Home » Interviews » Recent Articles:

An HIT Moment with … Ford Phillips

January 27, 2010 Interviews 5 Comments

An HIT Moment with ... is a quick interview with someone we find interesting. Ford Phillips is the owner of River Bend Marketing.  


How is healthcare IT marketing different today than it used to be?

Technology and social behavior are the driving forces behind the changes in marketing. In the mid-70s when I started, we had limited media at our disposal, so I used multiple forms of direct mail and print advertising to get my marketing messages to potential clients. Of course, we used press releases, but they served a different purpose during that era. Printing and postage were inexpensive and print ads were reasonably priced. We lived for the postman’s daily delivery of our BRC cards.

There were only about five or six trade magazines focused on healthcare at that time. Modern Healthcare came along in 1976, I believe, and Computers in Hospitals started in 1980. That magazine is today’s Health Management Technology. I was a charter advertiser in both of those magazines.

The advent of the Internet in the early 1980s changed everything, including marketing. Web sites became a company’s window to the world and e-mail addresses assumed a “golden glow.” Today almost every marketing medium my company uses is electronically generated and distributed.

For all of my clients in 2009, I did one large, print direct mail campaign. Everything else was electronic. Almost everyone one of my clients is using some form of social network marketing, something unheard of just two or three years ago. The methodology has changed in 30 years, but objective has not — get the right message in the right hands as cost-effectively as possible.

People often think that "marketing" and "advertising" are the same thing. How would you explain the difference?

People mix up the definitions because they do meld together in the minds of most people. That said, I have always used the following definitions for marketing and advertising. Marketing entails creating and communicating specific messages that position a company and its products’ value, features, and benefits in such a manner as to create a need for that product in the minds of potential end users.

When you pay to get that message disseminated through any medium, that’s advertising.

ARRA has unleashed a flurry of vendor press releases and programs such as interest-free loans and certification guarantees. What impact has this had on vendors and their prospects?

I have read all of the offers. The vendors are simply trying to use the smell of government money to attract as many prospects as possible. Some of the vendors are sounding a little desperate. An interest-free loan? Their products must be extremely expensive. And, how can you guarantee something that is still unknown?

I’m certain the poor physicians are as confused as ever about the benefits of EMRs. EMR technology has been available, in some form or other, for a good while. The percentage rate for adoptions is still in the teens. There must be multiple reasons for that.

The economy is down, but healthcare IT is up. How has that affected your business? What are the right and wrong marketing actions that vendors might take in response?

The majority of my clients see the benefits of continuing a strong marketing communications program in any economic environment. We lost a few clients at the beginning of the downturn. Most of those were due to reduced investor financing.

The right thing to do in a down market is the right thing to do in an up market. In a nutshell, keep your marketing communications program focused. Identify three or four optimum marketing messages and target those messages to prospects who you know can benefit from your product.

Stay on your messages; don’t dilute them. Use the most cost-effective and varied communications strategies you can afford to disseminate your marketing messages to the target audiences.

What are the most important things about the healthcare IT market that new entrants and startups should know?

Be flexible in your planning and execution and be prepared to change directions quickly. Nothing will remain the same, industry-wise or technology-wise. If you remain flexible and can adapt to change, you will be successful in the healthcare marketplace. Not a single technology platform that my clients’ products use today was even envisioned when I started in this industry 30 years ago.

HIStalk Interviews Sheryl Crowley

January 20, 2010 Interviews 7 Comments

Sheryl Crowley is VP/CIO of Cape Cod Healthcare of Hyannis, MA.


Cape Cod was Meditech’s first client. What prompted the decision to look elsewhere?

I think it’s the same thing most clients that are still using Magic are facing, which is a pretty significant upgrade if you go to 6.0. Of course, we would all want to be on 6.0 because that’s going to be where their newest and best stuff is. That’s a technical term. [laughs]

Faced with that and saying we wanted to get to a different place in our use of systems, we were in the middle of developing a strategic plan and saying, “This is where we want to get to.” We felt we had to either go to Meditech 6.0 or do something else. 6.0 is really what prompted us to say, “Well, significant upgrade, significant dollars? It’s probably a good time to look at what else is available to us.”

Did you bring Meditech in for your demos?

Yes. Meditech was a part of the process, and certainly a strong contender given that they were the incumbent. Everyone had an opportunity to look at 6.0 in depth, as well as other vendors.

What systems did you consider and what were their strong and weak points?

We considered everything initially. Then we did a preliminary analysis of each vendor and ultimately wanted to see demos from Eclipsys, Siemens, Meditech, and McKesson Paragon. It ended up that Eclipsys was the only one that ultimately didn’t end up demonstrating. They all have pretty comparable functionality, with the exception of Paragon, which at that time didn’t have CPOE or physician documentation yet.

The thing that drove us towards Soarian was really their workflow engine that’s behind that application. The ability to take it — from our demos, our reference calls, and our site visits — to a different level.

Soarian has been viewed for years as a work in progress. Knowing that reputation, was it hard to determine that it was competitive and ready to implement?

Certainly. I think you could say the same about every vendor that we looked at, honestly. I think that we did our homework on each of the vendors and I think our team felt confident in their decision. You know, the proof is in the pudding.

I mean, we haven’t done the hard part yet. Selecting a vendor is pretty darned easy and it’s a lot of work. But I absolutely could not comment today on where I think we’ll be two to three years from now, other than we’re hopeful that we partnered with a good vendor. We certainly did our due diligence to make that happen.

What would you say are the strong and the weak points were of Soarian?

I would say that we thought the strongest points was the look and feel to it. Most people — and this isn’t me speaking, this is my team and my staff and the managers that looked at it throughout the organization — like the intuitive user interface and they like the workflow engine. Particularly, obviously, the revenue cycle piece would allow us to do everything in one application versus what we have. Today we have a lot of bolt-on applications and it just gets very confusing and labor-intensive to maintain all of them. So that was from the revenue cycle perspective. Then on the clinical side, I think they just really felt like it could make a difference in how they do their work.

What is the expected cost and timeline to implement Soarian?

I can talk a little bit about the timeline. The costs are obviously confidential. We negotiated with Siemens, as I think any organization would, and certainly my expectation and theirs is that those were confidential negotiations.

But the timeline I can talk about a little bit because I will tell you that Siemens has been really willing to be as aggressive as we want to be. Our bigger challenge is when can we get the resources together that’s required to do an implementation of this scope and size? So ultimately, this is going to be probably a two- to three- or four-year project as we bring different phases into it and that type of thing.

We’re actually heavy into the details of planning right now and are evaluating, obviously, the operating capital, budget impact, and all of that type of thing, the reality of what can an organization handle in an implementation like this. We’re right in the thick of that right now.

When you said resources, are you going to train your people or are you bringing in other resources or using consulting firms for implementation help?

What we’re primarily trying to do is use our own resources and train them and get them up to speed on the Siemens applications and back-fill legacy support with consulting resources. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we need our people to support this going forward. It’s not a lot of fun for them to sit back and watch somebody else implement it and then they have to support it and they didn’t have the opportunity to really dig into it.

That’s insightful. A lot of people do it the other way. Of course the other plus is you probably have a lot easier access to Meditech resources than Soarian resources. There are a lot more Meditech hospitals out there.

No question, no question. For us, not only did we have access to a lot of hospitals that use Meditech, but I have a lot of people who at one point in time somewhere in their career worked for Meditech because all of their employees are located in Massachusetts. I’ve got some really skilled people, but with very in-depth experience in Meditech. I want to keep their knowledge of our organization and of healthcare, but I want to bring them along and … I mean, we have a lot of non-Meditech applications in our organization, but our core, clearly, is Meditech.

I’ll ask you one more question about cost, and hopefully this isn’t too specific that you’ll be uncomfortable with it. But in the continuum of the least of the most expensive, where did Soarian fit?

I don’t really want to get specific, but what I will tell you is that we did rule out some vendors on initial costs that they brought to the table at the time of the RFP. Everyone was competitive, and that’s why they got in the door to do a demonstration. Whether one was a little more expensive than the other, ultimately those were un-negotiated costs at that point. But they were all very competitive and close to each other in order to get in the door for the demonstration.

I know you started the search a while back, but how much consideration did the HITECH funding fit into your decision?

Interestingly enough, we had developed our strategic plan prior to HITECH. Our strategic plan for IT was done in January, and then the ARRA passed in February. Much of what is going to be required by ARRA was already built in to our plan. Maybe not quite in the order that they’ve decided, but a key component of our strategic plan is adoption. We don’t want to just implement the systems and go, “OK, check, we’ve bought CPOE, we licensed it, and we went live with it. Nobody uses it. But hey, we’ve got it.”

We wanted better utilization than perhaps we’ve had in the past with systems. Our goal was really to do this differently than we’ve done in the past. As far as our process and who we brought into the mix for vendors, they all kind of converged at the same time, but we already knew what we wanted to do before the HITECH stuff passed.

Now that the initial pass of the meaningful use criteria is out, is there anything there that concerns you about your ability to be lined up for payment from there?

Oh yeah, all of it.

What parts do you think are going to be tough for hospitals, especially yours, to meet?

I’m actually in the process right now remapping, because we had actually remapped what we thought would happen to the criteria with the hopes that we would come close. Now I’m going back and saying, “OK, is there anything that concerns me in any of this?” I guess the answer to that is I’m still working on it.

To some degree, we have some of these things and they’re already challenging. Providing access to patient information; we have the ability to do that today. We use RelayHealth, so they can have a personal health record and they can also, if their physician is signed up, see their lab results or other test results. That’s great. We’re a fraction of the way there.

I think the concern I would have with any of these thing is the maturity level that I think we need to be at in order to be able to prove the meaningful use based on the measurement criteria. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for all of us. We may have a lot of these things in place or ultimately get there in the next couple years based on our plans.

The question will be, can we measure it in a way that truly proves it’s meaningful; and is that measurement criteria, which that’s the part I’m really diving into now saying, “OK, is that measurement criteria going to work for our organization in the way we had planned to do this implementation, or do we need to maybe change the road map a little bit to make the measurement criteria work in our situation?

Much of the documentation part was pushed off into the future and order entry to the forefront. Does that change your timeline and how do you engage your physicians?

It doesn’t change our timeline dramatically in the sense because Massachusetts has its own regulations which require hospitals to have CPOE in place by October 1, 2012. That’s a requirement to be licensed in the state of Massachusetts. Now that could change, like any of these things, as we get closer to the actual date. Suddenly it gets pushed out or that kind of thing, but I’m sort of planning for it to be a hard and fast date. If I don’t, it could be a challenge at some point. So yes, it’s a concern strictly for our organization.

We have CPOE in two ambulatory areas — our ED and our oncology area — but not in the acute area at all. So for us, it’s totally new and we really have to build that momentum with the physicians. Part of that was getting them involved in the selection process, and they were very involved. That helps generate enthusiasm and willingness to jump in on the CPOE implementation, but that certainly is going to be a challenge.

Will you have someone as the physician champion and the content builder?

We don’t have a CMIO today, but we’re looking at adding one and will have to have it. We need someone to lead that and champion it. We had a couple of great physicians who were on our selection committee who could easily do that and generate the enthusiasm and momentum. We just need to operationalize that into a position that accountable for doing that.

What advice would you have for Magic customers trying to decide what to do, facing the 6.0 upgrade or starting a search?

My advice is make sure they know what their organization is trying to accomplish. I think 6.0 is a great solution for some organizations. It didn’t happen to be the right fit for us. That has, perhaps less to do with Meditech and more to do with our organization and where we are.

I think every organization, before they even look at the vendors, have to know what it is they’re trying to achieve and accomplish. That will tell them should they even convert from Magic to 6.0. Or should they look at 6.0 and other vendors? Every organization is unique. If you don’t know what it is you’re trying to achieve, you’ll never know which solution is going to be the right solution for you.

Last question. When you look around at the projects that you have on your plate and the concerns you have as a CIO, what do you think the future looks like for the next three to five years?

It looks like a lot of work and a lot of pressure on my team and our end users. But I think, hopefully and ultimately, at the end of that period of time it looks like a much better place in terms of our ability to have our system support what it is our organization is trying to achieve in terms of patient care.

HIStalk Interviews John Gomez

December 21, 2009 Interviews 30 Comments

John Gomez is executive vice president and chief technology strategy officer of Eclipsys.


The HIStalk reader who suggested I interview you said that you are the Steve Jobs of healthcare IT –  the industry’s leader, visionary, and celebrity. Do you see yourself in that way?

No, I don’t see myself in that way. It’s kind of funny, but no, I do not see myself in that way. I guess it should be flattering, but I don’t think I see myself as the Steve Jobs of healthcare.

His reasoning was that the areas you’ve worked in for Eclipsys have thrived, that customers follow what you do, and that employees get your message. Is it good for the company for you to have such a strong customer following and loyalty within the company?

It depends. I’d have to look at the mix of clients that we’re talking about, but I think it’s good. I think it’s great that clients love the message that I deliver, but that message is put together with all of my peers, the teams that I work with. I don’t certainly believe that it’s a one-man show.

I think it’s part and parcel for the company itself, and the company is delivering the message. If I’m the instrument or the megaphone for that, then I’m just happy that the message is resonating and that the people that are receiving the message actually are resonating with what’s being said.

But I don’t certainly think that it’s just me. It’s just the culmination of everything that’s going on around me, and the people that I’m fortunate enough to surround myself with.

Company executive turnover has made you the one constant over the past several years, the continuity between one group of executives and the next. Is there anything that you have to be cognizant of or anything you do differently knowing that you’re the continuity in the customer’s eye?

I don’t know. Although I don’t consciously sit there and go, “Ah, I think I need to make sure this is preserved or not.” I think for as much change as there’s been — and I certainly think all the changes happened for the right reasons — I kind of view it and when I talk to clients about it is that these are evolutionary changes and they’re, in my view, not disruptive.

But that said, I think the one thing that is important, at least from my standpoint — and whether this is me actively doing it or just part of the fact that it’s the way the company’s been operating — is that the message has been consistent. At least for the six years that I’ve been here and through any of the management changes, the messages have continued to be consistent. Now, more than ever, I think that message is going to continue to propel forward. The strategies and the views that we’ve been delivering to clients, that’s something that has prolonged regardless of any changes in the management.

Phil’s been with the company for six months. What changes has he made?

I think Phil is an extremely interesting person as a CEO. He has a strong technical background. He has a very strong financial sales and marketing background. I think he’s able to bring together the different perspectives. I think one of the things he’s been able to do is truly create a cohesiveness amongst the executive team, which is translating into everything we do across the company.

I think more than ever, that we’ve got a very strong synergy between our service and support, development, marketing, and sales organizations. He is also holding, very strongly, more so than ever before, people accountable through the commitments we make to our clients.

Overall, I’m actually loving working with the guy. I’m not brown-nosing if he reads this answer or not. I just think that he’s actually doing a very strong, very good job. Overall, he’s just brought a whole new set of disciplines to the company. I think it’s the right change at the right time, bringing him on board.

As a technology guy who’s worked outside of healthcare, what do you think about an industry that’s dominated by healthcare-only development tools, like MUMPS?

I think it’s time for a change, but I think not just because of the technology around MUMPS. We’ve got products at Eclipsys that are built on MUMPS, although we’re moving off those. I think that there’s a lot of opportunity in healthcare. I think the way that things are done from a technology perspective, we need the change.

I can say it’s kind of a sad situation that healthcare is so far behind the rest of the world from a technology perspective. There’s very little innovation in healthcare around pure technology. There’s a lot around the modalities, but if you think about it, the core essence of innovation doesn’t come from healthcare. That’s really sad because this is the one industry that really affects peoples’ lives every day.

One of the things I tell my engineers all the time is this is the only job you will ever have, even if you work for like a 911 system or for the government, that your code could kill someone. It seems really interesting to me that we have that responsibility in our hands, but yet overall as an industry, very, very little innovation comes from this industry. To me, it’s just upsetting, that kind of state of affairs for us.

Would you say that the limitations of today’s systems are because of their technology, or because of their design? Or, because it’s just the inertia of having to go back and start over?

I think it’s all three and more. I think that we have a lot of hospitals that are comfortable with the technologies that they’ve put in place. It’s not just hospitals. I think it goes across everything from physicians to long-term healthcare facilities. Across the spectrum of healthcare, they’ve become either comfortable or they resist it because of the fear of adopting technology and what that may mean to them in the learning curve.

Which goes back to innovation, it shouldn’t be that hard to implement and embrace these systems and put them to practical use. I think the technologies themselves create very, very challenging barriers to entry. For some cases they’re very old, twenty-, thirty-year-old technologies like the MUMPS stuff.

I think we also don’t pay attention to paradigm shifts. Right now we’re seeing paradigm shifts in other industries, like cloud computing. We’re seeing things scaled down and scaled up to either mobile platforms or large-scale, interactive platform kind of environments. We don’t embrace that. We’re not leading that, yet it can make a tremendous difference to healthcare.

Interoperability is a huge one wherethe way that this industry’s worked, has been not embracing the ability to exchange or interoperate between systems. We’ve been kind of proprietary. I think that also creates a challenge and a barrier for hospitals to move.

I also think that there’s just kind of, at least from a technology perspective — and I’m first and foremost to talk about Eclipsys, but I think we’re fortunate that we have great people — I don’t know if the industry is attracting great technologists. That also creates a challenge through this inertia of innovation.

But if it’s a perfect market, customers get what they ask for; assuming that someone would step in and give it to them if the current vendors didn’t. Are hospital customers too easy on their vendors?

That’s an interesting question. I think hospitals could push vendors much, much harder to drive the evolution of technology. I think there’s an inherent responsibility that when you work in a healthcare facility or a healthcare information technology vendor, that your responsibility is at the end of the day, to try to get the best quality care for the patients that are using that technology. If you’re not driving the vendors to innovate and evolve their product lines and embrace new technologies, then I think the hospitals are being too easy.

The studies that have come out in the last couple of weeks are suggesting that systems are not meeting expectations for improved quality and reduced cost. What should hospital software vendors do if that’s true?

If it’s true, it probably goes down to a lot of the cryptic things that you just see in a lot of the vendor systems. They’re difficult to implement, they’re difficult to configure, it’s difficult to maintain online. Quality is not what people expected it to be. The usability is, in some cases, ten-, fifteen-year-old paradigms. Those kind of things need to change, right?

The vendors need to be in a position where they’re affording people solutions that are usable, and if they’re usable, I think you can drive adoption. When you drive adoption and you can apply technology to patient care, you will translate it to better outcomes. I mean, we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of using things like analytics or predictive informatics or diagnostic decision support instead of clinical decision support.

If you look at the Gartner Scale, there are very few vendors that are Generation 3. I think there’s only three. I could be wrong on this, but I think it’s us, and I’m thinking Cerner. Generation 4 is what vendors should be striving for. HIMSS Level 6 is just starting to become something that most vendors are able to do, and really, they should be driving for HIMSS Level 7. The hospitals should be using and applying those tests and saying, “This is where we want to be. This is our vision, and we’re just not going to buy from anybody that doesn’t allow us or enable us to get there.”

You mention data; and everybody wants to use data, but not be the one to have to create it. Eclipsys is pretty well acknowledged as the CPOE expert. Is that paradigm valid, or do you see anything changing that makes that somewhat of a dated concept itself — the idea that physicians need to type into a system to be able to reap these other benefits or provide someone else some benefits?

I think that yes, things have to get easier for physicians to want to enter the data or provide the data. I think that’s a great way to paraphrase it. Until we lower the bar or the difficulty of the user of the system to enter that data, then we’re not going to have the richness there. We’re not going to have the full picture that allows us to treat patients effectively.

What’s interesting is we’re kind of in a situation where if we can lower the bar, get people to provide the data in easier and easier ways, it actually helps all of us long term. Not just as vendors or hospitals, but even our own interest.

At some point, we don’t just want to look at episodic care, we want to look at womb-to-tomb kind of care and long-term care. The more data we have, the better outcome we’re going to have individually. Then when we go to a doctor or we go to a hospital we want that level of care, yet we’re not, in most cases, doing anything to enable it.

From an Eclipsys standpoint, we are doing a lot to try and lower that bar. There are technologies we’re looking at and changes to the way that we’re collecting data and allowing providers to be immersed with an experience that hopefully will start making things much easier to do. I appreciate you saying we’re kind of the experts in CPOE, but I don’t think we can stop. We have to keep pushing things further.

When will we see what kinds of things that you’re looking at in technology?

From an Eclipsys standpoint, not to be a teaser or things like that, there are a variety of things that we announced at our Eclipsys User Network around visual workflow and our new solutions platform and where we’re headed with that.

But in terms of the UI, we’re doing a lot to move our UI forward. Now one of the challenges for any vendor is that you don’t want to create disruptive change because that becomes very costly and becomes, in and of itself, a barrier to the healthcare institutes. What we’re trying to do is take an evolutionary approach to our UIs and incorporating usability as we go. But some of the things you’ll see in our next release are that the UI adjusts to you, it learns from you depending on where you are in the system.

One of the other things we’re doing is working on a concept of Workbenches, which create an immersive experience for a particular type of provider. So if you’re a nurse, the assistant is tailored to you as a nurse and reflects the support of your workflows. If you’re a physician, it supports your specific type of workflows.

