Jonathan Bush, the high profile CEO of athenahealth, has a grand vision of the future of health care and it involves building a “health care Internet.” In this world, primary care physicians are power brokers, connecting and referring patients to a cloud-based network of super-specialists that can care for patients regardless of their geographic proximity.
Primary care physicians will be able to find specialists anywhere in the country, even the world, with highly specific skills and knowledge for their most complex patients.
Patients will have the advantage of being cared for by doctors who have treated hundreds of patients just like them, instead of by doctors who may only see patients with their specific disorder a few times in their careers.
It sounds compelling, but in our currently disjointed system, it seems like a distant dream. Bush, in a keynote interview at the Digital Healthcare Summit in Boston, admits, “We’re sort of Star Wars 1 here in health care … So, ok, the market doesn’t work so well in health care, but what we want is a network.”
Moderator Brandon Hull challenged Bush a bit. At the conference, Bush shared a music video parody that ridiculed EMRs. Hull noted the video’s message that, “Doctors hate EMRs … The last I looked, you’re in the business of selling EMRs.” Bush agreed that what we currently have is far from what we want and pointed to the lack of a coordinated vision on the part of the government as a key factor.
He cited the rush to tie physicians and hospitals to electronic health record systems without supporting infrastructure as one of the reasons for the lack of interoperability. To get to his vision of a fully functioning software enterprise system, Bush recommends taking a hard look at our current situation. “With everything in life, the first thing that you want to do if you really want to live fully is to stare vividly and unflinchingly for a very long time at the awkward reality of your current situation and then you can look off to your right and see a beautiful world that you wish you were in.”
Considering the current tech challenges in health care, Bush takes a sympathetic stance on the plight of doctors. During the talk he shared the image of a painting that he takes inspiration from, called “The Doctor” by Sir Luke Fildes. In it, a pensive doctor sits at the bedside of an ill child. “This guy, to me, is on the edge of his humanity…” he shared. “And what I believe is that digital health represents the wicking away of the things … that don’t require this level of presence is the job of the cloud and is the job of technology.”
It’s a beautiful vision, but is it realistic or even attainable?
The brutal truth about health care today is that the pensive doctor now has a large computer screen between her and her ill patient. Bush admits that we’re far from the vision currently and admits that doctors’ documentation work has become “life-sapping.” His long-term vision, however, is to make this work automated and routinized, so that doctors can be more fully present for patients.
Bush notes with irony that currently 12 million faxes are sent between the IT systems of health care providers despite the overwhelming adoption of electronic health records throughout the health care system. Bush attributes the stimulus of the ACA with the wide but ineffective adoption of EMRs. Speaking of the stimulus, in his usual colorful manner, he said, “What did Keynes say? If you pay a 100 guys to dig a hole and another 100 to fill the hole, at least you get the ball rolling.” According to Bush, despite requiring the collection of meaningful use data, the government has built no infrastructure to actually receive and measure it. He went on to discuss how regulations just add additional complexity to the system, which when worked around, create “ridiculous absurdities” and additional bureaucratic drag.
Still, he feels there is plenty of room for innovation, which is reflected in the creation of athenahealth’s innovation arm, called MDP, or More Disruption Please. Through MDP, athenahealth provides investment and support to start-ups and entrepreneurs who share their connected health vision. “We think of health care as a few trillion dollar industry. It’s thousands of a couple of billion dollar markets, all masquerading as one thing … My thought with MDP is that what we need is thousands of companies with no cost of sale, no cost of implementation, that are very results oriented, maybe they almost morph between a vendor and a provider, and they kind of come together and focus on these thousands of industries and get a 10x return because you don’t have to put very much in and the cost of sale, of implementation, is so low because you have this backbone to plug into an app store, if you will, that you can start verticals.”
Besides improving care of individual patients with a powerful network of providers, Bush feels the health care Internet can also create a new opportunity to study diseases. Under our current system, it is difficult to get enough patients with certain diseases in one place in order to conduct a study with high enough power, but that could change with enhanced technology. He also sees an opportunity to better address population health, not just in those with chronic disease – which is a focus currently due to the high costs of care of these patients – but ultimately other groups of patients as well, and the ability to do this at scale.
One regulatory shift that Bush seems to favor is the emphasis on fee-for-value versus fee-for-service. He argues that risk-bearing creates a rich market with a large number of buyers and sellers, competitively innovating cheaper and better solutions. His hope, through MDP, is to help create this rich health care ecosystem. He asserts that it’s not athenahealth’s objective to build or be the storefront for all of these businesses, but rather to simply encourage their development.
This long-view of health care and investment in MDP places athenahealth ahead of the hundreds, if not thousands, of other EMR providers. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if someday the much-sought-after and elusive health care Internet is ultimately hosted on servers built by Jonathan Bush and athenahealth.