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Because We Still Can’t Hug Online

by Jonathan Bush, President & CEO

A week ago here in Boston, we wrapped up a very successful three-day conference for our clients. Check out this earlier account of the event where about 545 athenahealth users met with, learned from, and gave feedback to hundreds of us athenistas. We were particularly proud to have Dr. Atul Gawande make the keynote speech. (You may remember some of my earlier posts about trying to be as sexy as Atul and then having lunch with him.) But I have to say I have always been of two minds about having user conferences.

In speeches when I explain cloud-based EMR and practice management services, I always describe user conferences as prehistoric rituals where the members of that ancient tribe--the software user--would gather, build fires, and pound their chests while making grunting sounds trying to describe new features that they wanted their software vendor to build. The resultant “modules” would be attached over the years, like primordial fins-in-the-making, in exchange for upgrades and consulting fees.

But one of the benefits of being in the cloud means service providers like athenahealth can watch their users in motion, and our designers and developers can witness the frustration of ineffectual code in real time and fix it almost as quickly. Seeing customers struggle, and seeing what they are trying to accomplish and how they go about it, is a VASTLY more effective way to fix problems and to innovate than to try to get a doctor to describe how software should work.

So if we can see our client practices perform in real time, why did athenahealth just host a user conference?

Well, of course, it’s because we want our clients to learn, improve performance, and push their practices to new levels. And we want them to connect with, and learn from, each other in ways they can’t yet do online. But, for me at least, our User Conference is all about the hugs.

We are deeply involved in the lives of our clients. Our account managers go through heaven and hell with their clients…and never lay eyes on them. And so, aside from the CME courses, the table in the hotel lobby set up for “cross-sell,” and the case study interviews, the user conference we just held in Boston was our chance to connect. It was the time we get to meet the person behind the voice and even to learn, for example, that the practice manager and the physician owner we’ve been interacting with all this time….are actually married! Or we learn that a client wants to move the practice into a Victorian house…or start a bicycling group to take on the obesity of their patient populations...

We hugged. I got and gave hundreds of hugs in three days…and I left feeling massively more of what I feel every day in this job–like a man on a mission.

Jonathan Bush is the President and CEO of athenahealth.

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