Like it or not, health-care reform is here to stay. Even if the Affordable Healthcare Act was magically repealed tomorrow, the U.S. health-care system would continue to search for ways to control costs, eliminate waste and improve quality.
A major tool being applied to health care's challenges is wider adoption of health information technologies, which collectively help patients, providers, insurers and medical practitioners as they come to grips with change.
That's an opportunity for many businesses in Wisconsin, from the largest health-care providers to the smallest startups. Consider these developments in the last two weeks alone:
* GE Healthcare, which has about 6,000 employees in Wisconsin, announced plans to invest $2 billion worldwide over the next five years to accelerate the development of innovative software for healthcare systems and applications. Focus areas will include scheduling efficiencies, support for clinical decisions and diagnostics, elimination of waste and a variety of workflow issues.
* The Marshfield Clinic, which has about 50 clinics in Wisconsin, announced it will form Marshfield Clinic Information Services, a company that will build on nearly five decades of health information technology expertise. The clinic has used a homegrown computer-based electronic health record – called Cattails – for more than 20 years.
* At the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference and the Digital Healthcare Conference, both held in the Madison area, a dozen companies with ideas for improving health care quality, safety, access, compliance and accountability presented their business plans and met with investors and potential customers.
The anchor tenant in the state's health IT shopping mall is Epic Systems in Verona, which continues to grow in revenues and employees. However, there are many smaller companies with bright ideas – and some of them have attracted former Epic workers. These include companies such as Nordic Consulting, Aver Informatics, BlueTree Network, Wellbe, HealthFinch, Moxe Health, KayO Technology and many more.
While the Affordable Healthcare Act has accelerated the pace of change, the movement toward smarter use of health information technologies began decades ago within organizations such as Epic, GE Healthcare and Marshfield – which means Wisconsin enjoys a strong head start.
The state also has the rest of the ingredients needed to make it a health-care innovation hub, from major research universities such as UW-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin and UW-Milwaukee, to highly rated clinical systems to an emerging crop of entrepreneurs who understand the needs of patients and practitioners as well as the technology.
Investors have spotted that combination. Consider the story of Aver Informatics, a Green Bay company launched in 2010 and which has grown to 10 employees. Aver's web-based platform offers a simple way for companies to get at their health-care data. Aver was recently accepted into a competitive program run by GE and StartupHealth, a health-care incubator. It was one of 13 companies accepted out of 400 that applied from 22 countries.
Unlike many health IT startups in Wisconsin, Aver has raised most of its money from state angel groups and early stage funds. In 2012, about a dozen health IT companies in Wisconsin reported raising angel and venture dollars – much of it from outside Wisconsin. That means some of those companies could be easily moved, if not for the desire of their CEOs to stay and be part of a growing health IT cluster.
"We feel we offer quality-of-life jobs," said Kurt Brenkus, Aver's CEO, in a recent interview published in the Wisconsin Portfolio. "We get offers to move to New York, Silicon Valley and even Madison and Milwaukee, but we feel like there is a great amount of talent here."
The Affordable Healthcare Act has caused no small amount of uncertainty in health care, but out of uncertainty sometimes springs opportunity. Wisconsin is poised to seize the moment thanks for a health IT cluster that is maturing at just the right time.
-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.