In April 1999, Michael O'Neil was a cancer patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Following surgery and chemotherapy to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Michael began his recovery and mission to improve patient care, based on his experience. Founded on the core premise that patient outcomes can be improved through engagement, Michael created GetWellNetwork, a company focused on improving patient experience and results through patient and family engagement.

On this Industry Focus episode, we see how this 15-year-old company -- still in its infancy -- has more to look forward to on the horizon, and how it's collaborating with doctors and hospitals across the country, and with major healthcare IT players like Cerner, Athenahealth, and Epic, so patients can receive better care.

A full transcript follows the video.

 

Kristine Harjes: Reshaping patient engagement. This is Industry Focus.

Hi, everyone! Welcome to Industry Focus, healthcare edition. I'm your host Kristine Harjes, and I'm here today joined by a very special guest, Michael O'Neil of the GetWellNetwork, which is a healthcare IT company that focuses on patient engagement. Michael, how are you today?

Michael O'Neil: I'm doing great. Thanks for having me.

Harjes: I'm so glad you're here. We have so much to talk about today. Can you start by giving us a little bit of background about what your company does?

O'Neil: Sure. GetWellNetwork started back in 2000 from a personal cancer experience. I was in grad school, and ended up having non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I went through a lot of surgery and chemotherapy, and lost hair and the whole bit that many folks in the cancer club go through, and simply had a great medical outcome, but a very bad experience from a patient/family standpoint.

I just started to think about a new model of care, and redefine how people experience healthcare. We went on a 15-year journey, a long way to go, but we're focused exclusively on trying to help people better engage in their healthcare throughout their lives.

Harjes: That's incredible. I can't think of a nobler mission than that. What exactly does your company offer?

O'Neil: We actually offer what we would call a "Cross Continuum Patient Engagement Platform." We work with hospitals and large health systems to make sure at the point of care they can help patients be educated, informed, empowered, and engaged in their care. Whether you're using an iPhone or a tablet, if you're in the clinic or back at home, or you might be in a hospital bed using your television; either way, we're actually taking over those devices and creating a very personalized dynamic healthcare episode, if you will, or platform, and really get to know about their care.

Harjes: That's awesome. What have the outcomes been?

O'Neil: It's interesting. We're ferocious in our data analysis about whether or not patient engagement really makes a change in care. We're measuring things from everything. Has patient satisfaction improved? Have readmission rates in hospitals improved? Have fall rates improved? Are people getting healthier? Are they happier? Are they safer by being more engaged in their care?

It's interesting, since the laws have all changed -- a lot of the reimbursements are really tied to the very measures that we're measuring and improving. We have a whole database of outcomes across 400 or so organizations that we've been tracking for the last decade.

Harjes: It seems like that data collection will be a huge boom to hospitals, especially as you get this shift toward value-based care. Your company is saying to these hospitals, "Not only can we improve patient quality of care, which is an outstanding goal on its own, but we can also help you be more compliant, we can help you save on costs; it's a win-win."

O'Neil: I'll tell you, for too long, patient engagement has been an art. In fact, before a lot of the reimbursement laws changed, the way people thought about patient experience and hospitals was putting a grand piano in the lobby and making it feel more like a hotel. While those things are nice around an environment of care, they weren't really driving outcomes.

What's been really powerful, and a real catalyst for the business, is patient engagement is not an amenity. It's a core strategy for health transformation and improvement. It's been the mantra for a long time. It's gotten incredibly serious the last four or five years, and the great catalyst. Not just for our business, but really for patients. The fact that hospitals and providers are focusing and investing in ways to make the patient experience more engaging and empowering is a great thing for patients, and it's a great thing for providers, as well.

Harjes: Is your system interoperable with some of the major healthcare IT players that we see?

O'Neil: It is. Our system would be too much like every other iPhone app in healthcare. There are way too many of them that don't actually tie into the very clinical systems that actually are used to run the organization. In our world, we couldn't operate without that. We interface with Epic, Cerner, Athena, Allscripts, Meditech, RTLS systems, dietary systems -- any system in the hospital that we think, if a patient had access to it, it might impact their care positively -- we're running interfaces for.

Today we have, at last count, 568 live interfaces across the country that are tied to GetWellNetwork.

Harjes: It seems like your network also ties into EHRs, too, to have that instantaneous plug-in of information.

