Can the channel save healthcare?

Most Canadians can probably attest to doctors’ offices littered with files and records and slow wait times for lab test results or referrals. Talk of electronic health records (EHRs) and a more centralized approach to care has been touted by provincial and federal governments for more than a decade, but it’s a major undertaking.

At the same time, efforts to make patient care delivery faster and more efficient through EHR development and improvements to storage and virtualization solutions are creating high demands on IT and big opportunities for the channel. While healthcare remains one of the more daunting verticals to service, there is opportunity for partners who are willing to understand its challenges and offer solutions for true outcomes.

Knowing the challenge (and the opportunity)

It has been 10 years since the creation of Canada Health Infoway, a non-profit organization that works with the Canadian government to push for EHR adoption. As of September 2010, it had approved investments in nearly 300 EHR projects with an estimated value of $2.1 billion, providing funding for IT projects across the country. However, an April 2010 report by the group stated that the risk of it not achieving its goal of EHRs for all Canadians by 2016 was high.

In Canada, an EHR would include a patient’s lifetime records and diagnostic images from various healthcare institutions and labs. All this data would theoretically be accessed by a patient’s authorized healthcare professionals from anywhere at any time.

Some traditional storage vendors such as EMC, Hewlett Packard and Hitachi Data Systems, among others, have been working on EHR-related virtualized solutions for several years. Some have partnered with specialized health software vendors to create specialized solutions for picture archiving communications systems (PACS) applications, or medical images and reports used for diagnostic purposes.

With that huge amount of data and requirements to store health records essentially forever comes the need for better, more flexible infrastructure for healthcare institutions, particularly around data storage and access to that data, often through virtual desktop or content management solutions.

Many healthcare institutions across North America still have a siloed approach to how information is stored, said Dave Wilson, senior director of business development for the health and life science group at Hitachi Data Systems. When it comes to sharing information among departments, then, information and archives become siloed. “This is changing a little bit, but not enough,” Wilson said.

This is where the problem for records management and storage lies-but also the opportunity for partners who want to move toward virtualization solutions for storage.

“You essentially treat all of those different silos of storage as one pool of storage,” with virtualized solutions, he said.

Knowing the market & channel partners

The solutions and vendor partners may be there, but the right understanding of healthcare still has to be acquired.

“I do think (servicing health care) is a specialized knowledge that comes with experience,” said Claudio DiGirolamo, head of healthcare solutions with CompuCom Canada, a solution provider based in Toronto. CompuCom partners with EMC for storage solutions and other vendors such as Citrix and VMware to virtualize its storage offerings for the healthcare market.

For CompuCom, servicing the healthcare vertical is about ensuring that IT fits the delivery of clinical practices. “We are always looking for ways to improve that,” DiGirolamo said.

“With selling into healthcare, you’ll quickly find out that IT is not top of mind when creating budgets,” he said. So, there’s also opportunity for solution providers who can help create efficient processes for healthcare customers.

CompuCom, for example, has staff that monitor storage usage for clients. “We work with all clients to determine if there are any major spikes coming up,” he said. Provisioning is done automatically and the hospital will face no wait time for more storage or extra costs other than the agreed-upon per-gigabyte contract.

Knowing the channel partners

For Michael Humke, Ingram Micro‘s senior director of vertical markets, partnership and collaboration among channel partners, not just vendors, is integral to servicing the healthcare market. Pairing the right networking, storage and security solutions together requires education and collaboration among channel partners, which is where distributors can play a significant role.

“When you look at this market, there isn’t really one partner that is ever going to be able … to do everything,” he said. For that reason, in August, Ingram Micro launched a channel partner network in the U.S. dedicated specifically to healthcare.

Eventually, a similar network will likely exist here in Canada, according to Humke. One of the main goals with the partner network was to create opportunities for collaboration among different solution providers who may not have thought to work with each other. “It’s hard to keep up with all the different things that are going on,” he said.

For distributors such as Ingram Micro, the goal is to bring various partners together to create a complete solution with one voice.

Knowing the customer

Though solution providers may speak to IT departments first to tout security and cost effectiveness of solutions, the end users’ opinions are also critical in the healthcare space, particularly when serving small doctors’ offices with limited resources or creating virtual desktop solutions for healthcare workers in large environments, a key part of the move to EHRs.

“The physician market is absolutely where the largest growth is going to come from,” Humke said. But partners should prepare for the fact that some doctors just don’t want to change and they will need to justify costs and prove outcomes more than with other industries. “They’re creatures of habit,” he said. “Educate them, show the value add, let them walk before they run. It’s not a revolution.”

Perhaps more than any other vertical, partners need to be able to show how their solutions can have real impact on patient care. “We’re not dealing with financial transactions,” DiGirolamo said. “We’re dealing with people’s lives.”

Selling mobility

Like EHRs, selling mobile solutions to healthcare is about streamlining the workflow to make patient care more effective.

Motorola recently hired on Sheldon Herbert, a former Research in Motion Ltd. executive to lead a team of salespeople geared toward specific verticals, including healthcare.

Believe it or not, many doctors and nurses still use pagers to communicate within hospital environments, Herbert said. As the healthcare industry seeks out greater efficiency, mobility will play a major role in how the industry functions.

“A lot of the other verticals keep a little more updated,” Herbert said. Where other industries experience a simple phone upgrade, healthcare sees a ground-breaking new technology.

When selling mobile devices to healthcare institutions, you have to target IT first and sell products that are secure at the hardware level, he said.

“Really the hotspot that we’ve found is in the homecare and hospice space,” he said.

With healthcare providers who visit several places in a day, solutions that are mobile and secure, such as tablets or lapdock devices that work with smartphones can improve efficiency greatly, he said. “We want to consolidate those devices so you’re not walking around with a Batman belt.”

Follow Harmeet Singh on Twitter: @HarmeetCDN.

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Harmeet Singh
Harmeet Singh
Harmeet reports on channel partner programs, new technologies and products and other issues relevant to Canada's channel community. She also contributes as a video journalist, providing content for the site's original streaming video. Harmeet is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism.

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