On the Money

Health care will have its own Internet soon, Athenahealth chief says

Connect the docs

Hospitals and doctors have been slow to join the digital revolution that's ushered in change in other sectors.

Yet a few observers think that resistance won't last for much longer. In an interview with CNBC's "On The Money," Athenahealth CEO and co-founder Jonathan Bush predicts we'll have a "health-care Internet" within five years. He said "the lion's share of routine health care will be…managed online. I'm sure of it."

Evidence suggests the shift may already be underway. While just 15 percent of hospitals used electronic health records in 2010, that number skyrocketed to 59 percent in 2013, according to data from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. Office-based physicians' use of electronic records has jumped from 24 percent to 48 percent over the same period, those figures showed.

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For its part, Massachusetts-based Athenahealth provides cloud-based record keeping and medical billing for 65,000 doctors and 62 million patients.

So why has the medical sector has been so slow to make the move to digital records? Bush pointed to outdated technology still in use in many doctors' offices, some of which still store data on CD-ROM discs. "Our companies don't even give us computers with CD-ROM slots anymore," he said.

"You have these isolated hospitals and doctors' offices each with their own data center." Bush said, with "each using off-the-shelf software that we stopped using in the rest of society."

The privacy trade off

Jonathan Bush, co-founder, chief executive officer and president of Athenahealth.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

An additional reason for the reluctance to modernize is the concern for patient privacy.

Just last week, there was a new incident where medical records were compromised. As many as 4.5 million patient records may have been affected by a cyberattack against University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health. That comes on the heels of the massive hack of Anthem, discovered in February, where as many as 80 million records were suspected to have been breached.

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"Obviously it's a big deal," Bush told CNBC. "We have to protect privacy, but we've made this trade elsewhere in our lives," as consumers have given up some elements of privacy for the convenience offered by technology.

"Frankly, I'd rather have the bad guys see my colonoscopy than get my credit card number," Bush said. "And my credit card and my equities are all online."

Meanwhile, he added health-care providers are "going to be accountable for protecting privacy." Yet the sector must work to find the "right edge" between making sure data are accessible enough and making sure the information is safe enough, Bush argued.

"You can make it totally safe ... and totally useless to people, so we don't want that," he said.

Bush cites Amazon.com as a model for a health-care Internet infrastructure. "Amazon took a piece of the Internet and made it safe enough, reliable enough and connected enough that Main Street Americans use it for retail," he said.

"We're going to do the exact same thing. We know how to do this now. We've done it in other sectors," Bush added.

The Obamacare effect

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in support of the Affordable Care Act , the executive said that he expects "new, more innovative ways to digitally deliver health."

He explained that beyond connecting doctors to each other, he sees "connecting doctors to payments for results," in the future. U.S. medical providers get "paid for inputs not outputs. Everywhere else, it's the results."

Bush says the Obamacare ruling has created "certainty" for health-care providers after years of political infighting about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"The biggest obstacle to business is political uncertainty. We can play any game, just tell us what the rules are and stop moving them around and we'll invest," he said. "And that's now in place."

—"On the Money" airs on CNBC Sundays at 7:30 p.m., or check listings for airtimes in local markets.