. They went to a big insurance database called CRICO, which insures about 400 hospitals and healthcare systems around the country, including Harvard and Hopkins and a bunch of other very prestigious academic medical centers. They looked at the claims data from this database to identify those conditions that were most often associated with high harm, that is, these disabilities and death. The categories turned out to be infections, of which sepsis, certain other paraspinal abscesses, and four or five other things were very prominent;  vascular conditions, mostly around strokes and heart attacks and similar kinds of conditions; and cancer. They called these the Big Three that are responsible for most of the significant harm-related categories.

This study is one of the best to flesh out how big of a problem this is. The total number of serious harm-related incidents ranges from 40,000 to up to 1 million, depending on how the analysis is done and what the source database is. It comes down to that a diagnostic error is associated with 5-7% of all patient encounters.There are hundreds of millions of diagnostic encounters every year. You’re talking about a large number of errors and then correspondingly large number of serious errors resulting in harm.

Is that misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose?

It’s a combination. It uses a definition of diagnostic error that came out of the Institute of Medicine, now called the National Academy of Medicine, that published a big monograph study on diagnostic errors in 2015. Their “To Err is Human” in 1999 said that the biggest problem is medication errors. That was the illusion of what was significant. While there were lots and lots of medication errors, they weren’t so much the cause of significant, harmful outcomes. Only in the last five or six years after this study was published was there an acknowledgement that the biggest harm-related cause was on the diagnostic side of things.

Is medical imaging analysis the most potentially useful deployment of AI in the care setting?

It is possible for an intelligent machine to look at millions and even billions of images in a very short period of time and then learn, through these neural networks and other mechanisms, how to recognize what’s a man, what’s a woman, what’s a cat. Companies have produced X-ray assistive artificial intelligence devices that can look at millions of images and be more accurate than radiologists. Sinai just got one of these artificial intelligence image analysis tools for looking at brain scans for hemorrhages. The studies show that Aidoc performs better than a panel of radiologists.

That’s not just in radiology, but in dermatology and other kinds of image recognition things. That’s where the first successes have been shown to be pretty good and where the greatest potential is right now, Then it could be expanded it to other areas where the appearance of something tells you what’s going on, such as diagnosing depression by looking at facial images.

In the the study of diagnosis, most errors occurred in the realm of cognition and cognitive errors — not considering a condition as the cause of the symptoms, not ordering the appropriate tests, or making decisions along the way that weren’t so obviously putting together a whole lot of data and saying, here’s the diagnosis.

At some point, I suppose we’ll have a Tricorder where we just put a bunch of information in and pass the patient through a CT scan type thing and it will come out with the diagnosis. But that is pretty far in the future. The thing now is, how are we going to help doctors be smarter cognitive players in the diagnostic process and assist them? 

Consider prompts and reminders. Can Epic, Cerner, or some of these other EHRs develop ways that the electronic record can say, “This is a middle-aged male with back pain who’s got hypertension and had pain radiating to his leg.” Then set up a tool that says, “This could be a patient with a significant risk, maybe 5% or more, of a leaking aortic aneurism.” Put that prompt on the screen to the doc to say, “Have you considered a AAA rupture or leakage in this patient?” 

We’re not there yet. They’re apparently not able to do that, although it seems that the technology is there. There’s a diagnosis tool called Isabel. It’s free on the Internet. You put in your symptoms and it will generate a differential diagnosis list, the things that ought to be considered as possible causes of the symptoms you’re having. 

The potential is there, but so far it hasn’t really been adequately exploited. Most of the effort seems to be looking at these deep learning things, where neural networks are used to teach machines how to recognize a mass on an x-ray or depression in a face or something like that.

Some of that is available now in the form of evidence-based clinical decision support, but doctors don’t always embrace it. What dynamic will need to be overcome to get doctors to see AI as a partner rather than a threat?

There’s still a lot of resistance. Physicians may be skeptical about how big of a problem diagnostic errors are. A lot of studies have shown that doctors are confident about their diagnoses even when they’re wrong. There’s this attitude that, “Maybe there’s a big problem, but I am not one of those problematic people. I’m above average.” Everybody thinks they’re above average in their diagnostic capabilities.The literature is telling us that it ain’t so, but getting doctors to believe it is another whole thing.

Then there’s the cost of all these AI-type things. EHRs themselves, as bad as they are, are a huge expense for hospitals. They’re already struggling to make theme cost-effective. Adding additional bells and whistles that the doctors may not even accept is a risky kind of proposition.

What about the ethical issues of AI in healthcare that have received widespread coverage lately?

Artificial intelligence tools are created by humans who have their own biases. There is recognition that those biases can be built into the tools of artificial intelligence. They aren’t yet totally objective. Health equity issues that plague humans and our biases may be built into those systems. Not consciously, but because it comes from human creation, it’s automatically saddled with human biases, even though they can be minimized. We haven’t figured out how to eliminate them yet.

What technologies hold the most promise for improving outcomes or cost?

In the long run, artificial intelligence is probably the key to better care and lower costs. But with regard to timeframe, I’m skeptical about whether we’ll be doing this on earth or doing it on Mars. It will be decades in the making for this to come to a point where it’s having such an impact, although imaging analysis has a very reasonable timeframe in the near future to make a difference. If we can have better imaging analysis and diagnosis, that will contribute to a significant reduction in harm and lower the cost of care.

There are predictive analytics systems that look at masses of records, collecting them and putting them into categories for making predictions. The Rothman Index, which I think is mostly done manually by nurses entering information into the patient record multiple times per day, looks at those inputs and recognizes patients who are potentially at risk. It gives an early warning to the staff using those 20 or 30 parameters from the nursing notes, vital signs, and other electronically collected stuff. It says, “This patient is going to need a rapid response intervention in the near future unless you intervene with some technique now.”