The other thing we’ve been working on for a long time is thinking through how we can apply gaming concepts to the UI. In fact, one of the key things in terms of getting data or responding to data that involves a patient is being able to present information in the UI in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the practitioner. So we’ve been working very hard on providing the right information at the right time for whatever that practitioner may be doing in terms of their scope of the workflow.

Those kinds of changes have to be very specific. We hope you’ll start seeing some of those things come to market in the Q1 timeframe, and then we also have some things slated for the Q3 timeframe in terms of uplifts to usability and things like that.

Wall Street has typically punished publicly traded companies that rewrite. Is the technology there to allow those sorts of changes without really scrapping the database and the underlying architecture?

We started back in what, 3.5, which was about 2004, and we’re now coming to market in Q1 with our 5.5 release for our clinical solutions. We’ve been evolutionary all along, and so we’ve introduced things like ObjectsPlus, aligning third-parties that develop applets. We opened up our MLM library to allow people to develop these kinds of self-contained macros. We’re building on top of that. Our platform, going forward, we’ll continue to move those things forward.

One of the big areas that we’re investing in now is opening up the APIs so that they’ll be a service-oriented architecture. We very, very have seriously been looking at cloud computing and seeing how we can invoke that and provide kind of a healthcare information technology as a service.

None of these are disruptive. I mean, we’ve had a great legacy of our upgrades just being in-place upgrades and not requiring you to do schemas or lose the work you’ve done or redevelop the add-ins that our third-parties or our clients build. We want to just keep going forward, and the big thing we’re trying to do is open up the platform, allow for third-party innovation. Hopefully, we’ll even have competitors build on top of our platform.

We’re charting a course where none of that will occur with disruptive changes. I think there’s a time and place for disruption. I don’t think this industry is, right now, ready for disruption as they’re trying to get their arms around everything going on with the government trends and outcomes and everything else.

Some people would say that a lot of the reasons the same old systems keep selling is that IT departments want to avoid risk and perceive that that’s less risky. Do you think that that whole concept of extensibility versus just buying everything from a single vendor, even if it’s not very good, is going to be a message that will resonate with the right people who make hospital decisions?

I think you’re starting to see both. I think you’re starting to see that kind of the larger hospital systems are taking risk in saying, “Look, we’re going to change and swap out systems.” They’re starting in probably the departmentals because they’re seeing the benefits of fully integrated applications.

We’re moving down the path very strong. We have a fully integrated platform. That said, though, if you’re going to have innovation and you’re going to really drive vendors to continue evolving, I think it’s really rare where you can have one vendor that is going to continually innovate as such a pace that it will allow you to meet the needs of the hospitals in terms of patient care over the long-term.

You know Apple — you mentioned Apple at the beginning of the talk — Apple’s a very unique situation. They get innovation right and they’ve been very good and strong at what they do. I think it’s hard to replicate Apple’s success, so the answer to that is have an open platform.

Sure, you can go with integrated; you can go with single-vendor, but never tie yourself into a position where you can’t innovate on top of the platform that you’ve chosen. That openness should allow you to bring in third parties, to build your own applications as the institutions, but protect you from not being locked into a single vendor solution.

The company invested in EPSi and practice management. Are those key to the single strategy, or is that just a way to broaden the front that you put out to customers?

It’s kind of both. From one standpoint, we’re working right now to natively integrate those offerings, but the way we’re doing native integration is that everything can also stand alone.

For instance, EPSi will be integrated with our core solutions platform, so it means it’ll share security and auditing and other pieces of our platform with all of our applications. If you were to buy EPSi and you didn’t own any other Eclipsys app, when you install it, it’ll lay down the core platform. If you buy another application from us, then it will use what has already been put in place. You don’t have to redefine security. You don’t have to redefine auditing or roles, or places within the hospital or anything else — cost centers or cost codes, billing codes.

But that said, if you were to just buy EPSi and you wanted to integrate a third party, you should be able to do that without having to buy anything else from Eclipsys. So, we see that. EPSi certainly pushes forward our ability to move into new market areas and integrate in places that don’t previously own Eclipsys products. We also see it as a complete offering on top of an integrated platform. That core comes from Eclipsys so, there’s a little bit of both.

Do you see any possibility that either customers or third parties will develop open source components that work with your products?

That’s a really interesting question. For us, one of the things we announce at the Eclipsys User Network was the Eclipsys App Exhange, which will roll out in Q1. The App Exchange will be an opportunity for not only clients, but for third parties to actually build applets or MLMs or visual workflow add-ins and things of that nature on top of our platform.

If the third parties or the clients wish to put that into the public domain or license it specifically as open source, it’ll be their choice. We won’t regulate that. It’s very similar to the Apple Apps Store concept. We have not worked out yet whether or not we will invoke a commerce engine on top of our platform.

For now, we’re just seeing that clients can either exchange content or applets with each other, or get them from third-parties and then work out the revenue model between themselves. What we really wanted to do is be a facilitator and take the work we’ve done in the platform and now extend it out to third parties.

We’re talking to third parties now, who actually are competitors of ours, and they’re learning about what we’re doing and they’re saying, “Ah, this actually would reduce my cost of ownership because you guys are going to do all the plumbing work. Then, I could just snap on top of you.” What we’re saying to them is that’s great. We’d be happy to have you on the platform, but we may compete with you.

So far we’ve gotten feedback that people are saying, “Well, then let the games begin.” I think that kind of stuff is great for healthcare because it lowers costs, it opens things up, third parties can innovate, and hospitals aren’t tied into a single solution at any point in time. It kind of feels like it’s the right kind of place to be doing this.

Does Eclipsys have what it takes to compete for the long haul against some pretty formidable and well-funded competition like Epic and Cerner?

It would be hard for me to say no to that question, but my honest gut-level belief is yes. Think of it this way. Our clinical are considered the best in breed. One in four physician orders, I believe, in the US electronically placed is placed on an Eclipsys system. We’ve been improving steadily our KLAS rankings. Our customer satisfaction is up. So from that perspective, we’re doing all the right things.

We’ve just now announced the new Sunrise Financial Management product that comes out in early 2011. That’s our full-blown revenue cycle system with ambulatory billing and international support, fully integrated into our clinicals. Not interfaced, but true integration.

We’ve got fully object-level integrated pharmacy. We’ll very shortly have fully-integrated lab. Then on top of that, we’ve got one of the few fully-integrated clinical analytic packages, which will allow you to do data warehousing out of the box; do all your core measures and do visual query by example.

Then you’ve got the EPSi and the Premise workflow stuff on a single platform. On top of that you’ve got the visual workflow tools which will allow you to use Vizio-style diagramming to actually visually draw your workflows.

On top of that, that visual workflow tool can work with any web service in the world. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an Eclipsys web service or a third-party web service. So I look at that and I go, “Wow, that’s the breadth of the platform and we’ve got a very strong vision of where we want to go.”

We’re lowering the bar in terms of how usable the system is and allowing third parties to create an ecosystem through the Eclipsys App Exchange. I not only think we have the ability to compete with the Epics and the Cerners and whoever else may come along, I think in very short order they’ll be wondering like, “Holy crap. What have we been doing all along, and how are we going to deal with this?”

What does Epic have to do to stumble enough to let somebody else get back into the big-hospital game?

Good question. I’ve met Judy a few times. I think she’s a very, very brilliant person. She’s doing a great job at what Epic does. I think that right now, Epic’s situation is that they seem to be doing the right things, but I’m not really sure they’ve done anything hard.

I think they’ve gotten some preliminary implementations done. They’ve done some good large hospital implementations. But when you get into the real serious acute care, when you get into the real treatment of very, very sick patients; to the best of my knowledge, I don’t know if they’ve proven themselves yet. So it’ll be interesting to see where they go with that.

We’ve been doing long-term care, long-term disease management, critical care, oncology; you know, real in depth stuff for a very long time. Now we’re pushing very, very, very actively into the ambulatory market. So it’ll be interesting. I think it’ll be, through the next two to three years, a very interesting battle. I’m not sure if I, specifically, would feel comfortable saying that if Epic does these three things, they’ll stumble. But I think that there’s a short-term…

I would compare Epic to Netscape in that they were kind of an industry darling for a long time, but then when people wanted to get to the next level of the Internet and really start pushing things really hard, Netscape didn’t seem to be the answer. We’ll see if that turns out to be reality or not, but the reality is I think they’re a great company and Judy’s a great person. The people I’ve met from there are really talented people, so it’ll be an interesting competition.

The problem is they’ve taken away this window of time that’s driven by everybody’s first big clinical implementation and the HITECH possibility is there. They’re grabbing all the big customers who aren’t going to just dump them after they’ve spent $50 million. Are there going to be enough customers left to buy somebody else’s innovative product?

I’d let somebody else in the company talk to our financial sales, but from what I’m seeing, I think you will see that we continue to have strong, steady growth. The piece in terms of, are there other people left, right now there are selection processes going on that we’re beating up again. It’s actually good things.

We’ve introduced the “Speed To Value” methodology which reduces our implementation timelines by a dramatic amount and improves the quality. We’ve introduced a warranty that helps provide and drive our ability to assure that clients will get HITECH certified. I think if anything, we probably just aren’t talking up enough all the things that we are doing. But I don’t see that, “Wow, Epic’s doing all this stuff and Eclipsys isn’t.” So if anything, I think we just kind of walk a silent path and just keep doing what we’re doing. So far what we’ve been doing seems to feel and be on the right track.

Do you think offshoring of development has done as well as everybody expected?

I think we’ve learned a lot about offshoring. At this point, it’s just another office. The one thing that I think has helped us is we’re being able to bring a lot of young talent on board. That’s helped a lot with our ability to actually evolve the platform and evolve the other things that we’ve been doing.

I think that if I were to do it again, I might approach the problem differently, but I would certainly do it. I don’t think there’s anything in my mind that makes me go, “Wow, we shouldn’t have done this,” or “I would never do this again.” So far, it’s been an effective tool, and at this point in time, it’s another office for us.

We have development teams that have different geographic rotations. We’ve put the technology in place, like Cisco TelePresence and other things, to help coordinate those teams. We’ve got strong management layers in place to assure that those teams are held accountable. At this point, our offshore teams are no different than any of the other teams that we have.

Last question. What would you say the most important priorities are for the industry? Or what should they be over the next five to ten years?

I think interoperability’s huge. If you can’t interoperate, it does put hospitals into a position where they’re stuck with a vendor. If that vendor doesn’t get it right, it becomes really hard to whip into place. So proprietary systems that are not open and don’t interoperate with other systems, I think, are a tremendous detriment to the industry itself and so forth.

I think the second thing is we’ve got to make it really easy for people to adopt the technologies at all levels. If we don’t do that, then we’ll have great systems that can talk to each other, but no reason to talk to each other. I think usability has to be addressed. We have to see more innovative user interfaces. We have to have systems that are helping physicians and not just providing data and just kind of being like a ledger.

The third thing is I think we’re not really recognizing the value yet of home health and integrating the patient more directly into the systems and the technologies. I think the third big area that we have to concentrate on is the integration of the patient into the system, and kind of reaching out to the patient. This goes way beyond portals or mobility, I think, which is not really reaching out to our own healthcare opportunities.

Those three things, I think, will probably be the big priorities that I’d love to see. I think it would fundamentally change how healthcare information technology’s done, and thereby, help transform healthcare in the United States.

An HIT Moment with … Tony Cotterill

December 16, 2009 Interviews 2 Comments

An HIT Moment with ... is a quick interview with someone we find interesting. Tony Cotterill is president and CEO of BridgeHead Software.


Should data storage be a strategic issue to the average healthcare CIO who is knee deep in planning and budgeting for electronic medical records, interoperability, and Meaningful Use?

None of these top priority issues brought about by ARRA will succeed if the underlying storage of data is not fully managed. In fact, interoperability is founded on multi access to common data generated by one application and required by another. Without a data management strategy, a hospital that’s struggling to prove meaningful use will quickly find itself overwhelmed with digital patient data. Ironically, if these new electronic patient records can’t be accessed quickly, this may result in decreasing quality of care instead of the improvements that electronic medical records are supposed to bring.

A vendor-agnostic managed data store is fundamental to a hospital’s quest for a smooth running and useful electronic health record system.

If you were advising a CIO about storage and disaster recovery as these new applications come online, what would you tell them to think about, including cost, space, and growth?

First, I’d advise the CIO to look around the storage devices already in his/her data center and figure out how to maximize their utility, paying particular attention to the primary storage tier, which is the most expensive to maintain. We’ve done studies that reveal 60% or more of the data on tier 1 storage is static and hasn’t been accessed in more than 90 days. That data is being backed up nightly or even more frequently, so time and resources are being wasted.

Typically, archiving static data can delay the purchase of more tier-1 storage for 12 to 18 months by the space it frees up for reuse. Also, using archive alongside replication and backup as part of a DR strategy streamlines disaster recovery and enables optimized use of less expensive storage assets for static data.

Disaster recovery with multiple points-in-time copies is going to be become key as people migrate to the brave new world. Failures are inevitable and the last thing that anyone wants to do is to have to start again. The sheer volume of data that is now involved means that traditional backup and replication methods will not be fast enough for the frequency that is needed. Only by moving the unchanging data to a protected data store can you relive the pressure on backup to get the number of copies that you need.

Who are the main players in healthcare backup and archive solutions and what are their competitive differentiators?

The main players in healthcare backup tend to be the same ones you see in other industries: Symantec, EMC, CommVault, to name a few. In archiving, it’s these same players as well as other systems providers in partnership with middleware vendors (think HP MAS or IBM GMAS).

When you talk about competitive differentiators, it’s important to keep in mind that these vendors are all offering a horizontal technology (backup and archiving) into one of their many vertical markets, in this case healthcare, and to varying degrees they succeed or fail in addressing the unique needs of Healthcare IT. At BridgeHead, our only vertical is healthcare, so every day we wake up thinking about how we can improve our backup and archiving solutions to serve the needs of healthcare.

How is healthcare different from other industries in terms of data retention, retrieval, and recovery?

The basic requirements are the same — that is, different data types have different retention periods, privacy rules and access requirements. However, in healthcare, data retention requirements are somewhat unique in that there are multiple federal, state, and organizational regulations that govern how long data must be retained. Therefore, it’s essential that an organization’s data management tools be easily customizable to accommodate that variation.

As for retrieval and recovery, ease and speed of access are critical in healthcare since we’re talking about a patient’s health information, and potentially a life or death situation. Privacy is a particular conundrum in healthcare with a requirement for data sharing between healthcare professionals sparring against the need for patient privacy.

Storage devices use a lot of power. Are they an obstacle for organizations that want a greener data center?

‘Obstacle’ is putting it mildly. It’s really hard to create a greener data center when you’re dealing with such power-hungry devices, especially in the face of the rapid data growth that healthcare is experiencing. One of the topical ways of decreasing the local consumption of resources is to move the storage to the cloud, but are you really decreasing aggregate consumption under that model? An alternative strategy is to use storage virtualization to optimize the use of the devices that are already in place and, as a result, delay the next storage purchase for a year or even longer.

The goal with the data center — whether through a green initiative or not — should be to maximize storage capacity using as few resources as possible, so it behooves the CIO to research the consumption profile of the storage devices they’re considering before making a purchase. In fact when you consider that any data over 18 months old is unlikely to be accessed ever again you must ask the question, why do we have it mounted and spinning at all, why not have it offline on removable disk, optical disk, or tape. Access times in a tape library or jukebox are probably still quick enough for this kind of data.

HIStalk Interviews Jeffrey Robbins

December 14, 2009 Interviews 2 Comments

Jeff Robbins is founder, president, and CEO of LiveData.

Describe LiveData’s business.

LiveData’s really got two lines of business. Relevant to your readership is our healthcare business. We also got our start, and continue to service, the electric power space with a trusted real-time middleware that’s used all around the world on the electric power grid. That’s actually how we got our start in healthcare.

We were posed a challenge by folks at Mass General, who in collaboration with CIMIT had an “Operating Room of the Future” project. The paradox of new stuff is the more new stuff they brought in, while they had increasing numbers of really great new tools in the OR, the challenge was how to actually pull it all together and use it. So they posed to us the challenge: could we pull all this different kinds of data in real time onto one screen? To which, as CEO I said, “Of course.”

Then we pulled back to figure out, well, how’s that going to work? That launched us into healthcare about five years ago.

What is CIMIT?

It’s a collaborative group that involves Partners HealthCare, the parent organization of Mass General, along with MIT, Draper Labs, and other stakeholders. Their mission is to try to find technology, sometimes outside of the traditional healthcare space, and bring it to bear on healthcare.

I’ve been hearing about “The Operating Room of the Future” for years. Has it produced technologies that are actually being used?

Well, that’s a nice softball for me. [laughs] Certainly one of the outcomes of that project at Mass General was Mass General deciding for their new operating rooms — they put this in their RFP for equipment for the new ORs –to standardize on having LiveData OR-Dashboard in every room. LiveData OR-Dashboard is the product name of what came out of that research.

I should say that the way we were enabled to actually work on this was through a generous grant from the U.S. Army’s TATRC Group. Through the SBIR grant process, we competed for and won a grant that allowed us to take our technology, which was already proven in the electric power space, and tailor it to the healthcare environment.

Everybody’s pushing doctors to use EMRs in their practices. Is anyone advocating OR technology?

The OR, in my opinion, is still in some ways the Wild West or the last frontier. It’s kind of a black box that’s definitely under the dominion of the surgeon. It’s widely recognized that they’re very obviously a delicate area of care. Changes come to it carefully in the hands of hospital administration.

You really do have a dedicated team of professionals among the doctors and nurses who take excellent care of each patient. Trying to get electronic stuff in the mix has all the pitfalls that I’m sure you’re aware of, where you can’t simply create an electronic version of the paper stuff you already have and expect to see better things happen.

You really do have to look at the workflow and find ways, creatively, that automated systems can actually help and reduce workload, not simply add more burden, because now all of a sudden someone’s supposed to not only do critical things on their feet, but then run over to a keyboard somewhere and type a description of it. I’d say that’s what keeps the OR somewhat on the outskirts of a lot of the efforts I read about in your paper.

As you said, physicians often find EMRS cumbersome and not meeting their workflow. Do you find the same challenges with surgeons in the design of your product?

Yes. We set out deliberately to address the gap between the “doing” and the “documenting”. When we started, our product was really a read-only display that derived its information automatically from other systems, be it documentation systems where a nurse was already documenting, or in some cases the physiologic monitor or anesthesia machine. Building up more information out of existing sources without requiring any new typing. That was kind of a first leveled effort to say, “For sure no one’s going to have to do more work with our system. Let’s see if we can’t help anyways.”

Then the next step was to try to see if we couldn’t reduce the amount of work involved in certain documentation steps, with our focus at first being on the Safety Time Out, which has, I think, increasingly gotten press and awareness. 

What’s the value of putting the lists in an electronic environment, as in your Active Time Out function?

There was a by-now famous study that was spearheaded by, among others, Atul Gawande out of Boston here, out of the Brigham more specifically, and also at Harvard. Brigham, being one of the teaching hospitals, it was Harvard. But the study showed that through the intervention of adding specific kinds of checklists to the surgical process, you could reduce errors and ultimately save lives and reduce complications. That’s a wonderful result and everyone gets that we need to make sure that everyone’s doing these checklists properly.

But the study itself raised the question, “How do you engineer durability into the system?” and what does that mean? If you have someone with a clipboard watching you while you work, seeing how well you actually execute a specific checklist and you’re aware of that fact, my guess is like most humans, you would start paying more attention and be kind of on-the-spot and do it.

The question is, when the person with the clipboard leaves, who’s checking to make sure you actually keep doing this checklist? Effectively doing the checklist does help. The question is, what helps people stay on task and actually do the checklist on each and every case? That’s where, again, new ways of doing the checklists using electronic technology to help and augment the process can really make a difference. That’s what we’ve been doing with our hospital customers.

For example, we give the circulating nurse a simple clicker, kind of like a PowerPoint mouse, very inexpensive, very simple. During the Time Out, the nurse literally clicks through the checklist which is up on the wall on a screen. How that differs from having a poster on the wall, let’s say, with the checklist on it is for each step in the checklist, the relevant information for executing that check — like making sure that the proper antibiotics have been given prior to incision, as an example — the system literally scours the records of the documentation to make sure that there’s indeed a record of the proper antibiotic being given and puts that up on the screen.

Simple stuff like patient name, MRN, whatnot. Rather than just having a checklist that says, “Make sure you know who the patient is,” we get the patient’s name and in some cases, even a picture of the patient up on the wall so you can confirm that you have all the salient information to do that step of the checklist.

That’s Part A of it, having all the relevant information available automatically. Part B is, this could sound a little Big Brotherish, but it’s being handled with a lot of sensitivity by our hospital customers — we provide reports for administration as to how long was spent on each step of each checklist item for each case. You actually get beyond the documentation saying, “Yup, we did the checklist; we did the Time Out.” You get some time-based statistics. Did the checklist get done before incision? How long was spent on it? You pretty quickly get a feel, as a team in the room, for what the right amount of time is to spend on a checklist, and you can then start to tell when something really wasn’t done properly.

The hospital that recently got into trouble for not doing surgical time-outs or marking their sites surely knew they should be doing that. What would you suspect caused them not to, and how would your product have made a difference?

