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Up-and-Comers 2018: MDLive and OCHIN Inc.

June 6, 2018
by David Raths
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The last two of this year’s six up-and-coming health IT vendors, as selected by Healthcare Informatics

Each year, to accompany our Healthcare Informatics 100 list of the largest companies in U.S. health information technology, we profile fast-growing companies that could very well make the list in the future. Below are write-ups of the final two companies that made this year’s Up-and-Comers rendition. The write-ups of the other four companies can be read here and here.

New Executive Team Leads Telehealth Company MDLive as It Enters ‘Hyper-Growth Mode’

As health systems and payers continue to embrace telehealth for both high- and low-acuity care, the vendors that have been laying the groundwork over the last decade are in a position to benefit from their experience. One of those vendors is MDLive, which provides 24x7 care in all 50 states and is one of the largest providers of telehealth care in the nation.

In 2017, MDLive’s membership more than doubled to nearly 25 million members, with a 43-percent increase in visits on its cloud-based platform.

“The company was started with a vision of how to create the largest virtual medical care medical group in the nation, and how to provide excellent care to as many people as possible at a time when there is a demand/supply mismatch,” says Lyle Berkowitz, M.D., chief medical officer and executive vice president of product strategy, who came to MDLive in 2018 from his position as director of innovation at Northwestern Medicine. The Sunrise, Fla.-based company also has a new CEO, former Allscripts executive Rich Berner.

Lyle Berkowitz, M.D.

Berkowitz and Berner plan to build on MDLive’s success. “My vision and Rich’s are similar,” Berkowitz explains. “The model is not simply virtualizing care, because that is not as scalable as it needs to be to solve all the demand we have. We are looking at how we automate and virtualize and optimize the whole care experience using a combination of people, processes and technology to take care of millions of people in a way that makes most sense to them.” He says MDLive can act as the front door, and triage to a higher level of care if need be. “Patients are highly satisfied, and doctors are happy,” he adds.

MDLive also helps health systems by treating people who would have ignored their care until they got so sick that they needed the emergency room or they might have gone to the ER unnecessarily, which clogs up the system, Berkowitz says. “In an era when we have primary care and emergency room access issues, the more we can take routine and repeatable care and figure out how to offer it in a highly configurable fashion, everybody wins,” he says.

Launched in 2009, MDLive partnered with large health plans such as Humana and it has received $73 million in funding from investors. “That provided the breadth and scale to build a continually improving product instead of going door to door to sell to every physician office,” Berkowitz says. The company also started working with employers and in the last two years it began expanding its health system customer base too.

Consumer demand is also a strong driver. Many people are surprised to learn they have some kind of insurance coverage for telehealth. “Once they are aware, they start using it,” he says. Upwards of 40 percent of visits are repeat patients.

Berkowitz says that health plans have really embraced telehealth. “Initially they were scared of telehealth because they were worried about extra cost, but they found it decreases ER utilization and increases savings.”

While the growth in 2017 was impressive, Berkowitz says the potential is even greater. “In the first quarter of 2018 compared to 2017, there was more than a 100-percent increase year-over-year in visits. We are in hyper-growth mode right now, and there is a lot of room to grow.”


Acquisitions, Organic Growth Extend Reach of OCHIN’s Health IT Services, Research

It might seem unusual for Healthcare Informatics to include a nonprofit organization on its annual list of Up-and-Comer companies, but OCHIN Inc. is no ordinary nonprofit health IT services provider. Founded in 2000 to provide EHR support services to federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) in Oregon, the organization now serves 450 organizations with more than 10,000 clinicians across the nation. In 2017 it had revenue of $59 million, up 35 percent from 2016. Its workforce grew 20 percent to 382 people.

The division that offers Epic hosting and support for community health providers has grown to 23 states and is negotiating contracts in new states including New York, South Carolina and Louisiana. “We could add another five states to that in the next 12 to 18 months,” says CEO Abby Sears, who has been with Portland-based OCHIN since its inception.

Sears explains how the organization ramped up over the years. After OCHIN began deploying a hosted Epic implementation for five FQHCs, its executives realized they had to scale it up to spread the cost across more providers. It started getting requests from providers in other states and began growing. “We grew really fast starting in 2009 and 2010 with the HITECH Act, and Affordable Care Act,” she says. “We really took off in 2010 and on average we have seen a 24-percent growth rate, year after year,” she says. 

Abby Sears

Over the years, OCHIN has added professional services offerings such as billing, practice facilitation coaching, compliance and risk assessment, and evaluation services.

After previously buying the Oregon Health Network, last year OCHIN acquired the California Telehealth Network (CTN). Sears says those organizations are useful to OCHIN because its customers are on hosted platforms for EHRs. The telehealth organizations help provide the subsidies for medical-grade networks, crucial for reliability. CTN also hosts a telehealth policy resource center. “That complements where the industry is going and was an area where we didn’t have a lot of resources, so we wanted to bring that in house,” Sears explains. “It is an important part of where we needed to go. Some of our clinics are in very rural areas.”