By aggregating millions of patient records, I think we’ll be able to predict who isn’t taking their medicines, using an Apple Watch type thing or something like that. We could say, “The patient isn’t taking their medicines. The patient gained weight. We have to send somebody out there to intervene. Maybe their heart failure is getting worse.”

That is where the potential for improving the care and reducing the cost is going to be. These predictive analytic tools, collecting data in the background and telling the providers, “Pay more attention to this guy. He seems to be on the verge of deteriorating.”

HIStalk Interviews Steven Davidson, MD, Retired CMIO

August 21, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Steve Davidson, MD, MBA is retired as an emergency physician and CMIO of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY and provides consulting services as EMedConcepts.


Tell me about yourself.

I was born in Philadelphia. My dad was an internist-gastroenterologist, doing endoscopies back in the era of rigid scopes. My grandfathers were home carpenters, so I grew up with the idea that you could use your brain and you could use your hands. I went to medical school because I had ambitions to be an academic. I discovered emergency medicine as a new field. I was impressed by David Wagner, who was one of the grandfathers of the field. He was a pediatric surgeon who worked in the ER so he could pay his kids’ tuition.

Since it was a new field and there were fewer people clambering around on the ladder, I thought I might get to the top quicker. I never really made it to the top, but did OK. As one of the earliest trainees, I got involved in academic emergency medicine and was a tenured full professor. I went to Wharton, got an MBA, and managed to land a really nifty job in Brooklyn, working for a guy who was doing a turnaround on a hospital there, Maimonides Medical Center. 

He let me take the ER as an independent business unit. I ran the medical side and the business side of the ER. Everybody who worked in the ER worked for me, including nursing. If there were more than five people in a job title, they worked for me. I did that for 15 years, managed to piss off a few people, and got kicked upstairs to the CMIO gig. I discovered that my impatience and short attention span, which was an asset in the ER, was a contributor to a crash landing in the executive suite.

I went back to taking care of patients for a few years, sold my place in Brooklyn at the top of the market, and came back to Philly, where I had real connections beyond professional friends. I’ve spent the last 16 months renovating an old stone pile, a 100-year-old house, and working on Steve — going to the gym, eating right. I’ve gone to hear lots of live music. That’s enough.

Now that you’re somewhat of an outside observer of healthcare, what do you see?

If you’ve seen one ER, you’ve seen one ER. They are all different. I brought to that my experience with W. Edwards Deming and the idea of improvement processes, things like that.

Culture is an overwhelming force that is hard to overcome, and healthcare’s culture has been incredibly physician-centric. The nursing force was always there, but has gotten much stronger with the real administrative control that has gotten much, much stronger. It’s hard to see how, other than in small-scale improvement efforts, overall system improvement is going to happen without major legislative and financial flow change.

Your work in the ED was the ultimate episodic practice. Is it a marketing challenge to convince patients / consumers why they should value continuity of care when they are reasonably happy with the status quo other than price?

Middle-class folks who can afford the drop-in to the urgent care centers are eager to scratch that itch right away. In my experience in caring for the people who were not regularly doctored – for example, the folks who were on medical assistance in Brooklyn and had to make do with hospital clinics — would get very dejected when the internal medicine resident who had clinic once a week graduated after three years and was no longer their doctor.

I can’t tell you how many people I saw over my 15 years in the ER who would show up after not having been in the ER very much in the previous several years. They had been assigned to a new doc and clinic and they didn’t like that doc. Those people craved the continuity of care. My middle-class friends on Facebook, to all appearances, are glad for the networks of urgent care centers.

How should we apply social determinants of health to improve public health?

Many ERs, including where I used to work, have identified lists of frequent flyers. This goes back to the work of a guy at Cooper in Camden that was written up in the New Yorker, it might be 10 years ago now. He identified people who needed a new refrigerator, a new bed, or their roof repaired. Social determinants of health.

What’s happening in a place like Maimonides Medical Center is that the patients who were constantly in the emergency department, they are trying to get at the contributors to these visits. They get social work and community organizations engaged. At Maimonides – I’m not hawking what they’re doing as anything special because I know other places are doing it, I’m just telling you about the place where I know a little something — put together this community health network. They have integrated behavioral health with primary care for this patient population, for the broader group of patients with any serious behavioral health issues. It’s apparently having some impact on the frequency of utilization of the emergency department by individuals identified within this population.

As someone who ran medical services for a big-city fire department, how well have we integrated 911 services, pre-hospital care, and related technology into hospital practices?

There was a time when EMS developed as a medical service. If you go way back, ambulances were a secondary function of hearses. If you move a little bit past that, Frank Pantridge created heart ambulances in Belfast, Northern Ireland to save “hearts too good to die” with a defibrillator. Trauma surgeon David Boyd recognized that trauma care in Vietnam was better than it was for a motor vehicle crash victims.

Pre-hospital care developed as a medical service. Over the years, fire departments increasingly engaged it, initially for their own purposes to provide services to their own people who got injured at scenes. Over the years, as the number of structure fires began diminishing — both because older structures had burned out and because of better fire prevention practices — fire chiefs needed to maintain a reason for a handle on the public purse. Since they already had ambulance services for their own folks, they increasingly moved into EMS. Ultimately, what we’ve decided as a country by and large is that EMS pre-hospital care mostly resides in paid fire departments, at least in the urban and inner suburban areas.

