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Plenty to Say: Behind the Scenes with Jonathan Bush, Part I

by Holly Spring, Director of Communications

Earlier in March, interview website spent time with athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush, getting his opinion on... well, just about everything. In honor of this standout interview, we'll be republishing excerpts, in four parts, over the next four weeks. You can also read the entire interview here. We hope you enjoy!

Question: What are you trying to change?

Jonathan Bush:
I think that maybe all of us have very small real reasons that we get started in our careers and then as we get older, we start to think of more grand and acceptable reasons. My small reason was I wanted to, you know, be important. I wanted to save someone's life and be the guy driving an ambulance. (which he was earlier in his career)

Today, I feel like the whole reason that God, Buddha, whomever it was, sent me down this path is because in this country health care is the biggest hole in our humanity.

We all touch the health care system and we all feel robbed of some of our humanity. At the hospital, the staff gives you a clipboard and you haven't seen a clipboard since 1982, and you're like, "What are they doing with the clipboard and will they lose this?" Then, they give you tests that you don't need. They scare you into doing things to try to cure your cancer that everybody knows full well will not cure your cancer. You do a birth plan to have your baby and you arrive and they laugh at your birth plan.

This type of experience resonated with me because I had some big cousins, siblings and larger than life people around all the time and I wasn't. I was shy and quiet and un-athletic and not very good in school. For me, the idea of being unnoticed or unprocessed as yourself is just a terrible feeling. The fact that health care is massively expensive, more than we could actually afford, is the least of the problems. What I have a problem with is that it's humiliating -- that the money is taken by force, and care is given by force. It's either too much or too little and you have no real sense of authorship.

Betty Goot was the lady who ran the pick-your-own farm in Kennebunkport, Maine where my mom and her sisters-in-law were trying to out-Martha Stewart one another. "Of course, I won't take the ones that are already picked. I will be there on my knees picking the ones for the blueberry pie out there in the field with Betty Goot." I'm wandering around trying to smell the tractor grease and Betty gets up, bends her back and starts whacking her elbow on the post. I’m thinking what are you doing? And she says, "Well, I got that arthritis and the doctor costs a fortune and I won't be no left-handed… So, I just give it a good whack and it’ll work again for a couple more hours."

Question: You remember that as a child?

Today, vividly. I only vaguely remembered the experience until one day I’m at some consulting firm and a partner starts talking about getting a new shoulder for hundreds of thousands of dollars because he thought it would improve his tennis.

Question: What would be your advice to an entrepreneur today?

Start with a lot of pathos. Keep trying to channel it into something productive. Resist drugs because they're better but they don't make you create things. With Athena Women's Health (the first incarnation of athenahealth today; a Women's Obstetrics practice that Jonathan founded with Todd Park) we’d see the research and the equipment was shown to do more harm than good but everyone still plugs them in. Doctors come in and do episiotomies even though it’s shown they are bad. Doctors weren't present for any of the labor and when they came in, women's heart rates shot up because the doctor was there. Women would say, "Don't just fix it. Just hear me." I was twenty-five years old. And I was fixing it. That was the genesis of athenahealth.

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