Panelists: IT is shaking up health care world

Frank Byrne, a former critical care pulmonary physician who was president of St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison from 2004 until this past January, jumped into health care administration 21 years ago.

Which prompted his mother to respond somewhat sarcastically, “So you went to medical school for nothing?”

But Byrne, part of a four-person group that spoke to an audience of several hundred Tuesday at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, said he wanted to work for an “innovative system that was interested in creating the future.” The panel’s title was “Driving quality up and costs down: Health IT in the age of accountability.”

“I’ve always wanted to play offense, not defense,” said Byrne, who was working for a successful multi-specialty doctors’ group at the time he made the switch. He is now senior executive advisor for HealthX Ventures, a digital health care seed fund based in Madison.

“I prefer to focus on the future rather than holding on to the status quo until you pry my cold dead fingers off of it,” added Byrne, who said pace of health care change is now the fastest he’s seen his career. On top of that, he said medical care has never been under greater financial stress “and the uncertainty is the greatest.”

He said he decided to get into hospital administration after he met a banker in 1991 and realized that the health care industry — using paper records — was “at least 15 years behind banking in deploying information technology to make our business better, more customer friendly and more efficient.”

Byrne’s panel was just one part of the two-day conference, which Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still said has attracted more than 550 attendees — up about 8 percent from last year.

The theme of this year’s gathering is “Helping ‘treps launch, grow and succeed.” Now in its 13th year, Still said the conference is part of a supportive and expanding environment in Wisconsin that did not exist a decade-and-one-half ago.

Sanaz Cordes, another panelist, is a former pediatrician who is now chief operating officer of healthfinch, a health IT company that makes applications that integrate with electronic medical records (EMRs) to automate clinical tasks.

Cordes said she lived through the conversion process from paper to EMRs at several institutions. And while this change has brought about many benefits in terms of analytics and aggregating data, it also has meant that doctors and nurses now spend about two to four hours a day clicking on computers – something that takes away from patient care.

“For me, right around 2009, being a medical director for multiple clinics and a partner at Providence Health Systems, that meant 14- to 15-hour days, of which only seven were spent in direct patient care. That was when I made the decision that we’ve got to do things better,” she said.

Cordes said electronic medical records systems were not designed to make the workflow of health care providers easier. But she said said the “next wave of health care IT will put EMR on steroids.”

She said her company is creating apps that can “plug and play into the EMR … and take a lot of these routine, repeatable tasks off the physician and the rest of the clinical team. That is our mission.”

Mark Bakken, who has a computer science background, founded Madison-based Nordic Consulting (among other companies), which grew to be the industry leader in consulting services for organizations using EPIC electronic medical records systems. He is now managing partner at HealthX Ventures.

It was after Bakken had begun working with hospitals and saw how they used IT technology and software that he said he realized there was much more that could be done.

“When I learned that the government was going to step up and start paying for health care organizations for systems like EPIC, I thought it was a great idea to get involved in something that would make a difference, provide great jobs and change the world for the better,” said Bakken, who said there are many startups in Madison with good ideas that his company could back.

Ben Robbins, a Madison native who is now a fourth-year medical student at Harvard, said he joined Google Ventures as a life sciences partner after doing a hospital rotation at Cambridge Hospital several years ago when officials there threw the “on switch” for the EPIC system.

“I got to see all sorts of gaps … so health care IT to me became a very exciting space just because of the possibilities to improve care,” said Robbins, who said Google Ventures is keen to work with companies in the Midwest.

“A lot is happening here,” he said. “Wisconsin is an exciting place for us. The science at the UW is first rate and has produced companies like Cellular Dynamics. Things could really take off here in the national scene, in part because EPIC is also located here.”

Byrne said he believes investment in health care will continue to grow because the “system is broken and we can’t continue to do things the way we’ve been doing them.”

And he argued that deployment of electronic medical records systems has stumbled in many cases because it did not take advantage of opportunities to make work simpler and instead has taken time away from patient care.

He said there are numerous opportunities for people to come up with fixes to make health care delivery better.

But he warned entrepreneurs in the audience that they’d be wasting their time if they pitched him with proposals that stressed how they planned to sell their new companies in 18 months.

“I couldn’t give a flying rip about that,” he growled. “That is the hugest turnoff ever and you have just taken yourself off a provider I want to work with.

“If you want to talk to me about your dream and how you can’t sleep at night – like I can’t sleep at night – because you are convinced that we have to make health care better and safer and more efficient, then we have the start of a conversation.”

— By Brian E. Clark For