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A Quick Peek at … athenaClinicals

November 1, 2009 News 12 Comments

Readers often ask us for our insights on various HIT products. Though we would like think we are experts in all things HIT, the truth is there are far too many applications out there for us to provide in-depth opinions on them all.

However, in our constant quest for knowledge, we decided it would be fun to take a quick peek at a few products. The folks at athenahealth were gracious enough to serve as the guinea pigs for this first review and did a demo for us. Our instructions to athenahealth were to provide an overview of their athenaClinicals product in about an hour’s time. We did not advise them in advance what specific areas we would be evaluating (which in hindsight, perhaps we should have). Because of time constraints, we did not have a chance to go as in-depth in some areas as we would have liked.

In addition to Inga, we asked a couple of industry experts to participate in the demo and provide their feedback. Our gurus included:

Dr. Gregg Alexander, who regularly writes the Intelligent Healthcare Integration columns for HIStalk Practice. Gregg is a self-described grunt-in-the-trenches pediatrician and geek.

John Smaling, an executive VP of strategic business development for Vitalize Consulting Solutions. He’s been in IT for almost 20 years, including stints at Paoli Memorial Hospital and Synexus Incorporated (which later merger with Daou Systems.) He’s also a hot commodity on the speakers’ circuit for events such as CHIME, HIMSS, and CIO Forums.

Note that the evaluation format we used was roughly based on the EMR Evaluation Tool originally designed by California’s Healthcare Foundation.

dancing with

The lovely folks above are not really us, but we liked their use of scoring paddles. We actually used a 5-point scale for our ratings, with five representing the top score. Note that, in the interest of objectivity, we allowed athenahealth to look over the full review before it was posted and any points they felt were important.

If you would be interested in our reviewing your HIT product (preferably an EHR,) drop us a note.

Without further ado:

Overall functionality of product

Gregg: 5 – I felt the system flowed smoothly and enabled “chart jumping” – moving from section to section or page to page. I absolutely loved their “Prior Visit Tab.”

John: 5

Inga: 5 Seems pretty intuitive where to look to find different areas of the chart

Ease of documenting the visit and clinical decision-making process


Gregg: 5 – They have made great strides on their clinical side in regards to exam note or other document handling. The use of information “buckets” was intuitive and easily understood.

Inga: 5 – The system uses a lot of drop-down tabs that appear comprehensive and easy to use. A number of things are “auto-populated” into the chart, such a Surescripts data, lab results, and vital data (if interfaced with Welch-Allen).

John: 5

Ability to identify clinical issues by means of alerts and reminders

Gregg: 5 – As someone who has had a long penchant for office design and the interactions between design and workflow enhancement, I the ability to time each step in the care process is flat out hot. Also, athenahealth’s use of highlighting for various items and functions during the documentation process was simple, but effective. They helped provide focus being neither distractive nor overly intrusive. Their use of multicolored “flags” was also functionally useful.

Inga: 5 – Since athena is paid as a percentage of collections, they are obviously interested in incorporating tools that ensure patients return, and that the practice follows care protocols to ensure maximum reimbursement.

John: 5 – I particularly like the feature that times each step of the care process and earmarks opportunities for workflow improvement, based upon comparisons with the rest of athenahealth’s customers. This is a particularly effective capability and is a major contributor to their client’s attainment of a 1% increase in visits post-implementation.

Clinical support functionality

Gregg: 5

Inga: 5 – Includes use of First Databank. Since athena hosts the application, they can upload updates weekly.

John: 5 – Can have links to external knowledge sources such as Wolters/Kluher.

Prescription capabilities

Gregg: – 5 – Didn’t see (or don’t remember) if they can do weight-based dosing, something all pediatricians need with virtually every prescription.

Inga: 5

John: 5

Orders management, including interfaces with ancillary services

paddle 5paddle 4.5paddle 4


Gregg: 5 – Perhaps it is my small practice perspective, but as their percentage of collections fee for services is so reasonable, I found their handling of interfaces impressively 2009-ish, something I cannot say for a lot of systems.

Inga: 4.5 – I agree with both John and Gregg here. Is there a point that it is not cost-effective for athena to provide this? However, at this point it appears they are committed to providing and maintaining interfaces.

John: 4 – Interfaces are “built in” to the system, but the number and types of interfaces are factored into the monthly % of collections fee. As a consequence, they aren’t truly free. It is also unclear as to athena’s capacity to feed ambulatory transactions to a centralized repository to establish a longitudinal record inclusive of acute care episodes. Additionally, it would be interesting to understand how they would handle interfaces in the event that a major IDN purchased the product. In this case, they may have hundreds of pharmacies, 10’s of reference labs, and other 3rd party billing firms or other participants that would require an interface. Where is the limit and what could the cost truly reach?

