athenahealth

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.34.48 AMThe Ebola crisis in Texas has tested our nation’s health care system in many ways, exposing weaknesses and potential breakdowns. In particular, the incident with the first diagnosed Ebola patient at Texas Health Presbyterian underscores a fundamental issue with information liquidity between providers, their care teams, and across the continuum of care. The ability to share information effectively is critical not just in responding to health care crises like Ebola — but also in delivering great, cost-effective care.

As athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush said in an interview with CNBC earlier this month: 

“The worst supply chain in our society is the health information supply chain. It’s just a wonderfully poignant example, [a] reminder of how disconnected our health care system is. … The hyperbole should not be directed at Epic or those guys at Health Texas. The hyperbole has to be directed at the fact that health care is islands of information trying to separately manage a massively complex network.”

Continue reading “Ebola and the Information Flow Challenge”

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Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 8.03.26 AMI WAS NOW the CEO of a rising medical data company.We built automated systems to handle the administrative chores for thousands of medical practices. They didn’t buy anything from us. Instead, they subscribed to a service on the Internet.

This was what would later be called a cloud-based service, but in these early days of Internet era, we were still searching for a name for it. My partner Todd used to say in speeches that he would give Polynesian fruit baskets for life to anyone who came up with a single name for the combination of software, knowledge and work that we were selling. We had moved back east and had a new headquarters in a historic brick armory building along the Charles River near Boston.

Our future looked fabulous, except for one problem: My cousin, the 43rd president of the United States, was about to sign a bill that could destroy us.

This bill, like so many governments initiatives, stemmed from the best of intentions. The idea was to encourage the migration of the health care industry from cumbersome binders full of paper to electronic records. How was this to be accomplished? Well, hospitals and doctors were forbidden by so-called anti-kickback laws from exchanging services, information or products of value with each other. (It’s a law that infuriates me, for reasons I’ll go into later.) The bill before Congress in 2004 offered a regulatory safe harbor for hospitals to provide doctors with all the digital technology the bureaucrats could think of: servers, software licences, and training. That was absolutely the right answer . . . for 1982. The long and short was that hospitals could buy all the old stuff from our competitors, but none of the new still-to-be-named services from us. As often happens, the technology was advancing much faster than the law.

I caught the shuttle down to Washington and commenced lobbying with the fervor of a man with a gun to his head. I raced up and down the marble halls Congress, looking for someone, anyone, who would take the time to learn why this bill was so very wrong, so backward, so devastating, so lethal—at least to athenahealth.

But let me tell you, if you walk into Congressional offices sputtering about a clause in a bill that practically no one has read, something that has to do with hardware and software and online services, people tend to hurry away, or point you toward the door. I could find no one to pay attention. And as I grew more frantic, I started talking louder and faster. That didn’t help things.

Some might find my frustration strange, considering that during this drama my cousin was sitting a mile away, in the Oval Office. Wouldn’t a Bush, facing legislative trouble in Washington, contact someone in the White House entourage? The answer is no. Placing a call to him was not even a remote possibility. For starters, it’s unethical. It is also politically foolish. It would place him, me, and my company in scandal and bring shame upon our family. I would be much more willing to climb the steeple of the tallest church and bungee jump naked in the middle of the night than to call my cousin. And even if I were dumb enough to make the call, I trust George would have the good sense to tell me to get lost.

Continue reading “Government (Or, How My Cousin the President Nearly Killed My Company)”

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Figure 1 acaview

With this post, we are pleased to introduce ACAView, a joint initiative between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and athenahealth.

2014 marks the launch of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) most important coverage expansion provisions, designed to dramatically reduce the number of uninsured Americans. Between now and the end of 2016, millions of individuals are expected to sign up for subsidized insurance coverage through newly established health care exchanges, or marketplaces.

Other tracking initiatives are closely monitoring the number of individuals that sign up for this coverage as well as those that take advantage of expanding Medicaid coverage in some states.

With ACAView, we will take a different approach. We will focus on the provider perspective; more specifically, how the ACA affects the practice patterns and economics of physicians and other care team members around the country. This is also part of a wider effort, Reform by the Numbers, RWJF’s rich source of timely and unique data about the impact of health reform.