Well ultimately “they” — the hospital — devolved into individual surgeons who often aren’t even employees of the hospital, but obviously have privileges to operate there. Our system helps people stay on compliance with the policy and provides a record for each and every case of that actuality. It’s moving, and it’s a culture change, but its part of the hospital making the decision that yes, we shall really see that this happens on every case.

Can the tool change the culture or does the culture have to be ready to accept the tool?

As much as I’d love to say yes to the former, it’s really the latter. No matter what kind of technologies they have, the culture change is ultimately people and processes. Technology is really an adjunct. But again, my point is that technology done right is a useful adjunct that doesn’t add more work. It’s still salient to that discussion about, does the electronic medical record hinder or help our health?

Take me through a typical surgery. What is your product doing and how are people using it?

The product in the OR is part of a bigger suite of products that are all about workflow in the perioperative space. In the OR, the workflow is divvied up into some very high level phases or steps, which we call Set Up — when the room is being set up. The checklist phase. Intraop — the actual surgery is underway; debriefing and some ancillary stages prior to sending the patient off to the PACU. Some of these other phases might be in their own time frame and pop in and out.

For example, there’s workflow associated, on some cases, with sending a specimen from the OR to the pathology lab. The system will, when that’s going on, switch automatically to some information about managing that flow back and forth between the OR and the pathology lab to make sure the specimens had been marked and described the way the surgeon wants; to let the surgeon see where his or her specimen is in the pathology lab’s queue; and then ultimately to get results back from pathology in a way that the surgeon can easily see and have someone in the OR sign off on.

That’s like a detailed dive on one piece, but the major steps again are: the room setup, where the goal is to make sure all the right stuff is in the room. Then once the patient’s in the room, the briefing/checklist phase, to make sure that’s all done properly. Then Intraop is largely details of the case that unfold during the case — highlights of the patient’s vital signs, estimates of any fluid loss; and depending on the kind of case, there might be more details.

Let’s say in an orthopedic case you might have an automated tourniquet pump on for a certain period of time at a certain pressure, and that kind of data can be gleaned automatically and displayed on the wall so everyone can see it, that kind of detail about the work. First of all, we talked to different people in the room and asked them, do they need that? The anesthesiologist has his or her own bank of screens from the monitors; they don’t really need that. The surgeon might think they don’t need that, and often they’ll say that to us, “Oh yeah, I don’t need that.” But once they have it and you observe them during cases, you’ll see they start using it quite frequently just to stay aware.

Most crucially, nurses, some of whom might be changing shifts in the middle of a case or relieving someone who’s going off to lunch, can get kind of a high-level Gestalt of “Where are we in the case?” in one place, versus what they could do in principle, is log into several systems — the record, so to speak — and rummage and try to find out what’s going on that way, or talk to people. But I hope no one’s under the delusion that there’s a lot of that kind ad hoc conversation going on in the OR, because there isn’t — so metaphorically, keeping everyone on the same page.

People have said that critical IT systems should work like a pilot’s heads-up display or as in real-time instrumentation that detects events and alerts. Is the industry moving in that direction?

We feel we have delivered in our product is that heads-up display. I would argue that certain kinds of IT systems already in place in the OR are, correctly, heads-down products because they’re documentation products. Certain things do require a nurse to heads-down and type.

We’re not yet at a point where voice recognition is good enough in that kind of noisy environment, and so there are places where things need to be typed in. That, to my mind, is inherently heads-down, yet there are pieces of what are being typed that are really more high level events that should be monitored and then used.

We use them, first of all, to know what phase of the case we’re in to automatically display the right subset of information. But then, like you say, to have alerts. So if we’re getting to the Time Out before incision and there’s no documentation of antibiotics being applied — sound an alert, let’s find out. You could say, “Hey, you’re actually helping to make sure they gave antibiotics.” Well maybe, but maybe more likely we’re helping make sure that someone actually documents correctly what’s already been done. So somebody’s been given antibiotics, but no one’s documented it yet. Our system serves as a reminder to get that done.

How much overlap is there with traditional surgery or periop systems, and who do you consider to be your competitors?

We’ve actually had discussions with some of the CEOs of the existing periop documentation systems who have told me that they don’t see it as overlapping, and they see it as a logical add-on. Yet if you talk to some of the other larger companies who, it’s all just software, right? At some level they have everything, at least on the drawing board, and they’ll tell you, “Oh yeah, we’re working on something like that.” But I don’t think any of the current well-known companies could claim to have something exactly like this running in a hospital.

Another technology that outsiders seem to be amazed that healthcare doesn’t have is real-time video and data capture for review or teaching or malpractice defense. I noticed your Historian product offers that. How are customers using that?

We’re not directly supplying video recording. What we’re doing is essentially adding automatic data bookmarking to what exists in video logging products. For example, our product is in the market with our distribution partner Karl Storz and they have a line of products called AIDA, which are video loggers. So that’s an example.

In specific instances that hospitals interfaced with other competing video logging systems that other companies do sell into the ORs, there are basically DVD recorders in many ORs replacing the video tape recorders that used to be there. But I think, as you were kind of leading towards, it’s the old-style kind of tape — label it by hand; the surgeon keeps it in his office, maybe shows a clip at a conference.

The next step, we believe, is to make the video part of a richer data record. At the very least, so that you can easily find the salient stretch of tape or image that you want. One of the problems with logging things is you end up with miles of images that nobody ever goes back and looks at. So by merging the data-oriented bookmarks of knowing when the Time Out’s done, knowing when they’re closing, knowing when the physiologic monitor first picked up the pulse-ox or whatever, you can actually rapidly scan ahead to where you want to be instead of wading through a lot of empty air time.

Final thoughts?

I think you already said it for me, but I’ll repeat it. The electronic medical record in many ways seems, from my vantage point, to be somewhat stalled in that documentation phase. It’s really taking that electronic data, fusing it from several sources, applying rules to it, and acting on it that I think starts harvesting the goodness of it and makes it more than just this added documentation burden. Instead, it makes it part of the care delivery system that we’re really excited to be part of. I’d say that’s the exciting trend that is enabled by the correct deployment of electronic records.

HIStalk Interviews George Huntzinger

December 8, 2009 Interviews 2 Comments

George Huntzinger is CEO and partner of The Huntzinger Management Group.


You’ve been in the business a long time. Tell me what lessons you’ve learned that newcomers would benefit from hearing.

The consulting business is really an interesting business. I’ve been in it since … I’m going to say 1984. Actually, it was probably before that because we did consulting at one of the software companies I ran prior to that. But it’s not an easy thing to do. A lot of people go out and try and start consulting companies from scratch. They do it with minimal experience and they find out right away that there’s a real science to doing this.

I think it takes people with some good experience who have had the opportunity to work for large organizations and have been successful at what they’ve been doing before. Who have had a good track record and mentors and people that have coached them along through the whole process. Who have experienced all the various things that you can conceivably experience in virtually growing and building a consulting business that is servicing whatever market or markets they choose to serve.

I guess the key thing is experience. It’s having been there, done that, and having enough experience to know that when you’re going at something, you know when to stop investing when you hit something that isn’t worth investing in, and knowing where to accelerate investing when it makes sense to crank up the burner a little bit from a financial perspective. To go at something hard and go at it hard in the right markets, and usually come out on top of that — if you read it right.

People start up their own small consulting outfits because they need a job or just wanted to work for themselves. How many of those succeed? What does it take to make a real firm out of it and not just a few people selling time?

What I think is really interesting is the world’s kind of a funny place and there’s space in it for everyone, so to speak. We have employees today that only want to be employees and never want to do anything. They’re very good consultants. They enjoy doing what they do and they never want to aspire beyond being the best consultant that they can be and they always want to be employees.

Then there’s other folks that we bring into solutions that we’re providing to our clients and they come in as subcontractors, so they single-shingle it. There’s some people that single-shingle it, but don’t want to be anything more than just that. I guess they want the freedom of being an independent. They want to be able to move around, and they want to be able to operate solely as a business as a sole-proprietor. 

You’ll find a tremendous amount of consultants out there that fall into that category. They’re not really interested in doing much beyond that other than taking on an engagement or two that might require one or two of their buddies to come into it that they know, to help them to fulfill something they can’t fulfill by themselves. I can name twenty people in that category today that just, are satisfied doing that.

What would be the advantages or disadvantages of a really small, maybe even a one-person shop, versus a real ongoing concern?

I think a lot of it has to do with freedom. As an employee, you’re wrapped up in all the controls that are put on you as an employee. So you’ve got your vacation limitation, you have your personal day limitation, you’ve got whatever benefits that people are putting in front of you — they’re the benefits you get. It’s the package that you’re buying.

You’re also buying security when you’re part of that, so that’s a really nice plan for people who also need people to be around them to prosper and grow. They’re not as independent in their thinking, whereas when you walk on the — I’ll call it the subcontractor or independent consultant — side of the fence, where they’re a small business unto themselves, they have basically ultimate freedom. They can buy whatever benefit package they want to buy. They can spend as much or little on it as they want. They can take as much vacation as they want to take. They can work on a project, then take a month off if they want to.

There are freedoms there that you have, but yet still get to work on projects with people and do things and interact and interplay with various resources. You know, fulfill that side of the needs in your life.

Should a customer care about if somebody makes a pitch and says, “Hey, it’s just me and I’m hands-on and you get me and not somebody else. I’m cheaper by the hour”?

It all depends on what the customer is buying. It’s a good question. Our business, we’re not a staff augmentation company, so that’s not where our head is today. I’ll just speak by way of example. We’re an advisory and management services company, where we assume full accountability and responsibility for either running a given function or running a given project or function. We’re taking on that role. Whenever you take on that role, they want somebody who’s really committed and there, and has a little depth behind the organization.

Because when you put that transaction together, there’s usually a little bit of risk that you’ll take and put some deliverables at stake. Some risk for meeting certain deadlines or making certain deliverables happen, or achieving certain goals that you lay out in your contract. They’re going to want some meat around that when they contract with you. That’s usually not a good environment for an independent, sole practitioner to flow into.

They’ll usually contract with the Huntzinger Management Group for a project that takes on and maybe requires six or seven resources to be deployed because you’re assuming full responsibility for accomplishing whatever it is they want you to accomplish. In that, you may bring in four employees and two subcontractors, but the Huntzinger Management Group is 100% at risk for doing that. The client is more willing to sign up with an organization who does that for a living, whereas an individual usually fills a staff aug spot.

Or, if they’re a project manager, they’ll usually not take on a key leadership role as a project manager. They’ll be a project manager as part of a team. There might be seven or eight project managers onboard along with a project director that oversees everything. It’s very hard for an individual to take on full accountability and responsibility for a given thing because they don’t have total control of it.

Do you think the cycle will ever end where consulting firms sell out to bigger companies, then bring back most of the people to form another consulting company?

You know, everything has a life cycle, doesn’t it? What we’ve experienced in the 20-25 years that I’ve been running consulting or running businesses … I spent a good portion of my career at Computer Sciences Corporation and I ran their healthcare business for 14 years. When we started there it was $10 million, when we left there was close to $400 million, so it was a nice run.

You saw Superior grow and prosper. You saw First Consulting and Healthlink or IMT Healthlink kind of grow and prosper, and then all get absorbed into these larger corporations. It’s interesting because a lot of the larger corporations create an environment that … they’re great companies, they’re great organizations, but for whatever the reason, it’s hard for certain consultants to grow and prosper in that environment.

It is not the same $100 million or $150-$250 million company that they were working in before, where it’s a little bit more family-oriented, less bureaucratic. There’s not this big umbrella of policies, procedures, and regimentation that lays over the top of it. They’re accustomed to having a little bit more of a free-form environment.

So these big organizations bottom and the next thing you know, it doesn’t work for a few very talented people. They spin off and go and start it over, as you see in the market today.

I don’t know how many new starts are out there today. We’re one of them. There’s a lot of people that go at it from different angles, but there are a lot of companies under $30 million today that are forming again. They’ll go through their cycle where next year, a few of them will consolidate. The year after, a few more consolidate, and then maybe they’ll get bought by the bigger guys again, whoever is there at that time.

You do business consulting for healthcare IT vendors. What kinds of trends are you seeing there?

We do business consulting on two fronts. We serve the supply side of the market and for the most part, it’s 99% healthcare. And when I say the supply side, I’m talking about those organizations that sell solutions or services to healthcare providers or payers. They come in the form of software companies, IT outsourcing companies, business process outsourcing companies, and even various forms of consulting companies.

There’s all different types of consulting companies. They all have a different set of needs than the provider side, so our strategy is a two-legged strategy. The first leg is selling to the supply side of the equation. I’ll talk about what we do there. The second leg is selling primarily to the provider side, the hospitals and health systems, and I’ll cover that in just a second.

But on the supply side, what their needs are: they are businesses that are trying to grow in their own discipline. They’re attempting to serve a client base. They have all the needs that a business has, in that they have to have a good business strategy, good marketing strategy, a good positioning strategy. They need an operating model that is efficient and effective. What we do for those organizations is help them improve their shareholder value or the overall value that they bring to, if it’s a not-for-profit, whoever the organization is that they’re serving.

We do business strategy, marketing strategy, operations analysis, and improvement work. We usually start out with various forms of assessments, whether it’s a business assessment or a functional assessment. We’ve done a number of those over the last couple of years for this. In fact, probably 50% of my client base today are suppliers to healthcare provider or payer sector. Our job is to help them become more effective and efficient in how they go at their particular market or niche.

On the provider side, for the most part, we concentrate on IT. As I said, we’re an advisory and management services company;  we’re not a staff augmentation business. We’re pretty high level in the IT organization. We do not have any barriers around size of organization, so we serve, I’ll say, not-for-profit organizations, $100 million not-for-profit hospitals to $2.5-billion large academic medical centers. We do everything from IT assessments, IT strategy, IT operations improvement work. We will take on the responsibility for running various functions within IT. We will also do, when I say take on the responsibility, also for projects. Everything from doing full selections or contract negotiation to overseeing the implementation of the solution we selected.

I have readers who run small startups. What needs do those small companies have and what mistakes do they make?

It’s rather interesting. There are a lot of software companies servicing the healthcare market today that are less than $10 million in revenue. They usually come out in the market with a solution. They’ve got a technology-based solution. They’ve got a couple of engineers that figured out how to build something that they’re taking to the market. There’s usually a need for it and they line up several customers. They start getting some traction, but they’re doing it in such a way that it’s kind of a shoestring approach to starting a business. They’re not necessarily capitalized very well.

So they got going, they’ve got traction, and they did it not necessarily in the most optimum manner. Now it’s how do I take the solution set that I have today and really blow it out? If it has national market opportunity and maybe they’ve got a couple million dollars worth of business, they have five clients, and you take a look at that. You do an assessment of their business and you find out that wow, these folks have built a great solution. But what they lack is how to take that solution in a grand way and really get exponential growth, how to take them from $2 million to $15 million in an 18-month period.

What we help them do is think through their business strategy, their marketing strategy. The marketing strategy includes how they effectively position themselves in the market, how they go after competition effectively, what’s the proper pricing strategy for their solution set. What’s the best way to increase the awareness and consideration of the buying population out there so that they get a fair hit rate and get that accelerated growth curve going?

That’s what we do and that’s one of the biggest problems that I think are confronting these smaller companies. We help them think through that and we will actually develop the tactical plans necessary to take them from their current state to that future state. They want us to oversee it in either a mentoring role or take on the responsibility as a senior executive of their organization to see it through. We’ve done that numerous times and we’ll do it again.

You’ve seen a lot of people and a lot of companies in the industry. What companies and people in healthcare IT do you admire?

I have been in this industry a long time, since 1969. I worked for and spent a good number of years at Geisinger Medical Center and spent 14 years of my formative years at Geisinger. I have a tremendous amount of respect for that organization. I like their model. They’re modeled after Mayo, but they’ve kind of went beyond that and they have their own model today. There are some people there, I’m not going to name them all, but there’s some people I’ve learned an awful lot from and a few of them are still there. I really have a great deal of respect for that organization.

When I did a long span, a 14-year span at CSC, Van Honeycutt, who was my boss for quite a few years , ended up being the CEO and chairman of the board there. I just learned a tremendous amount about how to run a business there and run it through thick and thin and have always been successful at running businesses in good and bad times. I attribute that an awful lot to not just Van, but a number of other executives that I had the opportunity to work with at Computer Sciences Corporation.

Rich Helppie and myself worked real closely together at Superior. I think we learned a lot from each other and we learned how to basically take that business and get it turned around and repositioned and take it forward. Whether it’s Rich or a couple of the partners that I work with today, I have a tremendous amount of respect for, and that’s why they’re my partners today. They are what made Superior successful as we came out of the turn there and began building not only a consulting business, but a really nice IT outsourcing and recurring revenue stream that we later sold to ACS. I can go on and name a hundred people, but I always learn from the people around me and hopefully they learn a little bit from me.

Any final thoughts?

My goodness, I just want to say thanks for the opportunity to have this interview today. I greatly, greatly appreciate that.

I just really and truly enjoy serving the healthcare sector. I’ve been in it all my life and I just thought it would be a lot of fun cranking an organization up on our own. We have four very good partners. I should probably take myself out of that category. I have three terrific partners, and we all have been there, done that kind of people. We’ve all run various businesses or parts of businesses and we’re very good at what we do and we’re all just having a ball doing this.

HIStalk Interviews Stephen Hau

December 2, 2009 Interviews 8 Comments

Stephen Hau is President and CEO of Shareable Ink.

Everyone on your management team comes from PatientKeeper, a company that created a niche in the mobile healthcare technology. What’s similar and not similar with Shareable Ink?

That’s a great question. Shareable Ink is a very different company than PatientKeeper. When you take a look at the management team, as you pointed out, there are a lot of people who crossed paths at PatientKeeper. That’s because I spent twelve years at PatientKeeper.

As you know, I started the company and just left that six months ago. As I looked to start another company, I went out and thought of the people that I worked with in the past that would be good in a launching a new venture. Of course, I went to a lot of people that I crossed paths with at PatientKeeper.

What’s similar and not similar between the two companies and products?

I would say Shareable Ink represents a very different approach to healthcare IT. Shareable Ink is also a software company, but we combine digital pen and paper technology and some sophisticated enterprise software, form automation capabilities, and actually, a huge dose of pragmatism to deliver a very meaningful solution in healthcare.

As I look at the marketplace, I think the reality is that more than 80% of healthcare is still driven by paper. Shareable Ink makes existing paper-based processes like documentation, orders, and billing electronic with no change to workflows or individual routines. In fact, with Shareable Ink, no software is installed on-site, so we’re not “another IT project.” Actually, no training is required and we receive almost no support calls.

The result is that we’ve demonstrated 100% physician adoption and the entire organization realizes the benefits of electronic information. This is a different approach and it’s something to get really excited about.

Think about this: every year at HIMSS, what you see is vendors put up signage proclaiming that their products will reduce costs and generate phenomenal ROIs, improve outcomes and more. I believe that. But I kind of feel like there’s fine print or at least an asterisk that says, “All these benefits are only possible if doctors actually use the software.”

The industry’s dirty little secret is that physician adoption of IT is abysmal. And surely there are a lot of bad software products out there and doctors refuse to use them, but there are also a lot of robust, well-designed software products out there. Sadly, generally, they’re not well adopted.

We considered all of this when we started this new company, Shareable Ink. It’s my opinion that the issue is really not that of technology, it’s actually really about psychology. I think there are a lot of well-intentioned software designers out there that are tackling some of healthcare’s big challenges, and that’s great. The problem is that historically, they ask the doctors to completely change their workflow. And as I said, we took a very different approach. We’ve created a platform that produces electronic information without changing physician’s routines at all.

So much of the benefit of moving from paper to computers is to avoid illegible handwriting and to get information in discrete form rather than as a picture. Isn’t digitizing handwriting a step backwards?

I don’t think so. I think we’re taking a very pragmatic approach here. I can give you an example of our first large customer, which is an outsourced anesthesia billing company located in Michigan. They’ve got over 8,000 anesthesiologists under contract. Before Shareable Ink, these anesthesiologists would record their cases on paper anesthesia records. Some of the anesthesiologists would wait until the end of the month to FedEx these records to the billing service, where the envelope would be opened and the anesthesia records would come out. A human being, a biller or a data entry person, would actually key-enter all that information.

Other anesthesiologists would deliver the anesthesia records to someone in the back office that would essentially put the anesthesia record in a queue to keyed in. When the records finally reached the folks in Michigan or over to their overseas FTEs, often it would be too late to update incomplete forms or incorrect records because basically you have to chase down the anesthesiologist and say, “Hey, remember that case you did three weeks ago? Well, when was the anesthesia end time?”

With our system, the record is made available to the back office, literally, a few seconds after you complete the record. The paper form looks exactly like the forms the doctors used before we introduced our system. There’s literally no training whatsoever. But now, the records are processed immediately by the back office because information is available on our secure Web site — our Web portal — and the doctors are notified of any sort of errors they made in the anesthesia record within seconds after the form completion.

We did a study at a surgery center in Delaware. We were able to show they were able to improve form completion rates from 78% to 99%. Is this a step backwards? I would say no. I mean, what we were able to do, we were able to reduce a tremendous amount of re-work. We were able to, for this particular example, shorten AR days and vastly, vastly improve physician satisfaction.

What’s the benefit of offering a handwriting application as a software as a service instead of running it on a consumer-grade Windows application like Microsoft and others offer?