Electronic communication capabilities with colleagues/patients

Gregg: Unknown.

Inga: Not covered

John: Unknown…this capability was not covered in the demo.

Athenahealth comments: athenaCommunicator provides not only patient portal functionality but a back office service that is fully integrated with athenaCollector and athenaClinicals to provide outbound calls to patients as well as electronic interactions. The portal provides for secure messaging between patients and providers and provides consumer friendly health information. It also connects with mainstream PHRs such as HealthVault.

Coding capabilities

Gregg: Not covered in the demo but with athenahealth’s tremendous reputation for the practice management side of things, I’d be inclined to think they have a targeting lock-on engaged for these issues,

Inga: Not specifically addressed, but athena doesn’t get paid unless the practice does; I would assume they have this covered pretty well. They do/will monitor whether or not physicians are doing all steps required to qualify for meaningful use.

John: Unknown…this capability was not covered in the demo.

Athenahealth comments: athenaClinicals is natively integrated with athenaCollector. Charge integration capabilities allow for translation of documented orders and procedures into CPT codes. Details of the visit translate into an appropriate E&M code for billing purposes via an integrated E&M calculator.

Compliance with rules and regulations on privacy, consent, etc.

Gregg: If I’m remembering clearly, we touched on HIPAA, but didn’t do the detail

Inga: Not covered.

John: Unknown. This was not covered in the demo.

Athenahealth comments: athenaNet, athenahealth’s centrally hosted national platform which houses all products is 100% HIPAA compliant and has been since 2003. We also have additional SAS70 Type 2 certification of our network. athenahealth is a covered HIPAA entity.

Aggregate individual data into longitudinal records for easy viewing and graphing

Gregg: 5 – Well done here

Inga: 5 – Graphs, etc. can be created on the fly. Pretty extensive capabilities.

John: 5 – Solid capabilities here inclusive of the ability to annotate in conjunction with the graphs

Ability to manage the individual patient’s chronic diseases and conditions

Gregg: 5 – I really appreciated some of the “look-back” abilities of the system.

Inga: 5 – Again, an area that athena is likely focused on as they help doctors with P4P programs, achieve meaningful use objectives, etc.

John: 5

Standardize disease management goals for subgroups of chronic disease sufferers within the practice

Gregg: Not covered, but I have suspicions they may have skills here cultured from their strong PM management tools.

Inga: Not discussed

John: Unknown. This capability was not covered in the demo

Athenahealth comments: We are set to launch by the end of 2009 a global P4P rules engine and service offering whereby the physician will be notified in real time of disease management information and data capture requirements. Athena specialists will enroll providers and will help monitor and submit data on behalf of physicians as part of this service. Unlike guidelines in traditional software systems, athena’s service team can monitor and inject rules into the workflow as part of this new service and which are available to all clients on the network at no additional charge.

Ability to query the system’s database to produce both individual and group reports on clinical issues — care, quality, outcomes, and associated costs

Gregg: Unknown.

Inga: Not covered

John: Unknown. This capability was not covered in the demo.

Athenahealth comments: Related to the P4P service offering, athenaClinicals includes population management reporting in addition to its existing suite of reports and reporting tools enabled by athenaCollector.

Ability to conduct research, registry, and clinical trial-related efforts

Gregg: Unknown.

Inga: Not covered

John: Unknown. This capability was not covered in the demo.

Athenahealth comments: Athena is in the process of becoming a PQRI registry for submission of data to CMS.

Incorporate information originating with the patient and, as a separate matter, with medical or patient devices

Gregg: I have a different take than John does, but I don’t know if it derives from this demo or another discussion I had shortly after this with another athenahealth rep during an unrelated interview. Their patient portal features are quite solid.

Inga: What is clear is that they have tools to input information not specifically generated from the chart note. Faxes are directed straight to athena and practices forward other data to athena for input.

John: Based upon the information covered in the demo, they are proficient at handling faxes and scannable content, they adhere to an HL7 standard, so feeding an industry leading portal/data aggregation product appears to be feasible. However, their inherent email capability wasn’t covered and I’m unclear as to the capability.

Usability and ease of inputting data using a variety of methods, e.g. keyboard/mouse, touchscreen, dictation, voice recognition, handwriting recognition

paddle 4paddle 5paddle q

Gregg: 4 – I’m going to say 4 of these methods for sure, but I’m thinking they might hit all 5. They mentioned voice recognition, but I’m not sure about handwriting recognition.

Inga: 5 – They mentioned all these areas

John: Keyboard and mouse, but also I only recall them mentioning an ability to support light pen in addition to keyboard and mouse

Athenahealth comments: Yes we offer handwriting recognition, voice recognition, paper documentation, and transcription support for the provider.

