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Barbarians at the Gate

By ADRIAN GROPPER, MD

US healthcare is exceptional among rich economies. Exceptional in cost. Exceptional in disparities. Exceptional in the political power hospitals and other incumbents have amassed over decades of runaway healthcare exceptionalism. 

The latest front in healthcare exceptionalism is over who profits from patient records. Parallel articles in the NYTimes and THCB frame the issue as “barbarians at the gate” when the real issue is an obsolete health IT infrastructure and how ill-suited it is for the coming age of BigData and machine learning. Just check out the breathless announcement of “frictionless exchange” by Microsoft, AWS, Google, IBM, Salesforce and Oracle. Facebook already offers frictionless exchange. Frictionless exchange has come to mean that one data broker, like Facebook, adds value by aggregating personal data from many sources and then uses machine learning to find a customer, like Cambridge Analytica, that will use the predictive model to manipulate your behavior. How will the six data brokers in the announcement be different from Facebook?

The NYTimes article and the THCB post imply that we will know the barbarians when we see them and then rush to talk about the solutions. Aside from calls for new laws in Washington (weaken behavioral health privacy protections, preempt state privacy laws, reduce surprise medical bills, allow a national patient ID, treat data brokers as HIPAA covered entities, and maybe more) our leaders have to work with regulations (OCR, information blocking, etc…), standards (FHIR, OAuth, UMA), and best practices (Argonaut, SMART, CARIN Alliance, Patient Privacy Rights, etc…). I’m not going to discuss new laws in this post and will focus on practices under existing law.

Patient-directed access to health data is the future. This was made clear at the recent ONC Interoperability Forum as opened by Don Rucker and closed with a panel about the future. CARIN Alliance and Patient Privacy Rights are working to define patient-directed access in what might or might not be different ways. CARIN and PPR have no obvious differences when it comes to the data models and semantics associated with a patient-directed interface (API). PPR appreciates HL7 and CARIN efforts on the data models and semantics for both clinics and payers.

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Apple, Cerner, Microsoft, and Salesforce

… all rumored to be in the mix to acquire athenahealth.

Nope.

Why not?

a) Apple doesn’t do “verticals.” It’s that easy. Apple sells products that anyone could buy. A teacher, a doctor, my mom. Sure – they have sold high-end workstations that video editors can use, but so could a hobbyist filmmaker. Likelihood of Apple buying athenahealth? ~ .01%

b) Cerner? Nah. While (yes) they have an aging client-server ambulatory EHR that needs to be replaced by a multi-tenant SaaS product (like the one athenahealth cas built), they have too much on their plate right now with DoD and VA and the (incomplete) integration of Siemens customers. Likelihood of Cerner buying athenahealth?  ~ 1%

c) Microsoft. Like Apple, it’s uncommon for MSFT to go “vertical.” They have tried it. (Who remembers the Health Solutions Group?) But the tension between a strong product-focused company that meets the needs of many market segments, and a company that deeply understands the business problems of health (and health care) is too great. The driving force of MSFT, like Apple, is to sell infrastructure to care delivery organizations. Owning a product that competes with their key channel partners would alienate the partners – driving them to AMZN, GOOG and APPL. Likelihood of Microsoft buying athenahealth?  ~ 2%

d) Salesforce. I’d love to see this. But it’s still unlikely. athenahealth has built a product, and they (now) have defined a path to pivot the product into a platform. This is the right thing to do. Salesforce “gets” platform better than everyone (aside from, perhaps, Amazon). But Salesforce has struggled with health care. They’ve declared times in recent years that they are “in” to really disrupt health care, and with the evolution of Health Cloud, and their acquisition of MuleSoft, they have clearly made some investments here, but the EHR is not the “ERP of healthcare” as they think it is. (Salesforce’s success in other markets has been that they dovetail with – rather than replace – the ERP systems to create value and improve efficiencies.) The way that Salesforce interacts with the market is unfamiliar (and uncomfortable) to most care delivery organizations. So if Salesforce “gets” platform, and athenahealth wants to be a platform when it matures, could these two combine? It’s the most likely of the three, but I still see the cultures of the two companies (I know them both well) as very different, and not quite compatible. Likelihood of Salesforce buying athenahealth?  ~ 10%

e) IBM. yup. I forgot that one. Many recent acquisitions. This would fit. I don’t think it would work very well, but it could happen. ~6%

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