O'Neil: It does. It's probably one of the most important interfaces we have. When we tie into the EHR, we know a couple of really important things. We know what patient is in what bed, or what clinic at what time. We know what language they speak, what medications they're on, and what procedures they're having. That data, for us, allows us to dynamically personalize for that patient.

"Hey, Michael. You're having surgery tomorrow. Here are the four important things we need you to do, and here are the three medications you're going to be on. You should learn about them right now." There's really powerful ways for us to take data elements from the EHR, impact patients at the point of care through our digital platform, and then push data back into the EHR so that we actually add a patient reported outcome into the chart.

Harjes: That's awesome. You're in a really unique spot being right at the head of this company that's changing the way that patient care works. I'd love to ask you: what sort of trends are you seeing in the industry that could really change things from your perspective going forward?

O'Neil: I would say two major ones. One of them is, as we get to the backend of the curve of EHRs being implemented, we now have this incredible data repository. Now the question is: what can you do with this data to actually improve the care? To me, we're actually at the dawn of an explosive opportunity for technology and providers, and companies to figure out how to leverage this data to really impact care in a measurable undeniable way for patients. That's one of the things we're seeing.

The other thing we're actually seeing is the shift to value-based care from volume-based care, has actually driven providers to get people out of their hospitals and take care of them in less expensive, more dynamic, and more safe places. We're seeing a massive shift into what we would called "Cross Continuum Opportunities."

Urgent care centers, home health, in the clinic; we're working on a lot of things that allow patients to take their care plans with them. Not in the form of a paper stack you get at discharge where you put it in your garbage can when you get home, but in the form of digital tools that we can actually live with every day of our lives. Those are the two places we think there are tons of opportunity.

Harjes: That's awesome. In the world of telehealth, are you guys making strides there in trying to reach people while they're in their homes?

O'Neil: We're integrating a lot of telehealth capabilities into our tools. You could imagine a scenario where, if I'm a heart-failure patient and I've come in through the E.D., I've had heart failure, I end up having surgery, I spend eight days in the hospital, and then I actually go home. There's a really critical time period. For the hospitals, it's 30 days. If I get readmitted within 30 days of my discharge, I don't get paid for that again.

There's a lot of incentive for providers how to make sure patients are taking care of themselves when they actually leave their careful hands. More importantly to us, from the patient's standpoint, you don't want to go back to the hospital. With telehealth, there's an amazing opportunity to weave telehealth capabilities into these digital tools, so I might be able to get three, four, five, or 10 more touches with my physician, or my care manager, or my nurse without having to drive 45 minutes to an appointment and leave work, or whatever the case may be.

There's tremendous opportunity to drive efficiency and quality in telehealth into the patient engagement tools that we actually use right now.

Harjes: Do you think there's a trade-off there, where patients aren't seeing their doctors face to face as much?

O'Neil: I actually think it's the opposite. We are living in a world where, even when we have serious conditions, or chronic conditions like diabetes, or asthma, or heart failure -- we also have lives. Healthcare has gotten to the point where, if we can find a way to efficiently connect -- efficiently -- doctors and patients more effectively and directly through these tools, you're actually going to have more meaningful time than you would otherwise.

We think it's a very powerful way to go do that today.

Harjes: That's interesting. How would that work? What form of technology? Is this your smartphone we're talking about?

O'Neil: For us, mostly, if I can just paint a picture, I'm getting discharged from the hospital. Through GetWellNetwork, I'm being put on a heart-failure pathway. Basically, what it tells me is, the day I leave, it's going to let me know on my phone, "Michael, it's day one since you got discharged from the hospital. Have you picked up your medications yet? It's really important you're on your medication right away."

All of a sudden, it's day nine. "Hey, Michael. It's Dr. Anderson. I'm just talking to you to check in to see how you're doing on your plan. It looks like things are going really well. If you need me you can always call, but I just wanted you to take a quick video so I can understand how it is that you're feet are looking today."

There are things that we can really begin to do through mobile technology that are really quite elegant. We're using them in a lot of industries other than healthcare. Now, we're bringing them into healthcare, as well.

Harjes: It seems like such a great idea. That leads itself to two follow-up questions. One: How widespread are you guys, and how prominent is this now? And two: iI there anyone else that's out there doing this?

O'Neil: As far as penetration, we're working in about 400 hospitals, and another 100 clinics across the country. We also work over in the Middle East in a couple of the leading organizations over in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. So I'll tell you that, overall, there are probably 5,000 hospitals in the U.S. We're in 400. The good news is, there's a footprint that's established enough with a critical mass in some of the most important health systems in the U.S.