Ability to customize capabilities to suit personal workflow preferences

Gregg: 5 – Demonstrator seemed comfortable with ability to customize, though taking the word of any EHR sales/demo guy can be a risky naiveté!

Inga: 5 – The indication was that pretty much every screen/template/process can be customized by user

John: 5 – Time did not allow for a deep dive into the customization capabilities of the product, but the demonstrator appeared very comfortable with the level of forms customization, screen flow, and other tailoring features of the app

Athenahealth comments: While athenaClinicals allows for customization we also leverage the knowledge and experience of our entire network to provide out of the box best practice configurations to optimize clinical workflow, speed of implementation and reduced cost of implementation and overall longterm ROI. We recently launched a five-stage patient encounter UX that integrates the patient visit workflow across Collector and Clinicals. This was launched to 100% of our Clinicals users overnight.

Screens are easy to interpret  (menu categories, graphics, icons, and symbols)


Gregg: 5 – Though I initially thought the EMR appeared rather bland, their excellent use of white space, minimization of lines, rows, and columns, and their deft use of color for highlighting and focus won me over after a while. Flags, warnings, buckets, highlights, and chart-jumping were clear and easy to follow. Pop-ups signaling patient movement were nice. If we had a “4” ranking, I’d go with that as I still think some more color or perhaps some user customizable skins for individualization would be optimal.

Inga: 5 Personally I liked the fact the product isn’t overly “flashy.” Too much color and pop-ups can be confusing. The graphics and icons were intuitive.

John: 5

Integration with practice management systems and claims processing services

Gregg: Clearly 5

Inga: 5 single database for PM/EMR

John: 5

Access the EMR system remotely; ability to use a mobile devices

Gregg: Uncertain

Inga: Clearly can access the EMR remotely but we didn’t touch on its use via a mobile device

John: Unknown. This capability was not covered in the demo.

Athenahealth comments: athenaNet is the only centrally hosted web native platform, meaning that it was specifically designed to be accessed anywhere at any time over the internet. All of our services, including athenaClinicals, are delivered via this web based platform.

Process, exchange, and store graphics and images

paddle 3 paddle 3paddle q

Gregg: – 3 – I’m going to grant a 3 here as our discussions on fax/chart/paper document scanning leads me to feel comfortable that imaging issues are probably well-considered, but I cannot verify PACS/RIS nor DICOM from our demo.

Inga: – 3 ditto Gregg’s impressions

John: Unknown. This capability was not covered in the demo.

Athenahealth comments: athenaClinicals will easily interface to a RIS/PACS system so that images can be launched in those systems in the context of the clinical visit or image review process.

Overall Impressions on functionally, intuitiveness, graphics, overall flow

paddle 5 paddle 5paddle 4

Gregg: 5 – From the grunt in the field level, athenahealth should be near the top of the EHR consideration list. The abilities facilitated from the practice management side are significant. The work transferable to athenahealth from the practice management side should allow office staff a much greater focus upon patient care issues. Having more folks in the office more directed upon real care issues and not business operations should be attractive to anyone who still wants to provide healthcare, not just run a business. athenaclinicals are developed enough and intuitive enough to rate a 5. (Well, technically, it’d be a rounded-up 5, but a legitimate top-ranked EHR on my scale.)

Inga: 5 – I had looked at the product a year or more ago and found there to be a number of gaps at that time (e.g., templates were not as complete.) However, the system has matured. athena’s approach may not be for everyone, but it’s fantastic for a group that does not want to have to worry about the IT “stuff,” like loading regular updates. Also, it would be great for the practice that wants to minimize in-house staff for mundane tasks like document imaging. Also for physicians who don’t want to worry about learning about all the meaningful use rules, but prefer to have someone tell him/her what is required and leave it at that.

John: 4 Not to be difficult, but the demo was too brief to provide a thorough rating. My sense is that athena has made great strides with their product, but it may be more attractive to smaller practices or even larger groups who have no desire to invest in an internal IT capability. IDN’s may find the SaaS thrust of the product to provide a degree of constriction that they would find unattractive. Again, these are extremely high level observations and I wouldn’t stake my professional reputation on them; not that I have one to begin with!

I would use this in my practice and/or recommend to others

paddle 5 paddle 5paddle 4

Gregg: 5 – I would definitely rank athenahealth near the top of my “Overall Smokin’ EHRs” list.

Inga: 5 – John makes a good point that this model may not be for everyone. But from feature/function/ease of use standpoint, it appears very solid.

John: 4 – I would qualify this by saying that it may be a good fit for many standalone practices, but IDN owned or strongly affiliated practices may find this model a bit wanting.


E-mail Inga.