Even as that was happening, Joe Ryan in Pinellas, Florida and others like him identified that a large number of people were calling for care. They were worried well or had something small and self-limiting that could be dealt with on the scene. In Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, you have Hatzolah, an all-male volunteer ambulance service that raises funds, does not bill, and hence has no requirement to transport. Without transport in EMS, nobody pays. You get paid for the transport, not for the care. Hatzolah is an example of doing this right within the community — responding to people’s needs, offering help at their bedside or in their home or workplace, and not necessarily transporting.

Emergency medical dispatch, created by Jeff Clawson, MD, is a discipline that has developed data-driven protocols to give telephone advice prior to arrival and to help select the requirements for urgency of response. The fire departments are overwhelmed and budgets everywhere are under such stress that they are interested in interventions that avoid transport and divert callers / patients into other means of care. That’s probably a good thing if it’s being done correctly. Joe Ryan, who now is in Reno, got money from CMS several years ago to look at an expanded role for paramedics to offer care in the community. I don’t know whether he was able to move forward with that based on issues with the local ambulance providers.

Doctors and nurses, by and large, have a charitable and helping impulse. With the public safety mindset — firefighters among them, who are rightly celebrated for running into the danger when everybody else is running away — there remains some question in my mind as to how suited the fire department is to be doing this work. But clearly fire chief leadership across the country has taken up this role throughout and is doing the best they can with it.

Jim Page was a fire chief, founder of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, and a big booster of EMS on the fire side in California. Mr. Page has been dead for a decade or so, but there was a point at which he quite publicly said that doctors in EMS were bossy nuisances. To some degree, that’s part of the environment I worked in and why I decided to move on from the EMS leadership roles I’d had.

We first exchanged emails about the extent of misdiagnosis and how machine learning and artificial intelligence might have a role. As a doctor, how much value would you receive from technology helping you arrive at a diagnosis?

In the dim, dark past, I was a clinician working with John Clark, a surgeon. He was able to show that a junior resident using his software solution, running on an old Mac, was more accurate in diagnosing appendicitis than the most experienced surgeons by themselves. There was a period of time where John’s software was used on the orbiting space station. That was before we did a lot of bedside ultrasound and CT scanning of the abdomen. I’m telling you this story just to preface my response that in medicine, certainly emergency medicine, we are learning about our cognitive errors in reaching decisions for patients, including diagnostic decisions.

The heuristic is that you know what you know, and if you don’t think of something, it doesn’t end up on your differential diagnosis. If it’s not something you see very often, you may not think of it. Systematic ways of prompting consideration of reasonable possibilities — and who the hell knows what “reasonable” is? —  can be of value.

I just saw a paper pointing to the three areas of most diagnostic error harm – vascular events, infections, and cancer. These are big categories, even in the emergency department. Patients have cancer that hasn’t yet been diagnosed or they’ve had previously diagnosed and treated cancers and present with a new set of symptoms. It’s easy to think in terms of the statistical probabilities rather than considering the possibility of other cancer stuff.

What advice would you offer to someone looking forward to retiring and not having to go to work every day?

I’m no great fan of Arthur Brooks, who just announced that he’s retiring as executive director of the American Enterprise Institute, but he had a spectacular essay in the Atlantic called “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” It basically says that you are already past the peak of your career. You just don’t know it.

He writes very broadly in terms of how you might think of the rest of your life. I have found it thought-provoking and well worth the read. For me, I am a reader. I am a curious person. I’m a big-time lover of acoustic music – bluegrass, old-timey Irish music, and all the mash-ups of that.

You must be more than your career. I’m extraordinarily fortunate that my folks introduced me to music while I was young. They didn’t give me a hard time when they found me reading the Encyclopedia Britannica under the bedclothes by flashlight in the middle of the night.

People are where it’s at. The residency that I was part of at Hahnemann Hospital is gone and the hospital is closing down. Before that, Medical College of Pennsylvania, where I spent 20 years. That’s gone, absorbed into Drexel. Places disappear, places change.

I’ll just close with one last thing. A man very close to me — we’ve been friends since we were 18 — had a terrible fall last week. He was horribly injured and is in an ICU of a big trauma center. I got to his bedside about 20 hours after he got to the hospital, but I got help by reaching out to the broader emergency medicine community. I was connected to the doctor who first cared for him when he hit the ER. That doctor was two degrees of separation from me, and I was connected to that doctor within about two to three hours of calling out for help to my network.

It’s people, it’s people, it’s people. Whatever you do in retirement, stay connected to people.

HIStalk Interviews Peter Smith, CEO, Impact Advisors

August 8, 2019 Interviews 1 Comment

Peter Smith is CEO and co-founder of Impact Advisors of Naperville, IL.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’m the CEO and one of the two co-founders of Impact Advisors. We are a consultancy that is dedicated to healthcare and we are a technology-enabled process improvement firm. We focus on what your readers would consider to be the HIT market, as well as helping our clients optimize their processes across the organization.

Our clients are pretty much all flavors of healthcare providers — IDNs, all kinds of hospitals, physician clinics, and almost any entity in healthcare. We also do a little health plan work as well, but predominantly it’s the provider-based segment that we work in.

It seems like most big health systems are playing around with digital health, innovation projects, and consumer-focused initiatives, to the point that they’re creating C-level positions to oversee them. Is this a fad or are health systems really changing the way they do business in response to changing demand?

It’s a combination of both. We’re obviously seeing a shift in healthcare. Whether it’s the concept of moving towards value-based care or more consumer-directed care, there’s a lot of dynamics that are being backed up in terms of reimbursement models. We’re not there yet. I just gave another interview talking about organizations that have one foot in a fee-for-service world versus the new world. I fully recognize that we’re going to be in that state for a while.

