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November 14, 2009 News No Comments

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Athenahealth Summit
By A Practice Administrator


I just returned from the athenahealth Summit. It was billed as an opportunity for administrators and physicians to learn more about recent healthcare developments in light of HITECH, P4P, and payment reform.

This is was athenahealth’s first meeting of this type. In previous years the user meetings have included both training opportunities and industry updates. This year athena split the meetings, offering a training-based University as well as the Summit. They wanted to create smaller groups of participants and give everyone more opportunity to network with people who worked in similar roles. The meeting was a day and a half, with about 125 users there.

I’m relatively new to athenahealth, though not to healthcare. Over the years I have had the chance to attend the user meetings of a handful of vendors.

Almost all the presentations were offered in one general session. Topics included overviews of stimulus money, reform, and changes in payer reform that may affect practice revenues. Presenters also discussed encounter workflow, including an overview of athenaClinicals, and some newer tools that athena is working on, like a portal. Lunch included athena-facilitated discussions on healthcare’s biggest challenges. There were also a couple of short break-out sessions that focused on topics like reporting, implementing clinicals, and month-end close.

An interesting presentation covered a field study that athena conducted on the attributes of a high-performance physician’s office. Using Lean Six Sigma principles, athena looked at whether or not and how EMRs may slow patient flow and to find best practices for documentation (the key is having the doctor delegate as much as possible.) What really fascinated me was the amount of time/effort/resources that athenahealth expended to figure out how to make providers more productive.

Athenahealth’s revenue model is based on physician reimbursement, even with its clinical product. Since athena makes more if the doctor gets paid more, it of course makes sense that they want doctors to see more patients and document thoroughly. I have not heard about other EMR companies paying such close attention to how physicians actually use their software.

Unlike many software companies, I didn’t get the impression that the company is as much sales driven as it is process driven. That is not to say they don’t want to make sales. Rather, I didn’t feel that making sales is the focal point of every activity. Because of their revenue model, utilization and process are important to them and management is focused on making both the revenue and EMR software as efficient for users as possible. This is not a company whose modus operandi is to make a sale and move on to the next deal.

The management team in general is very bright and educated, though my impression is that clinical experience does not run deep. Jonathan Bush appears to be well respected by his staff and does not seem to be an autocratic leader. He seems to have done a good job of surrounding himself with smart people and giving them ample rope to transform his visions into reality.

Despite all these positives, athenahealth is not without its issues. For example, it’s not obvious that athena has leaders with strong enough clinical backgrounds focused on the athenaClinicals development. And in my discussions with other users, there is a general concern about athenahealth’s ability to execute on the more immediate needs of customers. Small bug issues can take too long to resolve, as can the development of interfaces and new templates. The company seems to lack an adequate internal process for acknowledging the status of enhancement issues. The software lacks an interface with iPhones and other mobile devices. These perhaps small issues lead to the bigger question of whether athenahealth will prove nimble enough to address its growing infrastructure requirements.

Athenahealth has acquired a couple of companies in the last year and gave a peek at their offerings. I was encouraged to see that athenahealth is willing and able to incorporate non-organic products and expertise. My guess is the company will need to continue finding niche companies that complement its offering, while management and the worker bees focus on athena’s self-proclaimed mission: helping clients make more cash.

Did I learn new things? Yep. Did I have ample opportunity to network? Definitely, plus wined and dined at the same time. Did I learn more about athenahealth and its culture? Check.

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