Healthfinch Seeks to Take Automation in Healthcare Up a Level

The late 19th century saw a number of advances in elevator equipment. For example, the first electric elevator was built in 1880, and manufacturers introduced safety bumpers and automatic stopping technology in subsequent decades.

By 1900, many models of elevator had gone “driverless” and could be controlled by someone inside without any specialized knowledge. As a result, building managers no longer needed to employ elevator operators. But their disappearance spooked some would-be riders, says Jonathan Baran. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Healthfinch, a Madison, WI-based startup that develops software to automate routine tasks performed by healthcare providers in medical clinics.

“People would walk into these newfangled automated elevators and then walk right out because they didn’t see the attendant. They didn’t feel comfortable. They didn’t trust in the automation,” Baran says.

But the public eventually adapted, and Baran is betting that the same thing will happen at 21st Century medical clinics. He claims clinics can save time and money by adopting his company’s digital tools that let physicians delegate certain tasks to nurses and other colleagues.

Manufacturers eventually got people to feel comfortable riding in elevators without an attendant present, Baran says. They accomplished this through advertising campaigns, as well as a recorded message that told a rider to push the button of her desired floor to get the elevator moving, and a big red button to stop the machine.

“These elevator companies had kind of a marketing problem, where they had to get people comfortable with automation,” Baran says. “The question that I’ve been posing is, ‘What is the big red button of healthcare? What is the thing that gets people comfortable with automation?’ We believe the answer is delegation.”

Healthfinch develops software applications for tasks such as fulfilling prescription refill requests and planning visits to the doctor’s office. The startup, which Baran says has grown to about 50 employees since launching in 2011, recently raised a $6 million round of outside investment. More than 4,000 healthcare providers use Healthfinch’s software, the company says.

To understand how Healthfinch’s tools can facilitate delegation, consider that a primary care doctor on average spends 30 minutes a day reviewing requests for medication refills, Baran says. Some of these requests require close scrutiny, but for many of them the approval decision comes down to a few pieces of information, such as the date of a the patient’s most recent visit or the last time lab work was done. Physicians can use Healthfinch’s Refill Management application to set conditions that, when satisfied, grant permission to nurses and other providers at the clinic to order refills.

The overarching goal is to get physicians to spend less time in a given day on basic tasks, which in theory allows them to concentrate more on the work that they alone have the knowledge and credentials to do.

“The core underlying challenge that this industry has right now is there’s far more work than there are people to do that work,” Baran says. “For all this routine work that physicians and their staffs have to deal with on a regular basis, what we need is automation.”

Baran says that the effects of increased automation in healthcare will look different than in other industries. Whereas advances in manufacturing technologies have resulted in robots replacing human workers on some factory floors, Baran says the effect of automation in healthcare “is allowing doctors and nurses to focus on the highest value-add work.”

Indeed, the prospect of a patient going in for a regular check-up and being seen by a robot doctor, not a human, still seems quite a ways off. A 2013 study by researchers at Oxford University ranked 702 occupations by how “computerize-able” they were. Physicians and surgeons were among the 15 occupations least likely to be computerized in the future, the researchers wrote. (Telemarketers were rated the most likely to be computerized.)

Of course, Healthfinch’s software is not designed to replace physicians, but instead to reduce the amount of time they spend performing tasks that don’t require a lot of critical thinking.

To be able to use Healthfinch’s software, a healthcare provider must have already installed electronic medical records (EMR) software, which hospitals and clinics use to manage patient information. Today’s leading EMR software vendors include Kansas City, MO-based Cerner (NASDAQ: CERN), Watertown, MA-based Athenahealth (NASDAQ: ATHN), and Verona, WI-based Epic Systems.

Some of these companies have in recent years introduced application marketplaces, similar to what Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) have done for developers who build mobile apps that run on the iOS and Android operating systems. But with EMR vendors’ app stores, the shoppers are the hospitals and clinics that use their software, rather than individual smartphone and tablet owners.

Healthfinch’s refill management and visit planning applications are listed on Athenahealth’s Marketplace and Epic’s App Orchard. On one hand, these app stores have achieved their aim of making it simpler for outside healthcare software developers to integrate their products with those of Epic, Athenahealth, and other EMR vendors. Still, asked whether many clinics have approached Healthfinch after seeing the startup’s tools listed in their EMR system’s app store, Baran says he “would love for that to be the case,” but healthcare providers typically follow deeply entrenched processes when deciding whether to license new software products.

“Despite the fact that these app stores are out there and might bring some awareness, [providers] are not used to buying from them,” Baran says.

But based on the healthcare IT sector’s recent trajectory, he believes more providers may begin consulting their EMR vendor’s marketplace when they’re searching for an application that performs a specific function.

“They could think of it as, ‘Hey, I have a gap in something that I’d like to accomplish—maybe I should go to one of these app marketplaces to find a solution,’” Baran says.

Trending on Xconomy