How athenahealth's CEO is redefining disruption

Jonathan Bush's no-holds-barred approach applies to all elements of his company athenahealth. Gatherings hosted by the company, of which Mr. Bush is co-founder and CEO, allow professionals and VIPs to bond over drinking games, share taboo stories and take rides on all-terrain vehicles.

However, athenahealth's More Disruption Please event does more than push the envelope on traditional, stuffy conference affair.

If it's not clear by its name, the conference centers around disruption in healthcare. While  many in healthcare are sick of hearing and talking about disruption (you can find it on Becker's Hospital Review's list of words we want banned in 2015), athenahealth takes the idea of healthcare disruption one step further: disrupting disruption.

Let's start from the top.

Disruption in healthcare aims to redefine the status quo by a change, small or drastic, that essentially alters the care delivery system. Companies like Apple and Walgreens are constantly referred to as disruptors in healthcare, due to their respective mobile health and retail health offerings.

But in the eyes of Mr. Bush, simply changing the healthcare delivery system isn't enough. At athenahealth's More Disruption Please conferences, Mr. Bush gathers investors with startups "that might someday make his own company obsolete," according to a Fortune article. It continues, "Bush's rallying cry, as always, is the need to reform the U.S. healthcare system through innovation — and by whatever means necessary."

By whatever means necessary is a big declaration, but athenahealth is up to the challenge, even if it means taking a couple of hits before seeing an upswing. According to the article, athenahealth's annual growth for 2014 is expected to be approximately 16 percentage points lower than growth in 2013.

Eventually, Mr. Bush predicts, and accepts, customers may stop using athenahealth's software products, but the company aims to remain a viable player in the health IT industry.

This notion of a company's products turning obsolete — one that would raise the hair on most CEOs' necks — is no sweat off Mr. Bush's back. (Or so he leads us to believe.)

"Over time we believe customers will eventually choose another competitive product, even another medical record — but on AthenaNet," Mr. Bush said in the Forbes article, referencing the company's homepage for customers. "And we'd rather have them doing that than pissed or feeling trapped or leaving us altogether."

Mr. Bush, cousin of former President George W. Bush and nephew of former President George H. W. Bush, seems to have a broader view than many of his contemporary business owners: Progress in healthcare is so much greater than individual companies and organizations. Success has always been contingent upon growth, but Mr. Bush's view indicates that wide-scale success isn't synonymous with getting bigger. After all, the guy is willing to secede his products for those of his competitors.

That's not to say athenahealth isn't growing. The company is still expanding its offerings, and Mr. Bush said he has visions of athenahealth becoming the "national backbone" of the healthcare industry, according to the report.

In its 17-year history, athenahealth has adapted and evolved. Its original business plan when founded in 1997 was to buy and run OB/GYN facilities, but it then changed courses to develop insurance claims solutions for small physician practices. More recently, athenahealth launched a healthcare startup accelerator, which played home to companies such as cloud comparison software provider Castlight Health and physician director and review service Vitals.  

This demonstrated nimbleness is how athenahealth very well could disrupt itself. The company that was once set on buying and running OB/GYN facilities now wants to become the Google of healthcare. "The plan is we're going to create and curate the healthcare Internet," Mr. Bush said in the Forbes report.

With such an aspiring and expansive view, athenahealth positions itself against the Epic's, Cerner's and MEDITECH's of the world. As of September 2014, these were the three top EHR vendors reported by hospitals participating in CMS' meaningful use program. athenahealth's offerings are not focused on health records, but the company has some huge competitors to catch up with — or disrupt — if it wants to solidify itself as the Google of healthcare.

While both athenahealth and Epic have rustic, farmer-esque, woodsy campuses, athenahealth — or Mr. Bush, in particular — has one key element that other IT giants seemingly don't: a transparent and zealous approach to reaching a succinct goal. What other CEO in health IT has said he or she is willing to pull the rug out from under his own company for the sake of the healthcare industry as a whole?

Mr. Bush has his doubters, including hedge fund manager David Einhorn and Brandon Hull, a co-founder of Cardinal Partners who sits on athenahealth's board of directors. Mr. Hull said in the Forbes article that athenahealth's vision is largely based on a healthcare industry that doesn't yet exist, and to remedy this, "the company must reinvent itself. It must disrupt itself. It must put itself out of business."

By focusing on the long-term vision and knowing its place in the industry — and acknowledging that its position may be temporary — athenahealth is dedicating itself to the success of the healthcare industry as a whole, a feat that is larger than the company itself.  

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