Athenahealth’s Jonathan Bush: EHR software will eventually be free

In a freewheeling question-and-answer session at the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) Congress in Chicago, Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush made some bold statements about where electronic health records (EHRs) are heading and why virtualization should trump other healthcare priorities. 

Several of the questions posed to Bush revolved around outside forces seeking to disrupt traditional providers, insurers or IT companies. Not all of them have the same potential in his eyes, such as the much-vaunted Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JPMorgan healthcare partnership, which he considered to have limited capability to create “groundswell and innovation” considering what kind of healthcare benefits their employees would expect.

When it came to EHRs, however, Bush indicated the tide is rapidly turning against the business models of companies like Cerner and Epic. He predicted the current EHR systems will become like a “record keeping furnace” which few physicians in a health system actually use. The real sharing and recording of patient data, he said, will become virtualized.

“Absolutely, the software is free,” Bush said. “Jobs to do are not free, but software is free. It’s free everywhere. Healthcare hasn’t gotten the memo, but the memo is in the mail and it’s piling up, many copies, at our door. That’s a very important thing to remember before you pay a lot for another piece of software.”

The future as Bush sees it involves what his company has been building with its athenaNet application as a “series of micro-services.” The next one available will be called Data Link, which he described as a “concentrated, living, breathing, national patient data vault” which can accept data from multiple platforms, including Epic and Cerner EHRs.

Bush said athenahealth plans on building the kind of platform that can be used by providers and patients without having to buy another of its products.

“We think the whole idea of an interface from one system to another becomes an obsolete concept and what it’ll be is you subscribe to different services, different micro-services,” Bush said.

If subscribing to a service would give a health system access to a much larger set of patient data, Bush said that may break through resistance from individual systems who view patient data as a strategic asset that they—and nor the patients—own and don’t want to share.

Beyond EHRs, Bush encouraged traditional providers to move towards virtualization, whether that meant just offering online scheduling or moving towards greater “streaming” of care with greater adoption of telemedicine. When a poll of the audience found most didn’t consider virtualization a high priority, Bush didn’t hesitate to tell them he thinks they’re wrong and their business strategy needs to change.

“It’s more important than safety. It’s more important than quality. If you’re dead, you deliver no quality,” he said.