Research has always been part of OCHIN’s mission. Its advance research data warehouse grew by 540,000 patients in 2017 and it has more than 40 employees in its research division. It received $8.3 million in research grant funding in 2017 and participates in the Patient Centered Outcome Research Institute (PCORI) as one of its clinical data repository networks.

In addition to the CTN, OCHIN also added a NextGen offering in 2017 by integrating two health IT services companies, Voxent and PTSO.

So has OCHIN’s rapid growth made Sears’ job more challenging? “It does add some complexity,” she says. “We are growing so much we have a hard time recruiting people who understand and have the same mission-driven approach to delivery that we do.” In regard to the organizations it has acquired, the real challenge was looking at the business model of all three organizations and redesigning them to be more value-added for the customers OCHIN serves, which also meant renegotiating contracts. In most cases, those customers got more services than before at a lower price, Sears says. “With the growth, we were able to redesign and reduce administrative overhead and leverage that back into pricing. That was a risky thing to do for a nonprofit, but it was important to stabilize the customers.”

There is no sign of OCHIN slowing down. Because both OCHIN and the recently acquired PTSO had roots in the federal Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), they still qualify as a “health center controlled network.” What does that mean? “It means we can apply for and get additional funding that focuses on outcomes work,” Sears explains. “We do technology assistance, project work and innovation work around driving outcomes with clinics.”

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Walgreens, Microsoft Ink Strategic Deal to “Transform Healthcare Delivery”

January 15, 2019
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Observers are pointing to the agreement as a clear sign that the two companies are looking to fend off Amazon’s increasing push into healthcare

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are joining forces on a major seven-year healthcare partnership that will aim to “deliver innovative platforms that enable next-generation health networks, integrated digital-physical experiences and care management solutions.”

The companies announced today that they will combine the power of Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud and AI (artificial intelligence) platform, healthcare investments, and new retail solutions with WBA’s customer reach, volume of locations, and outpatient healthcare services to accomplish their goals: to make healthcare delivery more personal, affordable and accessible.

While innovation in healthcare has occurred in pockets, officials of the two companies believe that “there is both a need and an opportunity to fully integrate the system, ultimately making healthcare more convenient to people through data-driven insights.”

As part of the strategic partnership, the companies have committed to a multiyear research and development (R&D) investment to build healthcare solutions, improve health outcomes and lower the cost of care. This investment will include funding, subject-matter experts, technology and tools, officials noted in the announcement. The companies will also explore the potential to establish joint innovation centers in key markets. Additionally, this year, WBA will pilot up to 12 store-in-store “digital health corners” aimed at the merchandising and sale of select healthcare-related hardware and devices.

Executives noted that the companies will focus on connecting WBA stores and health information systems to people wherever they are through their digital devices. What’s more, the integration of information will enable valuable insights based on data science and AI that can allow for improvements such as supporting the transition of healthcare data into more community-based locations and sustainable transformation in healthcare delivery.

And by working with patients’ healthcare providers, the companies will look to proactively engage their patients to improve medication adherence, reduce emergency room visits and decrease hospital readmissions. Core to this model is data privacy, security and consent, which will be key design principles, officials stated.

Just last month, Walgreens Boots Alliance announced that it would work with Verily, an Alphabet company, to develop a medication adherence pilot project. Industry observers are already attesting that the Walgreens-Microsoft collaboration is an obvious sign that the two companies are trying to counter Amazon's growing healthcare footprint.

“Improving health outcomes while lowering the cost of care is a complex challenge that requires broad collaboration and strong partnership between the healthcare and tech industries,” Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft, said in a statement today. “Together with Walgreens Boots Alliance, we aim to deliver on this promise by putting people at the center of their health and wellness, combining the power of the Azure cloud and AI technology and Microsoft 365 with Walgreens Boots Alliance’s deep expertise and commitment to helping communities around the world lead healthier and happier lives.”

Notably, the companies will also work on building an ecosystem of participating organizations to better connect consumers, providers—including Walgreens and Boots pharmacists—so that major healthcare delivery network participation will provide the opportunity for people to seamlessly engage in WBA healthcare solutions and acute care providers all within a single platform.

In an emailed statement reacting to today’s news, Forrester analyst Arielle Trzcinski noted, “The technology focus will enable Walgreens to put in place a critical backbone to enable a more connected experience for the customer/patient, as well as support broader interoperability.”

And speaking to the difference between retail pharmacies and traditional care providers, Trzcinski said that retail pharmacies offer an opportunity to engage with the patient much more frequently than at an office visit, giving an example of how chronic care patients see their pharmacist frequently, while some figures indicate that the average diabetic patient sees his or her provider once every six months.