But clearly we’re moving there, and that’s driving a lot of organizations to think about some of the things you just mentioned — digital health, patient and consumer access, how to create a digital experience for not only patients, but families. All of that’s coming into play. Organizations are optimizing the existing environment, but also thinking about how to start building technology services and processes in the new world in preparation for a shifting environment.

To answer your question, I think a good organization will not only retain what they’re doing and optimize it, but also think very diligently about how they move forward with things like digital health or optimizing their a future environment.

Health system competition is no longer just the other hospital across town, it’s regional and soon-to-be national health systems, drugstore chains, insurance companies, and research organizations that are coming in late to the health IT party. Do health systems have the level of expertise, both corporately and in the CIO office, to keep up with the new technology demands?

You’ve hit on a couple of major trends. Obviously many organizations are moving towards scale. Five and $10 billion a year organizations are becoming $20 billion because they need to get to a certain scale. Certainly from a managed care standpoint, to drive economies within the managed care world or the impending value- based care world.

I have a little empathy for folks who are running hospital systems right now. It is not an easy world. They’re getting hit from all sides as they have to aggregate and get scale to be competitive in a new marketplace. They have to create relationships with patients in a different way that I just described, and all the investment that’s associated with that.

Another major driver is what’s being carved out of their systems. Profitable services are being carved out by for-profit companies. If you’re running a large hospital system, you’re getting hit competitively from all angles. That’s a very tough place to be.

You asked particularly about leadership. You’re seeing some very progressive leaders in this space. Those are the ones who are going to be successful, who are thinking about their business models in a new and different way and maybe even challenging some of the traditional ways.

As health systems scale into multi-billion dollar revenue, will the people they choose to lead IT and innovation increasingly be hired from outside the industry?

You’ll start to certainly see that. But there’s a premium in terms of understanding healthcare and understanding healthcare technology. You’ll see entrants, some of them very good, from outside of the industry, but they will have a steep learning curve.

I don’t believe you’ll see a major tipping point where organizations are actively bringing people in from the outside of healthcare. But I do think that condition will exist, and in some cases, it will be very successful, while in others, maybe not. It will be predicated on the individual and what previous experiences they have had.

Providence St. Joe’s is in a geographic area where they have a lot of talent around them  — Microsoft, Google, and Amazon — but that access to talent might not exist in places in Nebraska. If you’re in those markets, you exploit the best talent you can. If they also come with healthcare experience, that’s an absolute bonus.

How does having larger but fewer healthcare systems as customers change your business?

We think about that every day. We recognize that in some parts of our business, we have to get to scale. Certainly in some of our implementation practices, we need to ramp up our recruiting to service clients in a much larger way than they have traditionally. When we were working for the mid-sized market — the $1 billion to $3 billion organizations that have IS departments of 100 people — we could serve as the whole team. Now we look at a scaling, not only of our internal resources, but how to partner with others to be a full-service providers.

Providence St. Joseph Health, Mercy, and other big health systems have blurred the line between provider and vendor, with the former hoping to create a billion-dollar annual revenue organization. How do you see that playing out?

I’m very interested in seeing it. I’ll even add a little twist to that, the Optum deal with John Muir that was announced about two weeks ago, a major platform play and potentially extending that platform beyond. This is not a new concept. Many IDNs have created some form of managed services organization over the decades. Some have been successful and some have not.

It’s going to be about leadership, client relationship management, and about how they execute. I think the concept is sound. How do you aggregate services in a better, higher-quality way at a lower price point? Those are sound objectives and the industry needs that. How they execute over the next year or two is going to be critical.

Providence St Joe’s is fascinating. Just in full disclosure, we’re doing work there, so we know a little bit about their designs on Community Connect and beyond. But these models can absolutely be successful. They will probably first be successful on a regional basis and they’ll use those as proof points and qualifications to possible extend beyond.

How do you see the movement toward cloud computing as Cerner announces a deal with Amazon Web Services? Will we see a lot more results of vendors moving to cloud services offered by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft?

We’re just on the tip of it right. In healthcare, most IT processing is on premise. You’re seeing companies that are moving to the cloud very quickly and having a lot of success.

Cerner is probably the best example of having success in their application management services model over the last decade. Epic is now having a lot of success. Workday in the ERP space is using that as a competitive differentiator and people are gravitating towards it because it implies a level of standardization. It makes your maintenance more predictable, your expenses more predictable, and you’re building a support environment that is homogeneous and high quality.

Health systems are increasingly spinning off startups and running incubators and accelerators. How will that change as they start to see the results of their early efforts?

It will absolutely continue. There’s a lot of variability in how people think about, develop, define, and execute innovation. On one hand, it could be just like a tech transfer function, to allow some form of liquidity for inventions or ideas that are coming out of their medical staff. That’s a very traditional look. In other areas, these guys are running shark tanks and small venture capital firms.

You’re seeing this incredible continuum of how they think about innovation and investment and how they want to monetize or get the ROI out of it. I preface my comments that it remains to be seen whether there will be a a common approach in our industry to innovation across the landscape. You’ll see some variability in how organizations think about it, but it will continue to be important part.

We do a lot of digital health planning and it always ends in a plan that is doing a couple of things. It’s leveraging technology that’s already exists in place, foundational systems like the EHR. It’s also buying or developing a series of solutions that might come out of your own innovation area, or you may buy them commercially, and building an ecosystem of digital health. As we get more mature in that space, those solutions will get rationalized and you’ll have greater platform players. But right now, successful organizations are moving in this continuum of knowing that they have to solution a digital world with many different partners and providers.

Are the three significant health system EHR vendors supporting that innovation by opening up their systems to other companies? Is interoperability more of a technical problem or a business problem?

