Element Blue is a Houston-based software solutions consultancy that got its start in the early 2000s building platforms for enterprise web portals and business to business digital experiences. The company has since expanded to data integration and analytics, managed cloud and, most recently, intelligent business automation specializing in RPA in the health care provider space. What began nearly two decades ago as a startup consultancy in Texas with IBM as its sole technology partner, has grown geographically with offices in India, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
RPA Today publisher Steve Casco sat down recently with Steven Gerhardt, managing partner and CEO of Element Blue, to talk about entrepreneurship, growth, automation and where its future lies in health care.
RPA Today: Striking out on your own is not an easy road. What led you to entrepreneurship in general, and the technology space in particular?
Steven Gerhardt: I started out as a developer in the biomedical arena. One of my early stops was a company in Maine called FMC—a conglomerate that began to use Lotus Notes in the early 90s.
I began to develop applications in Lotus Notes, a burgeoning space at the time. In 1996, IBM bought Lotus and that was significant for me as I watched IBM transition Lotus to a major piece of its software puzzle.
After several years with FMC, I moved back to my home state of Texas and worked as a consultant in the Lotus space for around eight years, utilizing workflows and collaboration.
In December 2000, I branched out on my own with a partner to start Ixion, the predecessor to Element Blue. It was a leap. The company I had been working for went out of business, so it was a natural demarcation in my career. Our company was focused on the integration of new enterprise web applications and user experience. Using the internet as a web application platform had become a major strategic transition for enterprise.
Over the next nine years we significantly grew Ixion’s business. Lotus had its day and we transitioned to Java and the enterprise portal and digital experience business. We primarily built IBM WebSphere applications on our clients’ platforms, and integrated the backend systems much more intimately; we helped businesses integrate those systems to expose transactional data or processes that were needed on the portal.
In 2012 I brought on new partners and we relaunched as Element Blue. We liked the “blue” component of what we were doing with IBM, and “element” came from the elementary aspect of technology and stitching together a holistic, integrated platform.
RPA Today: So, you’ve been in multiple verticals and multiple countries. When did you decide to add RPA integrations?
Steven Gerhardt: As a business partner, I was able to attend IBM’s very first “What is RPA” workshop. With significant partner interest it became apparent to me that RPA was something to pay attention to. I also had been hearing from people I trusted that RPA was expected to really take off. So, the combination of these two things got me interested.
At the time, the affordable care act and meaningful use initiatives meant significant opportunities for growth in our digital experience portal business, with health care providers, working with CMOs. The timing was right to begin exploring how we could strategically add RPA to our existing practice.
The great thing about health care is that there are many disconnected pieces that can be connected quickly with RPA to make an early and significant business impact. Many times, a portal brings together data and integration of data or processes within user context. We were seeing this with a platform we built for Hospitals involving referral automation. It was a perfect opportunity for RPA with an EMR (Electronic Medical Records system), and it got me thinking about other possible health care use cases.
RPA Today: You’ve partnered with several technology providers over the years. Given your initial experience was with Automation Anywhere, what led you to UiPath?
Steven Gerhardt: In 2017, we conducted three or four months of testing with Workfusion, Automation Anywhere and UiPath. We found that these vendors were maturing and, from a technology standpoint, any one of them would have worked well for us. We came close to selecting Workfusion, but I met with several established UiPath partners and they couldn’t say enough great things about the technology partnership. In Q1 of 2018, I met with the UiPath folks. The person-to-person connection coupled with the positive feedback from the other partners convinced me to go with UiPath.
RPA Today: You have a solid 20-year track record, including health care, but the RPA space is relatively new. How do you achieve a comfort level with customers in terms of convincing them that you really know what you’re doing?
Steven Gerhardt: We began our RPA practice by introducing it to existing clients. Clients that already trust you and know you do great work can very often be open to trying something new together. We may be building our expertise in this area, but so is everybody else. The story for RPA is fairly straightforward because they know everyone is new.
One of the highlights we can tout is the transformation of our own business. Four years ago, close to 60 percent of our business was coming from the IBM ecosystem. Today, less than ten percent of our business comes from IBM. They sold the majority of the portal and commerce portfolio—all of the web content management and a lot of the marketing and data analytics around those—to HCL Technologies for $2.2 billion. So, they no longer own the products that we used during our 20 years with them. We had to adapt, and RPA was a clear way to do that.
RPA Today: There is definitely low-hanging fruit, from an RPA perspective, in the health care space. I’m sure you’re addressing that. But what are the less obvious opportunities in health care?
Steven Gerhardt: We currently don’t do much on the payor side or in bio-pharma, but there are some great opportunities there, and we’re interested in exploring those.
The starting point for most everyone in the provider space is the revenue cycle. Providers are trying to automate whatever they can, beginning with the work queues in their EMR systems – where a lot of the repetitive tasks exist. It’s the most obvious place to start. EMR is very analogous to ERP.
The less obvious opportunity we see for RPA in health care is with the processes related to the patient encounter or patient access story. We call it Service Moment AutomationTM, and it marries the front office to the back office.
One example is the manual handling of referrals by fax, which is still very prevalent. A referral is a critical sub-point to a patient securing an appointment with a specialist. In today’s connected world, you can quickly find the number for the specialist recommended by your PCP, and call the specialist immediately yourself. But, specialists won’t typically begin the appointment process until they receive a payor authorization. At your regular doctor’s office, a nurse or assistant completes forms from scratch that contain all of the required patient data for the specialty group. The specialist’s office then receives the forms via PDF or fax, and re-keys the information into an EMR system.
Until recently, every medical specialty within a system has handled the referral process manually. And at a major pediatric hospital, this could total 40 different specialties. Speeding up this process provides a better patient experience and is also a revenue recovery opportunity.
Another place for RPA in the health care vertical is in genetics counseling – which is exploding right now as more people try to assess their hereditary risk for certain diseases. We built a platform for Baylor College of Medicine that allows patients to sign-in for education and information prior to scheduling a counseling appointment. The health care systems that use this system in concert with Baylor are re-keying this information. Inconsistencies can occur during these rekeying events across EMR systems, and this can impact patient access.
Our question to clients is, “What is your most critical service moment? Are your patients happy with your services?” In health care, many of us as consumers are not. Therein lies the opportunity for Service Moment Automation.
RPA Today: Are you going out to clients or are they coming to you for RPA? How much education is necessary?
Steven Gerhardt: Awareness is high, especially within the finance function of hospital systems. Everyone has heard of RPA at this point. Whether they are acting upon the need or have included it among their priorities is another question. The Health Care Finance Management Association, which is a huge trade group for health care finance professionals, has been highly focused on RPA.
In other parts of the hospital, though, there is very little knowledge. Revenue cycle is the entry point to conversations with other areas where we know we can deliver value. From rev cycle, a CIO or a COO picks it up and introduces us to those departments that also can benefit.
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