Are EHR Companies Difficult to Work With?

Posted on September 10, 2018 I Written By

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

There is an entrenched myth that EHR companies are difficult to partner with – more interested in up-front partner fees and revenue sharing than actually collaborating with 3rd party companies. Two companies are working hard to be different.

Early in the spring, I had a lengthy conversation with a group of vendors at HIMSS18 about partnering with EHR companies. I had stopped at a booth and somehow we got onto the topic of collaborating with EHR companies as a way to accelerate product development and sales. The person I was speaking with was very frustrated at the lack of response from three of the larger EHR companies. I’m paraphrasing, but her statement was essentially this: “All they want is to charge me their 5K partnership fee and then take 10% of everything I sell to their customer base. It’s ridiculous.”

At that point, several representatives from surrounding booths joined in our conversation. All of them had similar frustrations and shared similar stories of being shunted to the partnership team – which in their opinion was just a sales team in disguise – where they were told about all the wonderful benefits they would receive in return for an upfront partnership fee. I’m sure many Healthcare Scene readers can identify with these vendors.

This conversation stuck with me and over the spring and summer, I decided to dive deeper into the world of EHR partnerships. I wanted to know if the myths were true and I wanted to see if there were any companies that were operating differently. Over the past several months at every conference I have attended, I have made it a point to find out as much as I could about the various partnership programs and spoke with dozens of vendors who were proudly displaying partnership badges on their booths.

The good news is that there are at least two companies working hard to build a thriving partner ecosystem. The bad news is that many EHR companies do not have a well-defined partnership strategy and many vendors do not feel they are getting full value for their participation in EHR ecosystems.

One of the key things I learned is that there is a distinct difference between working with an EHR company on interoperability vs being part of their partner ecosystem. There have been many articles over the past few years about the difficulty of extracting data from EHRs in order to share it with other organizations involved in the care for patients. Headlines like “How disparate EHR systems, lack of interoperability contribute to physician stress, burnout” are common.

Many of the EHR companies I spoke with separate their interoperability efforts from their partnership programs. The ability to share data with others, they said, was not related to how well/not well they worked with 3rd party companies. So while it may be true that EHR companies have a lot of work to do on interoperability, partnership for some is something a few companies are doing well.

One company is Allscripts.

After HIMSS18, I had the opportunity to drop in on the fourth annual Allscripts Developer Summit in Chicago. I honestly did not know what to expect and I was pleasantly surprised at how intimate the event was. The rooms were smaller and had people sitting at round tables listening to presenters and asking lots of questions. The level of interaction between the speakers and the developers at the tables was refreshing to see.

Most of the attendees at the Summit were developers and product managers from companies that were Allscripts partners. Most of the discussions in the sessions and in the hallways centered around the latest APIs and FHIR initiatives.

The Summit is part of Allscript’s Developer Program (ADP). Allscripts recently announced that its ADP partners have together processed more than 4 Billion API data exchange transactions since the company started tracking it in 2013. In the announcement Tina Joros, VP and General Manager, Open Business Unit at Allscripts had this to say:

“We are trying to create a new mentality of innovation for our clients so that they view innovation as a path to improve overall workflows and connect with patients. We have made our API platform easily accessible and cost-effective for developers to use so that they can develop and test their solutions. This includes the ability for developers to use our FHIR APIs to meet regulatory requirements for our shared clients at no cost.”

I had the chance to sit down with Joros during the Summit and she shared with me that Allscripts does more than just provide access to their APIs. “We help companies with sales and marketing as well,” said Joros. “We coach partners that are new to the space how to ‘talk healthcare’. We help them craft and tell their stories to their target buyers. We spend a lot of time on the phone and in the field with our ADP partners. Our goal is to reduce the risk for clients to adopt new technology.”

With more than 8,000 registered developers in ADP, I asked Joros why so many companies had joined. “One of the key differentiators is the ADP Integrator tier of our program; most competitors have programs that make it easier to sign up for the FHIR APIs but they also have a vetting process in place to review companies for partnership,” said Joros. “In our ADP Integrator tier, however, companies can sign up immediately to access all our FHIR and proprietary API functionality – there is no wait or vetting by Allscripts and no fee to get started. The pricing model is designed so that companies only pay Allscripts when they are ready to go to market via a testing fee and usage-based fee. The ease of signing up and no fee to get started are unique in the industry.”

One company that has been very successful at working with Allscripts is Relaymed – a company that makes connectivity software that sends point-of-care test results directly into EHRs. RelayMed has been part of ADP for four years and had nothing but good things to say about the program.

“Many EHR companies have rigid cultures that actually bias them against partnerships – the ‘not invented here’ syndrome,” commented Neil Farish, CEO of Relaymed who spoke with me over the phone. “Allscripts isn’t like that. They had a vision of an open and vibrant ecosystem. That vision is ingrained into their culture and there is support right from the top. It’s become part of their DNA. If anything, senior management at Allscripts has been paying even more attention to partners this year. They are present. They interact with us. Help from their marketing & sales teams has been easy to get and really welcomed.”