In our business, we joke that the most difficult thing is integration between systems. Why it’s difficult is a combination of factors. One is the competitive factor, where a lot of healthcare organizations don’t want to share with their neighbor across the street because of the competitive advantage. It could also be a cultural, political, or technology reasons that can make it difficult.

It’s drastically improving. You’re seeing integration increase every single day in multi-platform environments, and that will continue. Will it ever be plug-and-play, immediate and easy? I don’t believe it will be, but it absolutely it is improving.

One of the reasons it’s improving relates to that scale we talked about. You’re now talking about $10 billion to $20 billion organizations that have 60, 70, or 80 hospitals across large geographical regions. You’re getting a level of inherent interconnection and integration among data. Things that had been fragmented or in separate organizational structures are now common and are exploiting the technology they have to to break down some of those cultural and political and competitive barriers.

What are the biggest challenges of healthcare IT consulting and staffing firms?

It depends on your entry point. We’ve just gone through a period of time that was the Wild West for consulting firms. We had a lot of entrants into this marketplace. There’s been a lot of work in our environment over the Meaningful Use period and beyond as people considered major platform changes.

You’ve seen a lot of entrants leave this market or have diminished performance because they didn’t have a long-term vision. We call them pop-up consultancies, companies that were taking advantage of a very hot market. God bless them for that, because everyone deserves an opportunity to do that. But we’ve seen a tremendous rationalization. The firms that are left in our space are the ones that had durable business models, paid attention to quality, paid attention to their associates, and most importantly, paid attention to providing value to their clients.

Only a few high-quality consulting firms are left that have weathered that transition. Those will continue to be successful. Our hope is that we’re one of those moving forward.

I guess there’s nothing inherently unhealthy that the industry flexed to meet the short-term demand and now has to flex back. What trends are swinging the pendulum the other way?

We feel really good about the next couple of years. This has been a very difficult or weird environment to manage a consulting firm. We’ve had boom and then site stabilization in this market. We believe that we’re back to a rational market right now, and the next five years will be a rational growth market within our space. Not boom or bust. We’re actually excited about moving forward. We think it will be much easier to run a business in this climate moving forward.

In terms of what we’re investing in as a strategy moving forward, digital health is number one. The concept of planning and solutioning digital health strategies for our clients is a big growth engine for us. The concept of virtual healthcare, whether it’s telemedicine or beyond telemedicine, helping our clients deliver healthcare in a virtual way is another big driver for us.

This market may not all be about our traditional provider space. There are other entrants into this market, these carve-outs. Even employer-based healthcare right now. We are working with employers that have geocentric employee populations, as an example, that are looking to develop internal healthcare systems. How you provide technology within those worlds is another of channel market for us, working outside our traditional marketplace.

ERP, enterprise resource planning, is another hot spot right now that many organizations are now looking at. Those systems have been in place for 20 or 30 years and now they’re replacing them after they’ve done their EMR. That’s another hot area for us.

Lastly, the thing that I think is going to be most important that’s driving a lot of our business is that after clients put in an EMR or have done a lot of their heavy lifting around some of their major systems, about four years after they convert, they take a look around and say, wow, we have an opportunity to kind of fix some of these processes. We maybe haven’t spent a lot of time and attention. We haven’t viewed it in a programmatic way. We had spent so much money on the systems and we’ve let them languish a little bit. So at about the four-year mark, a lot of our clients are popping up and saying, I need a programmatic way to optimize my clinical and revenue cycle solutions. This concept of optimization is going to be really big and we’re investing pretty heavily in that.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We’re excited about the future for a couple of reasons. But the one thing that I’m most excited about is that our industry spends a lot of time putting in foundational systems, while the next generation is about getting maximum value out of these investments. When we move up that continuum, we’re getting closer and closer to moving the needle for the patients, consumers, and families that we all serve.

It used to be that EMRs were going to be the best thing in the world for patients. They are, but they’re used primarily by caregivers. This next generation of conductivity, this next digital world, will have a direct impact on patients and families in a measurable way. Not only better healthcare, but lower cost, with better digital connections and ease of access. All these things that we’ve been working our entire career on. That’s what I’m excited about.

HIStalk Interviews Gabriel Orthous, CIO, Central Georgia Health Network

June 12, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Gabe Orthous is CIO of Central Georgia Health Network in Macon, GA.


Tell me about yourself and your job.

I’ve been in the business for 20 years. I started my career in revenue cycle, moved on to analytics and population health, and now we’re in the throes of value-based care and providing an understanding around the risk-based models that payers and CMS are presenting. Being accountable and at the forefront of provider engagement.

We support 1,100 providers in our network. Every single modality aligns with Navicent Health, which is our major hospital in this area of Macon. It’s a large footprint of the providers that we support from a PHO perspective.

My background is a technologist. I’ve been an expert apprentice of population health and value-based care. I also teach population health at a couple of colleges as an adjunct professor. I’ve been at this game for about five to six years, seeing the transformation from a quality-based PQRS kind of perspective into, how do we make these things actionable? How do we quantify the effectiveness of these programs to lower total cost of care? Because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do.

How do you see a clinically integrated network changing the relationship between independent physicians and hospitals?

I’ve worked as a consultant with several types of CINs, many different flavors of those. The relationship between a hospital and the community physicians varies throughout the United States. For us, we’ve always had a strong relationship with our hospital system, being more on a regional level.

It depends on the market. If you come from an educational hospital or a medical center that’s inside of the perimeter here in Atlanta, for example, it’s a little bit different on how they deal with their independent providers. There’s a lot more competition. We’ve been able to build that relationship. It is a bit of relationship building, understanding the priorities of those physicians and enabling them to do the things they need to do to make the hospital successful and vice versa.