In my personal opinion, software as a service is hugely applicable to healthcare IT, so there are a few notable benefits. First of all, because we don’t have to install any software on-site, we’re not another healthcare IT project. This allows us to move very, very quickly. That’s definitely because our technology is off-site. We’re able to bring a lot of fire power, a lot of computationally-intensive functions to our technology.

As an example, rules and alerts, as I mentioned before, physicians, when they fill out a form and it lacks a key piece of information, perhaps related to some sort of PQRI initiative, we can send them an SMS message to their pager and e-mail, what have you, instantaneously, because all our capability is on the Internet.

Also, it makes it very easy for us to automate forms. One of the challenges out there, or course, is there’s a lot of paper. That’s both the opportunity and the challenge. Part of our philosophy here is that we don’t want to change anything a physician does, so we make it very easy to customize or utilize numerous different types of existing forms that an organization normally might have.

Separately, we provide the ability for so-called ‘third-party validators.’ I can give you a few examples. We talked about the outsourced anesthesia billing company, where they’ve got billers and clinical folks both here, stateside in the United States as well as overseas in India, in that example. The fact that anyone on the planet can help get involved in processing the data is a huge benefit to our customers because it allows them to keep costs low and also to operate on a 24×7 basis.

We are working with a very prestigious cancer center and they are doing drug orders using our system. The interesting background there is that those physicians, about a year ago, tried to bring in an electronic system to handle the orders of their oncology drugs. It’s a great idea, but in practice, it was such a change in workflow that the physician productivity just plummeted. It turned out that in practice, it just wasn’t a system that worked well for them.

What we’re doing with them now is we’re essentially taking the paper ordering forms that they’re using today and we’re making them electronic. The physician, essentially, does nothing different. They’re still ordering drugs through their existing processes, but because of the ability to support a third-party validator, the person in the pharmacy department is now validates the data and then takes the next step, which is to electronically submit the physician’s information into the electronic ordering system where all the rules fire and all the good things about having electronic information occur. These are some of the benefits of being able to have a software as a service model.

How does Shareable Ink work with existing applications like an EMR?

We have, behind the scenes, a tremendous amount of integration capability. Some of our customers can actually start before using the integration capability because at the end of the day, we know that by automating paper-based processes, we can co-exist with existing processes. There are other customers where it makes sense to have the integration capability in place before getting started.

I can give you some examples where, in fact, we are working with EMR companies to provide their customers a paper-based modality to get information into their EMR. I think when you sit across the table from a CEO of an EMR company, he or she will tell you that of course there’s a huge value proposition for going electronic.

But the challenge is still trying to get physicians to put fingers on keyboards. There’s a longstanding paradox in healthcare, which is — institutions want digital data, but physicians, who are the highest-paid workers in the organization, don’t want to compromise their productivity by having to key-enter data into computer systems. What we’re offering customers on a direct basis, as well as with some EMR channel partners, is essentially the ability to bridge existing processes into electronic EMRs or EHRs.

Physicians who don’t want to type often look at speech recognition instead of a keyboard. Where does Shareable Ink fit then?

I think transcription is an interesting analogy. In some ways, there are physicians who have migrated to transcription. Dictation transcription’s a way of getting electronic data into back-end systems. Obviously, there are a lot of physicians who resist that, who essentially feel, “We’ll document on paper.” What we offer has both differences and similarities.

In terms of differences, because we’re utilizing often templated, form-based data entry, we have the ability of creating a better kind of structured information. Because, for example, we know that if a physician is entering, for example, allergies — in this particular area — our system is smart enough to say, OK, these are allergies. The system will now choose words from a more specific lexicon knowing that it’s going to be plugged in. Or perhaps drug names. Not only that, after we process the information, we’re able to then, in a structured basis, interface the electronic system saying that this is a list of allergies, or this is a list of drug names.

Some of the similarities … if you take a look at how the dictation/transcription business has evolved over the last few years, I think what we’ve observed is that that particular segment has brought more and more sophisticated computer-aided technologies to support or help the transcription process. eScription’s a great example, where they take the audio from the physician and then take advantage of voice-to-data technology to take advantage of sometimes semantic reasoning to improve the transcription process. I think the analogy is that we’re taking advantage of some very cool, cutting-edge technologies to assist us in the handwriting to electronic data conversion.

We also have the ability to take advantage of something called the Mechanical Turk approach. That’s a community model that allows us to essentially co-mingle computer-based computation with human beings. Not only that, we’re able to break down the problem by using multiple human beings to essentially support the handwriting-to-text conversion process.

One thing I forgot to mention about the SaaS model: one of the key benefits that we allow our customers is getting started with our software with very little cost to them up front. We charge for our product on a subscription basis, so this allows many customers to get started very quickly without any sort of up front capital purchase. That’s a key advantage of SaaS models, obviously.

So you’re selling a new concept as well as a new product. How do you get the message out?

Well, I hope this interview helps. [laughs)

It’s all about HIStalk.

Yes. Well, it’s interesting, because it’s a new concept and at the same time, it isn’t. I guess in some ways the new concept is: wouldn’t it be great to get all of this electronic information and actually realize all these value propositions that you’ve been hearing for quite some time without changing physician behavior? In that sense, it’s certainly a new concept. But at the same time, I think we’re addressing a lot of known healthcare issues and I think the timing couldn’t be better.

Look at the ARRA legislation. Look at the demands of organizations to go electronic. But at the same time, realize that they need to have a pragmatic approach that’s cost-effective, that they know the physicians will actually adopt and use. I think it’s a great time for the Shareable Ink idea, especially in this time with the government pressure to meaningfully use these EHRs. Well, clearly, I think our approach falls under that category.

What’s your elevator speech when you’re talking to the hospital CIO or CMIO or head of an anesthesia billing company?

I think the message is different. In some ways, we have a high-class problem here. I mean, reality is, as I said before, 80% of healthcare is written on paper. The high-class problem is that there are many, many different applications that we can provide. With some of the customers we’re working with, we are doing physician documentation projects. We are doing nursing documentation.

I mentioned that we’re doing orders and obviously, we’re doing these anesthesia records. There are many different applications. I think in some ways, the pitch is, often we share our capabilities as a seamless way to create electronic information with no change in workflow and with a very, very kind of easy way for an organization to get started. You start with that reality or if you start with that capability, and very quickly what happens is that the CEO of the organization says, “Oh gosh, you know, I’ve got a problem that you could solve with your approach.” This is something we can actually address and realize some success.

So the message is really one of, I think, very, very innovative technology. A lot of fire power that happens behind the scenes, but coupled with a very pragmatic approach to realize those benefits, there has to be virtually no change in workflow. It has to be something that addresses both not just the technology, but the psychology of the organization.

An HIT Moment with … Greg Smith

November 25, 2009 Interviews 4 Comments

An HIT Moment with ... is a quick interview with someone we find interesting. Greg Smith is a Certified Product Safety Project Engineer (NCE) and quality assurance manager for the MET SE Headquarters.

Your article, Not Suitable for Medical Use, suggests that special interests pressured OSHA to allow medical devices with unproven electrical safety to be used in the OR. How did that happen?

gsmith There are a combination of reasons that contribute to this, but the main reason is a perception that having this equipment correctly built and tested to national and international safety standards is too expensive. In reality, having a compliant product certified can cost as little as $5,000-$10,000, then between $2,000-$4,000 a year for testing laboratory audits to make sure the manufacturer is still building the units per the certification report and performing electrical safety testing before the equipment leaves the factory.

This cost, when adjusted to the hundreds and thousands of, for example, computers, is not a significant cost factor. The fact is, sometimes it costs more that this because these manufacturers are turning out non-compliant and hazardous equipment. We see this every day in the testing lab and during the unannounced factory inspections during the year. Our records show that if manufacturers were allowed to "get it right" on their own, they will, in most cases, not get it right. Most manufacturers making a product for the first time do not even know what standards apply to their products.

These special interest groups are pressuring OSHA, along with elected officials who know nothing about electrical safety. At the same time, electrical safety experts are constantly reminding OSHA about the reasons why this is a Federal requirement for equipment in the workplace.

There are no US regulations for imported products to be safety certified. Although the "CE" mark is legal in Europe, the EU is considering moving to a new system because they are being flooded with these "CE" self-declared products from Asia and other places. Why would we move to something like the SDoC (Supplier Declaration of Conformity) when this system is showing problems over time in other parts of the world?

Simply put, these groups want to speed up time-to-market at any expense. In this case, it is at the expense of safety for US consumers and workplace owners. Here is a great article on SDoC.

What are some real-life examples in uncertified medical devices cause harm to patients?

Just last year, a baby was burned at a NC hospital by a non-certified incubator. Some of these incidents really stick out, especially whey they make the news. Many incidents of shock are never reported, are only sometimes recorded in the OSHA logs, and not ever reported unless OSHA has a reason to examine these logs. Also, some incidents are prevented through the diligence of our biomedical technicians, who regularly test and repair equipment.

In recent years, incidents have decreased because many hospitals require medical equipment to be certified as a condition of purchase. At some less-vigilant healthcare facilities, patients are likely killed from leakage current, although this is difficult to prove because it is simply called "death from cardiac arrest". The science of electricity and specifically leakage current tells us of the hidden dangers, especially to patients who are vulnerable (e.g. during surgery). The National and International safety standards for medical equipment are in place because of these known hazards.

A skeptic might say that you have a vested interest in raising concerns about uncertified products since you’re in the certification business. What would you say to convince them your concerns are real?

Those of us who are passionate about safety spend many personal hours addressing these problems. Electrical safety experts include electrical contractors, electrical and other government inspectors, power company engineers, design engineers, and electrical equipment manufacturers. For an unbiased view of these issues, ask some of these individuals.

For example, these issues are discussed regularly in associations like the IAEI, the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, where all types of electrical safety experts help develop consensus positions on these subjects. Go to the IAEI Web site and read some articles on product safety and the need for third party safety certifications, . 

An important question here is: if we don’t ask our electrical safety experts, who are we going to ask? Would you consult a mechanic about an internal organ surgery? In a recent NC court case to exempt equipment from safety inspections, the "Code expert" for the plaintiff was a man who developed a way to get cat urine out of carpet. The electrical safety experts were ignored because science and facts are less exciting than rhetoric and hyperbole. Vested interest? There are many types. Some are based on science and a desire to keep others safe and others are based on haste and pure greed. We are in the business of product safety certifications because electricity kills people. 

IT departments are often involved with choosing portable computing equipment that includes batteries and electrical connections. What should they be doing to make sure these devices are safe for use in specific hospital areas?

Purchasing departments should specify that only certified products are to be procured. There are many valid safety certification marks and agencies ("CE" is not a safety certification). In these specifications, it should be mandated that patient area equipment needs to carry a UL60601 designation.

Regular (consumer) computer equipment is designed much differently, and even if it is certified, the standards are much different. The IT Standard, UL60950, allows leakage current levels five times as high as the medicals standard, and for good reasons.

Also, consumer IT equipment is not designed for the medical environment, as with laboratory equipment and consumer TVs and appliances. There are computers and monitors specifically designed and tested for patient area use. Typically, IT departments and administrators do not know the difference. Many facilities use isolation transformers in an attempt  to mitigate risk, but the equipment can be easily unplugged and leave patients and healthcare workers exposed to the risk of electric fire and shock or electrocution.

Should hospitals and practices regularly test computer equipment for safety when it is used in patient care areas?

All equipment for patient care areas should be tested on a regular basis. This equipment undergoes heavy usage and is prone to failure through wear, abuse, and environment. If the protective ground is lost, the risk increases, especially for equipment not designed for use in patient areas.

Biomedical technicians regularly see these conditions, providing safety testing and effecting repairs. These electrical safety specialists are on the front lines of patient and worker safety, and should be allowed to do their important jobs. There are regular attempts to cut this testing from budgets, so much attention needs to be paid to this profession and the unseen hazards they prevent.

HIStalk Interviews Paul Meyer

November 11, 2009 Interviews 8 Comments

Paul Meyer is co-founder, chairman, and president of Voxiva.


Tell me about Voxiva.

We’re a mobile technology company that had a crazy idea nine years ago that mobile phones had something to do with health. We’ve spent the last nine years building a platform and building mobile health solutions around the world.

It seems that the premise of the company is that expensive computers and ubiquitous broadband connectivity aren’t really necessary to connect the public to health services and to health experts. Is that true? And is it true in the U.S. as well as in the developing nations that you’ve worked with?

Absolutely. In the developing countries where we started working, the Internet just wasn’t a reality at all. Cell phones were the only game in town. Everyone was thinking about how you extend certain information systems to most of the world’s people. The cell phone is the only tool you’ve got at your disposal.

But over the last couple of years as we’ve started doing work here in the U.S., we’ve realized the same thing is true here. Statistics are pretty amazing. There’s some great data from Pew on relative reach of the Internet versus cell phones. It’s still a pretty striking gap. 

There are a lot of populations, particularly underserved and low-income populations, that still don’t have very good access to the Internet. Yet 90% of people here have cell phones. And, it’s not just that they have cell phones — their cell phones are with them in their pockets and on their bed stands.

If you think about how can technology be leveraged to help drive behavior change and improve patient adherence and compliance, you may as well use the technology tool that’s in their pocket.

Do you think the iPhone got people thinking about the possibility of having a smart phone deliver a fairly rich application?

I think iPhones have done an amazing job of opening people’s eyes up to the possibility. People ask me a lot why the U.S. is thought of as so far behind the rest of the world in terms of mobile health. There are a couple reasons. 

In the rest of the world, in emerging market countries, there was no alternative. There was no Internet to reach those people. Necessity being the mother of invention, people went right to mobile.

Secondly, the U.S. is the only country in the world where you actually pay to receive text messaging on cell phones. That’s also been a barrier to the adoption. Not just to health applications, but mobile applications in general. But I think that’s starting to change. Certainly the iPhone has done a lot to open people’s eyes to the possibility that cell phones could be used in powerful ways to make you healthy.

Now, with that said, when I ask someone what their mobile health strategy is and they say, “We’ll build an iPhone app,” My response is always, “Well, what are you doing for the other 95% of the people?” I think you would do well with an iPhone, but ultimately, if you want to try to reach a big chunk of the population, you need to use other tools — whether it’s SMS or voice response or other ways of using a mobile phone — and not assuming that everyone’s going to have the iPhone, because they don’t.

I think people who travel outside the U.S. are sometimes surprised by that we’re fairly primitive in our cell phone technology. Do you think that’s a barrier, or is it going to improve?

I think it’s getting better. I talked about a couple of the reasons, but in some ways the real reason that the U.S. is behind on mobile is because we have the Web. If you think about all of the innovation that went into the dot-com era, all these Web-based business models, many of our best and brightest minds spent ten or fifteen years innovating on tools to use the Web.

In the rest of the world, where the Web was not a reality, that kind of innovation and creativity went into optimizing mobile devices. That’s why, in some ways, the rest of the world is so far ahead.

After nine years of doing this in places from Peru to India to Rwanda to about 14 countries where we operate, when I’m now spending a lot of time here in the U.S. working with our clients here, my not-so-subtle message is, we’re here to help you learn from what they’ve done in Mexico, what they’ve done in India or Rwanda  in terms of leveraging mobile technology to improve healthcare.

That makes me think of India’s technical advances in the 1990s when they couldn’t afford mainframe computers and therefore created a generation of PC and Web developers that drove the industry. Could the same thing happen with cell phone development?

I think it has. I think you’re seeing that. I think that’s exactly what’s happened.

I think obviously the U.S. is waking up to this. Secretary Sebelius last week gave a great speech. There was a mobile health summit hosted by the National Institutes of Health in Washington. Secretary Sebelius gave an incredible speech talking about the importance of mobile phones in healthcare. It was really refreshing to hear.

I would say there’s so much discussion and focus right now on electronic health records, my fear is, as the government is gearing up to spend all this money on all these high-tech incentives for EHR adoption, is that we’re spending way too much time talking about the plumbing and not enough time talking about how all this technology is actually going to make people healthier.

One of the things I was really gratified to hear in her speech last week was that the importance she attaches to mobile phones as a tool for really informing and engaging your power in patients, seeing the mobile phone as the obvious extender of electronic health records. I don’t want to diminish the power of Web-based EHRs and other tools that are out there, but I think they’re getting a fair bit of attention.

I think that people aren’t paying enough attention to the fact that we already have, in the U.S., 300 million cell phones. In my view, those are 300 million untapped health behavior change devices that are ready to be put to work.

Did you get a sense that the government really understands the difference between just making providers theoretically more efficient as opposed to actually changing health?

I think certainly some people do. I think we’re working with the government on a really exciting initiative that isn’t announced yet. Secretary Sebelius alluded to it in her speech last week. It’s a major mobile health service focused on pregnancy and providing information by text messaging to pregnant women and new mothers to help make a dent in the pretty horrifying maternal and infant mortality statistics in the U.S. We’re working with the mobile phone industry through the CTIA, Johnson & Johnson, and a bunch of federal partners. 

I think the HHS and the federal government partners that we’re working with really see this initiative as a very high-profile demonstration of the power of mobile phones to really improve health and impact one of the biggest health crises facing the country.

There are certainly some real believers in the government in mobile health. My advice to them has been, as the government is spending all these billions of dollars on health IT, they want to be sure that they actually do some things that are actually visible and tangible and beneficial to patients. 

The government is run by politicians who ultimately want to appeal to voters. You don’t want to be the politician that explains how you spent 20 or 40 or whatever billion dollars on improving the technology to improve health care, and yet have none of it visible or beneficial to patients in a way that they can perceive.

I think it’s really important to identify ways — and again, obviously you know my bias — but I really believe that mobile health is probably the best way of extending some of the value of health IT to patients to help support them, engage them, inform them, and help them live healthier lives.

We send much of our public health expertise out of the country since we already have clean water and vaccines, but our healthcare system is still centered around the idea of episodic treatment interventions. Are population-based public health interventions a tough sell here?

We have huge problems here. The United States has the second-worst infant mortality rate in all of the developed world. It’s staggering. It’s unconscionable that we’re about the richest country in the world and have infant mortality rates at such staggering proportions.

We’ve looked a lot at the data and it’s pretty concentrated. The high infant mortality rates are highly correlated to lower-income women, primarily African-American. The Hispanics actually have relatively better birth outcomes. So African-American, lower-income, low educational level, highly concentrated in the South. That’s the part of the country that has the worst birth outcomes.

We then took some of the Pew Research data and looked at the Internet vs. cell phone penetration among the sub-populations with the highest infant mortality. There was just a 20-30% gap between broadband Internet and cell phone penetration in the population that we’re trying to reach.

African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately much higher users of SMS and other mobile data services because they have a relatively lower level of internet access. If one is looking at how to extend and improve health services and extend healthcare to under-served and low-income populations, the mobile phone is an even more indispensable tool.

We’re doing a lot of work with people focused on serving the Medicaid population, but as healthcare reform is happening and all of a sudden the country is figuring out — how are we going to actually start extending healthcare to 30 or 40 million people that don’t have it right now?

These tools are really important for a couple of reasons. The lower-income people that don’t have access to healthcare right now are disproportionately high users of cell phones. But secondly, the idea of actually automating some of this interaction and giving people the information and the tools to take care of themselves is a way of actually reducing the burden on the healthcare delivery system.

We already have an over-extended healthcare system. With 30 or 40 million more people coming into it finally at long last, it’s going to be even more of a burden. We’re looking at some of these alternative ways of engaging patients. I think it’s going to be more important.

Do you think it’s counter-intuitive for the average person to understand that poor and less educated people are heavier users of cell phone technology?

I think that people are often surprised when I show them that data. I think people assume that technology usage and income are just correlated on a straight line basis. That just doesn’t actually get borne out when it comes to cell phone usage.

If you were trying to make the case that this technology works for health improvement, what examples would you give?

There have been a lot of really good published data. I was looking at a study just today from Norway on smoking cessation. In a randomized clinical trial looking at people that were involved in a smoking cessation program, half of the study group was also enrolled in an SMS texting support service to enhance the program. It doubled the rate of quitting.

We’ve done a lot of work in improving adherence and compliance in HIV/AIDS care treatment. There have been some really, some good studies showing improved efficacy of weight loss programs when enhanced by a mobile service. It’s still early, but I think there are some good initial studies showing the improved health outcomes in these kinds of interventions.

I think this approach works for everybody, but I think particularly if you start looking at thinking about serving low-income and under-served populations and how to leverage technology and engage with them about their health, the Internet can’t be the end of the story.

There’s another data point from Pew of people with chronic conditions. Only 50% of them have Internet access. If you can get 100% adoption of some Web-based tool, then you’re still only halfway there.

Anyone who is looking at how to engage and support people in their health, particularly but not exclusively in some more under-served populations — I just think people would have to explain why they wouldn’t take this kind of an approach.

Your background in political and humanitarian causes, along with the source of funding for the company’s projects, almost make it sound more like a non-profit public health think tank than a for-profit vendor. How is Voxiva like and unlike the traditional software vendor?

I grant you that I personally and Voxiva have had a somewhat circuitous past to the U.S. healthcare system. We basically just saw big problems to solve. We saw a big opportunity to leverage to solve those problems. We may think a little bit differently than traditional public company, but ultimately, we’re driven by trying to solve problems. Like helping developing world health systems track disease outbreak better or that and things we’re focusing on now, of trying to help give people the information and support to live healthier lives.