The team at Relaymed has been working with the Allscripts team to tighten and improve the level of integration between their two systems. As well, the companies together are looking at ways to expand the breadth of devices that connect to Allscripts through Relaymed.

Another company that has invested in their partnership program is Cerner.

Cerner takes a different approach when working with partners. Although they have a centralized team that helps on-board partners (legal, contracting, etc), the ongoing relationship with partners is handled directly by the team/department that works most closely with that partner. Sometimes that is the Cerner sales team. Often times it is the product team. It just depends on where most of the interactions will occur.

“No partnership looks the same,” John Gresham, Senior Vice President, DeviceWorks & Interoperability at Cerner told Healthcare Scene. “So we have to ask the key question – How does that partnership bring differentiated value to the customer? We will work with partners the way that works best for our customers. That may mean embedding someone else’s solution within our solutions, co-market their solution as part of a bundle or we may simply go-to-market together.”

It was surprising to learn that a company as large as Cerner did not have a cookie-cutter approach to partnering with 3rd parties. It would have been easy for them to put in a rigid framework but instead they adapt themselves to best suit the partnership. DellEMC, Kofax and Nuance were cited by Gresham as examples of Cerner partnerships that were flourishing.

“Customers want something seamless and not just in terms of Cerner being a systems integrator for them,” continued Gresham. “They want everything to be smooth and simple – buying it, contracting it, deploying it, integrating it and supporting it. Cerner is willing to do all those things, something that isn’t common in the EHR space.”

During our conversation, Gresham repeatedly referenced Cerner’s laser focus on delivering better patient care and better outcomes – and how that focus guided their partnership decisions. In fact, that is key to attracting the attention of an internal champion at Cerner: a clear line from the product or service being offered to customer or patient benefit.

That is exactly what happened with Goliath Technologies, a provider of IT operations software that enables IT Teams to anticipate, troubleshoot and prevent infrastructure performance issues. The team at Goliath had successfully implemented their solution at a Cerner customer. That customer spoke about their experience at a Cerner event and Jay Savaiano, Senior Director of Business Development at Cerner took notice.

“It was because of Jay and his vision that Goliath got into the program,” explained Thomas Charlton, Chairman and CEO at Goliath Technologies. “He was the first person we had a conversation with and from there everything went smoothly. He was with us every step of the way and we’re still working with Jay today. But it all started because we were able to demonstrate a clear positive impact on a Cerner customer.”

“Once Cerner decided that Goliath would benefit their customers, the process of formalizing the relationship was very straightforward and smooth,” continued Charlton. “They moved really fast. They have a fantastic team of people, very competent and focused. Everyone from contracting to legal to sales was great to work with.”

Because of the success, they have enjoyed with Cerner, Goliath has begun to put a lot of focus on their partnership with Cerner. They have begun working with Cerner developers to refine and tune their combined solutions and Goliath recently hired a new VP of Corporate Development who had left Cerner a few years ago, to help strengthen the relationship [side note the VP was referred to Charlton by people at Cerner]

“Cerner brings healthcare knowledge to Goliath,” said Charlton. “They know patient care and healthcare systems management. That deep understanding of healthcare has helped us with product development. Cerner has really helped to reshape our thinking on healthcare, patient care and Healthcare IT Operations management.”

*****

It is interesting to note that neither Relaymed or Goliath were put forward by Allscripts or Cerner respectively as example partners to speak with. Both Relaymed and Goliath were referred to me by different people who are not affiliated with either EHR company.

So if you are a software provider that is looking to partner with an EHR company what can you do to attract their attention? All four individuals I spoke with offered sage advice.

Neil Farish (Relaymed): “Avoid the transactional models of partnership where it is just an exchange of $$$. Look to the value that you as a partner are getting, the value the EHR company is getting and the value you can provide together to their end-customers. If there is value all around then the fees should be dwarfed by the value. If not, then you seriously have to rethink that potential partnership.”

Thomas Charlton (Goliath): “Have a very clear understanding of how your product or service helps deliver better care to patients. Can you show a direct line to customer or patient benefit? If you can’t then you need to figure that out before approaching an EHR company looking for a partnership. Also, joint customers are important. The more joint customers you have the more momentum you will get behind the initiative.”

John Gresham (Cerner): “The key to making partnerships work is mutual respect. That’s the starting point. Next comes a key question – do you have a ‘what’s best for customers’ mindset. If you have that then we have a foundation for conversation. I would strongly encourage companies to build solutions for the highest possible reliability, scalability and security.  Cerner customers expect that. Oh, and you have to have proof points to back that up.”

Tina Joros (Allscripts): “Be persistent. Come talk to us at conferences. Connect with us online. I would encourage any company signed up for the program and does not feel like it is providing value, to speak with a member of our team and let us know.  In some cases, we can find a tier that is a better fit for the company or make introductions to other associates at Allscripts, so additional areas of the business can evaluate their solution.”

Myth busted.