ACAView will monitor the impact of coverage expansion on a monthly basis, mining insights from athenahealth’s cloud-based network of more than 50,000 providers and 50 million patients.

athenahealth is a technology and services provider that delivers physicians the tools and support needed to manage the business and clinical aspects of their medical practices. Our cloud-based, centrally hosted software platform provides us with near real-time visibility into practice patterns of physicians around the country.

Our goal is to inform, exchange ideas, and provide a timely, front-row view of how this landmark legislation affects a robust cross-section of providers across the nation. In subsequent reports, we will examine an evolving set of metrics that address a broad range of topics.

We will also share our analyses on the extent to which our providers represent all providers in the US. For more about our data on practices and patients, as well as our preliminary list of metrics, please read our Methodology report.

No Meaningful Change to Date in New Patient Volumes

Among the many unknown questions surrounding coverage expansion is the number of new patients physicians will accommodate. This is a critical issue because one of the goals of health care reform is to allow individuals to form stable physician relationships, rather than seek care in high-acuity settings or forgo care altogether.

If the ACA is working, we would expect physicians to see a higher percentage of new patients over the course of the year. Over the long term, this number should eventually return to historical levels as these new patients become established.

Continue reading “Measuring the Impact of Health Care Reform on Day-to-Day Physician Practice”

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As Washington remains deadlocked on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the US government’s shutdown has resulted in the furlough of nearly 70% of the Centers for Disease Control‘s (CDC’s) workforce. CDC Director Tom Frieden recently shared his thoughts in a tweet. We agree whole-heartedly.  Although it’s all too easy to take the CDC staff for granted, they are the frontline sentinels (and the gold standard) for monitoring disease outbreaks.  Their ramp-down could have serious public health consequences.

We are particularly concerned about the apparent temporary discontinuation of the CDC’s flu surveillance program, which normally provides weekly reports on flu activity. Although flu season typically begins in late fall, outbreaks have occurred earlier in previous years. In 2009, flu cases started accumulating in late summer/early fall.  And given the potential for unique variants, such as the swine or avian flu, every season is unpredictable, making the need for regular CDC flu reports essential. We therefore hope to see the CDC restored to full capacity as soon as possible.

In the meantime, we would like to help by sharing data we have on communicable diseases, starting with the flu.


Because the athenahealth database is built on a single-instance, cloud-based architecture, we have the ability to report data in real time. As we have described in earlier posts, the physicians we serve are dispersed around the country with good statistical representation across practice types and sizes.

 

To get a read on influenza vaccination rates so far this season, we looked at more than two million patients who visited a primary care provider between August 1 and September 28, 2013 (Figure 1).  We did not include data on vaccinations provided at retail clinics, schools or workplaces.

This year’s rates are trending in parallel to rates over the last four years, and slightly below those of the 2012-2013 season. However, immunizations accelerate when the CDC, and consequently the media, announce disease outbreaks and mount public awareness campaigns.

Continue reading “With CDC Seasonal Flu Data Unavailable, An Electronic Medical Record Offers a Glimpse of Early Activity Levels”

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Health care providers and consumers are increasingly using mobile technology to exchange information. Many health IT providers readily acknowledge that some level of oversight is required to ensure patient safety and privacy protections, but many providers question whether the FDA is the right agency for the job and want to see the FDASIA recommendations.

Can the FDA, with its already limited resources and lengthy review cycles, regulate the fast-moving health IT industry? Should it? Health IT is fundamentally different from a medical device in many ways. For oversight purposes, the key differentiator between the two is the opportunity for clinical intervention in the use of health IT. Many medical devices interact directly with the patient (such as an infusion pump or pacemaker). Most health IT, on the other hand, merely provides information to clinicians, who ultimately make independent, experienced care decisions. Physicians are informed, but not controlled, by the information. This leads to a vast difference in the patient risk proposition and rigid regulatory oversight is not appropriate.