We focus on trying to leverage and define innovative solutions for solving important problems. We believe if we can do that, we’ll get paid for it and make money at it. Henry Ford had a pretty good line on this — a company whose only purpose is making money or has no reason for being.

Finding problems to solve and eventually figuring out how you’re going to get paid by people for having and creating value has, I guess, certainly been our philosophy in terms of building a business.

Who’s your customer?

We market to public health and government health. We’ve also got those public health agencies and government healthcare providers. We market it to insurance companies. We’re working with one of the insurance companies. We market to pharmaceutical companies that are paying us to create adherence programs, and also the big employers. We’re beginning a little bit of work with some provider networks.

You were quoted as saying that Voxiva’s ideal employee is part McKinsey consultant, part Microsoft engineer, part Peace Corps volunteer. What are the employees and work environment like?

I said that probably six or seven years ago when it was relevant toward developing world business. We do blend a lot of skill sets. We’ve obviously got a lot of engineers. We’ve got a lot of health people.

We were started by — I guess I don’t know what you’d call me, an entrepreneur — a technologist, and a medical anthropologist. I think the three founders roughly had the very skill sets that we have tried to combine. What makes what we do interesting and also makes it hard is that we really do try to live at this intersection between technology and health and behavior change and sociology.

We’re not your people that write code. We work with our partners and our customers to come up with solutions that are really going to make people healthier. It’s not just a matter of taking, for example, content of a smoking cessation program or pregnancy educational materials and squeezing them into the 160 characters you can fit into a text message. It’s really about developing interactive engagement services that can improve health and change behavior.

I don’t think we have anyone that actually perfectly embodies all of the skill sets we need, but we definitely have tried to attract people that check more than one box and blend some of the various skills from the overlapping the Venn diagram of what Voxiva is.

Any final thoughts?

There are 300 million cell phones in this country that are sitting idle. We use them to vote for American Idol. That’s really what we’re using them for here, other than sending text messages and making phone calls. I think the healthcare system in this country can put them to work and do a lot more. I think people ought to be thinking about how. We’d love to help.

HIStalk Interviews Parker Hinshaw

October 28, 2009 Interviews 4 Comments

Parker Hinshaw is CEO and co-founder of maxIT Healthcare.


What made you move from the provider side to running companies?

I’m a service-oriented kind of a thinker. It always felt like one of my strengths was surrounding myself with really talented people because I need people around me that could make me look good, I suppose. It was successful for me working in hospitals.

It seemed like there was just a real need for that out in the marketplace. The software vendors always struggle with how they keep their costs down. They end up hiring a lot of young people who take awhile to really be productive. Also, generally speaking, they don’t have a real hospital experience, so they’re learning on the job. And they’re overpriced.

So when I looked at it, it seemed like there was just a real opportunity to do two things. One was to create opportunities for people who ran up against the ceiling at a hospital, as a really good technical person or functional application person. You can get bored at some point in time if you’re really somebody who needs to be learning new things all the time. In a hospital, you’re going to run out of new things to do.

It’s just interesting that you can hire folks that are underpaid at a hospital, pay them better, and still have a really positive, wholesome, healthy culture that you get at a hospital. Most people that work in healthcare are all about taking care of the patient in the end. That’s what drives us all, and the opportunity to do that even on a larger scale.

It’s those two things, I guess, and just a desire to create a company culture that’s very, very positive, because I’ve worked in many that weren’t. [laughs] It just seemed like if you were spending that much time working for someone, it ought to be a good thing. If you were going to spend that much time going to work, you should feeling good about going to work.

So I left the provider side and went to the software companies. That was bizarre. They were just so political, so aggressive in their treatment of people, so callous. It just didn’t work for me at all. I had to find something in between the two, I guess, in the end. This seemed to be a good thing.

Where were you working?

I spent time working for Compucare in the early 80s when they were going from an outsourcing firm — which is what I thought I was doing — (laughs) to becoming a software company. That was during the Baxter years. Baxter had acquired five good companies and messed them all up, in my opinion. [laughs]

Are you gearing up for new business because of ARRA?

Yes. To me, it’s just the next wave. I’ve been around a long time now. When you do something for 35 years, you start to see the patterns. If it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else, is my view of it.

This one seems like a really good one, though. I think this one is very exciting, because those of us who’ve been around a while always figured something had to change in a major scale, because we’ve been doing everything the same way, in reality, from the beginning of IT in healthcare.

I think it’s time. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out. I don’t think anybody does. But something had to change, and I don’t think they’re doing this because there’s not a problem. I’m very excited about it.

We’re also starting to get involved in the payer space primarily for those reasons, because something’s got to change. It seemed like a good opportunity in several different areas. It’s not just the hospitals and the ambulatory centers. It seems like a great opportunity to me.

So what type of things are you looking to do in the payer space?

It’s really very similar. It’s got an IT bent to it. It’s really all about the systems, change. You really look at what ours are about; it’s all about facilitating change. So most of the time IT is in the depths of all of that.

We fundamentally track the customer base of the software vendors because of what we were talking about before. The software vendors, because of the way they are reimbursed with delivery points ultimately, there is a parting of ways in the goals and objectives of the customer versus the goals and objectives of the software firm. That’s where firms like ours come in and fill that void, because they need to go on to closing their next deal and make sure the people keep their pipeline full.

Then they turn it over to the service organization of the software company. Then you’ve got all those dynamics that we were talking about before, the politics of the organization, those things, the churn that goes on with people trying to cover more than they could possibly handle. Those are the profit requirements of a for-profit company.

How does a consulting firm add value other than simply marking up the hourly rate of its consultants?

I think the way that we add value is that the IT side of the work that we do is almost secondary. What we really have is clinicians and financial folks first who happen to be really good with IT. I think the way that we really make a difference is — and hopefully, what we’re doing is hiring the cream of the crop, right? I mean, if we hire those people that hit the ceiling in a hospital because they’re better and they need more work, that kind of thing, then hopefully we’re better than the folks that are traditionally happy and satisfied staying at a hospital level.

So it’s really all about knowledge transfer. I talk to my folks all the time. “Your job, really, is to work yourself out of the job in every engagement that we do.” It’s all about knowledge transfer, right? If you do that really well, then that hospital that you’re working for is going to give you another job to work yourself out of.

So perpetual knowledge transfer is really what this is all about. Elevating the skill sets of the people in the hospital that use those products and understanding it.

People get satisfied doing the same job over and over and over again. Some people do. When they have to change and do something different, it takes a special person, I think, to help them understand that they can still get to that comfort zone that they’re used to. But it’s got to change. You have to move forward. Those people that like the process of change need to help those that don’t. I think that’s where we fit.

You’ve got eyes and ears all over the hospital IT business. What are the most interesting and innovative things being done out there right now?

I think there’s an awful lot of exciting things happening in cardiology, radiology. Lot of the clinical departments that we’re seeing a real need for that really aren’t the traditional spots that firms like ours work in. It’s usually about nursing or lab or pharmacy, all the traditional things that we spend most of our time on.

But right now, we’ve decided that what our role could be as a transitional thing and also to make work interesting for people, is to do departmental management consulting. I wouldn’t call it strategic in any way, but really it’s a lot about helping departments in a hospital do assessments, figure out how to better utilize the equipment that they have, improve on the work flows, all those kinds of things.

To me, it’s those kinds of areas where the technology is really improving, and we’re trying to figure out how to adapt to that and then tie it in to the traditional information system. It’s all related to the EMR; that’s where it’s all heading. Those areas that we may not even have thought about historically. “What’s going on in the OR?” “What’s going on in the ER?” and all those things.

Who do you admire in this industry?

Fundamentally, I’m an entrepreneurial guy, so I would say people that find an angle that’s different and new that really adds value, and they do it not because they want to make a bunch of money, but because they want to provide a service. The money will come as a result.

I admire people who have a real passion to do something that benefits us all, and in the end, they made it. Most entrepreneurial guys are still thinking about the dollars, but it should be secondary to providing a service that makes it valuable so you can make a dollar.

I’ll tell you one person that I really have learned to admire, and I find her to be really different — it’s Judy Faulkner. She has taken a stance that is kind of counter-culture to what the typical software vendors are about relative to customer service. She has happy customers. It’s very hard to find software companies in this industry that have happy customers.

I have admired Jim Reep, who founded First Consulting. I thought he created a really positive culture, and really fit that description that I mentioned earlier. When he went away, I think bad things happened in that company. [laughs] I guess I admire leaders fundamentally, people who see something, pursue it.

I also admire people who do it without somebody else’s money. The people who go to private equity firms and borrow — I’m a bootstrap thinker, I suppose. Those people who do it for the right reasons. That’s what happens if you’ve got a bunch of investors involved and you borrowed their money. Now, all the sudden, you’re more worried about keeping them happy than you are about your customer and taking care of your employees. So people who take that approach, I admire.

It’s always been exciting to me. I’ve always felt good about being in healthcare. I’ve felt very blessed to be somebody that was lucky enough to fall into the IT side of the industry that’s always doing the right things for the right reasons. Not always competently. [laughs] But it’s always an interesting place to be.

An HIT Moment with … Jonathan Phillips

October 21, 2009 Interviews 1 Comment

An HIT Moment with ... is a quick interview with someone we find interesting. Jon Phillips is managing director of Healthcare Growth Partners, LLC of Chicago, IL.


What economic and market conditions have most affected vendors in the past year and how does the next 12 months look?

Fundamentally, vendors are indirect victims of the challenges facing their customers. Hospitals have seen access to capital disappear, operating results worsen (due to reductions in elective volumes and increases in Medicaid and self-pay/uninsured visits) and dramatic declines in investment income (which helps to fund operations).

Physicians are seeing operating pressures as well, not to mention the indirect impact of declines in value of real estate and other investments and the effect that has on their ability and willingness to spend. Insurers and suppliers remain profitable, but have become quite cautious as the healthcare reform debate works its way through Washington.

As a result of this pressure on customers, vendors are feeling significant stress related to their financial performance. The capital markets see it differently — HCIT valuations are at or near all-time highs as public investors assume that ARRA-related stimulus spending will drive billions in revenue to vendors in the space. At some point, the capital markets expectations will have to meet the reality of customer spending, or customer spending will have to dramatically accelerate to meet capital markets expectations.

The good news is that we are hearing customer purchasing trends are starting to look up, particularly on the physician side of things. However, given the fact that ARRA actually froze much of the market this year as purchasers have been waiting for clarity, our sense is that there is still a long way to go for vendors to feel that they can achieve strong sales growth.

Spending will likely improve across the board in 2010 with solutions demonstrating clear ROI leading the way. Physician sales of EMRs and related capabilities will continue to be strong as practices position for stimulus benefits. Hospital solutions, payer solutions, and supplier solutions are likely to see cautious growth next year as the implications of any healthcare reform package are weighed with regard to how the new environment will impact IT requirements.

We still see strong interest in “pay as you go” models, providing opportunities for providers to acquire systems capabilities while managing upfront capital outlays. While those types of models seem to be spurring sales, many vendors struggle when making the shift to that type of a model since, absent some type of third-party financing, the “pay as you go” model can wreak havoc on the balance sheet of a company used to selling perpetual licenses.

What will drive the M&A market this year?

The M&A market for the balance of this year and into next will be driven by two main trends. First, you will see an increase in the number of distressed transactions. We look at distressed transactions as ones in which the seller is effectively forced to consummate a transaction, generally due to liquidity (i.e. the company is running out of cash).

We expected the distressed market to pick up sooner than it has, but a number of factors have impacted that part of the M&A market. First, with the potential stimulus spending hanging out there, investors have been willing to continue to fund companies operating at a loss in hopes that revenues will pick up and profitability will be achieved in the near term. Unfortunately for many of those companies, revenue growth will recover, but too slowly for them to reach profitability in a reasonable period.

Second, many companies aggressively cut costs late last year and early this year to extend their financial runway. There is not a lot more “fat” for them to be able to take out of their businesses. The result of these two factors is that a number of companies will likely be at or near the end of their financial runway over the next six months. The closer a business gets to that point, the less leverage it will have in its sale negotiations. As a result, we expect distressed deal volume to pick up.

The second main trend relates to investor expectations versus reality. Because of all of the hype surrounding the stimulus spending on HCIT, healthcare IT stocks have rallied, in many cases to their all-time highs. However, if you look at the results being delivered to date (we’ll see if Q3 continues the trend), revenues have been soft, and earnings improvements have been driven by expense reductions. From our perspective, there is a gap between what the markets expect healthcare IT companies to deliver in revenue growth and what they can deliver organically in the short and mid term.

All of the stimulus talk has actually extended sales cycles, and even as the purchasing environment improves, it will take time for bookings to translate into revenue. Therefore, you will see public and larger private HCIT companies looking to acquisitions to augment their internal growth rates.

What companies need to be bought and which companies need to buy someone?

As we mention above, larger companies facing the reality of their sales efforts will need to buy revenue to augment their organic growth. These targets will most likely fall into two categories — share buys and technology buys. Share buys are situations where the acquirer cares little about the target’s capabilities. They are primarily interested in their customers and the opportunity to either up-sell or cross-sell those customers new solutions. Technology buys are intended to broaden an acquirer’s capabilities, using the acquirer’s distribution reach to push a strong product out to a broader customer base.

In terms of companies needing to be bought, if a business has less than six months’ cash on hand, they should be aggressively pursuing an exit, whatever products and solutions they offer. Often we see businesses waiting, hoping that they will be able to raise money or that the market will quickly improve. When those hopes fail, the outcome is generally far worse for employees, shareholders, and customers than it would have been if the business had elected to pursue an orderly exit process rather than an accelerated distressed sale.

If you were launching or buying a start-up, what niche would you go after?

We’d go after a “lowest common denominator” physician-focused EMR that qualifies for meaningful use and that is seamlessly integrated into a physician’s workflow. This type of a solution would likely be a hybrid offering, providing for electronic documentation and order entry but doing it in a way (perhaps with scanning or e-forms) that works with existing clinician workflow. The solution would be priced very aggressively on a subscription basis and would be offered as a Web-based service. We think that a simple offering like this would have the chance to revolutionize the market by being rapidly adopted by small physician groups.

What kinds of vendors will benefit most from stimulus money, both in the short and long term?

Depending on how meaningful use is defined, vendors most likely to benefit are those that help providers qualify for incentives at the lowest cost.  We also see incumbent HIT vendors in hospitals benefitting as they can help shape hospital spending to hit compliance levels.

The other group that is definitely seeing growth is the consulting side of the business- it seems that many organizations are looking to consultants to help them plan their approach to become meaningful users. Those consultants are likely to continue to benefit as organizations implement the solutions that they recommend. However, most vendors probably won’t benefit quite as much as the markets think — “up to $19B” and “incentives” doesn’t mean that the proceeds go directly to HCIT, it just means that providers are rewarded for utilizing HCIT. There’s a big difference.

It is also important to remember that the government gives and the government can take away. We are highly skeptical of business plans built on the basis of attracting stimulus money. It is important to remember that fundamentally the stimulus incentives are being paid to encourage providers to do something that nearly everyone agrees is in the best interest of the healthcare system. As unlikely and unfair as it might seem, it would not be out of the realm of possibility to imagine a scenario where incentive payments are drastically reduced to help cover some other government shortfall.

HIStalk Interviews Sanjeev Arora

October 16, 2009 Interviews 3 Comments


Sanjeev Arora, MD is professor of medicine, director of Project ECHO, and executive vice-chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, Albuquerque, NM.

Please give me an overview of Project ECHO.

Project ECHO stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes. Our mission is to develop the capacity to safely and effectively treat chronic, common and complex diseases in rural and underserved areas and to monitor outcomes. It’s funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the New Mexico legislature, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

We started this project about five and half years ago to treat hepatitis C, which is a global health problem affecting 170 million people worldwide, of which 3-4 million are in the US. In New Mexico, we had 28,000 patients who had hepatitis C. In 2004, less than 5% had been treated because there weren’t enough specialists in rural areas to treat them. There were 2,300 prisoners who were diagnosed with hepatitis C and none had been treated. We had the highest rate of chronic liver disease/cirrhosis deaths in the nation, so it’s twice the national average. 

The disease was treatable and it can be cured. Hepatitis C has six main kinds of virus. If people had Genotype 1, we could cure them about 45% of the time. If they had other kinds of genotypes, we could cure them about 80% of the time. The problem was that if patients were given this kind of treatment, which consisted of weekly injections and daily pills, they got severe side effects.100% of patients became anemic. Their white cell count went down. About a quarter of them got depressed. 

Primary care doctors didn’t feel comfortable treating this disease. There weren’t any specialists in the rural areas and in prison. That was the problem that we were trying to solve. 

Rural areas of New Mexico are a very underserved area for healthcare services. Thirty-two of 33 New Mexico counties are listed as Medically Underserved Areas. Fourteen are designated as a Health Professional Shortage Areas. We said we could use this new model to develop the capacity to safely and effectively treat hepatitis C in all areas in New Mexico and to monitor outcomes. We felt, if we could do that, then we would have a model to treat complex diseases in rural locations and developing countries.

We developed a partnership between the University, the prisons, health department, Indian Health Service, and community clinicians who were willing to treat hepatitis C in rural areas. ECHO’s model is based on four key ideas.

One is the use of technology to leverage scarce healthcare resources which may exist only at a university or in a tertiary care center.

We use a disease management model, where we focus on improving outcomes by reducing variation and processes of care. We create a best practice protocol for treating hepatitis C and then we share it widely with our partners. We all manage off the same label. This is to improve quality.

The third key idea is case-based learning. That’s when a rural provider goes to medical school or residency. They learn from real patients and mentors. When they go to the rural area and a new disease like hepatitis C gets discovered in 1989, they’re expected to read books and then treat this disease. They don’t feel comfortable because it’s a very complicated disease. So we said, “Why should we not bring case-based learning back into the lives of the rural provider by co-managing patients with them? We have a centralized database to monitor outcomes.”


We train physicians, nurses and pharmacists in hepatitis C. Then we conduct these telemedicine clinics, which we call Knowledge Networks. Many rural clinicians sign on simultaneously onto an interactive video network with specialists from the university. One by one, they present patients with hepatitis C to experts at the university. The specialists at the university help them manage these patients, tell them what to do, what tests to order, what treatments to take, and help them manage side effects of treatment.

They come every week, once a week, for a couple of hours and present their patients. This creates a learning system which we describe as a Learning Loop, where these clinicians learn from each other as much as they learn from university specialists. They also learn from short didactic presentations.

We give the rural providers no-cost CME credits. We give nurses credits for participation because they are learning from experts at the university. We like to improve their professional satisfaction and we give them access to multiple specialists at the same time.

Everybody gets the chance to present their patients. We use all different kinds of technology, including videoconferencing bridges, videoconferencing recording devices, and electronic records to enhance communication. We described this first for hepatitis C, but it’s applicable to any disease that is common, management is complex, new treatments are coming, high societal impact, if there’s a serious outcome of a untreated disease, and if there’s effective treatment.

We have a few concepts that make Project ECHO work. One is we are trying to provide the same level of care at a community health center as we give at a university. We can do this by means of technology, best practice protocols, and case-based learning.

From the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule, if you create Knowledge Networks for just a few diseases, you can have a huge impact on healthcare. You don’t need to have Knowledge Networks for 500 diseases to have a huge impact. A few diseases account for most of the morbidity and mortality.

We use the concept of a Force Multiplier. Because of the specialist shortage in rural areas, we can use existing community clinicians like nurse practitioners and physician assistants and enable then to provide the same level of care as specialist, therefore multiplying the capacity for specialty care in rural areas.

One challenge that comes up is that there is not only a shortage of specialists in rural areas, there’s also a shortage of primary care doctors. This is the next generation of Force Multiplier, which essentially shows you that we are training now community health workers and medical assistants and nurses also in these chronic diseases so they can be part of the chronic disease management team to help the primary care clinicians.

Existing methodology for training and development of widely distributed learners has major limitations. They tend to be expensive and out of sight, out of mind. You call them in for a conference into your city, spend thousand of dollars, they go back, and they forget what you have taught them.

In our model, we help them apply this knowledge and, using technology, we can do this training at a much lower cost. Also, we don’t have the problem of knowledge obsolescence because it’s a weekly interaction where we are slowly making them experts.


We also have a prison peer education program where we train prisoners in New Mexico to teach other prisoners about hepatitis C.

We have 15 separate areas in which we have Project ECHOs going on: hepatitis C, cardiac risk reduction, asthma, rheumatology, chronic pain, substance abuse, high-risk pregnancy. Some are supported by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation. We have many others. Overall, we have more than 140 programs around the state.

With hepatitis C, we have done 375 HCV Telehealth Clinics. More than 3,500 patients have entered the HCV disease management program. We have provided thousand of hours of CME credit at no cost to clinicians.

We’ve taken community clinicians and assessed their skills and abilities on different domains of hepatitis C care. On the question of, “What is your ability to treat Hepatitis C patients and manage side effects?”, on a scale of one to seven, they were two out of seven when they started and it went up to 5.2 in 12 months alone. So, very major improvements occur as they engage with us in this learning process.

Asking if they could serve as a local consultant for hepatitis C in their clinic and area, it went from 2.4 to 5.6. Overall competence went from 2.8 to 5.5. When asked if this kind of activity is of moderate or major benefit to them, it ranged from 94% to 98%.

