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Chris Notaro: How Healthcare Data Integration Customers Can Better Avoid Unknowns and Scale for Success

Keeping us focused on the prize, the no-b.s. reality checker on our industry’s use of buzzwords, and making sure we are growing in the right ways as we expand the Bridge Connector partnership roadmap. That’s Chris Notaro, one of the healthcare industry’s leading experts in innovative tech adoption and growth strategy for fast-scaling vendors, and he recently joined Bridge Connector as Vice President, Strategy. His other claims to fame include being part of a star-studded vocal performance on The Today Show and being Villanova University’s no. 1 basketball fan. (Trust us when we say you’re going to want to read all of this one.)

Below, Chris is interviewed as part of our “Ask the Expert” blog series, presented in a question-and-answer format, so you can hear directly from our in-house experts and partners, in their words.

Q: Hi Chris, first of all, welcome again to Bridge Connector. You’re joining us as Vice President of Strategy. Tell us what you’ll be doing in your role.

A: Thank you! I’m joining the executive leadership team in a cross-functional role between sales and product delivery. I have the pleasure of helping to inform Bridge Connector’s overall strategy, shaping our near, medium, and long-term partnership strategy within the healthcare industry. We’re serving as the experts for health technology companies who need healthcare integration solutions and expertise, as well as for big, non-health tech companies who have a footprint in the healthcare domain. The unprecedented growth that the healthcare and healthcare technology industries have seen over the past two decades has been nothing short of mesmerizing. In addition to the seemingly endless number of companies doing great things in healthcare as their core competency, it’s also rewarding to work with companies whose names you hear and don’t automatically think of healthcare. I help us think about how to approach all these sorts of companies and partnerships.

Q: You have to have a very holistic view of the industry to bring these skills for us, and I can imagine no better training ground for this than beginning your career at Epic (the most widely-used EHR, or electronic health record, in the country). What did you study in school, and how does one end up working for Epic right out of undergraduate study?

A: I went to Villanova University for my undergraduate business degree, and I think I was the first person recruited out of Villanova to go work at Epic. Villanova has sent a few people a year to go work at Epic since then, and I was definitely proud to help open that pipeline. My dad’s an architect, my mom is an accountant, and I have several aunts and uncles who are healthcare providers. I knew some generalities about the healthcare business, but I took the offer from Epic because of what an insane opportunity it presented at age 21 for professional growth at such a large company. Little did I know that working at Epic would lead to how I met my future wife Kelli at a downtown Madison hospital where she was working as a nurse at the time. I was there for an in-person meeting with their Epic team. She’s due to receive her Doctorate of Nursing Practice in May 2020, so I am for sure the junior healthcare professional in our house.

Q: What’s the most valuable thing you learned at Epic?

A: How to be an elite performer in a professional setting. When you surround yourself with people who all want to be the best, you rise to their level, and this is a byproduct of the culture at Epic. It is also very true at Bridge Connector. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

I started out at Epic being primarily responsible for the emergency department module on large-scale academic implementations, which led to major internal initiatives to better those products. From there, I gained product leadership opportunities where I became responsible for escalated, aka really unhappy, customers. These were some of the toughest challenges I have had professionally, but they gave me so many skills with conflict resolution and complex problem-solving.

Q: Walk me through a common complaint that you had to field from these types of customers. Were there common themes that helped inform how to make better EHRs?

A: It was usually more on the usability side — how happy are the providers using your product in their day-to-day jobs, and is it making their day easier or harder. All of my healthcare integration solutions traced back to finding ways to make the product more usable for them, and it wasn’t always a software problem. It was most often a workflow problem.

That’s an element that Bridge Connector is really nailing. We are intensely workflow-focused with our healthcare integration solutions. “Automated workflows” or “workflow orchestration” can sound like fancy buzzwords out in the marketplace. But here, there is substance behind those words. It’s not just magic beans using this language in sales materials.

Q: Let’s talk about that — “workflow automation.” Break it down for us in layman’s terms, and why is it important to approach healthcare integration solutions from this perspective?

