Salesforce dreams of a world beyond Patient Records with Health Cloud

Salesforce’s Health Cloud articulates a bold vision – go beyond patient records and build patient relationships. They have signed on some marquee clients and some solid partnerships. What makes this different and why will this succeed ?

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This week, the Dreamforce conference gets under way in San Francisco. The spotlight will shine on Salesforce’s recently announced Salesforce Health Cloud . It articulates a bold vision – go beyond patient “records,” and build patient “relationships” instead. Salesforce should know a thing or two about building relationships – after all, they reinvented CRM in the past decade.

The holy grail of patient engagement

Salesforce’s Health Cloud is a cloud-based patient relationship management solution – here again, Salesforce banks on what it knows best -building cloud-based CRM platforms - and translates that into the patient engagement context in a healthcare setting. The vision is to enable providers to gain a complete view of the patient with integrated data from electronic medical records (EMRs), wearables and more.

The health system is awash in data – after untold billions have been spent on creating electronic medical records (EMR), the focus is now turning towards unstructured data such as images and text, socio-economic data, and of course wearables data from the new Internet of Things (IoT).

At one level, the health system is ripe for disruption by non-traditional players and big technology firms. IBM has been a spending spree for healthcare data. Google is going all out on life sciences with its recently announced contact lens product that can detect the progress of diabetes. Even Apple announced new healthcare features in the Watch to enable secure exchange of information in a clinical setting. And a thousand disruptive healthcare startups are blooming in the Valley.

Everyone, it seems, is ultimately looking to take control of the orchestration of doctor-patient interaction through a comprehensive technology platform that can ingest all kinds of data, provide all kinds of insights, and enable all modes of interaction – mobile, tablet, watch, and what-have-you.

The timing arguably couldn’t be better. A recent report found that while health systems are using high tech and high touch approaches to reach patients, engagement levels remain low.  Traditional players, be it health systems or their electronic health record (EHR) vendors, have done little to create a user experience that meets expectations in today’s context.

What makes Salesforce Health Cloud different?

Bold vision notwithstanding, it will ultimately come down to execution. Salesforce has wisely chosen an ecosystem of partnerships to help convert this vision to reality. Initial customers, notably leading academic medical centers such as UC San Francisco (UCSF), are known leaders in technology adoption whose endorsements will mean a lot for market acceptance.

Salesforce has also brought on board a slew of technology partners to enable the implementation of its platform - besides big consulting firms such as Accenture and Deloitte, they have also signed up smaller firms such as Mulesoft and Persistent Systems with specific expertise around systems integrations that will be crucial in orchestrating data exchange between diverse systems. According to Ross Mason, Founder and VP of Product Strategy at Mulesoft, a Silicon Valley startup, the goal is ultimately to enable a “digital conversation” between doctors and patients. This requires including all data sources from EMR to X-ray images, and even messages exchanged on pagers (I am told only doctors and drug dealers use them today – though drug dealers have apparently moved on to more current technologies).

Eventually, all this will unlock valuable information about patients residing in disparate systems. This will also enable advanced analytics on the data that will influence diagnosis and treatment decisions.

The challenges (yes, there are some)

The big challenge that firms like Salesforce and IBM face today is one that the health system at large faces today – lack of interoperability, and data lock-in by the big EHR vendors. Considering that the majority of treatment decisions still relies heavily on EMR data, it becomes imperative to make this a part of the digital conversation. However, it is equally important to realize that the world needs to move beyond medical records alone, as Salesforce rightly points out. There is vast information out there in unstructured data such as images and text, and potentially vast amounts of new information from wearables and IoT.

However, just because the data is out there doesn’t mean it can or will be used in the immediate future. As an example, social media data is still out of bounds for the most part, and your doctor isn’t going to simply accept your Fitbit data for treatment decisions.

Having said that, initiatives like Health Cloud are important stepping stones in our journey towards a connected health ecosystem where doctors and patients can have secure digital conversations with all the available data at their disposal. But first, the data needs to come together. As someone said to me, data wants to be free. Let’s respect that wish.

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