Subsequently, we did a hepatitis C trial in which we compared the care in the university to the care in the rural areas and prisons by primary care clinicians. Rural primary care clinicians deliver hepatitis C care that is as safe an effective as a university clinic. We can also improve access to care for minorities. Almost 69% of our patients in the ECHO groups are minorities, versus much fewer in the university.

The potential benefits of the model are improved quality and safety, improved access for rural and underserved patients, workforce training and force multiplier, improving professional satisfaction and retention, cost effective care by avoiding excessive testing and travel, preventing cost of untreated disease, for example, liver transplant, and integration of public health.

In 2007, applications were sought for disruptive innovations in healthcare, new models that would change healthcare nationally and globally. This was sponsored by ASHOKA Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in a disruptive innovations contest. Project ECHO was selected a winner among 307 applications from 27 countries. We were one of three winners selected.

Using technology, best practice protocols, and co-managing patients with case-based learning is an effective way to safely and effectively treat chronic, common and complex diseases in rural and underserved areas and to minor outcomes.

This is the first program I’ve heard of where the goal wasn’t just to turn over patients to experts sitting on the other end of a monitor, but rather to educate and make local practitioners self-sufficient. Has anybody else done that?

We don’t know of anybody that has done it the way we do it. Basically, that is why it was selected, probably, as the most disruptive innovation in healthcare.

Commonly, technology has been used specifically in healthcare by telemedicine, where there’s a specialist at the university and there’s somebody in the rural area connected by camera. That doesn’t lead to the force multiplication that we’re talking about. We’re interested in long-term capacity expansion of care.

In the passage of time, these healthcare providers become less and less dependent on us as they become good at it. We are not aware of this model anywhere.

Healthcare reform always talks about who’s going to pay and who will be covered, but nobody has addressed the issue of having enough practitioners of the right types in the right places. Are you getting interest from the government or insurance companies about how they might use this model?

We have not focused so far on publicizing at all. This is the first initiative. We got a very large grant from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and they hired a PR firm, which I think reached you. So I think that this is just the beginning, really.

Very few people know about this program in the way you have just learned about it. We have treated tens of thousands of patients through this methodology, but our focus has been on service, not so much on policy work or convincing healthcare providers. But we hope that some of the work you and your colleagues will do will help us get there.

We think that this is a very valuable tool for healthcare reform because we can train, not only primary care physicians, but community health workers to become experts in very common diseases like obesity and hypertension and diabetes.

Because of the shortage of primary care clinicians, how do you take care of all the chronic disease that is going on everywhere? We thought, if we trained the teams of the primary care clinicians in these very common problems, we’ll do a better job.

When a community health worker is used as a sole diabetes educator — that is, no doctor, no nurse, no certified diabetes educator — HbA1c can drop by 15%. Comparing the care provided by a community health worker and a nurse practitioner in the community versus a university-based primary care clinician, the community-based care does twice as good.

We asked ourselves, “Why is this community health worker intervention effective?’ These people live in the community. They understand the culture. They walk two moons in the patient’s moccasins. They appreciate the economic limitations of the patient and they often know family and can engage other the social resources. But most importantly, they spend more time with the patient.

If you are trying to change a diabetic or and obese patient’s behavior and doctor spends four 15-minute sessions with them over the course of a year, it’s hard to do that, whereas somebody like community health worker can spend seven one-hour sessions for one-tenth of the cost and actually make a bigger impact.

We have developed two tracks. The first one has already launched, the second one is in preparation. The first one we call the CHW Specialist Training Track, where we take these community healthcare workers and train them in diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cholesterol, smoking cessation, and exercise physiology. Then, over time, they start interacting with us on these Knowledge Networks until they really become experts in a very narrow area. This specialty CHW program uses low-cost technology to take specialty training to CHWs, promotoras, CHRs, and medical assistants where they live. It has a very narrow focus but deep knowledge, standardized curriculum.

We give them ongoing support via Knowledge Networks. They become part of the disease management team. Basically, the point that I was trying to make to you with reference to your question is, in healthcare reform, we have to train a much larger health workforce so that doctors work in teams, rather than individuals trying to solve the big problem.

I’m interested in your statistic on how well the community-based caregivers were able to do what they do. Do you think that would be true outside your population of the underserved or on a Indian reservation? Is it translatable to the rest of the United States?

There are some places in the United States where you have a highly trained work force, for example, Manhattan or Boston. There are hundreds of certified diabetes educators. So the moment somebody comes to you, you can refer them to a nutritionist, diabetes educator, or podiatrist. You don’t need a community health worker — you’ve got super experts doing all this work.

But when you go to a prison, a rural area, an Indian Health Service facility, there aren’t any certified diabetes educators. They don’t exist. The nurses there are not experts and there’s a shortage of primary care clinicians who are trying to see 25 patients a day and do it all themselves. In that setting, or in inner city areas whether it be south of Chicago or Bronx … I think where there’s a shortage of these healthcare resources, these models are particularly effective. We’re not trying tot change healthcare where there’s doctors on every street corner and every other health professional fully supplied. Our mission is to provide world class healthcare in cost effective ways in areas where there isn’t enough healthcare workforce.


It seems that there’s not much ego involved. You’re not saying that your organization or your doctors have to get all the credit. You’re just saying, “We’re going to help you and help the patients.” It must be hard to convince people that you don’t have a vested interest.

I think the fundamental issue with Project ECHO, as you have alluded to, is that we have to be willing to break the monopoly of knowledge that exists. The knowledge gets monopolized otherwise. Breaking that monopoly and sharing it freely for public benefit, without necessarily charging anybody for it, doing it at low cost on public dollars, would be much more cost effective.

What if President Obama came to you and said, “This works. This is where we want to go. We want to take this national.” How would you go about doing that and what would it cost?

I think the first thing that would happen is one would have to create some kind of a federal granting mechanism to academic medical centers around the country, in which we would essentially ask them to consider a different mission.

Right now, academic medical centers do three or four things. They basically provide very high quality tertiary care, but they also train doctors and nurses. These federal grants that would be provided to these academic medical centers would ask them to essentially refocus their mission to training a much larger workforce in America to manage chronic disease in a highly cost-effective way.

That is, finding out what is the lowest cost person who can be trained to provide education, behavioral change, and foot exams to diabetics in rural areas without having to have them travel. Right now, people in New Mexico have to travel sometimes five hours to come to an academic medical center.

Most of the academic medical centers are being financed right now by the clinical revenue generated by all these patients travelling. If you redirect clinicians, these highly educated specialists, from providing direct care one on one to instead enabling the workforce around the state in their rural areas to provide world class care by setting up these Knowledge Networks, you can actually get a much more cost effective healthcare system and get much better outcomes at much lower cost.

It means re-thinking how we do healthcare, so it would mean reconfiguration. In order for the federal government to be able to support such an effort, they would need to support this transition in the mission of academic medical centers. I think if federal granting mechanisms were available, large numbers of institutions like ours would jump at the opportunity because they want to do this kind of work if they are made financially whole.

An HIT Moment with … John Shagoury

October 7, 2009 Interviews 1 Comment

An HIT Moment with ... is a quick interview with someone we find interesting. John Shagoury is president of Nuance Healthcare.


Is the rich nature of the physician narrative getting too little attention in the rush to get codified data for interoperability?

Yes, as the healthcare industry and more recently policymakers work to make electronic health records commonplace, I believe that the concept of preserving the physician narrative has yet to receive adequate attention.

While the HIT Policy Committee has recognized “electronically capturing data” as part of the “meaningful use” criteria, the rich nature of the physician narrative needs to be specifically identified. In order to ensure that patients’ medical records do not suffer in quality, and that caregiver communication via shared notes does not lack necessary detail, electronic health records must not be reduced to point-and-click templates alone. The physician narrative should be accounted for and measured as part of quality care tracking under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

This past June we surveyed more than1,000 of our physician customers on the topic of “meaningful EHR use” and learned that 94 percent of physicians surveyed either “agree” or “strongly agree” that capturing physician narrative as part of the documentation process is necessary for complete and quality patient notes. When you’re dealing with patient care and people’s lives, codified data only gets you so far. We must not forget that physicians treat people with problems, not just people’s problems; the details found in the physician narrative help to personalize the record, leading to high quality, patient-specific care.

Providers want a fast, sure payback on their capital investments. What’s your message to them?

If a healthcare organization is making any investment, including a capital investment in healthcare IT, it needs to align with a step-by-step workbook that outlines actual cost and benefits. All investments should be well supported with project goals at the technical, user, stakeholder and strategic levels. In addition to goals, the following should be crystal clear: what needs to be measured; how it will be measured; and how often it will be measured.

Another option to a capital purchase is an investment in a hosted (on-demand) solution. Regardless of what model an organization uses, I’d counsel providers to do both statistical and qualitative predictions and measurements. With the example of speech recognition technology (which is offered by Nuance as either a capital or on-demand purchase), an organization should estimate and measure the amount of traditional transcription cost that is expected to be saved, the projected physician satisfaction and efficiency levels gained, as well as quality improvement of patients’ health records.

While there’s no clear-cut playbook for which method of IT delivery fits which healthcare organization, working with an experienced vendor can help to ensure you invest in the right solution for your individual organization’s needs. Additionally, as the industry is increasingly identifying traditional transcription as an opportunistic area to boost efficiency, improve quality and reduce costs, we are seeing more organizations choose the on-demand model. It should be interesting to see if this trend continues.

While a capital purchase allows for full control of on-site software management, as well as data, security and process control, for many the on-demand model is more compelling. With on-demand, instead of installing software onsite, hosted software runs on the vendor’s servers. The vendor hosts the application and makes it available for users to access through Web browsers (via secure passwords). All of the customer’s data is stored at the vendor’s site; all maintenance of the software and server hardware, data backups, and tedious details of that nature are handled by the vendor. Healthcare organizations simply pay a monthly fee depending on their activity level; there are few extra costs or tasks associated with management and upkeep of the program for the customer. In addition to the benefit of less investment up front and fewer responsibilities on program updates and management, upgrades also happen automatically, and any glitches are the responsibility of the vendor.

The industry has taken some widespread negative PR and patient lawsuits over undelivered and uncommunicated critical patient results. Nuance acquired Vocada and its Veriphy solution in fall 2007. Was that a timely acquisition and will it be strategic going forward?

The decision to add critical test result management capabilities (CTRM – Veriphy) to Nuance’s healthcare portfolio was indeed strategic. The timely and accurate reporting of critical test results from the lab or diagnostic imaging group to the treating physician is an important aspect of patient safety. Unfortunately, and despite many regulatory and accrediting requirements, the typical “systems” for delivering and managing critical test results are mostly manual, disjointed, inefficient, prone to error, and frustratingly inconsistent.

In a recent study led by Dr. Lawrence P. Casalino, an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, it was found that more than seven percent of clinically significant findings were never reported to the patient. As part of the study, the records of 5,434 patients at 19 independent primary care practices and four based in academic medical centers were reviewed. Casalino’s team extracted records that contained abnormal results for blood tests or X-rays and other imaging studies, and then searched for documentation that the patient had been properly informed of the finding in a timely way. After many interviews with physicians associated with the uniformed patients, the researchers found that of 1,889 abnormal results, there were 135 failures to inform.

Clinical laboratories are tasked with performing more than 10 billion tests per year and while critical results generally comprise less than two percent of all lab findings, the timely communication between the lab, physician, and patient is always crucial. Through use of critical test results management technology (Veriphy), leading medical centers like Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center are automating the communication of patients’ critical findings so patients do not have to second guess if their results are normal and doctors do not have to worry about liability if a patient is not notified. VCU performs as many as 340,000 procedures annually, they went from being only 49 percent effective for critical message delivery and today critical results are communicated to the right caregiver within 13 minutes of being identified 99 percent of time. Phone tag is no longer relied on to ensure critical patient care.

Going forward, and increasingly as results like VCU’s become known, we expect Veriphy to be identified and deployed at more radiology, lab and even hospital-wide as healthcare organizations work to improve caregiver-to-caregiver communication and speed high-priority patient care.

Where are Nuance’s healthcare R&D dollars being focused?

With expertise in speech recognition, clinical communication and documentation, as well as diagnostic imaging, our R&D dollars are directed at expanding upon the capabilities and technological advancements we are already recognized for across the healthcare industry.

As mentioned earlier, preserving the physician narrative as part of patients’ electronic health records is extremely important. We will continue to improve the recognition capabilities of our speech solutions, expand our already formed relationships with EHR vendors and work to perfect natural language processing capabilities. We believe that data extraction and analysis of the unstructured clinical narrative, as well as the conversion of the unstructured narrative to structured, discrete documentation is critical for improved ongoing patient care.

Moving forward, we will continue to focus on ways for our customers to find value from the physician narrative for caregiver utilization in real-time, as well as to drive extensive analysis for enhanced care and operations moving forward. We will also remain focused on supporting current and emerging standards associated with HL7 CDA implementation guides to ensure the data the our customers capture is accessible and shareable for use within their enterprise, regionally and nationally as deemed appropriate.

With unnecessary imaging procedures costing between $3 billion and $10 billion annually, we will also work to expand upon and promote our RadPort solution as a viable, and cost-effective, solution for managing high-tech diagnostic imaging utilization. Earlier this year, Nuance co-founded the Imaging e-Ordering Coalition, which is an alliance of leading healthcare providers, technology companies and diagnostic imaging organizations working to promote electronic decision-support (e-Ordering) as a solution to assure that all patients receive the most medically appropriate diagnostic imaging test for their specific condition.

RadPort is an electronic decision-support tool that provides ordering physicians with clinical information at the time they are ordering a patient’s exam. By producing a "utility score" for the requested exam, physicians can assess the medical appropriateness of the exam to ensure it will be reimbursed by the patient’s health plan and most importantly to verify that it aligns with the patient’s conditions and care needs.

In addition to decision support, we are working with many customer sites to collate and analyze their ordering, documentation and patient outcome data via a Rubik’s cube like data warehouse, called RadCube. Over time medical groups can determine how often their providers’ selections of higher utility scans improve patient outcomes. RadCube collects a tremendous amount of data, automatically structures and classifies it and then provides a visualization of current activity to drive improved care, business and management decisions.

What does the short- and long-term picture of healthcare IT look like from the company’s point of view?

For the first time, healthcare IT is in the spotlight. In the short-term, we’ll see a combination of big promises from vendors that are simply unable to deliver matching technological advancements alongside market leaders that have been focused on addressing specific healthcare pain points for some time.

It is an exciting time to be in healthcare. As healthcare reform has captivated the nation, HIT has also risen in recognition and priority. As part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, $19 billion is allotted for incentive payments starting in 2011 under Medicare and Medicaid for providers determined to be “meaningful EHR users.” As we anxiously await the definitive meaningful use definition, which is expected in the spring of 2010, Nuance is working to educate policymakers on how speech recognition can help national EHR adoption and utilization.

It is proven that a major EHR usability hurdle for physicians is the task of typing. Speech recognition does two things to improve EHR utilization.

  • It makes physicians more productive. Because the majority of people speak faster than they can type, clinical documentation can be done more efficiently when speech recognition is applied; this allows doctors to spend more time practicing medicine.
  • By allowing physicians to speak vs. type, they are empowered to create a highly detailed narrative of the patient encounter that can not be fully represented in structured templates alone, or perhaps would not be as complete if a physician was tasked with typing the note. EHRs will only be valuable if the information captured within them supports improved, ongoing patient care. We believe speech recognition can help to improve the quality and detail of information captured in patients EHRs and will be more broadly used in the short-and-long term.

In addition to speech recognition as core to EHR workflow, we are also working to educate policymakers on Capital Hill about the value of electronic, evidence-based clinical decision support to help eliminate medically unnecessary diagnostic exams. The technology, RadPort, rates medical imaging exams (at the time a doctor is ordering them) on a scale of appropriateness of 1-9. The rating is based 100 percent on the likelihood in which this particular exam will or will not contribute to positive outcome for the patient (will it help them?). Nuance is also a co-founding member of a national Coalition (The Imaging e-Ordering Coalition), which supports providing physicians with guidance regarding the ordering of patient-appropriate imaging services. Obama has talked exhaustively about the importance of reducing unnecessary exams and we are confident this technology can help.

Over the next 3-5 years, the healthcare space will move from IT laggard to more of a leadership position. The meaningful application of IT to healthcare is incredible and necessary. It can drive advancements in efficiency, cost savings, and patient care. Whether it’s clinical decision-support or applications to document the patient encounter without the keyboard or pen, we’ll see doctors’ tech toolkits evolve with new solutions to improve care.

Moreover, we’ll see the impact that strategic enterprise-wide HIT can have on a healthcare organization as a whole. The ultimate long-term goal will be interoperability and the availability of a patient’s medical history across any care-providing site, affiliated or not. With the right application and management of HIT, we can expect to see improved patient care and physician efficiency, while the cost burden associated with the current health care system is dramatically reduced.

HIStalk Interviews Tom Liddell

September 21, 2009 Interviews No Comments

Tom Liddell is executive director of the Michiana Health Information Network of South Bend, IN.

Every RHIO and HIE sounds successful, but clearly some aren’t. What yardstick should they be measured against?

I think the yardsticks they should be measured against are sustainability from the standpoint of broad-based community support. That would be support not only from the institutional community — hospitals, laboratories, radiology centers — but from the physician and clinical community as well. That’s the foundation of an exchange in a medical service or medical trading areas.

The second one is, they really do have to have an economic or financial model that is accountable not only to the servicing organization but to the physician provider. In our particular market, we ask financial participation from most, if not all of the parties that are involved. That’s been an interesting secret, because then the value is not only perceived, but it is realized. You actually then have to deliver.

The third thing, I think, is the actual delivery of results. In our particular case, we are extremely focused on enabling the physician provider to have what we call 100% of the data in relevant care of an individual. So physician-led care that is driven by as much appropriate information that should be available.

If you have all those things, I think you then really have that sustainability, and it can provide a good long-term success.

What are some of the most innovative aspects of your service?

In terms of innovation, our approach is to try to be innovative in the service delivery components. By that, we do probably two things that are unique. We are standards based, so whether it’s HL7 or CCHIT qualifications or the emerging meaningful use qualifications, we try to stay pretty close to those bodies of work.

In doing that, there are times when we have to shape an interface delivery service where there’s an electronic health record that’s not quite there. But we try to have its origination as close to the standards as possible. I don’t know if it’s innovative, but we think it is, and we still get the job done.

I think the second innovation that we came to a few years ago was we said we want to have some available service for every provider, be it fax replacement, pushing clinical results, or, what we call clinical messaging: a community health record that is extendable, meaning over 9, 10 years worth of data, or interface integration.

Innovation is an innovation in service. We have something for everybody. If you’re a nursing home, we’re going to make you more efficient. If you’re a specialty provider, anything that you’re copied on that a primary care doc orders is coming your way, whether it be through a delivered portal or through your integration or interface integration.

The other thing that we’ve done, which I don’t know if it’s innovative, but it’s really working, is that we are one pipe into that physician provider. We are really taking care of so much of the burden that a physician practice would have if they had to go out and say, “Hey, I need to connect to laboratory, and then I need to go to this hospital, and then I need to go to that hospital.” We literally take it all the way down through the vendor and watch results go into that electronic health record. That’s been a huge spark and fuel that’s been there.

The last thing that we do is what I would call it a best-of-breed provider. I believe that the market is still pretty early with an incredible amount of business opportunity, meaning I think we’re going to see a ton of innovation over the next five to ten years. We are not, “Hey, it’s only going to be Cerner’s architecture.” While we think it’s great, we see that Axolotl had a fit for us, and we see that Medicity might have a play with their box. We also see that there are places where something like the Mirth engine might fit.

So we’re a best-of-breed, meaning we want to keep ourselves open to not being only locked into a single vendor, a single strategy.

How many employees do you have and what do they do?

We have 14 full-time, two part-time, and two interns. They’re largely boxed in three areas. The first area is our development area. That is the area that we have services around the creation development, the deployment of, that which is exchanged. That could be anything from standards creation for an interface bringing a new hospital onboard, bringing a large multi-site physician provider practice and literally doing that development. That’s coding interfaces that’s creating the roadmap for those things. In some cases it’s sort of boring, benign, making sure that we have a common set of standards that are deployed. That’s the development group.

We then have the service and operations team. That’s where hardware, technical, and application support reside. That’s everything from working with our servers and data farms to data management to our Oracle database as well as we have other database management tools to the team that runs what we call our frontline services. We try to, if anything, overemphasize that first-line service, and that we answer calls all the time. There’s no other drop boxes for that. We believe that that’s important, because if anything, it’s right at that point that that coordination and service needs to be there. That’s that group.

The third group that we have houses what we call our physician services. That’s comprised of anything that relates to the physician or clinical service that goes out to the community. They do all statements of work, all integrational projects around, whether it be pushing results to our clinical messaging system and rolling it out for a hospital. We do work with Dragon, those kinds of things and add-on products. It’s really enablement in that physician clinic space for that.

Inside of that, sorted of grafted on to that group, we also have what we call the institutional team. That’s just one person working on the institutional side to make sure that their efforts are coordinated. That’s your hospitals, labs, etc.