Comments 12
  • Any good EHR product should be able to have the primary clinical functions demonstrated in under 10 minutes … an hour is plenty to demonstrate every single ‘nook and cranny’ – otherwise the system isn’t simple enough to be used in practice (or the people doing the demo don’t really know the product). They weren’t able to demo 35% of the 23 areas. If it’s not covered in the demo, presumably it’s because it is either poorly represented or missing .. a 0. That gives them an average score of a lackluster 3.0 … considerably different from the 4+ that is graphically represented in the article. I have to wonder if the significant difference is sponsor bias?

    (From Inga – note that athenahealth is not a sponsor)

  • “Any good EHR product should be able to have the primary clinical functions demonstrated in under 10 minutes.”

    Are you kidding? Remind me not to hire you as my consultant next time I look for an EMR. Maybe the reason EMR adoption is so low is that too many physicians and their advisors only spend 10 minutes overviewing the primary functions.

  • I believe that Athena has done a very good job on the billing/collections side of the world. However, Athena Clinicals have been talked up for 3+ years and I’d be interested to see anyone who is using the product that was presented. If you are going to evaluate a product, I think it is incumbent on the judges to do some due diligence to make sure the demo is reality and not just theory. According to KLAS, only 17% of the respondents said the product had needed functionality in the 6-25 doc range. I believe that sample size is low, but that data is coming from actual users.

  • It is obvious that these comments were posted by competitors to Athena. I have viewed a dozen demonstrations of different products and there is absolutely no way to give anyone an accurate demonstration of any EMR/EHR product in 10 minutes. Because there are so many critical functions that are essential, I would require at least 1 hour for any quality demonstration. In fact, to be able to answer my must-answer questions, I would ask for 2 hours. Most companies have gotten good at demonstrating their product and any demo expert can make the system look slick and easy by focusing on their key strengths, but it is not until you really dig into a longer detailed demonstration that you can really get an idea of how easy a system is to use in reality. Anyone who tries to you rush you through a 10 minute demonstration is clearly trying to only show you their “best features”. I have seen a demonstration of AthenaClinicals (once in 2006 and again recently in 2009) and they now have a complete product that is as good as, or better than anything else on the market. Plus they happily take the time to openly answer and demonstrate any and every question that I asked them even though it takes a lot longer than 10 minutes. Great Product.

  • Don’t think your assessment of Athena Health’s clinical systems is really your bag. Stick to the knitting and provide what we all like to hear — unbiased and good reporting on the industry.

  • Dittos to Bain Marie….stick to the unbiased and good reporting on the idustry

  • I found this review useful, but I think it would be great if you could find a way to rate their services.

    Athena positions themselves heavily as a service based clinical solution. What you guys did was basically rating ADP payroll service based on the usability of their website.

    I know it would be hard to compare that to a software EMR, but the services they provide seem to be the competitive advantage they provide.

  • We recently implemented in 4 seprate practices the Athena EMR and it has worked well. Much better functionality then some of the large competitors, with an up to date front end not 1980s look and feel so many EMR vendors have still. ASP model made it tech friendly. Ability to route fax results to Athena where they have trained staff who file them for us has made us more efficient and less error prone. Product has come along way in the past few years. One database with the PM system has provided great integration and no issues that interfaces are prone to have not to mention the venndor finger pointing. Worth another look if you have not see it lately. Downside is you have to take their PM system as well as the EMR is not sold as a standalone. Still needs some work in specialty content and work flows but that is forth coming.

  • We have been using Athena in our practice (large hospital-based multi-specialty) for the past few years. Still, people are cursing the system everyday they have to use it.
    Athena has a very ‘user-unfriendly’ interface. It works against the user punishing her for every wrong click. The color scheme and lack of ability to scale the fonts causes eye strain. Standard office visit note layout is very crowded and redundant. The sub-menues are very confusing and illogical. The single-click/double click mess is from the 90s-00s.
    In summary, this is a raw product, essentially a beta at best. It would have not survived in a true open market.

  • THB – I find it fascinating that you dove so far back to this old review from 2009 to make this Comment. I’m a little sad to hear of your displeasure with athena, especially considering how innovative they have been and continue striving to be. I’d love to hear more details and especially suggestions for how you think there product could become more UX-friendly. Maybe you could write a “constructive crtitique” post to discuss your noted issues and suggestions for improvement…?

    (Personally, I think such end-user commentary, offering problems and solution ideas “from the trenches” would be great to see for pretty much every system out there!)

    Also, not sure I understand about the “would not have survivied in a true open market” comment. What’s not open about it?

  • i have used athena for 2 1/2 years hate it worse every day.

  • could not agree with THB more on all counts. like anonymous above I have used athena for close to 3 years and hate it every day.

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