HealthIT is terrible. That’s good news.

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I know of no industry where technology is as despised as it is in health care. It’s a statement that it took government money to incentivize healthcare providers to finally do what virtually every other industry has done — apply IT to streamline processes. “Established technology is being given a federally funded new lease on life,” athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush said. “Traditional health software now is on Medicare, being kept alive like grandma.” Bush dubs this program as the “cash for clunkers” program for health IT leaving no doubt what his opinion is regarding the legacy vendors’ solutions.


While one might dismiss this coming from a company with a dog in the fight, the feeling is nearly universal amongst physicians who are the most important users (besides patients who are almost completely ignored). The best evidence of how abysmal legacy healthIT is, is that the market leader is having trouble getting medical practices to adopt their software even with huge subsidies from large health systems. In the course of discussions with large health systems, they share the deployment of a mega Electronic Medical Record (EMR) and how they were offering subsidies to affiliated doctors to adopt the same system. When pressed about how broadly it was being adopted by non-employee physicians (i.e., MDs who have a choice), the penetration was staggeringly low — 0.2% was the average of those who shared figures. This was despite the fact that they were subsidizing 85% of the cost (the maximum allowed by Stark Law).


When I’ve spoken with doctors who have rejected the entreaties from their affiliated health systems, it’s more than the expense (even after a massive subsidy, it’s still several thousand dollars plus monthly costs). Rather, the complexity and lack of user friendliness is the bigger driver. A common statement one hears in healthIT conversations is that doctors hate technology or are afraid of it. Hogwash. They only hate bad technology. Consider the iPad. Doctors are one of the biggest buyers and it’s not just young doctors.


Great Products Killed by Convoluted Decisions Processes

When I’m asked why I didn’t get back in to healthcare sooner, I share with them a story from my past. I was at a well-recognized hospital implementing their patient accounting system and we needed to decide the unique patient identifier scheme. It’s an important decision, but they were in year seven of debating what the new scheme should be! It may seem like an absurd example, but it’s indicative of how interminable and almost crazy the decision processes can be in a health system. It virtually guarantees that the only companies that can survive those processes are incumbent vendors — breakthrough young companies die on the vine waiting those processes out. If you wonder why MUMPS (a programming language developed in the 60s for Massachusetts General Hospital) is still widely used in healthcare, it’s because old vendors, and old technology persists in healthcare.


One Item For Which HealthIT Vendors are Fully Responsible

Most of the items above put the root cause at the provider level. However, there persists one insidious practice. There are various ways to ensure customers stick around as long as possible — lock-in or loyalty. Successful SaaS businesses are built on the loyalty model. Rather than holding data hostage or locking customers into long agreements, they believe that the more freedom you give customers, the more loyal they become (assuming you deliver the goods). In contrast, there’s still the antiquated model of lock-in used in many healthIT vendors. For example, they make it expensive and/or difficult to get access to data in a system to keep any in-house or 3rd party built system from being integrated. These vendors pull it over on naive customers by telling them that it’s a ton of work when it’s only a ton of work if that vendor is incompetent. Like escaping an abusive relationship, healthcare providers must take action or else they reward that behavior.

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