The last little group we have is really myself and one other guy that do what we call our business development, which is when we go and talk to a new customer, RFIs and RFPs. What we’ve done is we actually outsource with one of our partners, one of our owners, some technical services. You can almost say we’ve got two additional FTEs that do technical capacity work for us.

Our interns — we’ve done a couple of things. We have a medical student — in fact his whole summer was dedicated to, and is still keeping track, and he’ll be back in the holiday season — we’ve been studying what we call medication management. Everything from how many people have adopted by county, by specialty, to what’s happening on medication reconciliation and what a patient needs in the hospital. It takes about 24 months to set up a service properly.

The second intern we have is a programming intern. We’ve really tried to call out both clinical users as well as people that are more in the technical line of services out there.

You are working with the GAO on PHI disclosure. What are your thoughts around that?

I guess I could say we completed the first round of work. We were the first place they called, so I guess that was exciting. They were very nice and accommodating. A team from Atlanta came and spent the better part of a day and into the next day. We went through everything.

It was actually a great example where we were able to bring security specialists from the institutions and we lined up basically according to the services. If you were doing clinical messaging, we hooked them up with a clinic, so that they could understand how that would go. If you were doing interface integration, we brought them over, and a CEO of a 25-provider oncology group showed them how they their release and how their information kind of flows. And then we did a roundtable with them in the afternoon.

I think it was a very eye-opening and kind of a learning process for those guys. I think what they also understood in the end was that we are mimicking the delivery and replacing the delivery mechanisms that are already in place today. If a provider is copied on a laboratory result, we’re basically just improving that method of delivery and really making it more secure in that. So I think it was beneficial there. Then we had a follow-up and help them see what other exchanges are operational across the country that they could coordinate with.

It’s very important, because as ONC not only lets funding out at the state level, that coordination be able to monitor if those dollars are going out appropriately. Are they being spent appropriately? Is there security and protection for that individual consumer? I think these are important integrations to that.

Many people wouldn’t think of Cerner in the practice EMR area. What’s been your experience with that product?

In my experience from my WebMD days and when I was a senior VP of product management and had a lot of work in developing an EHR, you start to see the tremendous capabilities that the tools that they’ve built have. They are committed clearly to making sure that the enterprise, whether it’s an institution, clinic, laboratory, etc., are able to be co-joined, commingled, and integrated into that process.

They’re working their tails off to change perception and image. I can only tell you that it’s pretty operational for me, with my sleeves rolled up, that the product itself has an incredible set of capabilities. If anything, you want to try to gear those back. That’s probably easier to do in the long run than to try to catch up and add an incredible set of features.

One of the nice things that I have the benefit of is for those that use the component, which is more of an EHR in our market, it’s not a question of “could we do something?” It’s how they want to do it. For me, that’s actually pleasing, because I can have a discussion that says, “Do you want to proxy to your inbox for something that was just ordered or copied to inpatient/outpatient?”

Unfortunately we want to make healthcare simple, but it’s a pretty complex enterprise, especially around health information.

Having said that, like anything, there are lumps along the way. We busted our tails to make sure that e-prescribing and all those things are up. There’s a lot of parts that are moving, whether it is Surescripts RxHub or whether it’s having a clinical summary available in an HTML or XML format.

In fact, we had a strategy call yesterday with two other executives. We do it regularly, and it went almost two hours. They can tell you they’re listening. I can tell you we’ve had a pretty significant summer in terms of adding providers to their core business as well.

How sustainable is your business model?

First of all, there’s been these naysayers out there saying, “Should we work to build these kinds of businesses and services?” I guess I would say you have to have value, and if you deliver value, I think people come and are willing to pay for those services.

Certainly health exchange has an element of a political aspect to it, but I don’t mean on the national level. I mean certainly against the competitive entities and those kinds of things. But once people get beyond the notion “don’t compete on health information; compete on everything else” you can start to make the exchange sustainable — you can make that case for doing that.

But I think in all things there has to be that perceived value. One thing I do know is when you settle all the noise around it, there has to be an entity that is a facilitator of those common services, whether it’s building a referral management network, whether it’s moving or integrating data. At least it’s demonstrable in places where you don’t have that. It doesn’t get off the ground, or it doesn’t sustain, because there’s nothing to sustain itself with.

I’m certainly not naïve to say, “Are there risks in any business?” Certainly there are, but the big key, I would say, is that you’ve got to be willing to adapt. When I came in 36 months ago, the only real interfaces that we were going on were basically from suppliers and I just said, “Listen, in twelve months, we’re going to be able to deliver any piece of data we have to an EHR and have it happen in there.” Well over 65% of our total market has data integrated into their electronic health record, and we feel that by the end of next year, 15 months from now, we can be over 80%.

What effects are you expecting from HITECH?

It’s been almost a tsunami so far, in that it certainly has caused all of healthcare IT to have to think differently. I don’t mean just on the funding level potentials, but to say, “How are we going to work together in and out of markets? How are we going to work together at the state levels? What can the role of a health exchange be whether it’s a working component of the extension centers or whether it’s how we pass data from exchange to exchange?” We’re in the throes right now of connecting two different exchanges just in our particular state where we can move relevant data.

I think in the end, what it’s doing for us, or will do for us is, if anything, accelerate the level of activity that’s there. By that, I mean the services that we can deliver. It’s certainly bringing awareness to those things.

I think in the long run, what I hope doesn’t occur are some of the unnatural effects. As an example, in e-prescribing, it’s great to adopt it, but if it’s adopted in a silo, I don’t know that there’s a clinical benefit, that the clinical benefits are harder to get to. There is a clinical benefit long term, but I don’t know that the patient realizes that other than maybe a medication error. You have to kind of look at it holistically and say, “But if I can do that in a more organized, methodical way inside the complement of my full EHR, I’ll have a better perspective on the patient.” I use that as an example.

Overall, it’s great. It’s exciting. It’s causing the coffee to be made late at night and early mornings, but that’s why you play the game.

Why is Indiana so strong, do you think, in interoperability and informatics?

I think there are a few things. First of all, there’s a history of innovation across the state in terms of health IT. In the market that we serve, Northern Indiana and up in through Michigan, we had early adoptions early on — early adoption both by hospitals and by physician practices of automation.

In this particular market, there have been some pretty innovative companies that have gone on and created applications, and they’ve moved down the road. When you look to the central and southern parts of the state, both with our public universities as well as Notre Dame to the north, there’s a commitment to life sciences; there’s a commitment to health information technology. We have institutes across the state that have created products.

I think one of the things that happened is that all of a sudden, we pop up, and then a group in Indianapolis pops up. You look in Cincinnati and you can almost see a corridor developing from, I would say, the middle of Michigan all the way through Tennessee that is sort of powerfully evolving health integration, health exchange.

I think those are some of the core properties as to why there’s success.

The other thing we have going in Indiana is that we are committed as a group. We got together over a year ago and just said, “How do we start to work even more closely together? What makes sense is while we’re competing, we’re still committed to doing these kinds of things that enable it.”

We found a great working relationship in the people that are across the state that are very committed to an approach that not only takes us through Indiana, but through all the neighboring states here in the Midwest.

Anything else that you want to add?

Look at the seeds of where we are. We’re ten years old. We have services in a variety of areas that help our sustainability. We’ve had significant financial commitments in growing this exchange. All those things are all reflective of the commitment that our particular market has to the products and services that we’re about.

It’s interesting — this particular exchange started from the seeds of a workgroup that I participated in in 1994. There’s a long history of people concerned with where healthcare is going and moving, and asking, “How do we become parts of the process?” There’s been a long-term commitment to health information technology. There’s been a commitment for me in a market that I’ve been basically been around my whole life. So, there’s kind of a personal passion as well.

I guess the last thing that I would say is that I can’t say enough about the commitment of our people. They not only feel that they’re into something that’s very important, but there’s a personal mission that they have. Many of these people could be in other places, frankly even making more money, but their level of commitment is incredible. And their creativity is pretty incredible as well. So, I would compliment that in our team.

HIStalk Interviews Bill Shickolovich

September 16, 2009 Interviews 1 Comment

Bill Shickolovich is VP/CIO at Tufts-New England Medical Center of Boston, MA.

You recently spoke at a conference about what hospitals should do now for ARRA. What did you say? 

I think you’re referring to a dialogue we had with HealthLeaders. That may have been back, I think, several months ago. Essentially, it was a nice round table with a series of folks nationally. I think the punch line that I was trying to get through and essentially what the others were aligning to is to first understand where you are relative to your own strategy. I think that’s first and foremost.

What we’re doing is resetting our strategy. We already have a strategy in motion relative to the elements of meaningful use. The stimulus is not making us do anything new. But it has drawn attention to understanding how much of what we’re doing lines up with the various financial opportunities.

So what I recommend people to do is to understand and have a strategy. If you don’t have one, get one. If you have one, ensure that you based on that with your leadership. Then go to a process of education. Overlay what stimulus means relative to your strategy. Simply, do you go in a different direction or do you accelerate, essentially, is what it nets down to.

That’s what we were recently in the process of doing. And it helps us to say, “Here’s the dialogue, here’s what the strategy in our program was prior to this opportunity, and here’s the various elements and scope of schedule and budget, and here’s now what it may mean relative to some of the things that we better understand now, and here are some of the things that we know, here are the things respectively that we don’t know, and of what we don’t know, we’ve gone out on a limb a little bit and through their resources tried to figure where that’s going to go, and help our leadership understand that we’ll be back to you in a monthly basis to talk a little bit about and as things mature, it has the opportunity to affect our direction the following ways.”

So essentially everyone talks about governance, but essentially I think it’s critical relative to this topic to keep leadership informed as to how your current strategy relates to what is happening and what may happen.

You’re actively involved in translational medicine. What are the IT implications?

We are, as you know, a CTSI awardee, and the clinical translation activities have broad implications to try to help various research enterprises collaborate. When we first looked at it, we were thinking, “Boy, this has very, very deep consequences.” But we’re now respectfully at the basic level of trying to just create various toolsets to at least understand and inventory what researchers are doing.

Furthermore, we’re creating some basic level of capabilities and, I hate to admit it, these are basic directories starting with human inventory. Who are the researchers, where do they work, and how do I get in touch with them?

So you’d think when this whole thing first came out, we had a deeper strategy that got into the weeds a little bit. We started to just say, “Let’s get started here a little bit.” And then we realized we’ve got to start at ground zero, and that is basic understanding of what the CTSA is in ARRA, an inventory of what people are doing, putting up a web portal and a collaboration tool, if you will, to try to help people share and exchange information, and help people understand who people are.

Those are some of the early things we found that we took for granted a little bit, because each organization does a certain amount of that on their own. But it’s taken us a little longer than we thought, relative to getting off the ground.

What we do now is we meet quarterly with various CIOs and their respective institutions and talk a little bit about what we’re doing, how it lines up, and how it relates to what other people are doing. I think we’re still in the formative stages, if you will.

What are your capabilities and plans about storing and analyzing data for quality improvement?

Great question. We are making heavy bets in our EHR program. Right now, our capabilities are around basic registry technologies, around claims data. We are working very hard to implement and deploy our EHR technology through eCW — we’re an eClinicalWorks customer. We are deploying that to our community physicians. We’re beyond our pilot now and are into our first wave of general deployment.

We are building in all of the necessary quality measures within that deployment. We’ve got a quality AQHC contract with Blue Cross that we recently completed this past year, and it’s imperative we meet those quality measures. So our quality strategy relative to information technology is leveraging our existing technologies, which consist of the patient registry and certainly our key information system, and working very hard to incorporate and ensure that any and all deployments subsequent to our deployment right now in the community encompass those various quality measures that we are contractually bound to.

It’s exciting. When you correlate investment and technology deployment to physician value and what it’s going to mean to them and to their paycheck, it’s an incredible moment.

Dr. Halamka and I had recently spoken; we collaborated on a dialogue. He had a great way to frame it. Certainly, when you speak of physician compensation, that is a very important driver to compliance. We’re finding that in order to get the adoption that we’re working very hard to gain, meeting the AQHC measures is critically important to our clinician base relative to their compensation.

How is the physician acceptance with your ambulatory and inpatient applications?

The acceptance has been very good. It’s not without its challenges, and I think you and the industry knows that. Our pilot has gone extremely well by the measure that we consider; our adoption rate has been very good.

But as we move out into general deployment, we are certainly uncovering some issues that we all have faced. It’s a constant balance between how fast you go and how much support and how much care and feeding do you give along the way.

And so our general acceptance of the technology and the strategy has been very good. It’s completely tied to our business strategy; our clinicians recognize it’s an imperative.

However, it doesn’t help us when there are various technology issues which compromise adoption. We’ve had a few of those recently, and we’re working very hard to mitigate this.

On the acute side, we are a Siemens Soarian customer, and we’re proud to say we’ve done what we consider a fair amount of work with it. We’ve actually got between 47 and 52 percent of our orders that are being entered electronically by our clinicians, and that’s on a voluntary basis.

We did not mandate that. That was actually something that our house staff came to us with and simply stated that the pressures that they are under to deal with throughput and deal with length-of-stay issues and deal with basic efficiencies, it was simply that they wanted to get off paper so badly that they were willing to work with us in a hybrid fashion to create a series of interim states relative to order processing. The house staff has adopted it extremely well.

So what are your top IT priorities over the next three to five years?

Our top IT priorities are to continue the deployment of our community EHR — that’s going to go through 2011. We’re working very hard to get in line and ensure that we have significant penetration, if not 100% penetration by then.

Two is to continue our acute information technology strategy, which includes completing medication administration, which is scheduled to be done in the acute side this fall, and move into the intensive care units, and to begin and complete the deployment of medication CPOE which is scheduled to start this winter.

Our top priorities for the next several years is to essentially meet and exceed the meaningful use criteria, so as not to leave any opportunity if subsequent funding comes on the table. We are not economically in a position to do so.

It’s not driving our strategy, because again, as I stated earlier, it’s something that’s already been in flight, but now that it’s out there, it’s certainly getting a lot of attention in light of our economic position and our competitive space in the market. We cannot afford to leave any of those funding, any of those dollars on the table if we can help it.

What would you say are your three biggest challenges as a CIO?

I think that the number one challenge right now is access to capital. I think that we all understand the economic climate that we’re in, and notwithstanding the value of healthcare information technology — I don’t think we suffer from understanding its value and importance to us; it’s reconciling the other various priorities and institutions, and ensuring that we can do the necessary things outside of IT for capital funding, and also IT.

So it’s access to capital. The markets haven’t helped us, obviously, in that way. It’s a scramble. I think that’s one.

Two, it’s respectfully dealing with the change management associated with deploying these strategies. These are not technical, and I understand not all that complex — they are tricky — but dealing with all the change management issues in a way that deploys technology in a meaningful way, pardon the pun, to get a meaningful business result in a short period of time is tricky.

Dealing with vendors that are still coming up the curve — I think they have a long road ahead of them relative to understanding what it really takes to have a successful deployment. I think we’ve come a long way, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I think the ARRA pressures will further compromise their ability to get it, if you will.

So access to capital and managing the confluence of change relative to clinical information system deployment, I guess, are my top two barriers right now, or challenges that we’re working through. I mean there’s a whole host of others. [laughs]

Keeping the infrastructure alive and running is sort of a variant to access to capital, but everybody wants the sexy new things, everybody’s pushing to deploy, and I think that’s good and we’ll be doing it for many years. But we can’t forget that there’s an investment required to have a stable and secure architecture or infrastructure.

That’s something that I think there’s a temptation, in my opinion in this space, that there’s a recognition and a deference to it, but in organizations that are financially compromised or challenged, it’s sometimes one of those things where people say, “Yeah, I know we need some more servers, I know we need some of these things, but we’re probably going to put that off because we need a new MRI machine.”

Those are difficult decisions, but decisions that are real and get made every day.

If someone asked you to list the three most important things you’ve learned as a healthcare CIO, what would you say?

Be relevant. [laughs] Relevance is probably the top of my mind. Coming from a managing consulting background, I don’t think it was hard for me to understand, but I probably underestimated it, respectfully. It was surprisingly something that I learned early on that can’t be underestimated. I think that that’s significant.

Two, I guess, understand what’s going on. It’s a variant of relevance. I think that one of the most important things that we should be doing is to understand how the operation, how the organization works. If we are to understand the business strategy, if we are to try to align our technology strategy to it, we cannot be irresponsibly neglectful to the operations of the institution.

I think that we have an opportunity or a tendency in the industry simply to look at the business strategy, look at IT high level strategy and just march toward and through it, and we forget what it takes along the way.

So a big lesson learned to me was: a) relevance, and b) understanding. Understanding, connecting all the dots, and not just the top two dots.

That was two, right?

That was two. [laughs] You need a third?

If you don’t have a third, that’s OK. [laughs]

There are so many. I think, communication. Being engaged — it’s all part of relevance. Relevance to me is such a broad and important topic that it covers these other things respectfully, variations of it. Yeah, I think I’m going to hang with my top two.

Anything else you’d like to share? Any wisdom?

I don’t know about wisdom. [laughs] I’m just a simple CIO, right? I think that it’s an extremely exciting time; I think that we all recognize it. The good news is, in light of the healthcare reform in ARRA, it’s shining a light on the topic that I think many of us have implicitly understood as needed, but we’ve struggled with one of the number one barriers, and that is cost. ARRA doesn’t make that go away, but it certainly greases that conversation, right?

I think that’s great. It’s a wonderful time, it’s a perfect storm. I hope we get it right. We are in an interesting time where it’s directionally correct, if I may use that term, where we understand how healthcare reform has to happen and it’s not something we should wait for forever to materialize.

Technology is important to the space in achieving its local and national goals relative to quality and safety outcomes, and certainly some level of fiscal responsibility around the space.

So it’s directionally correct, but the devil is in the detail. I hope that we find an effective balance between our drive and our desire to move forward as quick as we can in light of what we haven’t done, in the last 10 to 20 years, but yet I hope we don’t do so in a way that doesn’t take into account the necessary details that really need to be thought through.

That’s the tricky balance that I think, respectfully, we as an industry and the government has to reconcile. We all know good strategies that were directionally correct but got caught up in the mud and didn’t go anywhere, and we’ve also seen directionally correct strategies take off significantly without the appropriate — not vetting, but appropriate balance of reality.

This is so important not just to our healthcare ecosystem. It is almost a fifth of the economy. We’re talking about a significant element to who we are, that the stakes are so high that finding an effective balance is so critical. I think in the short term measured in months, call it six, and in the long term within the next three to five years.

I personally have a high confidence level in John Glaser and others as a former customer, and certainly as a colleague, who’s such a good rational thinker. I just hope that our governmental process gets it right.

After our interview, Dell announced its expanded presence in the PM/EMR world. It turns out Tufts was instrumental in helping Dell (and eCW) develop the basic framework for Dell’s offering. We went back to Bill and asked him if Tufts is working with any major corporations in developing their EMR strategies.

To summarize Tufts’ role, about a year ago Bill approached Dell and asked them to assist with the deployment of EMR to their community physicians. Though Dell and eCW already had a relationship, Bill brought the parties together to discuss how everyone could work together to create a new delivery model that would benefit the health system, the physicians, and the vendors. The health system lacked the resources required to provide physical support, including helping physician offices with infrastructure assessment, design, hardware procurement, deployment, and support.

Dell was interested in expanding its footprint in healthcare, especially on the services side. eCW’s expertise is software and not hands-on support.

In the end, Tufts established a support model that does not require an in-house help desk, but relies on Dell for physical support and eCW for software support. Bill anticipates the model will save 5-10% on support costs over five years, compared to providing services in-house or through a boutique vendor. Based on the success of the initial pilot installation with Tufts and ECW, Dell further tweaked its healthcare strategy into the model announced this week.

HIStalk Interviews Avery Cloud

September 10, 2009 Interviews 7 Comments

Avery Cloud is CIO at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, NC.

Tell me how your Project S is structured, what it’s designed to accomplish, and your thoughts on portfolio and service management.

Project S is exactly that. It’s a service management initiative in disguise. I’ve tried to move away from this idea of talking in a language that means nothing to my customers. We basically took service management concepts and repackaged it into something that was explicable and digestible by our audience.

What created the need to do this in the first place was an analysis of where we stood and our ability to meet service levels or to create customer satisfaction, also to build an infrastructure that would support the coming strategic initiatives that we saw down the pike.

For example, we’re moving rapidly into full-function EMR. We knew that we have to have a structure that supports remote ambulatory care environments. We have to have different service levels for that.

Analysis showed that we just weren’t set to work quite ready for that. We had a maturity study done and we had about a 1.2 level maturity against a maximum of 5. It also revealed that we need to move somewhere around a 3.2, 3.3 maturity level in order to provide the kind of services that would be required to make our organization successful. That gap represented the tools, skills, policies, standards, procedures that are necessary to deliver high levels of service.

Our goal was to create stability: stability in our systems, stability in our service, stability in our satisfaction levels. That’s four Ss and that’s how we coined the term Project S.

Is the maturity level you mentioned CMM or is there something other that you measured that with?

IBM has a customized version of ITIL. They have a service level maturity or service maturity index.

How rigorous and involved was it to get that number back to tell you where you stood?

It was pretty rigorous. It was about a two-month-long analysis.

You got some help from Compuware in putting this together. What did you find you were lacking in terms of knowledge and abilities? Were there any new things that they insisted you bring to the table that you didn’t already have in your shop?

