As the federal health-care reform law nears full implementation, any health-care technology firms looking for opportunities may find that what the law actually has in store is an ever-changing future more familiar to the software industry.
"That is going to be the environment in which they will have to play," said Isa Bar-On, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who is part of a group of researchers studying electronic medical records systems, perhaps the keystone of the law's technology push.
In fact, much of the reform bill is focused on getting EMR systems into doctors' offices. This creates an opportunity for EMR firms like Westborough's eClinicalWorks, given that only between 12 and 15 percent of physicians' offices nationwide are using electronic records systems.
Bengisu Tulu, also a WPI professor, said that tech firms that hope to benefit from health-care reform ought to treat the law's ambitions as a parallel set of company goals.
"They have to align with those goals," Tulu said. In electronic medical records, that goal is so-called "meaningful use."
Health-care providers will be reimbursed by the government if they get meaningful use from electronic medical records. But the meaningful use standard is what Tulu called "a rising bar." It changes and becomes more comprehensive, more challenging, every two years.
Any firm that thinks it's going to play in the health-care industry had better be ready for almost constant change.
As an example, Tulu noted, "Windows today does very different things than Windows did 10 years ago," and health-care technology is on a course to match even smartphone application development for speed and competition.
Health-care technology firms will find themselves asking a question that consumer tech firms have been asking themselves for years: Will customers even care?
For now, the health-care reform law is helping to put electronic medical records into doctors' offices. But when the rising bar of meaningful use is at its top position, will the industry have enough momentum to sustain itself?
So far, it's hard to tell.
Bar-On, Tulu, Sharon Johnson and Diane Strong, the team of WPI researchers studying EMR technology, have begun a project that interviews Fallon Clinic patients about use of the clinic's "MyChart" EMR system.
The interviews should be wrapped up by Christmas. So far, the researchers are finding that despite the hype, patient reaction to EMR systems is mixed.
Part of meaningful use is for EMR systems to have patient portals. "The challenge is to understand what patients will do with the portals. Some are really interested in seeing their records, some are interested in communicating with their physician, but some don't think it makes any sense at all," said Tulu. "I think they're going to have to do a little more encouragement of patients."
When it comes to health care these days, patients are certainly keyed in on cost.
Kevin O'Sullivan, president and CEO of Worcester-based Mass. Biomedical Initiatives, said he expects an emergence of companies with products and services designed to bring the cost of health care down.
He said Fallon Clinic's ReadyMED walk-in clinics are a good, visible example.
"They have the technology, the equipment and the safety, but it's cheaper than the ER, and people hate emergency rooms," he said.
Perhaps less visible are contract research firms, which are poised for growth now that bringing costs down has become important to pharmaceutical companies.
Drug development "takes too long and costs too much," O'Sullivan said. Contract research firms cater to pharmaceutical or biotech giants looking for ways to make their products more affordable for customers and their own bottom lines.
"You have contract research companies that work specifically in proteins or sugars or plant derivatives," O'Sullivan said. In addition to being less expensive for big pharma, it may also be more efficient.
O'Sullivan also sees opportunity for companies that can manage health-care data. "The data needs some sense of order and understanding," he said. "The old style of doing things is like a dinosaur, and this is all geared toward bringing the cost down."