Advocates of a broad health IT oversight framework – which encompasses mobile health IT – are urging the FDA to delay release of its final guidance, particularly in light of a July 2012 Congressional mandate for the creation of a comprehensive oversight framework that avoids regulatory duplication.

But some mobile medical application developers are pressing the FDA to move forward immediately, believing its guidance will reduce the regulatory uncertainty that they believe is stifling innovation and investment in some aspects of mHealth.

Continue reading “Regulating Health IT: When, Who, and How?”

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Just back from the Health Datapalooza confab that took place last week – an event now in its 4th year hosted by the federal government. I had a few lingering thoughts to share. First, on the event name: I’m guessing it came out of my old business partner and current national CTO Todd Park’s experience in Washington, where trying to get any single distinct thought through “the interests” could knock the “palooza” out of a grown stallion.

You’d think the federal government would be the last ones to host a Datapalooza, but the fact is NO ONE ELSE has stepped up!

So they did.

And complain as I might about the G-men and G-women being industry conference conveners (makes me want to bathe with a wire brush) they pulled it off pretty darn well. The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) attracted hundreds of serious entrepreneurs… and hundreds more wannabes (who real entrepreneurs desperately need in order to feel cool).

And boy were there some great bloopers…

Kaiser came blistering onto the scene with an open API—to the location and hours of operation of its facilities! Kinda sounds like Yelp to me…I’d be surprised if developers will come a runnin’ to that one. Kaiser’s CIO (a very cool guy whom they or anyone in health care would be lucky to get) broke this news in a two-minute keynote speech. Imagine President Obama announcing, in a State of the Union address, that the green vegetables in the White House cafeteria were now much crunchier!

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius applied similarly excessive fanfare announcing the release of cost data for 30 ambulatory procedures. The whole idea that Toddy (Park) was trying to get going with this Palooza was not to release REPORTS on things but to release the SOURCE data so that anyone with proper security and privacy clearance could INVENT a million reports that no one had ever conceived before!

So here are my thoughts on all of this, some of which I shared at the conference in my way-longer-than-two-minute keynote:

1. Release the data!! Secretary Sebelius announcing the release of cost data for 30 ambulatory procedures during her keynote felt like the Secretary of Energy serving up a can of 10W30 to oil companies to drill into.

Her words were great. To wit: “The fact that this [unlocking the data] is growing by leaps and bounds is a good indication that we can leapfrog over years and decades of inaction into an exciting new future.” YES! GO GIRRRL!  OK, so…where’s the data?

Continue reading “Knocking the Palooza Out of the Data”

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Rock Health recently released a decidedly mixed report on the current state of Digital Health investing, as the data suggest many investors continue to tentatively explore the sector, but most have yet to make a serious commitment.

Overall, VC funding for digital health increased significantly over the past year, from just under $1B in 2011 to about $1.4B in 2012; 20% of this total was associated with just five deals: two raises for transparency companies, Castlight (targeting employees with high deductible plans looking to manage their costs) and GoHealth (targeting consumers contemplating purchase of health insurance); two raises for referral companies, Care.com (helps consumers find the right caregiver – defined broadly, as needs addressed include eldercare, child tutoring, babysitting, and pet care) and BestDoctors (helps employees find the right doctor), and one deal for 23andMe (a pioneering consumer genetics company).

Not surprisingly, the largest thematic area of investment ($237M) was “health consumer engagement,” comprised of companies that – like the first four above – help consumers or employees with healthcare purchases.   “Personal health tools and tracking,” the second leading category, captured $143M in funding last year.  “EMR/EHR” ($108M) and “hospital administration” ($78M) rounded out the list; the last two numbers seem shockingly low given the apparent size of these markets, and suggest both areas may be perceived as  firmly owned by incumbent players, and prohibitively difficult for new participants to enter.