That’s a great question. One thing we lacked was a repeatable process. That’s where adopting ITIL came to bear.

Another we lacked was skills in the right areas. We had plenty of skills, but not necessarily the presence of the right skills for the right job.

We were also lacking tools. Tools essentially mean that we weren’t in a position to automate ourselves so that we could provide higher levels of service. As you well know, you can’t do everything in a manual fashion and be efficient and effective.

Those will be the areas that pretty quickly emerged, and that’s what led us to an analysis of what our toolkit should be.

We believe in the idea of integration. Integration is something that is quite absent in many IT organizations. We tend to be the worse, we’re much worse than our customers when it comes to buying one-off tools for every problem. What we try to do is buy an integrated toolkit that helps us run the business of IT.

That, in fact, was our mantra. We wanted to manage IT like a business, and therefore put in the business systems required. A good example is that we wanted to mimic our financial department, financial and HR. We have one product that manages finance and HR, and that’s Lawson. It has materials management, and then it has payroll, it has financial reporting, accounting, general ledger — you get the drift. It’s a well-integrated product which redoubles its ability to produce efficiency than if you had individual products for each of those foci.

We wanted to help this integrate into one product set, our monitoring initiatives or monitoring processes, our early detection and warning processes, but also our project management, change management, problem reporting, our time management, our budgeting process, our IT governance reporting process, our automated workflows.

That was really important to us. The system lets us embed the knowledge of experts and the systems, therefore driving a repeatable process. I said a mouthful there, covered a lot of territory, but I hope you get some sense out of that.

I don’t want to ask you what it cost, but how much of an effort and investment was it to move from where you were to where you are?

It’s probably the biggest thing this IT organization has approached since its inception.

How did you get the support to undertake such a project in these times?

It was simply outlining the gaps between customer expectations and our ability to deliver and matching a solution to those gaps. The organization wanted those gaps filled enough that the sale was much easier.

It’s kind of interesting. I had to highlight my failures, [laughs] which really is a risky and uncomfortable approach, but in fact, it is the right thing to do. I had to highlight the fact that I had a 30% drop call rate at the help desk. I had to highlight the fact that nine out of 10 problems that we encounter are called in to us by our customers rather than us notifying the customers of the existence of the problem. In other words, they find it before we do.

So you begin outlining all these things, and then you start talking about what’s coming in the future, and you’re going to have doctors who are going to need the services of that help desk with that low performance. You’re going to have doctors who don’t want to have their systems to fail when they’re in the middle of a surgery. You’re going to have nurses that can’t administer medications to patients in pain if the barcoded med system is down.

We were able to use kind of Walt Disney’s “imagineering” approach, just tell a story about how things are and how much better things could be.

ROI was not as necessary when you looked at it that way, because when you really looked at it, the case we were making was a case of staying in business. [laughs]

Overall, is the end result that you have restructured the department and changed the staffing mix and staffing levels?

Yes. We’ve done two substantial re-orgs through this process, continued to evaluate our staffing plans, and brought on a chief technology officer. We made some major staffing changes, major training changes. Our organizational processes don’t even resemble what they used to be.

If you’re talking to your CIO peers, what would you tell them is the key to know that you need to have this done and the thoughts to entertain before they start?

I think, you know, customer’s king. The key is to evaluate the customer’s level of satisfaction with services being provided. You can’t do that without getting very involved and face to face with the customers. So that’s number one.

Also, the study of where your organization is going is vital. You’ve got to forecast what are the strategic demands coming into your organization, and what are your current abilities to support the future.

One of the things I’ve said quite often in team meetings is we have to future-proof IT. We’re not future-proofing it against outside attack; we’re future-proofing it against internal demand. The whole idea is to create an IT organization that is not a constraint to business decisions.

Did the evaluation find that the IT department was underfunded?

Oh, yeah. There were some adjustments made there also. Probably another way to look at it is funding is not in the right places. It was not just underfunded, but the distribution of money and funds — are we spending our money on the most important services and problems?

How much larger did your operational percentage of total budget need to be to meet these standards that were laid out in the evaluation?

Let’s see … what was that percentage increase? I don’t want to guess at it. Suffice it to say that it went up modestly. [laughs]

And you had that commitment going in, knowing that there were things to be accomplished that might cost money, that the folks writing the check would say, “Yes, we’ll buy those recommendations and fund them?

Right. You have to prepare an organization to accept that. Obviously, marketing the project as goals and describing what it takes to meet those goals helps prepare an organization for an additional cost.

I believe we really did an excellent job on not making those costs burdensome. If you really look at our budget, we have stayed at just about the same expense percent revenue. It has gone up slightly, but not enough to sound alarms. [laughs]

What are you doing to establish relationships with your physicians?

One of the things we’d done is strengthen our governance process. We have a group of physicians that are integral to our governance and decision making to represent physician needs. We’re also looking for better support models for docs. We know service levels required for docs are far different than anybody else in the organization. They don’t have five minutes to hang on on the phone.

We’re looking for easier ways for them to communicate to us that there is an issue. They might want to simply let us know one of the keys is sticking on a keyboard. You’ll never hear about that from them because they’re far too busy to stop and tell you if you don’t make it easy for them to do that. They’re not going to pick up a phone because they don’t like being put on hold.

All those things we’re doing from a clinical perspective. We continue to enhance their portal. We make that their one windowpane to clinical information, or one pane of glass to clinical information is what I’m trying to say. We continue to enhance the speed, we set service level agreements for response time on the full transactions that represent 80% of their work. We are spending a lot of time right now prepping up for computerized physician order entry. That’s going to be a big one for them. Those are the big things.

In summary, the two most important things if you were to ask a doc is that the systems fail a whole lot less, and they run a whole lot faster.

Are you doing anything specific to stimulus funding?

Yeah. CPOE is going to be part of the “meaningful use” definition. We’re working with our physicians not only in the hospital, but with community docs that are affiliated with our hospital, and even extending our reach to all the counties that we serve, and collaborating with other hospitals and their physicians to start talking about health information exchange and how we can better share information, and how we can help them achieve the maximum stimulus dollars available.

What kind of things are you doing with the physician practice EMRs and practice management systems? How are you tooling up to get them prepared and to get your integration strategy with the doctors going?

Boy, I tell you, it’s essential to have a meeting before we talk about that. [laughs] It’s probably one of the more interesting things I get to spend my time on.

Anyway, here’s our strategy in a nutshell: we are going to standardize on one system, one physician EMR that we will recommend, and we will pre-build any necessary interfaces back to our hospital systems. Therefore, if a doc agrees to select that system, and of course we can’t make them do it, but if they agree to select that system they know that they automatically are going to be joined in the information sharing with the hospital.

This is also where HIE comes. We are looking for our own kind of mini-HIE for docs that might not agree to purchase that particular system, and at least provide some way for them to participate in information sharing with the hospitals that they have admitting privileges to.

We’re differentiating very clearly between docs that we employ and docs that we have affiliations with, and trying to provide those two levels of service. We’re really trying to work out the kinks on what is going to be our support model. Are we going to be the ASP, or is there going to be a vendor ASP involved? Might there be a hybrid model? There’s still a lot of unanswered questions, but we are right in the middle of trying to sort all of that out right now.

What would your credibility have been before you did Project S as opposed to now?

They would have run me out of town for real. Don’t you write that. [laughs] They would not have even considered it because our service levels were so abysmal that there was no confidence. There was a crisis of confidence in our physician staff with IT. Rightfully so.

What had happened was the needs of the organization had grown faster than the IT of the organization’s abilities to support those needs. That’s not unusual. That is the reason you have these clearly defined and measurable maturity levels for IT organizations, because you have to match up your IT organization’s capabilities with your internal customer’s demands.

Last question. If you look back at the last couple of years, what are the smartest things you’ve done as CIO?

What a great question. Smartest thing I’ve done as CIO … probably dealing with IS as an internal business. Allowing that perception to govern how I make decisions helps me make the right decisions. That would be one.

Another one would be taking no prisoners when it comes to hiring the best. I’ve got to have a team of people who better and more ideas than I do. I want to be the idea vetter, not the idea creator. Surrounding myself with good people — it takes a while to finally get that figured out, but if you do that right, the rest of the job gets easier.

In terms of information systems, specific or technical things that I’m proud of — I kind of don’t know how to say this, because I don’t know how to say this and make it print right, but I’ve spent time with a particular vendor and greatly influenced their product direction. We use a product here, a bed management system that a particular vendor and I drew on the back of a napkin, and he turned it into a product. So I’m pretty proud of that. I didn’t get a doggone thing out of it, but I’ve got a doggone good system.

Maybe another way to put it is I’ve always worked very hard to match a technology to a problem, and not just push technology.

I’ve got to share this one, too: putting in strong governance. If you want to succeed, have strong IT governance.

I always liked somebody who’s got a really firm vision on what needs to change without getting so wrapped up in the minutiae like hospital folks so often do, so it’s refreshing to have somebody with a plan who actually made it work, especially when you get into stuff like infrastructure and staffing and IT governance, which is usually kind the Vietnam of CIOs. [laughs] You get wrapped up in all the stuff you really can’t get closure on.

That’s so true. I tell you, my boss and I had a long conversation. He said, “Avery, what you’re very good at is the visioning part of being a CIO,” and he said, “I really like that about you, and what you’ve got to do is make sure that you have a structure around you and manage the details.” Because what happens to a lot of CIOs is they get pulled down into details and never get up the 30,000 feet to see what’s going on.

Is that inherent in their background, though, when you’ve got a lot of folks who worked to move their way up through IT, which is the argument of “are you better off with someone who’s risen through the IT ranks”, or better off to get a visionary who just lets other people worry about the nuts and the bolts?

That’s an interesting debate. I’ll just tell you about me: I came up through the technical ranks. I hold an MBA, but more importantly, I have an affinity to business. When people ask me about me and my job, I tell them I’m a business person who just happens to know IT.

I’d like to think that I could run any of the departments in this hospital. A good example is that nobody is surprised when the CFO runs the pharmacy department, or the CFO runs materials management. It should be no big surprise either that the CIO can do the same, or does the same. A very good friend of mine in another hospital — he’s the CIO there — runs the pharmacy down there. Another friend of mine who’s a CIO runs the home care division.

So a chief information officer is not a propeller-head. A good one is a business person. You think like a business person, and you recognize the importance of your specific trained professional discipline, which is IT, but you don’t let it rule you.

I think there are advantages to having a technical background because it does help you understand when your people are talking to you. I’ve seen the other side of the thing where the person did not come up through the technical ranks. It must be horrifying to be a person who has a strong grasp of the business but has no clue about technology, because the language we IT professionals talk on can be scary.

That’s why, frankly, a lot of CEOs are uncomfortable with IT reporting directly to them. If you’re not the kind of CIO who’s a business person, your CEO is not going to take to you. CEOs don’t want to hear about the bits and bytes and stuff.

I’m going to share this with you real quick. One of my crusades is to make my organization think about what we do from the customer perspective. Don’t tell me that the systems are up 99% of the time. Tell me how many hours you were down, because that’s how the customer looks at it. Don’t tell me that the server 214 is down. Tell me how many patients are getting backed up in the ED. Tell me how many fewer registrations I’m going to do per day because of this. Tell me what my impact’s going to be to the bottom line.

Part of our monitoring effort here is to cause our monitor to tell us what’s happening in the business based on what’s happening in IS. You’re not seeing a whole lot of IT leaders thinking that way, and that’s a problem.

I really want to pick up my phone and say, “You can probably expect a two or three percent decrease in collections today because we have some stress on one of the segments on the network that prevented as many bills going out.” That’s a different phone call than if I called my CFO and said to him, “Just wanted to let you know that your people are going to be a little frustrated because systems are running slow today.”

So I think that is really what IT leaders have got to strive for, the user viewpoint, the user view of the services that IT provides.

HIStalk Interviews Janice Newell

September 5, 2009 Interviews 20 Comments


Janice Newell is CIO at Swedish Medical Center, Seattle, WA.

Do you think the government’s strategy of subsidizing EMR purchases is the best way to improve patient outcomes with technology?

I certainly share their belief. I think the only thing that’s going to push adoption is money. Whether or not their approach is the best way to do that, I haven’t given a lot of thought to. But I don’t think anything’s going to move these docs but money.

Will subsidizing the purchase of EMRs themselves incent usage or will there need to be more steps that follow?

This is the easiest question?

[laughs] The second part got harder.

Well, yes. Certainly, incenting them to adopt it is a necessary first step. Then at the other end of it, there’s this little, minuscule penalty they’ll take if they don’t adopt it. That’s certainly more significant as time goes on, the penalty.

But I think the other thing that’s going to be key is really getting some significant measures of outcomes in performance, and how is this really changing the outcomes and cost, because if it’s not doing all that, why bother? 

Is your strategy any different at the health system based on what the government does or doesn’t do, or are you pretty much down the path that you plan to stay with?

We’re pretty much down the path. We had really made a huge commitment. We’re a relatively small health system, about $1.3 billion. We had already made the commitment that we were going all in with the Epic system, and so committed about, let’s say, $120 million to it over the past four years. We were going there anyway.

When you look back at that investment, would you say it has paid off as you expected four years ago?

I certainly wouldn’t say that it paid off yet, because in fact, we still have pieces that we’re implementing. But yeah, are we starting to achieve the things that we had outlines we were going to achieve? Absolutely.

What kinds of things were you looking for as measurable benefits?

Certainly we were looking for providers in general to have the information that they need as they’re actually caring for patients wherever they are. We’ve certainly achieved that, in that we have it available everywhere.

Also, in terms of improving our quality metrics, I’ll give you just one small example. Pain reassessment is always an area of interest as both a customer satisfier as well as a JCAHO requirement. Our pain reassessment measures were not that good. We made some changes to Epic in terms of what kind of notices the nurses get about pain reassessments being due. It has moved the pain reassessment measures from the low 60s to the mid-90 percent. The nurses are doing the pain reassessment in the timeframes that are required just by changing how the system was supporting them.

So certainly on the quality metrics, we’re starting to get some traction. Also, in the financial arena, we’re getting some traction. It’s a pretty broad swath there. Certainly it has improved the revenue cycle in terms of how long it takes us to get the bill out the door. It’s improved the level of billing we do, more accurate with better documentation.

Also, still in the financial arena, it’s also helping us standardize processes across the organization. One area that’s a biggie for us is the operating room. Before Epic, we had so much variation that it was incredible. The surgeons have taken it upon themselves with Epic to really start the standardization process of what supplies they use, what supplies come into the room, what ones shouldn’t be there at all. So all kinds of good fiscal outcomes.

But a lot of that must have been other than just technology. You must have had a lot of change initiatives to go along with it. How did you package up your implementation and your change management to make this all work?

It terms of actually sitting down and changing wholesale processes in our operations, we actually started out doing that. We quickly abandoned that approach because what we found out is, sure, we can sit down and talk workflow with our folks in operations. They would describe to us what they thought happened and how they thought things worked. But in fact, we found out that it was pretty consistently not happening that way.

We ended up adopting the approach of, let’s use a good model system, get it in, and make the improvements after that. So in fact, many of the process changes are coming afterwards.

It seems that anybody your size and bigger, along with some smaller, are buying Epic. What’s their secret sauce?

A couple of things. One is that they are an integrated system. I don’t even know how many modules they have any more, but they have one system that supports care in the clinics, care in the hospital, in the operating rooms, all of the billing and revenue cycle, pharmacy, lab, home care, you name it. They have modules to support all of the different functions.

Instead of us going on in a best-of-breed world, where we add two dozen different systems, each individual system, we now just have Epic. It is much more effective from both a user experience and an IT experience to have the same data, the same application be available wherever you are. If you think about healthcare as just a continuum of care, it just happens in different places, either the clinic or the hospital or the ED, it really supports that kind of a model if the organization itself thinks it’s a system. So that’s one reason.

The other big reason is that the Epic implementations are successful. They’ve done this enough. I think they provide very good support for organizations to actually have a successful implementation. I’m not sure I can say of all their competitors that their implementations go relatively smoothly.

How does that work when basically they are young people trained usually from scratch with no industry experience? What are other vendors doing wrong that they can’t do what Epic does?

Certainly the young people without the industry experience has some downside to it. Frequently they’re great technicians without the industry expertise. And if something goes wrong, that could cause some problems. But in terms of the process for actually going about with kind of a project, they have been doing it long enough in documenting what the process is.

Just insisting that their customers go through this process, sure, we all have some variation in how we do it. But Epic is pretty clear in the way they want you to do things. And so we all do things in a somewhat similar manner in implementing Epic.

They are there the whole time. No matter what, you’re going to have an Epic team with you through the implementation.

Meditech and Epic seem to have a similar approach that, right or wrong, they genuinely believe they know better than the customer and protect them from doing things that don’t make sense. Do you think other vendors are too catering to their customers instead of saying, we know the product, just do it our way and it will work?

I think so. Yeah. And the other ones are run by a bunch of marketing people. Meditech and Epic are the only ones that are run by software people. The other ones have a huge marketing influence, sales and marketing.

You have to deal with the idiosyncrasies of Epic, but at the end of the day, if it works, it’s OK.

You’ve said that federal stimulus money must be carefully managed or it will go down a rat hole. Did you have something specific in mind or was that just a general comment?

[laughs] Yes, actually, I did have something very specific in mind. What I had in mind is that there is so much variety in the systems that people have now, and these are just the organizations who could afford to be moderately early adopters.

I mean, if you think about the hundreds of systems that are already in the marketplace, and then you think about multiplying that by some factor as every Tom, Dick, and Harry sees an opportunity in the marketplace and comes up with the $99 EMR, I think it’s scary.

And then you have these little offices who really don’t know that much about technology or how to really use it in their practice, or what can go wrong with that technology in your practice — you know, 99 bucks and I’m going to be able to get $44,000 from the government, how could I go wrong?

So while we already have the data exchange issue in healthcare, some of it because not many of us have much electronic data in front of it because there’s so much variety, but if you multiply that by whatever factor is appropriate with people going out and doing every Tom, Dick, and Harry system, it just seems that there’s a lot of opportunity for that to turn bad.

I think what the government is trying to achieve wouldn’t be achieved if we just end up with, instead of three million islands of information, now we have 23 million islands of information.

Do you think that the certification process as well as the “meaningful use” criteria are going to make that less likely to occur?

No. Say we double the number of EMRs in the marketplace so that people have on their plate trying to exchange data. They’ll not all pass certification, but it’s still going to be a data exchange challenge.

I read your local newspaper’s article that said, hey, what an irony, we’ve got three of the best hospitals in Washington that are basically almost in the same neighborhood, and they can’t exchange information. How do we address this issue of everybody’s being their own silo?

At the end, at making it Epic-specific — with our Epic system, we are actually in the middle of a project to bring our largest affiliated group, about 150 docs, on to our Epic system. So they will be using Epic in their clinics, their own service area. All they have to do is share clinical data with Swedish, and they’re using our Epic system.

Instead of just having a system that supports follow-up functions within Swedish, we now have a system that supports all of the patients in our largest affiliated group, too, that we cross over thousands of patients every year. Our intent is to do that with a lot more of our affiliated groups where they can create their own little space within Epic. They can have their own service area.

It’ll be like they have their own system, except that it will be our Epic system and we will all share clinical data. We won’t share financial data, but we’ll share clinical data.

Another piece, once again at the risk of being Epic-specific, Epic actually has a capability where there are a number of us now around Puget Sound that have Epic. We have it, MultiCare has it — that’s another billion-plus organization — Everett Clinic up north. Epic actually has a feature where in fairly short order, we can have the Epic systems exchange data with each other.

Was that something that led you to choose Epic initially?

At the time, no. It was more the integrated feature that let us choose Epic initially.

How about MyChart? Is that an important part of your strategy to get closer to patients?

Absolutely. It has the ability for them to get at their information without us being the guards at the gate. Sure.

If you look at where you are and where you need to be, what do you say are your most important priorities and your biggest challenges right now?

We still have a few big pieces that we haven’t implemented yet. Two of them happen to be billing. So we need to do those other two big pieces for the professional billing and hospital billing. We’ve actually started that.

The tail end of the spectrum that we haven’t done yet is home care. So we still need to do that. Also included in that is getting it out to our affiliates. So that’s one bundle of work, which is implementing it in more places, more functions.

The other priority is a combination of improving the systems that’s been installed and actually continuing to work out how we’re going to get value out of it. So using the system to be a facilitator for our standardization efforts or workflow improvement efforts. Those are big items for us.

Improving the system itself, making the system simpler, I should say, and using it to improve our work processes.

Founding Sponsors


Platinum Sponsors



















































Gold Sponsors















Reader Comments

  • HISJunkie: "Settled out of court" at minimum implies one part 'won' and one 'lost'. It also means it was not thrown out of court a...
  • Bill O'Toole: 2003 was also the year that HIPAA Business Associate Agreements were required for covered entities. I remember all too w...
  • Julie McGovern: Happy Anniversary! It is my 17th year in business as well, on 6/18. It was a fun walk down tech memory lane you provided...
  • Separate “news feed” thumbs up: Love all of the content and read through the pages each M,W,F. The first thing I do is a ctrl+f and search for Cerner (I...
  • James E Thompson, MD: Re "didn't sign up for," I totally agree. But I have also seen a genuine appreciation of those in the trenches, so I hop...

Sponsor Quick Links