Is the trend of hospitals acquiring practices changing the dynamic between independent doctors and hospitals?

I’ve seen in the past 10 years the ebbs and flows of that strategy of going after physician practices and becoming employed versus affiliated. Again, it depends on the health system. You have a “who moved my cheese” ideology of some of the physicians who are now employed, because now they have an 8-5 job or now they have a set of requirements or standards being imposed by their employer, which is in this case the hospital. For them, there’s not that risk of having to pay the light bill at the end of the month. It lowers the risk for those providers to go work for the hospital.

At the same time, the hospital now acquires that risk, and acquires the risk of making sure that the productivity — and in our old fee-for-service world, the RVUs – stay up. But now that dynamic is also changing, because now you have quality measures, specific programs that are requiring these physicians to do certain things in closing care gaps, HEDIS, etc. that now the hospital needs to be able to influence.

It is a hard proposition. These providers are already employed by the hospital, and having some providers do what they need to do to close the care gap, for example, when they may not see an immediate benefit in that performance. But as a whole system, you would.

The idea of affiliation is important to understand. Inside the walls of the hospital, you can enact certain change. You have one view of the world through your EMR, whether it’s Epic or Cerner or any type of hospital-based system. But when you get out into the community, you see more of a diversity of EMRs. It’s harder to enact change when things work differently from a workflow perspective. Epic-everywhere or Cerner-everywhere types of environments are few and far between. At the point of care, it’s important to have an understanding of the topology of that network and become the network of truth as opposed to a single source of truth.

What technologies are important when first moving toward value-based care?

One of the most detrimental phrases in today’s healthcare space is saying, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” Unfortunately, many organizations that I’ve worked with are always saying that. There are different views of the world of how you look at your data, how you look at analytics. One is the clinical focus, the EMR perspective of workflow and patient-centered focused around clinical things that have to occur. Usually those are part of a system of trying to identify CPT codes or ICD codes in order to get paid through a billing RCM model. You have dichotomies of political and revenue cycle. That’s just one component.

On the other side of the house, you have the payer view of the world, which is adjudicated claims that come with a three- to six-month lag of information, telling the providers, “You forgot to do an A1c” or maybe asking the provider to provide a supplemental data set to close the care gap.

The way I look at value-based care today, and to prepare for a technology stack that’s able to be nimble, is to have partners. If you have the money to create your own, that’s great. But have partners that are going to be nimble enough, that are going to be helping you through that data journey and that have flexibility in advocating that data and making it be purposeful.

A lot of times we get into these projects or these technology implementations that are more of a Connectathon. Just send me all the data. Being purposeful, starting with the low-hanging fruit, showing value initially, success factors, identifying the right KPIs, and then building upon that.

So I would say, one, nimble. Two, a technology stack that can aggregate data from disparate sources, including social determinants, care management, and all the other data sources that are out there. Of course claims and of course clinical. Then number three is letting you look at the view of the world through those different lenses. Just clinical, just clinical plus RCM, clinical plus RCM plus post-adjudicated, social determinants, That’s when you start identifying the right populations and how to target things that are going to be part of your performance contracts.

Will being exposed to those technologies encourage practices that are less technically savvy to consider the possibilities of using other technologies to enhance their practices?

Absolutely. You’re bringing up a great point, which is point-of-care analytics and using technology and data to enhance workflows, patient experience, and the things that you just mentioned. But there’s also another component, which is the network view of the world. What are the things that are going to get these physicians the most money for their risk contract? What are the things that they need to do at the network level to have a critical path for patients to follow so that they have better quality and lower cost of care?

Those are two separate things. One is more episodic, while the other is more longitudinal. The technologies and the data required are a little bit different, although they come from the same sources.

At the point of care at the physician level, having additional data sets that are external to “patient presents” is important. I’m going through an HIE implementation right now with a local HIE here in Georgia. I truly understand the physicians wanting to see what happens outside their doors. When the patient presents to the ED, they want to see those discharge notes. That’s an important factor. The problem with interoperability and intraoperability is that those files become convoluted quickly. A CCD as it stands today is a bulky file. It’s hard to read and it’s hard to realize what’s important and what’s not important in there. So we lose a little bit of the usability factor in the technology utilization that we have today.

There are many new technologies that are coming about that are helping the providers focus on what’s important for the patient that presents in front of them from that external actor. But unfortunately, we’re not there yet with all of these EMRs. I’m not talking about one EMR or another. All of them have a lot of work to do around interoperability and parsing the right data set for the right patient at the right time.

What frustrates most people about interoperability isn’t practices not sharing information with each other, it’s that hospitals and practices don’t share information. How do your members see that situation?

It’s a challenge of not knowing what happens outside your doors, whether it’s the walls of a hospital or the doors of the physician’s office. More information is the best around medication adherence, for example. It would be awesome to understand what types of medications are being prescribed outside of that one encounter that you have with your patient.

It’s easier on the commercial side of the house with payers because it’s different types of populations. But when you get into Medicare, ACO, or frailty, for example … frail patients who come in may be prescribed seven medications in seven points of care. It is a struggle and a challenge for providers to understand the full totality and the picture of these patients.

From a workflow perspective, having only 15 minutes to spend with a patient diminishes the amount of value add. A lot of these providers don’t have access to the data. Not just the data, but having enough time to be able to have a conversation with the patient and have that relationship being built.

