This is first in a new series of articles. Over the coming weeks and months I will be publishing the origin stories of interesting, inspiring people in healthcare. These men and women come from all walks of life. Some are titans in the industry, others are leading grass-roots efforts. All are making an impact on healthcare.
As a self-professed comic-book geek, I am fascinated by origin stories – the account or back-story that reveals how someone became who they are today. Origin stories add to the overall narrative and give reasons for a person’s intentions. Knowing someone’s origin stories can give clues to their future actions.
Kicking off this series is the origin story of Allscripts CEO Paul Black. Allscripts, based in Chicago, serves over 45,000 physician practices and 2,500 hospitals around the world with their EHR systems and other Healthcare IT solutions. The company has a rich history of mergers. Early on they merged with Misys and Eclipsys. More recently, the company has acquired McKesson’s Health IT business and Practice Fusion.
It is common knowledge that Mr. Black has a long history in healthcare. Prior to becoming CEO of Allscripts in December 2012, he spent 13 years as Chief Operating Office at Cerner (an Allscripts rival). He has also served as an advisor to healthcare companies through his work at New Mountain Capital and Genstar Capital.
What is not common knowledge is how far back Black’s history with healthcare actually goes. When he was just 5 years old, Black accidentally consumed weed poison that was in an unlabeled vial. Luckily his father, who was the Director of the Pharmacy Department at the local hospital took him to the VA emergency room right away. As a healthcare professional his father knew that the VA had just purchased an artificial kidney machine – the very device needed to treat this type of poisoning. Spoiler Alert: Black made a full recovery thanks to his father’s quick actions and the knowledgeable staff at the VA.
To understand how lucky Paul Black was, you have to remember that back then, there were no toxicologists, no poison control centers, no detailed chemical labels and very little knowledge of poison treatments. In fact, it wasn’t until 1953 that the first poison hotline was established in Chicago by Louis Gdalman R.Ph and Edward Press MD [source: Forging a Poison Prevention and Control System 2004].
Black’s poisoning incident led his father to establish an Iowa poisoning hotline so that people in his home state could find out what to do in a poisoning situation. His work eventually led to the creation of the Iowa Poison Information Control Center – an entity that is still saving lives today.
“My father was always working on ways to improve healthcare,” recalls Black. “He built a machine that would help ensure that the right medication would be administered to the right patient at the right time. It was basically a precursor to a Pyxis machine. He got involved in computers in the early stages and was always looking for ways to use systems (whether physical or software) to solve problems in healthcare.”
Clearly the apple did not fall far from the tree.
Early in his career, Black worked at IBM where he learned “a lot about systems, software and hardware.” But more importantly, it was his time at IBM that ignited his passion for healthcare.
“I just felt good whenever I worked with hospitals and healthcare clients,” explains Black. “It was clear that working with them had a direct impact on care and on individuals in their care.”
Black moved on from IBM and joined Cerner, then an up-and-coming healthcare systems maker. There, he progressed steadily through the ranks until ultimately becoming Chief Operating Officer in 2005. Black retired from Cerner in 2007 and served in a number of advisory/board positions until he was named CEO of Allscripts in 2012.
I asked Black why he chooses to stay in healthcare.
“It’s pretty simple actually. We aren’t done yet,” states Black. “My grandfather was born in 1888 and during his lifetime we went from horse-and-buggy on dirt roads to a full interstate system with fast cars and a railroad system with fast trains. We also went from having to read your news in a newspaper to wireless radio. He even saw us land on the moon. That was an incredible amount of progress for a single lifetime. I would argue that in my lifetime we are going to see a similar leap with just as many innovations, discoveries, and life saving technologies. That’s why I stay. Healthcare is going to be a fascinating industry for the next 20+ years. Plus there aren’t many industries where you get to help the people that save lives.”
Black went on to say that this is a time in healthcare when strong leadership will be required to ensure we make the right decisions for the benefit of the many vs the few. He pointed at genomic testing as an example. Even though the cost of sequencing continues to drop, access to this type of technology and access to clinicians knowledgeable on how to interpret the results is not universal.
Access to care is a cornerstone of Black’s vision of a perfect healthcare system, something I asked him to describe during our conversation: “My perfect healthcare future is one where everyone has access to healthcare, not just people of means. It’s one where a payment mechanism has been figured out whereby a certain level of access is guaranteed as is a certain level of prevention.”
Black went on to say that this vision is not as far fetched as it may first sound: “My view is that there is enough money already in the healthcare system today to make this happen. If you add the dollars spent by every single player in the healthcare industry – governments, employers, patients, etc – it’s more than enough. We are at 18% GDP. It’s just not being spent efficiently.”
To reach his vision, Black feels we need to build a healthcare system where: “We get the diagnosis right the first time, there is no delay in treatment and there is active involvement from patients in their health.” The latter being the toughest challenge – motivating the average person to exercise more, eat better and make healthier lifestyle choices.
“We have to make it cool to be healthy,” says Black. “In fact we need the healthy equivalent of the Marlboro Man, which I know is an ironic and strange thing to say. But back in the day, EVERYONE wanted to be the Marlboro Man. He was what young men aspired to be like. We need the healthy equivalent to help motivate people to be more engaged in health.”
It is not surprising that Black sees Allscripts playing a significant role in making healthcare more efficient and effective. “Allscripts definitely has a role to play,” explained Black. “We will play that role by staying relevant in the healthcare industry. We have our core EHR products, but we also have four other product lines that are actually EHR-agnostic. We have our population health platform, dbMotion. We have our post-acute system, Netsmart. We have our precision medicine platform, 2bPrecise. And finally we have our consumer platform, FollowMyHealth. We will continue to push aggressively in these markets through innovation and acquisition to provide our clients with the solutions THEY NEED to deliver better care to patients.”
Allscript’s latest acquisition certainly fits with this acquire-functionality-that-clients-want strategy. On May 18th, the company acquired HealthGrid – a communication platform that delivers reminders, alerts and educational materials to patients via phone, text, and other electronic means. This functionality will be rolled into Allscript’s FollowMyHealth product line.
“I feel it’s our duty and obligation to automate the healthcare ‘shop floor’,” declares Black. “The groundwork had been laid with EHRs, but now it’s time to streamline workflows and leverage the data within these systems. We need to reduce the ‘shouting’ in healthcare (too many alarms). We need to improve User Interfaces so systems are easier to use. We need to reduce the documentation requirements on clinicians so they can go back to taking care of patients vs being data entry clerks. Computers should work for us, not the other way around.”
Reflecting on Black’s origin story you can see the thread of hope and optimism woven throughout. From his first (and positive) encounter with the healthcare system when he was 5 years old to watching his father use computers/machinery to try and improve patient care to the positive feelings he had while working with hospital clients at IBM – every experience brought him closer and closer to healthcare until he became part of the industry through his position at Cerner.
It gives me hope that an industry leader like Paul Black is optimistic about the future of healthcare. It’s exciting to learn that he is not just saying the right words, he is putting energy and investment behind them. It will be interesting to see how Allscripts will continue to “remain relevant” and be agile in the years ahead.