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A Devastating Diagnosis Turns HIT "Lifer" into HIT "Customer"

by Derek Hedges, Senior VP of Business Development

It was late Sunday afternoon one year ago and I was in Vermont with my family, watching a Patriots game on TV and eating peanuts.

I ate a lot of peanuts.

The next day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I felt terrible. I thought it was the peanuts. I was in so much pain that I ended up at the nearest hospital, in Brattleboro.

I arrived late on that Monday afternoon and the team there conducted several tests – ultrasound of abdomen, chest X-ray, EKG, the usual. Before they got to a series of GI tests, they did an ultrasound and spotted something on my liver.

They saw a “significant number of masses on it,” to quote my nurse. She convinced me that I should quickly—like as soon as it’s light again outside—go to a Boston hospital and get a full battery of tests. Ultimately, she said, you will want to line up with an oncologist as soon as possible.

We drove home from Vermont that night comforted by… nothing. Fear, anxiety and an unfathomable feeling of despair blanketed the car. My wife and I were in shock. I was 39... Our two kids (ages 7 and 4) sat in the backseat asking repeatedly what was wrong. We weren’t ready to talk, so we said nothing.

By the end of that week, I knew my life would never be the same.

I have worked in the HIT space for almost 17 years. I’m 40 now, and I’ve spent most of my post-college career thinking about EMRs and the value that they bring to physicians and patients.

In support of athenahealth’s mission, I've spent countless days with physicians, nurses and administrators walking through “clinical scenarios” in an attempt to explain the promise of an EMR. Often, this traditionally skeptical group would forgive my awkward clinical examples tenuously linked by clinical relevance, and then they’d ponder… Why? Why would I spend my money on this? What value does it bring to my hospital, my physicians, my nurses, my patients?

During these conversations, many physicians brought up relevant concerns about the ‘value proposition’ that HIT vendors posit – clinical efficiency, better outcomes, a rock-solid ROI, etc...

It is a complicated conversation. It takes great skill to translate the capabilities of an EMR (in the case of athenahealth, a cloud-based EMR service) into real value for the physician, the health care organization and their patients.

Well, many aspects of that conversation—for me—are no longer difficult at all.

On January 18, 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer with metastases to my liver (8 “honking” tumors in all – 9, if you include the colon). The conversations relating to EMR technology and their value, conversations that were once theoretical, became all too real.

As I continue my fight today, I’d like to share my experiences in future blog posts about the practical realities versus the promise of the EMR – and information technology more broadly.

I’ll get into this more, but just know that there are absurd examples that clearly illustrate the shortcomings of current technology. There are examples that illustrate where it operates with extreme efficiency and other areas where HIT can fundamentally change health care in the US – but hasn't. It becomes a question of collaboration and execution.

As I enter month 12 of my treatment, I am incredibly optimistic about our industry and the potential that is stored within the brains of the people who define and move it. We are SO early in our lifecycle as a group of competitive companies, but the opportunity for fundamental health care improvement dictates that we move… collaboratively and quickly.

As I dive into my experience in future posts, it is important to note that I am receiving my care at a major teaching institution in Boston. One can debate whether this implies better technology, systems of operation and care. I can say, assuredly, that my care has been world-class. The physicians and nurses who have cared for me through this brutal process have been nothing short of miraculous—all of them. I won’t mention them by name, but I wish I could.

There’s a lot more to share but in the meantime, please feel free to offer your thoughts. Do you have a similar experience you’d like to share? Send in a comment and we can get a conversation started. Thanks for reading…

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