Disruption Can Fix Health Care

How athenahealth is reshaping the health-care industry with disruptive technology

As of 2015, health care accounted for 17.5 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product. Despite its prevalence and importance, the health-care industry is slow to adopt technological advancements, applications, and integrations. In this, a paradox arises: how can an industry that plays such a crucial and important role in our lives be so far behind? Fortunately, athenahealth and its senior vice president and general counsel, Dan Haley, are working toward a resolution.

Modern Counsel: What is athenahealth?

Dan Haley: We’re an information technology company—anything related to information that care providers need to do their job, that’s what we do. Here’s an example: it’s 2016, and you go to the doctor. Unless you go to a very forward-thinking doctor, you’re going to be handed a clipboard when you get there, and you’ll fill out a bunch of information that you’ve filled out dozens of times before. You correct errors you have corrected before, and for some reason, very few of us stop to ask why that’s the case with health care.

We live in a world where we’ve come to expect that the information we want will be available to us when we want and need it—pretty much effortlessly—and in which the sum of total human knowledge is accessible in your pocket. Yet at the doctor, that same person who is in charge of providing care often knows very little about their patient or why they are there. We work to use information technology to take administrative burden away from care providers so that they can concentrate on caring for patients.

MC: How does the legal department fit into athenahealth’s operations?

DH: We have the largest real-time clinical database in the country. Our care providers house their patients’ medical records with us—updated in real time, all the time. Because all of this information is highly confidential, and because the regulations pertaining to how this information is stored, transmitted, used, and safeguarded are so comprehensive—and the potential penalties for mishandling all that information are so serious—the legal department is integral to our continued success as a company. If we mishandle patient data, that is potentially business-ending.

MC: What is a typical day for the business team?

DH: There is no such thing as a typical day because our operation is continuously evolving. Nobody else in health care does what we do, so a lot of the issues that we see on the legal front are new—not only to athenahealth, but to anyone.

We are constantly signing up new clients. Every single day, our deal team addresses contracting issues that we have never seen before. We are constantly looking to leverage our data in new ways to bring insights to the health-care system and to our clients.

All people have personal history with the health-care system. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so frustrating that the system is so dysfunctional—because we can’t avoid it.”

MC: How is athenahealth helping bring new insights to the health-care system?

DH: First, some background. The reason you get handed a clipboard when you walk into the doctor’s office is because their technology platforms don’t talk to each other—they aren’t integrated and can’t share information. But because we’re cloud based, we’re built for an ecosystem in which everyone communicates. We created an incubator program called More Disruption Please. One of the biggest problems plaguing health care is that there are far too few disruptive technologies being brought to health care. Because it’s such a hyper-regulated environment, technology entrepreneurs stay away from it. It’s much easier for a [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] graduate to spend his or her time building the next Angry Birds than inventing the next breakthrough app in health care.

With the More Disruption Please program, we review and vet information technology apps and services that are designed to solve small problems in the health-care system. Once a technology passes our vetting and becomes part of More Disruption Please, the developer gets access to our client base. We have created an app store for our clients. It’s utterly unique in health care.

MC: How has your personal experience with the health-care system informed your work with athenahealth?

DH: I’ve had cancer twice, so I’ve had more experience with the health-care system than the average forty-three-year-old, but all people have personal history with the health-care system to varying degrees. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so frustrating that the system is so dysfunctional—because we can’t avoid it. Everybody has experienced dissatisfaction with their health care at some point. At athenahealth, everybody knows the problem we are trying to solve, and it creates an invigorating working environment, because everybody can connect with our goal on a personal level.