Athenahealth's VP predicts more value-based care, investor interest and an evening out of telehealth in 2021

There’s no denying that 2020 created major disruption in the healthcare space, the largest many have seen in a lifetime. During this time digital health came to the forefront. However, with vaccine distribution kicking into gear, 2021 may have its own advancements. MobiHealthNews sat down with healthcare veteran Paul Brient, SVP and chief product officer at Athenahealth.

Looking back at 2020, it’s no secret that one of the big game changers was the uptick in virtual visits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Within a week or two the healthcare system went from 1% or 2% of visits being virtual to 30-40% of visits being virtual,” Brient said.

“Virtual care is more convenient care for a lot of people. … I think more and more people are like, ‘Hey for some things this could be a lot handier for the new normal when I’m back at work. Imagine, just [going] to your browser and [getting a] visit instead of having to leave work and go somewhere would be great.’”

There’s also been a shift in how providers are looking at the Medicare market that could move the dial for future years.

“We’ve also seen some interesting movement around value-based care. That’s been a trend that has been around for quite some time, but what practices found was [that] being involved with value-based care helped the practices financially, since they had guaranteed payments that were not related to volume.

“When the volume went down, their value-based care contracts looked pretty good. So, we kind of have a new reason to do value-based care, which is diversification of your business model – which is great.”

When it comes to 2021, Brient said that he sees telemedicine evening out a bit.

“If you look at the peak when 30-40% of all visits were virtual, that came off pretty quickly as the healthcare system reopened. But it’s also leveled off around 10% of business right now. And I think, as people now have this as a tool in their arsenal. There is going to be a lot of innovation around digital care.”

However, one place he does see this virtual market staying is chronic care management. In particular, digital could be used to remotely monitor and provide virtual visits to patients managing these types of conditions.

When it comes to the business of healthcare, Brient said he thinks the public exits will continue into the next year. In 2020 we saw Amwell, One Medical and several other digital health companies IPO.

“The public markets are certainly very excited about anything related to virtual anything. On the non-healthcare side, Zoom is obviously doing great, and Amazon is hiring most of America to work for them. But in healthcare there has always been this promise of digitization improving health and improving healthcare.”

This move towards digital isn’t exactly a new idea. However, he said, the next few years could bring it to fruition.

“I remember back in the late 90s we had an e-health boom, when the digitization of healthcare was going to solve our healthcare crisis. And it didn’t do it at the time. It was overhyped. But the potential is still there.

“I think we are starting to see real meaningful improvement, because of both the combination of consumerism, as well as digital platforms, in healthcare – and frankly continued frustration in that it is not getting better in terms of access to [the] healthcare system despite digital attempts.”

While more and more companies are exiting through the public market, there has also been a lot of activity in the venture space within the last year. Brient predicts this interest will continue, but investors need to be patient when waiting for returns.

“There’s a lot of innovation. There’s a lot of VC activity, a lot private equity activity in the healthcare space, especially around the digitization of it, working around the combination of medical devices, … healthcare IT and big data, some neat work-around genomics, and meds. …

“I think the one thing gives VCs a pause is it does take a while to make a difference in healthcare. I think that people get overly excited as valuations get high, but you do have to be cautioned that, if you are starting a company right now, it is going to be the next cycle before that company really gets to the scale where it is making money.”

As for what’s next for Athenahealth, Brient said the company was able to remain financially stable during the pandemic. This means that next year the company can increase its R&D efforts. According to Brient, the company is allocating an additional $60 million in research and development spending.

He noted that the research will focus in on the consumer experience, making healthcare more accessible through digital, care management, and making care more effective and efficient.

“We didn’t really miss a beat from an R&D perspective as we went all virtual. I do think we will all come back to the office, and I’m looking forward to that. But I’ve been really impressed by the team and how we didn’t change our productivity at all.”


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