Kaiser, Adventist, Ascension, Carolinas, Tenet; a lot of big organizations. University of Chicago, MUSC in Charleston, big organizations that are using GetWellNetwork to drive their patient engagement strategies. The bad news is, 95% of the patients don't have access to these tools yet. There's a long way to go.

I will tell you, No. 1 and No. 2 on a strategic plan of every organization that we work with is patient engagement. That, of course, brings a ton of competition. We think that's a good thing. What it creates is, you have every company in the world all of a sudden claiming to be a patient-engagement company. We believe it's very imperative to focus on the science and the efficacy of these tools, not just the pretty screens on smart phones.

The real question is: Is the work we're doing, both with technology and change management, actually making a difference that could be measured? Not just opined on, if you will. It's a really important way to distinguish yourself in the market.

Harjes: Do you think this huge trend of hospital consolidation will actually lead to better outcomes?

O'Neil: That's a great question. I will tell you, the investments required to do some of this stuff well are heavy. I would tell you, it's not just the technology investments; it's the investments in change management and in people. Healthcare is a people business, and it always will be. The benefit to consolidation is organizations that have more capital dollars to invest in the very technology that change management requires to drive better outcomes.

To that part, I think it's good. On the flip side, healthcare is local, and it always will be. We live in communities where we actually need to be cared for, as do our families. These large organizations need to find a way to make sure the care stays personalized and local, while they're actually benefiting from the scale economy that they can get.

It's a balance that has to be struck that I think organizations are going to struggle with for some time.

Harjes: Hopefully, telehealth will be something that helps with that, too.

O'Neil: It's a great area of technology that can really benefit care moving forward, for sure.

Harjes: I'd like to wrap up the show by asking you a fun question. It's Wednesday, October 21, 2015. That is the day where, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly went to the future 30 years. I'd love to ask you: In 30 years, what's going to stand out to you about healthcare? Putting you on the record here, but of course, it's pure speculation. What do you think is going to be the biggest, coolest, most radical change in healthcare in 30 years?

O'Neil: I really think the personalization of our healthcare, and really understanding our own DNA at a much more intimate, personal level from an early age, and really guiding our life journey and our health journey through that information is going to be really important. I have two brothers who are in the sport industry, and I'm watching the craziness today that is fantasy sports, like fantasy football and all these things.

My dream and vision is the following: If we can begin to move people to a place where you're paying as much attention to your life journey and your health journey as you are to your fantasy football league roster, imagine the change that we could actually see in the world. Imagine communities of diabetes patients getting healthier, and what that actually results in from a human advancement standpoint.

I know it sounds up in the clouds, and it sounds way out in the future, but I really believe, if we can begin to arm people with personalized information about their health journey, and they actually can pay attention to it, man, we'd see a lot of change in the world that could be really productive.

Harjes: That's an incredible answer. One of the things we were talking about before the show was this engagement with your own health, and you have the information in front of you, your doctor is going to tell you -- you mentioned earlier "a stack of papers you're just going to throw out." It's about sparking that passion for following your healthcare journey, and determining what your goals are and why they matter.

That's what's going to make all the difference.

O'Neil: There's no doubt in my mind, if we can move healthcare from being ailment based to aspirationally based, we'll really change the dialogue. I will tell you one last thing. When you go to a clinic, or a doctor, the first thing on their chart is "chief complaint." I fundamentally think that's the wrong thing to be first on the chart.

Imagine if my doctor knew that the most important thing to me was to not get cancer again because I have two young girls -- I want to make sure I walk down the aisle 10 to 15 years from now. I guarantee you that when he prescribes a diet regimen, or a medication regimen in service of that life goal, not because my arm is aching, I guarantee you I'm more apt to be engaged in that care plan.

To me, that's ultimately what we're trying to do with GetWellNetwork. To get people to move, and take a more active role in their health journey. When we do, the outcomes are killer, and we're having a ball.

Harjes: Folks listening, I would encourage you so much to check out GetWellNetwork. Read up some more about them. It's really an incredible business doing amazing work. Michael, thank you so much for being here. It's been really fun talking to you all day. Folks, thanks for listening. Tune in next week.

O'Neil: Thanks, Kristine. I appreciate it.

Kristine Harjes has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Athenahealth and Cerner. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.