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A Developer's Look Inside Health Care

by Nathan Donnellan, Senior Developer

As a developer at athenahealth, you’d think my college degree has something to do with software. It doesn’t (and at athenahealth, it’s not necessary, but more on that later). I was schooled in Mechanical Engineering – in fact, my first job out of school was for a solar-thermal startup, trying to disrupt the energy space with high efficiency solar boilers and hundreds of thousands of flat mirrors. Pretty far cry from health IT.

But getting here wasn’t too far off. Not long after my solar stint, I began working on my own idea: fixing the poor state of behavioral data collection for those involved with autism research and therapy. I was surprised at how many behavioral analysts and their clinical staff still used printed spreadsheets and clipboards to track problem behaviors. The apps I was using at home and work – like Gmail or Trello – were light years ahead. These were smart, motivated people, but their tools were holding them and their patients back. I would soon learn that most of the health care industry suffers from this problem.

The EHR space needs disrupting

Before joining athenahealth, I just assumed that technology for electronic health records (EHRs) was somewhat better – especially because launching these products can cost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. I was shocked to find this was rarely the case.

While a majority of doctors have transitioned away from paper records (though not without a fight), some players in the EHR space are still very constrained, Internet-wary dinosaurs. The lack of competition in health IT advancement has made some vendors almost technologically irrelevant, while commanding ever more money and erecting ever larger barriers to entry.

At athenahealth, we are trying to shake up the traditional EHR space, and on the development team, I get to lend a hand.

When I knew health care was for me                                                                  

Every day, we are developing ways to help doctors do their jobs more effectively. And there’s no better time to see this than during the onboarding process for a new client. This is when the switch is flipped and the practice starts using their new EHR to handle real patients and real encounters. I recently participated in a client “go-live” and it provided me a really unique perspective. I was able to insert myself with the doctors, staff and patients, and witness their experience learning a new system.

No matter how great the EHR, change is hard for staff and patients, and I saw this firsthand. But during this challenging process, I also saw how we at athenahealth help the clients along, from automatically importing a list of medications from a patient’s pharmacy-network to catching billing mistakes before the “bill” button is pressed. These are little details that make a huge difference.  

But as a company – and as an industry – we still have so much to do!

Code that has an impact

Is the work hard? Of course it is! You’re a developer supporting doctors and staff who deal with people’s heath every day. You have to move quickly and not break things. You need to be a trusted steward of patient information.

The stakes are high, but the rewards are as well. I feel lucky that every line of code I commit gets sent to tens of thousands of doctors and has the potential to improve the lives of millions of patients.

And if you’re interested in joining this mission, here’s the best part: having a health care background is not a requirement.

Apply to join one of athenahealth’s tech teams                                                            

Looking around the Austin office where I’m located, I see colleagues who came from web design firms, scientific software suppliers, and defense contractors, to name a few. We also hire many new graduates in design and engineering, straight out of college. Just because you’re new to health care doesn’t mean you can’t bring all your knowledge, energy and skill from wherever you are now, and apply it to some of the toughest, life-changing problems of this century.

If you’d like to join me and my talented colleagues, check out our open positions in “Technology” on the athenahealth Careers Page. We’re actively hiring in Austin, TX, Watertown, MA, San Francisco, CA and Atlanta, GA. 

Get an inside look into our culture by following athenahealth on Instagram


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