Athenahealth’s just-announced acquisition of Epocrates highlights the competitive pressures even existing EMR companies face as they struggle for traction in an environment that seems to be increasingly dominated by a few large players, most notably Epic. “Our biggest obstacle,” Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush told Bloomberg Businessweek, “is that 70% of doctors don’t even know we exist.”  In contrast, I’ve suggested that a category I’d broadly define as EMR adjacencies may be primed for growth, as VC’s Stephen Kraus and Ambar Bhattacharyya have also discussed recently in this intelligent post.  The related area of care transitions is also attracting considerable entrepreneurial interest, including current Rock Health portfolio companies WellFrame and OpenPlacement, and TechStars alum Careport; it remains to be seen whether a robust business model will emerge here.

Continue reading “2012 Digital Health Investment Activity: The View From the Valley”

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The San Francisco teams only had 2 days to create a solution and 3 minutes to present. It was a high-stakes, high-pressure event. If known the challenges it was entered for are in parentheses. AT&T, Aetna, Healthline, Food Essentials and athenhealth all offered separate challenges and prizes for this codeathon.

DIG*IT Mobile (AT&T): This app tried to use the “desire engine” concept to develop a medication adherence app specifically for patients with HIV. The app includes a news feed, a way to compare yourself to other people like you, easy contact buttons for providers and a quick health summary. Patients can see a graph of their lab values and their medication compliance, as well as a graph for adherence. Each day the app asks if a patient has taken their medication, as well as providing alerts that tell them to take their meds. The med component showed their pills and when their prescriptions are due. They plan to incorporate crowd-sourcing information later.

DocSays (Aetna & Healthline): This team took on the challenge of improving hospital discharge outcomes. Patients are overloaded with information at the time of discharge. Their app, titled Doc Says, gives them automatic reminders about everything from activity levels, foods, medication to reminders for appointments. It can also work on an SMS system, so it doesn’t have to be smart-phone based. Options on the screen include defining all doctors instructions as tasks. The steps are broken down so that “pick up your lisinopril” is a separate task from the more generic “take your medicine.”

Continue reading “Health 2.0 Code-a-thon – SF Winners”

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There are many companies that are competing to be the “operating system” for small businesses. The theory is that with the advent of the cloud in the digital age, small businesses can leverage a suite of services from a technology vendor to manage all aspects of their work – from payments to record-keeping to marketing to customer communications.  Among those competing for this vision are PayPal/eBay, Square and Groupon, with each struggling to pull together pieces of the equation and, importantly, reach the small business in a cost-efficient manner at scale.

One company in Watertown, Massachusetts has been executing on this vision for over a decade with a winning approach for one vertical slice of the small business market:  physicians.  Although this is not typically how athenahealth is described, it is one way to describe what they are doing that mainstream members of the technology community might understand.  I have found it pretty amazing that so few people in the tech community know their story or understand the scale and scope of what they have achieved.  That is why I’ve chosen athenahealth for the third in my series on scaling (following Akamai and TripAdvisor).

Founding Story:  A Pivot

Athenahealth version 1.0 was a complete failure.  The company was originally founded in 1997 by Jonathan Bush (1st cousin of George W.) and Todd Park, a pair of Booz Allen consultants, as a physician practice management company for obstetrics.

Continue reading “Scaling is Hard. Case Study: athenahealth”

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This house believes that society benefits when we share information online! This was the topic of debate before the Economist magazine’s Ideas Economy: Information 2012 conference here in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon. Tom Standage, digital editor for the Economist, moderated this lively battle of wits.

Defending the motion was John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is a little like defending sex!” he started off by saying.

I am paraphrasing here but he went on to say, ‘The Internet is an environment where what is great about human beings can manifest itself…collectively we are much smarter than any individual. Just as my mitochondria are unaware of my thoughts, we are largely unaware of our collective genius.’

I could not agree more.

Opposing the motion was Andrew Keen, Internet entrepreneur and author of “Cult of the Amateur.”

Again, paraphrasing, ‘Repressive governments and private companies who make the 1% look poor, are also benefitting. Most of the information is being stolen,’ Keen said. ‘Today everything has to be social.’

Keen rails against our intimate selves being taken from us and traded on by bazzilionaires, with not much coming back to we, the sharers. ‘Barlow would not be who he is, if he not had his years of very aloneness,’ said Keen, paraphrased.

Continue reading “The Importance of Data and Care Coordination”

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