A: Yes, it is a little “buzzy” in the industry right now, and my spidey senses go off when I hear that, anxious to hear if someone’s use of the term will be substantive. To be widely adopted, technology solutions must take into account how end-users interact with them — what is that person’s daily workflow of tasks or processes. Where integration companies can bring the most value is literally looking at business problems and saying what can be automated here? What manual processes are unnecessarily triggering two, three, or even four rounds of data entry into completely separate platforms, none of which are talking to one another? What data is missing to inform better business decisions, and then making those connections happen. Getting even more into layman’s terms, why should most end-users in healthcare organizations have to wait for an entirely different side of the house to go through a massive IT lift, involving vendors and highly technical personnel, every time they need two different systems to do something? In any other industry, this would be as easy as sharing a photo from one social media platform to another.

And here’s why it’s important to not just talk about workflow but to design healthcare integration solutions around it. Unlike other solutions on the market, Bridge Connector’s fully managed approach allows customers to integrate systems without continually needing to code (and recode over and over again, despite initial promises). The way that Bridge Connector is going about it is ground-breaking and very needed in our industry right now.

Q: How do you speak to those business challenges when selling integrations? Can you share your initial learnings about what solutions were needed to solve customers’ challenges versus how integration solutions are evolving?

A: I think what was awesome coming from the EHR background is that I had the ability to “talk shop” on workflows significantly better than your average salesperson, which gave me an advantage. I’m someone who was genuinely interested in understanding a prospective customer’s problem, rather than somebody who just trying to sell them something they didn’t need. Having that workflow understanding was important to get really deep into the complex strategy. Keep in mind, I was with a young, resource-strapped organization when I turned my primary focus to interoperability, standing in front of rooms where we were kind of fighting above our weight class. Not only did I learn a lot, but it changed me quite a bit as a person overall.

In terms of how the landscape has changed, the market initially started with your legacy players and most integration happening on-premises. It was all point-to-point interfaces, completely lacking any sort of economies of scale. This meant that only your very large, enterprise organizations could afford effective healthcare integration solutions.

Integrations started becoming more available for mid-size organizations, but let’s face it, they were still pretty much out of reach for everyone due to cost and time to implement.

Even some of the best and brightest technology logos in the world struggle with healthcare integration solutions as a core competency, and it was exciting to be at a company that excitingly first challenged that point-to-point notion. It gave me my first look at how desperate the market was for a solution.

Q: Why are integrations so hard to get right?

A: Loaded question! First and foremost, the mixture of standards and protocols for integrations is complex, and each vendor gets to pick their own flavors. You have HL7, X12, FHIR, APIs, direct to database, ETL-based … the list goes on and on. Not only is it going to be different for every major technology company or digital health vendor, but then consider their pipeline of customers and prospects, each of whom are going to have a diverse mix of systems and methods that you must be able to support. I mean, a technology company might have a sales pipeline with customers using the same select few EHRs, but you can still have completely different implementations of each, with slightly different variations of those standards and protocols for integration. It’s a scalability nightmare from a cost and a resource perspective when most organizations try to go this alone, managing all of these connectors.

Then, there’s the business answer when you consider the total addressable market. Even within some of your high-profile healthcare specialties, people have seen a business opportunity to address specialty-specific challenges by building niche-specific apps, EHRs, CRMs, or other third-party software. But this almost adds to the greater interoperability challenge because you have more players all trying to write their own rules.

Q: So you had to make — and win — the case for outsourcing healthcare data integration in your last role. What are the biggest factors that a company needs to consider if they should “buy” or “build” their own integrations?

A: I think the total cost of ownership is a huge place to start. It can end up being a black hole of additional expenses to go it alone because you’re going to need to hire the right resources who understand all the different standards, protocols, and methods at play, as we just touched on with why the ecosystem is so fragmented in health IT. Then, as you’re pipeline-forecasting, you must accurately estimate the cost to maintain that expertise in-house — then how to do that in a way that will meet the demands of your organization if you hope to grow and scale. It’s a large cost proposition. Or, you minimize the downside and get more predictable with costs and timelines when you hire an integration expert like Bridge Connector. Go it alone, spend endless amounts of cash on a moving target, or work with us to get it done right and on-budget. Once we’re talking to the right decision-makers who understand the problem, many of our clients are so happy that we’ve found each other.

Q: How is Bridge Connector doing things differently?