We still have a lot of problems getting external data into the point of care where it can pinpoint the providers to do the right thing with the data that they’re seeing in front of them that is actionable. It’s kind of a buzzword these days that everything has to be actionable, but it is the truth. These EMRs are becoming more and more convoluted, built on top of version, on top of version, on top of version, and not necessarily making it easier for the provider as opposed to death by a thousand clicks.

Are practices maximizing the value of that 15-minute visit by collecting more information from the patient beforehand and then following up with them electronically afterward?

There’s definitely an art and a science in that gathering of data pre-visit and post-visit. It really depends on the engagement level of each individual patient. We can have predictive models as to which patients are more likely to fill out a survey pre and post. But in general, I’ve seen minimal impact and engagement from that factor.

I took my daughter to a doctor’s appointment the other and they gave me an iPad to fill out forms, which I loved as a technologist. A generation X-er given an IPad to fill out the information. I even paid my co-pay on the IPad. It was beautiful. They asked me a thousand questions and it was great. It was death by a thousand surveys type of thing as opposed to clicks. Then I’d go in and the HIPAA paperwork was on paper and I had to sign that.

We still have a lot to do from an engagement perspective. I’m sure that there’s a lot of new apps out there that are trying to streamline that process. It’s getting better. Now if you send me an email three days later asking me for an opinion or a survey on my engagement with the provider, I’m not going to fill it out personally. But that’s changing.

Do you have any final thoughts?

No matter what a vendor or a technologist says, value-based care is a hard journey. It will take us numerous years to figure this out. We have an entrenched system of fee-for-service and we’re starting to see models that can help us to ease the transition towards value-based care. For now, we have the two-payment problem of “having food in two canoes.” I’m still in one canoe, and maybe one of my fingers is in the other canoe. Different markets are doing it differently, but value-based payments are here to stay and we’re not questioning that any more.

My suggestion is to think about it more holistically, more of a long-term plan. Have a one-, three-, five-year plan around engagement with your providers, engagement with your patients, technology enablement, ROI on technology implementations, analytics, and data for actionable insights. All these things have to be addressed. Distribution models, so when the payer gives you a downside risk capitation, how do you distribute that money? How do you make it flow to your providers?

There are a lot of things to think about from a strategy perspective. Be patient. It’s not going to change just because you buy a technology. People and process must be outlined before technology comes into a CIN or a network like ours. But having that strategy beforehand is important.

HIStalk Interviews Erine Gray, CEO, Aunt Bertha

May 20, 2019 Interviews No Comments

Erine Gray, MPA is founder and CEO of Aunt Bertha of Austin, TX.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

Aunt Bertha focuses on the easiest way to connect people to health and human services programs through a simple interface. I experienced the need for this personally. My mom is permanently disabled. I have been her guardian for the last 17 years. Throughout this journey, I would find out about social programs after the fact. It was confusing to navigate.

I started the company nine years ago to offer an easier way to find programs and to connect to them directly and electronically. Some people call them referrals. We have 73 employees.

The concept of social determinants of health is suddenly popular, but for hospitals, it often just means having a place to record the patient’s self-reported information. Are they getting better at using that information to better transition their inpatients or ED patients to social organizations?

You’re right, there is a lot of talk about social determinants. It used to be called poverty and poverty alleviation. These are difficult problems to solve. The hospital system can do some things in many cases, but in a lot of them, they don’t have much control.

We have 175 customers, of which a good chunk are hospital systems. Many of them are just starting to record the assessments so they can at least uncover problems related to social care. Finding out if they need food or housing is a great place to start. They either turn on assessments in their EHR or they use our assessments.

That’s a great start, but some hospital systems that we’ve worked with have gone really deep. They have staffed social workers and teams who go the next mile and follow up with patients. In some cases, they actually buy wheelchair ramps, groceries, and other things if they find there’s a need.

I would say that the movement is still pretty early. It has been really neat to see how these hospital systems are experimenting.

Is it hard for hospitals to make a quick, clean handoff to community-based organizations that aren’t necessarily equipped to respond quickly?

Absolutely. You still have the issue of non-profit financing. A community-based organization, or CBO, could be a government program or a social service program. Many of them are dealing with long waiting lists and a lack of funding, Some can’t serve their existing population. It is a challenge.

The question then becomes, what is the health system willing to do to engage them further, and, in some cases, to allow for reimbursement for some of these services? We are starting to see the sector think about it. CMS is starting to think about allowing for reimbursement for non-medical services beginning in 2020 for certain situations, if that service is deemed by a doctor to be medically necessary.

The short answer is that it depends. Organizations that sit down with the community-based organizations, get to know them, and build a partnership with them have seen higher levels of success under that model versus just hoping that an underfunded social care network can handle even more demand for services.

These are hard problems. Healthcare should assume longer-term commitments to these financing issues. I don’t think software is going to fix it, to be honest. Even though we’re a software company, I think the broader conversation is, how are the health systems and the local community-based organizations working together?

It’s interesting that 50 years ago, hospitals weren’t very much different from other community non-profits. Somehow their paths diverged and hospitals became monolithic and highly profitable, while most of the rest struggled for funding and hospitals quit talking to them in focusing on delivering episodic services.

You’re reminding me of the book “The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry” by Paul Starr. It’s about how in the early days, people helped each other and how specialization within healthcare then happened. Your analogy is spot on. People did use to look after their neighbors a little bit more and there was tighter coordination. We’ve gotten away from that.

I entered the name of a remote, tiny town on your web page and it returned a list of 800 programs. It was nicely divided by the type of service and offered many simple but powerful ways to filter the list, mark favorites, make notes, and contact the organization. Your website says you have a large team manually maintaining that database versus other vendors who either unethically scrape your data or use a software bot to harvest information from the web. Why is it important to have humans doing the work?

