How the power to turn data into insights can revolutionize the healthcare continuum

By Paul Brient | September 13, 2022

Purple background with colorfful data network connections

The last time you were in a skyscraper, did you think about the invisible supports that give the tallest towers their strength and stability? Did you think about the infrastructure that keeps it upright, flexible enough to sway and move with the wind in a way that’s almost imperceptible? Probably not — but the benefits of such innovation are both intangible and invaluable to a building’s occupants.

Being part of a densely connected network is similar. athenahealth customers and partners have built the foundation and structure our network. But without “seeing” these underpinnings, it can be easy to forget the benefits that the network brings — and the potential it supports.

The athenaOne network represents much more than the specific features and functions of a standalone, static EHR. Some benefits are easy to take for granted — like the lights on the 60th floor of a skyscraper. Others stand out a bit more — like the elevator ride that got you there.

So, what are the benefits of a flexible, growing, connected network?

Streamlining the patient experience

Healthcare is fragmented. As a patient, this can make navigating the system a frustrating — and, in some cases, dangerous — experience. For clinicians, fragmentation can make jobs more difficult and decisions harder to make. How does the network help? To start, athenahealth’s new master patient index connects all of a patient’s individual provider-centric records across the entire network. This enables patients to log into and access any of their providers’ portals and, over time, it will make it easier for providers to access a global version of their patients’ records. But that’s just one step in the right direction. Soon we'll provide patients with a mobile app that unifies all their health information in one place — across all the providers they see on the network and beyond. That’s made possible by the connections between the data that flow across our network.

The innovations we’re driving to improve the patient experience will also benefit practices, and in more ways than improving patients’ satisfaction. Here’s one example that’s all-too familiar for many of us: My primary care provider (PCP) has a bunch of information about me — my insurance, family medical history, current medications, and so on. But if my PCP refers me to a specialist, their office asks me to fill out forms with all of this same information. I may not fill out those forms identically, or the fields could be different, or I may not enter some details correctly if I’m rushing.

Imagine a world where this doesn’t happen — a world where you check in electronically at the specialist’s office and the system asks if you’d like to use the information from your PCP visit.  You quickly verify that nothing has changed, answer any new questions relevant for the specialty visit, and you’re all set. That’s a huge network effect that benefits patients, clinicians, and staff alike.

Applying network insights and benchmarking

When people think of networks in healthcare, they often think about sharing patient data. The athenahealth network certainly does lots of that. However, the unique nature of this network allows for sharing of comparative benchmarking information so providers can see how their practice is performing compared to others, locally and across the country.  This gives everyone the insights necessary to improve — whether those insights yield new approaches to value-based care contracts, innovations around patient engagement, or streamlining back-office processes.

The benefits of access to nationwide insights are both clinical and financial. Robust data from the network helps Upperline Health, the country’s largest practice dedicated to lower-extremity care, identify and address high-risk patients, says Stephen Nash, chief strategy officer. “athenahealth is giving us the metrics to show that yes, a single visit to a podiatrist can save limbs and reduce healthcare spend. This leads us to a better outcome in the value-based world.”

Making crucial clinical connections

Regulations have made interoperability and raw data exchange table stakes in today’s healthcare landscape. However, one of the most exciting opportunities the athenahealth network provides is to improve the clinician experience through what we call experiential interoperability.

For example, if a patient has their gallbladder removed by a doctor in the athenahealth network, why isn’t that procedure automatically visible to their primary care provider as part of their surgical history?  When a patient is scheduled for surgery, why isn’t the medical history and physical automatically sent to the hospital?  When clinicians are seeing a patient who was recently in the hospital, why can’t they press a button and see the hospital data immediately integrated and reconciled with that patient’s chart? All of these enhancements are on their way.

Improving processes for payers and providers

Payers are another integral part of our network, and our provider customers benefit from being connected to payers through the network. We can provide important information from insurers at the moment of care — things like care gaps, diagnoses that the payer knows about but aren’t documented in patient charts, and plan-specific information for the patient so you can see which providers are in network as you assess a referral. This information at the right time helps lower costs for everyone, improve performance in value-based care contracts, and can result in more effective care delivery.

Learning from the network

Perhaps the most impactful innovations come from the ability of the network to learn. For some time, the network has recognized what orders go with specific diagnoses and crowdsourced a directory of clinical providers.

With artificial intelligence, we are taking this to a new level. The system is already learning about inbox tasks and presenting the most likely action to streamline workflow.  It has been learning about insurance cards too so that, soon, patients can scan or take a picture of their insurance card and the insurance package will be entered automatically.

This is just the beginning

athenahealth is also innovating to make it easier to optimize the system for each of our users. For example, a physician could tell the system, “I’m a general surgeon who doesn’t type well and doesn’t like having the computer in the exam room” — and we could use network learnings to automatically configure the system by adopting best practices from other providers across the network with these same attributes.

As we look to the future, we are excited to continue collaborating with our customers to learn how best to leverage the power of the network. About half of our product enhancements come directly from customer feedback. Listening inspires learning, action, and progress — all benefits of a human network effect.

Paul Brient is vice president and chief product officer at athenahealth.

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