“This gap creates an opportunity for the pharmacist to help monitor the patients’ health and prompt the patient to receive preventative care in the retail clinic or through a virtual care visit. Using an enterprise health cloud, like Azure, you create a more connected ecosystem so that we can share that data with the patient’s additional providers, track outcomes, and intervene earlier when an issue arises,” he said.

Trzcinski also pointed out that up to 20 percent of hospitals are at risk for closure in 2019—according to Morgan Stanley—with most of them located in rural areas. “Consumers will turn to retail locations like Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS for convenient care options as well as virtual care delivery to fill the gap,” he asserted.

Through this agreement, Microsoft becomes WBA’s strategic cloud provider, and WBA plans to migrate the majority of the company’s IT infrastructure onto Microsoft Azure, officials said. Microsoft also plans to roll out Microsoft 365 to more than 380,000 Walgreens employees and stores globally.

 “WBA will work with Microsoft to harness the information that exists between payors and healthcare providers to leverage, in the interest of patients and with their consent, our extraordinary network of accessible and convenient locations to deliver new innovations, greater value and better health outcomes in health care systems across the world,” said Stefano Pessina, executive vice chairman and chief executive officer of WBA.

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“Revolutionizing” Healthcare: How Non-Traditional Players are Shaking Up the Sector

January 15, 2019
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Traditional healthcare stakeholders will not be able to slow down new industry entrants such as Amazon, one leading consultant attests

In late November when Amazon announced that it was launching a machine learning service that will aim to mine data from electronic health records (EHRs), company officials, in a blog post, noted that the software, Amazon Comprehend Medical, is “a HIPAA-eligible machine learning service that allows developers to process unstructured medical text and identify information such as patient diagnosis, treatments, dosages, symptoms and signs, and more.”

Two of Amazon’s specialists—Matt Wood, Ph.D., a machine learning expert, and Taha Kass-Hout, M.D., a former FDA chief health informatics officer—noted that a core issue in healthcare and health IT today is that a large amount of critical data is stored as unstructured medical text, such as medical notes, prescriptions, audio interview transcripts, and pathology and radiology reports. “This means that being able to identify this information can be a manual and time-consuming process, which either requires data entry by high skilled medical experts, or teams of developers writing custom code and rules to try and extract the information automatically,” they outlined, adding that Comprehend Medical will instead aim to specifically allow developers “to identify the key common types of medical information automatically, with high accuracy, and without the need for large numbers of custom rules.”

Following the announcement, industry observers were quick to react to Amazon’s latest aggressive push into healthcare, with one consultant for Impact Advisors, Liam Bouchier, a principal with the firm, noting that this latest initiative is simply another example of Amazon “doing what it does best”—working to analyze large data sets as a means to gain meaningful insights into the consumer through a variety of different ways. “This concept does make some in the healthcare industry uncomfortable,” he added.

Another healthcare consultant—Michael Abrams, managing partner at the St. Louis-based Numerof & Associates—agrees that the initiative is exciting at the surface, and believes it speaks to a much larger issue in the health IT market: responding to a significant need to do something constructive with the voluminous amount of data that stakeholders already own.

Taking a step back, Abrams, in a recent interview, explains that one of the core issues that has arisen from healthcare’s digital shift is that having access to digitized data is different from being able to use that data to streamline decisions or improve quality. “Because hospitals rushed to digitization in response to extrinsic [financial] incentives [as part of ARRA/HITECH], they wanted to qualify for federal subsidies, but hadn’t really developed the internal capability to use the data. So, for the most part they are still very early on that learning curve, and the notion of aggregating data, data manipulation, and the insights you can draw from aggregating data, is still a new concept, Abrams says. He adds, “Now that [organizations] have these [EHR] systems and are saddled with substantial upkeep, it’s important to find a way to make it pay off.”

He contends that much of the healthcare delivery community is obsessed with “big data,” but the truth is that “they have hardly scratched the surface using the data they already own.” Abrams asserts, “Many of them don’t understand their own internal operations and don’t understand the cost of doing business— what it costs them to do a knee replacement, for example. All they know is at the end of the year, if they are profitable, it’s all good. Every corner convenience store has SKUs on everything they sell, and they know what the profitably is on every item. How many hospitals can say that? Not many,” he attests.

But according to what Amazon has said regarding its machine learning capabilities, this new software can re-digitize patient records and other clinical notes, analyze them, and pull out key data points, Abrams explains. “This is a very strategic move for Amazon because it already has advanced capabilities in natural language processing. Amazon Web Services has been selling this kind of text analysis software to markets outside of medicine for some time. They have a significant advantage,” he says.

A Vendor Community Satisfied with the Status Quo

An updated brief from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) last summer revealed that health IT giants Epic and Cerner have continued to maintain the largest EHR market share (22 percent and 24 percent, respectively), based on the proportion of hospitals that reported using the developer's certified products.

