The faith in EHR technology to cure our health system’s ills may be dwindling, but not for Practice Fusion’s CEO and founder Ryan Howard. Today, his San Francisco-based company is dominating the competition by offering the largest mobile cloud-based, Meaningful-Use-certified EHR platform in the U.S. And it’s free.
So how did a free EHR technology overcome the stigma that often comes with such technology to dominate the market? And how can a free product maintain the integrity and functionality required as the demands on today’s U.S providers’ increase? Can EHRs really play a primary part in the growing evolution of population health management (PHM)? These are just some of the questions we had for Howard as we sat down to find out how his company began, how it got to where it is today, and where it’s headed as healthcare undergoes a substantial transformation led by today’s technology:
Let’s start the conversation with getting a good background on Practice Fusion (Founded July 2005) Tell me briefly about how the founding inspiration behind the company has propelled it to where it is today?
A really good friend of mine, who brought me out to California, got leukemia around 1999 and I ended up running the Leukemia Society Marathon for him. Also during that time, I was around my mid-twenties, I started questioning what I had been working on for the last five years. I had been a project manager for a company that was connecting the Wal-Mart supply chain to other companies, so basically working on integration. And that was the genesis of me taking a step back and saying I want to do something bigger with my life. Running the marathon for the Leukemia Society was so moving and profound to me, I figured that even if I and worked at Blue Shield and processed claims for somebody, at least at the end of the day that person was benefiting from my work, as opposed Wal-Mart seeing a nickel more in their stock price from my entire life of working there.
So that was the original motivation for me moving into the space. From there I worked for Brown and Toland here in San Francisco, which is the largest physician group in California. When I was there I saw a massive problem in that they had over 1,500 doctors and they were using over 400 different systems to collect data. From there I worked at Grand Central, which was one of the first cloud-based platforms where you could build a web service in the cloud and deploy it. This is when I first started thinking about utilizing this technology and bringing it to health care because the mass majority of doctors could not afford this technology nor do they have IT resources. The cloud was going to be the best single solution for these practices with cash constraints and no IT support. The other issue was integration – to run an EHR you need to connect with numerous labs, pharmacies, imaging centers, etc. and connecting each practice with each vendor was impractical. Connecting once to the cloud and then letting everyone leverage that integration has a massive economy of scale.
The fact that your EHR is free can be appealing, but also comes with stigma attached that ad-based product isn’t up to snuff to meet the growing demand of physicians. How has Practice Fusion overcome that stigma of the free market EMR/EHR?
There definitely was a stigma when we started the company. What it comes down to was that doctors’ did not want to pay for the technology, most of them were cash constrained, and with the average California primary doctor making $120,000 a year, they could not afford to drop $10,000 on a piece of technology. That was instrumental in the beginning but what has maintained our success has been delivering a fantastic product with tremendous support and service attached to it. This has allowed us to become the largest cloud-based EHR platform on the market. Within the EHR market, our reputation is extremely strong on the product side.
What do you think draws providers to Practice Fusion’s product other than the fact that it’s free? How are you able to compete with some of the more complex offerings in the market today? Offerings that providers are putting serious investment into? There’s a lot of competition. How are you maintaining the edge on it?
Free is certainly a huge motivating factor but the fact that we’re cloud-based and providers can literally sign up and begin charting in minutes is a huge draw. A lot of people may be dubious but when they log-in for the first time, which is generally the same day, they can see the whole portfolio of functionality which really sells itself. That momentum continues with them turning on labs, e-prescribing, and other services within a very quick time frame.
From the competitive perspective, we simply release more functionality on a monthly basis than any other competitor on the market. For example, we have a product update that is released every two weeks adding new features and functions.
Last year, you launched your more mobile, consumer-facing EHR for providers (October 2014). How has that change impacted the prospects for the company? How has the response been to the more mobile-friendly offering?
We have a superior interface that is fully mobile – we are the only EHR that has compete functionality and continuity between iOS and Android.
At the moment, we have over 600 different partners that are directly integrated into the core EHR which causes a network effect where the product is simply better and better every day you use it, which is not the case with almost every one of our competitors.
Beyond labs, pharmacies, and imaging chains, this year we’ve added clinical trials, patient adherence and education, electronic prior authorizations, with each one of these streamlining the practices’ workflow.