A: As I alluded to earlier, one of the biggest challenges our competitors face is their customers having to code and recode to their platform to power interoperability, if not having to build everything from scratch themselves anyway. I saw Bridge Connector’s growth and wondered what was under the hood — how were these folks getting off the code and recode merry-go-round and growing so quickly? Plain and simple — the tech has to work. And it does. But beyond the platform doing its job, the fact that our model has us take on all of the technical lift and never requires coding work from our clients is something that makes many of our clients and prospects very happy, especially ones who have dabbled with the competition.

The key differentiator between us and the legacy players is easier. Spend a lot for a partial healthcare integration solution that may take a ton of your resources to manage, or work with Bridge Connector at a reasonable cost and have us take on all of the work because that’s just what we do?

Q: Yes, what it comes down to is having different technology and we do get the questions about, “What’s actually under the hood?” As you started asking those very pointed questions as a new hire, what did you find out?

A: Yes, that’s a great question. It started out almost binary. It either works or it doesn’t. Net Promoter Scores, customer testimonials, and how quickly the company has grown into a top player were almost proof enough that the tech is working. There’s also a lot of internal recognition that’s deserved for our delivery teams who are doing all of that hard work behind the scenes. Our product is not only powering full-service integrations current-day, but our very near-term, product development roadmap is a comprehensive and direct attempt at simplifying what is horribly complex. Our product does all the heavy lifting for you.

In the same way that Dropbox revolutionized cloud storage, or Salesforce revolutionized the CRM game and the way sales teams communicate and track things, our product is going to do that for different healthcare systems, technology companies, and the workload between disparate systems.

What I found also went beyond what’s under the hood. I immediately gelled with Bridge Connector’s executive team, not just interpersonally but because we have the right people at the helm to succeed massively and quickly. There is a perfect blend of seasoned business executives who are capable of rolling up their sleeves and popping up to the 30,000-foot view interchangeably, as well as technologists who understand why our industry has traditionally been chaotic and what it’s going to take to actually solve the problem, not just market that we can.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote that you like to refer to professionally?

A: My m.o. comes from my alma mater Villanova and its basketball program — simply “Attitude.” Jay Wright, Villanova University basketball coach (recently named AP coach of the decade, no big deal) is the leader of the “Attitude” movement. In his coaching and his writing, he talks a lot about how momentum is more psychological than mathematic. If you’re a player on the court, your team could be on the receiving end of hot opponent play, objectively poor officiating, or plenty of other obstacles. But you have to be ready for anything, to shoot as honestly and to defend as fiercely as you can. You might as well have some fun while you’re at it, too. Any negativity you create in your thoughts, words, or actions is literally just fighting against yourself. Make sure you have the attitude to always put your best foot forward when you’re faced with an opportunity. That’s what “attitude” is. The positivity and enthusiasm I’ve found at Bridge Connector factors into this as I continue building a team.

Q: You have been featured on The Today Show, singing a Dan + Shay song — in front of Dan + Shay. You have to tell us the story of how this came about.

A: They were the first concert my wife and I went to as a couple, one to two months after we started dating. They were an emerging act at the time, and their song, “Nothin’ Like You” became our song. Fast-forward a couple of years, they had become a much bigger deal, and we did a “Meet and Greet” at one of their shows. I had a moment of privacy with them where I told them I was going to look at engagement rings the next day, unbeknownst to Kelli, and that I was going to sing their song to Kelli at our wedding. They were blown away by that. So that did end up happening at our wedding, and several of our friends recorded it with their phones. A few weeks later, we were in New York City for another friend’s wedding and got a call from The Today Show saying they’d seen our video and wanted to know if we wanted to come to the show while we were in town. Dan + Shay had just dropped a new album and were performing as part of the Today Show’s outdoor summer concert series. So of course, we accepted thinking we just had cool tickets. Towards the end of the show, they came back from a commercial break and Hoda asked, “Where are Chris and Kelli?” and I about died. Hoda told our story and asked for me to sing the song again, this time on-air and into her microphone, literally feet away from Dan + Shay. It was beyond nerve-wracking, but I kept it together and crushed it. They gave us a framed photo from our wedding that they signed, “Kelli + Chris, Nothin’ Like You.” Such a cool moment, and of course we have the framed photo prominently displayed in our house now.

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