BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
CHICAGO -- At the small family medicine practice of Christopher Crooker, M.D., in Lawrenceville, Ga., about 50 patients enthusiastically wear Fitbit activity bands and iHealth devices to track their daily steps, sleep and other wellness measures.
The tracker data and other information the patients enter stream into an app on their mobile phones called "healow," the new wellness portal built by EHR vendor eClinicalWorks LLC. Crooker's Gwinnett Center Medical Associates practice has been using healow since January after eClinicalWorks rolled it out following a two-year, $75 million development project.
On his end, Crooker, a fitness buff, calls up the patients' healow charts on a monitor during examinations and goes over the results together with the patients.
"It's really gotten the patients excited about taking care of themselves," Shari Crooker, a registered nurse and the practice administrator, said in a phone interview. "It's patient engagement. You can take care of your own health and show it to Dr. Crooker. It's fun, and we can actually do something with the information."
EHR vendors bet on wellness
Westborough, Mass.-based eClinicalWorks was among hundreds of companies exhibiting their health IT offerings at this week's sprawling HIMSS 2015 conference and exhibition at the massive McCormick Place convention center, the largest in North America.
One of the show's distinct themes is the wellness movement that has swept the healthcare landscape and is now making its way into patients' health records not only at small physician practices but also at big hospitals.
EHR giant Epic Systems Corp., with its deal to optimize its MyChart tracker app for Apple's HealthKit platform, is piping personal wellness data into doctor's offices at large healthcare systems.
As for eClinicalWorks, its CEO and Co-founder, Girish Navani, said the company essentially bet on wellness becoming adopted by the medical world, in the face of resistance from those who said physicians may not want to be flooded with wellness data.
The cloud-oriented EHR vendor, which mainly targets physician practices, solved that issue by creating a dashboard that lets physicians see and use as much or as little personal wellness data -- which patients must give affirmative assent for doctors to collect -- as they want.
"We're trying not to just give doctors information in bits and bytes, but trying to infer what they really use," Navani said.
HIMSS 2015's choice of kickoff keynote speaker, Alex Gourlay, president of Walgreens -- the largest U.S. drugstore chain with 8,200 stores -- reflected the fast-moving trend toward consumer and mobile health.
Walgreens jumps into digital health
Gourlay told several thousand show-goers that Walgreens is committed to a digitally connected future in which customers interact with pharmacists and retail stores through apps, barcode scanners and online features.
Alex Gourlaypresident, Walgreens
Today, customers scan in prescription refills with their mobile phones, link their wearable devices to Walgreens health and wellness apps, earn discount points by participating in wellness programs and get immunization shots and other quick medical services at stores. Walgreens and many other companies at HIMSS 2015 also announced that they are rolling out apps for the new Apple Watch smartwatch.
The new pharmacy model has also been adopted by other major drugstore chains, such as CVS Health.
"Today's customers are more empowered than ever. We need to provide them with actionable insights using our data," Gourlay said. "There's more emphasis than ever on owning your own health through wellness and connectedness."
Wellness devices in Walgreens' orbit
One of the vendors in the Walgreens ecosystem is Withings, a French company that makes smart scales, smartwatches and other connected devices, and does a brisk business selling trackers into U.S. corporate wellness programs.
In fact, Withings -- whose products link to Walgreen apps, Apple HealthKit, Epic's MyChart, Jawbone's UP systems, and a variety of wellness platforms from other vendors -- had a small booth under the giant Walgreens umbrella in the HIMSS 2015 exhibit hall.
Alexis Normand, the company's healthcare development director, had just arrived at the show after running a marathon in France over the weekend. He was wearing Withings' stylish, $450 Activite activity tracking watch, which also has a new $150 version with a plastic band and less fancy watch face.
"Health is becoming increasingly consumerized," Normand said. "That's why Apple is concerned about it. And that's why we're trying to reach patients with products that appeal to the end consumer, but are also fully integrated with the medical system."
Other software players are also looking at a future based on much more interoperability between personal devices and healthcare providers, between providers and between patients and their caregivers.
David Leach, vice president of intelligent integration for Orion Health -- a New Zealand-based population health and analytics vendor that counts some three dozen U.S. health information exchanges among several hundred U.S. customers -- applauded the wellness movement.
"It's a huge trend, this consumerization of healthcare," Leach said in an interview at Orion's busy booth on the show floor. "The market needs to embrace this disruption."