It is incredibly important to us. If you put yourself in the shoes of a social worker or a doctor, they are sitting down with a patient and hearing about things that are happening in their lives. Maybe they need counseling, drug addiction help, or whatever the case may be. You learn very early on that the credibility of our users is on the line. The social worker is sitting down with a patient who is being vulnerable about their situation, which is hard enough. Referring to a program that doesn’t exist or that hasn’t been updated hurts the credibility of the social workers who are out there doing important work. We don’t always get it right, but we try really hard.

We determined early on that we wanted to build an operation of people for two reasons. One, because we think the product and the data will be better. That doesn’t mean we can’t automate some things along the way, and we’ve done some things to make those employees more efficient. But every listing is approved. We try hard to do this across the country, but we focus on states where we have customers and usage because we don’t have unlimited resources. That focus has allowed us to grow.

The team is 25 people and growing. That line item is one of the most expensive aspects of running the business. However, we’ve never spent any money on marketing or public relations. We’ve been able to get to know health systems, health plans, schools, foundations like AARP, and others just by providing a free search. We’ve started to get users that way. It has ended up being a good investment in the business in the long run.

Secondly, it’s a great way to find people in a growing organization. We’ve had many employees graduate from what we call the data fellows program, where they spend a year or two curating the data and verifying information. They become programmers, data analysts, and supervisors. We grow folks and get to know them. It’s a mutually trusted source. They end up doing great things with the rest of the organization.

It’s a win-win, the way we see it. There might be other approaches to maintaining a reliable database, but I don’t think they will win in the long run.

What is your revenue model and how does the community connection work?

We’re doing something different in healthcare. We try to make it simple. Smaller organizations can become a customer at a basic level, a professional level, or an enterprise level. We’ve learned that our customers don’t like seat licenses, per-user per-month models, or other models. We look at it differently than in classic health IT. We’re successful when we have thousands of customers out there paying us a modest amount. That de-risks us. If you are a health system, you can buy our enterprise version with a couple of add-ons at a set amount that is open, transparent, and explained on the website. That allows us to build trust with our prospects.

Once they become customers, we want lots of users. We don’t want to put anything in the way of that. The more users who are on the system, the more people who will get help and the more we’ll get our name out there. Our pricing follows models from outside health IT and it has worked well for us.

It’s also a lot more fun. We only have three salespeople and myself. When a sales team is getting 15 to 20 customers per quarter, they’re having fun. It’s an approach we feel really good about and our customers like that we keep it simple and transparent. This approach to pricing subsidizes the data operations team. We have been able to provide a free service at AuntBertha.com because we have enough customers to cover our costs.

Why is it important that you don’t require people to register before using your online service?

It’s understanding our users. We need to earn the trust of people who are in need, patients in the healthcare setting. We use the term “seeker,” which is basically anybody who is seeking services. Most people are not ready to identify themselves when they’re searching for help for their most intimate needs. Think of a breadwinner who loses their job. Maybe they’re not ready to identify themselves.

It’s an important principle that we allow people to look for things. We see what people are searching for. They are searching for sensitive situations, such as childhood trauma. They have the courage to at least search for help. We want to leave it as an opt-in situation because we build trust. Social workers who work in hospitals or community-based organizations also don’t like creating accounts, so we get their loyalty as users as well.

Once you start making referrals, you can identify yourself and make an account. But we are perfectly fine with users of AuntBertha.com and social workers who are using our platform to pick up the phone and call a non-profit directly instead. It’s perfectly their right to do so and we would not get in the way of that. But from a business perspective, that wins out in the long run and we get customers who want to opt in later.

How do you balance the company’s social mission as a public benefit corporation and your own advocacy work with running a business?

I don’t think they are conflicting. The trade-off in allowing for free users and that social mission side comes across during a deal cycle when we’re talking to hospital systems. Laying out what we’re about and what we’re trying to accomplish is a differentiator in that process. People can quickly tell the difference between an alternate approach that is on price maximization.

We are pretty close to break-even. Our growth and the number of potential prospects allow us to charge less, get lots of users, and still make a difference. We would not be getting into the doors that we’re getting into without the goodwill that we’ve built over the years by providing a free service.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I’m excited about the way healthcare finance is going. I’m certainly not an expert. I was a programmer by training. I worked in public policy with some state health programs. But what I see happening is that health plans and hospitals are starting to become interested in getting the basic needs of people met in non-healthcare or social care ways. They feel like it’s a win-win in the long run, for their government contracts if you’re a health plan, or under alternative payment models if you are a health system.

It’s an exciting time to watch this transformation happen. You’re starting to see teams being formed with the goal of, how can I interact with somebody in need at their moment of need? Could we as a health system or health plan solve that need by building a wheelchair ramp or getting them some groceries? It’s an amazing win-win. I don’t know what’s going to happen with government policy, but watching that is exciting.



Text Ads


Founding Sponsors


Platinum Sponsors



















































Gold Sponsors















Reader Comments

  • Wisco Disco: What about the whole fried chicken bloody mary at Sobelmans in Wisconsin? https://www.heraldsun.com.au/lifestyle/foo...
  • Elizabeth H. H. Holmes: I counter your slider and onion rings garnish with a "Chubby Mary" - a bloody with a whole fish in it. They're awesome. ...
  • IANAL: Bloody Mary's with a shot of spotted cow on the side is a popular hangover drink in Wisconsin....
  • Jennifer: The NY Post article about the "not-for-profit" millionaire Mount Sinai executives holed up in their FL vacation homes is...
  • Elizabeth H. H. Holmes: I fail to see how deregulation related primarily related to reimbursement for services and staff certification requireme...

Sponsor Quick Links