These results, though unsurprising, signify to Abrams an oligopoly in that Epic and Cerner account for about half of the hospital market share, with the top-five vendors in this space accounting for roughly 85 percent of the market share. “When you have an oligopoly, you have a lot of large, slow-moving entities,” says Abrams, who also believes that as consolidation increases in the provider market, leading to fewer larger players among hospital systems, it makes it “almost incumbent upon vendors to also become fewer and larger, in order to have a balance of power.”

What’s more, Abrams attests that the EHR vendors with the largest market shares “regard their propriety code and the closed nature of their systems as a defense against encroachment by other, perhaps hungrier players who don’t have that market share. The status quo of a lack of interoperability suits the dominant players,” he says.

Can New Entrants Be Slowed Down?

With all this in mind, while health IT vendors have traditionally been content with incremental change, Abrams strongly believes that outsiders such as Amazon, Apple, and Google “bring the technology and commercial savviness to dramatically shake up what’s been generally a very complacent industry.” He adds, “Players like Amazon have their eye on the next big thing.”

Indeed, the traditional players and the healthcare delivery organizations are, on at least at some level, “terrorized about what these technology companies are going to come up with next,” he says. Consider that in just the last year alone:

  • Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co announced they were teaming up on an initiative to improve satisfaction and reduce costs for their companies’ employees.
  • Amazon said it would be part of another endeavor related to healthcare—to remove interoperability barriers and to make progress on adoption of health data standards. For this project, Amazon is teaming up with Microsoft, Google, IBM, and others to jointly commit to support healthcare interoperability by advancing healthcare standards such as HL7 (Health Level Seven International), FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), and the Argonaut Project.
  • Apple, of course, also had a big announcement in early 2018: that it would be testing its new Health Records feature out with 12 hospitals, inclusive of some of the most prominent healthcare institutions in the U.S. Since that time, more than 100 new organizations have joined the project,  according to Apple. The idea behind the feature is that consumers could see their medical records right on their iPhones.

As such, prior to the past year when non-traditional players began moving more and more into healthcare, providers were “reasonably comfortable with moving as slowly as they could because they thought they had a good fix on the level of pressure and the pace of change that they might expect from the government,” says Abrams.

Adding to this thought, he notes that providers—with the help of industry trade associations—could negotiate with the government on the speed at which certain regulations might come down the pike, depending on how ready stakeholders are. But, Abrams adds, “Nobody can say ‘slow down’ to Amazon; when they want to do something, they are going to do it, and if they have a better solution, it could very well revolutionize the industry.”

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Should Apple Join the Amazon/Berkshire/JPMorgan Joint Healthcare Venture?

January 10, 2019
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Apple should get involved with the Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co joint healthcare venture that the companies announced last year, said Jim Cramer, television personality and former hedge fund manager.

According to a CNBC report this week, Cramer—the host of CNBC's Mad Money and whose charitable trust also owns shares of Apple—said that J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon would have to be the one to bring Apple involved in the venture, since Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway owns a huge stake in the tech stock that could appear "self-serving.” Said Cramer, “It is really time for, I think, that ecosystem to embrace the Apple ecosystem."

As Healthcare Informatics noted in a news report published last January, “With an ambitious-sounding, if vaguely worded, announcement, three corporate giants—Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced Jan. 30 that they were launching an initiative to improve satisfaction and reduce costs for their companies’ employees...The three companies, which bring their scale and complementary expertise to this long-term effort, will pursue this objective through an independent company that is free from profit-making incentives and constraints. The initial focus of the new company will be on technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.’”

Although not many details are known about this collaboration, the organizations named Atul Gawande, M.D., as CEO of the initiative, back in June.

Meanwhile, in August, Amazon said it would be part of another endeavor related to healthcare—to remove interoperability barriers and to make progress on adoption of health data standards. For this initiative, Amazon will be teaming up with Microsoft, Google, IBM, and others to jointly commit to support healthcare interoperability by advancing healthcare standards such as HL7 (Health Level Seven International), FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), and the Argonaut Project.

Over the past year, industry observers have had their eye on non-traditional healthcare players such as Amazon and what they can bring to the table from an innovation and cost-cutting perspective. One recent survey of 100 healthcare organization leaders found that most C-suite executives do have their eyes on Amazon to shake up healthcare.

Apple, of course, also had a big announcement in early 2018: that it would be testing its new Health Records feature out with 12 hospitals, inclusive of some of the most prominent healthcare institutions in the U.S. Since that time, more than 100 new organizations have joined the project,  according to Apple. The idea behind the feature is that consumers could see their medical records right on their iPhones.

In a recent interview with Cramer that aired this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook attested, “I believe, if you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, 'What was Apple's greatest contribution to mankind?' It will be about health.”

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