Health IT is big, and Georgia is its epicenter

Chris Hooper and his startup firm, Emergence, are betting on the boom in health information technology.

Chris Hooper
Chris Hooper

Launched last year as an “accelerator,’’ Emergence will take fledgling health IT companies and get them ready to pitch investors for funding. It will also help medical device companies get their new products established.

“One of the only good things’’ about the Affordable Care Act, CEO Hooper says, is its push for cost savings in health care, and for data derived from electronic medical records. “Health IT is a high-growth area,” he says.

Emergence, located in Alpharetta, could not have picked a better place to operate. Industry leaders say Georgia is the nation’s health IT capital. The boom is statewide, but particularly strong in metro Atlanta.

More than 250 health IT companies are located in the state, employing more than 30,000 workers, according to the Technology Association of Georgia.

Companies in the industry offer a range of products and services, from electronic health records, medical billing and revenue management to diagnostics, preserving the security of information exchanges, and consumer health information.

Stethoscope on a computer keyboard

Health IT systems are also tracking medical outcomes of patients after they receive care, a big focus of the Affordable Care Act. The health reform law has led Medicare and private insurers to base payments increasingly on the quality of medical care delivered, rather than quantity of services.

An industry magazine last year listed eight Georgia-based companies among its top 100 health IT companies in the United States in 2014, based on revenues from the previous year.

McKesson, headquartered in Alpharetta, was again ranked as the No. 1 company in the industry, according to Healthcare Informatics Magazine. The company, with $3.4 billion in revenues, has topped the magazine’s list for seven straight years.

McKesson got its footprint here in 1999 by purchasing HBO & Co., a leader in medical software, located in Atlanta.

Fertile ground for innovation

The health IT industry has blossomed in Georgia and metro Atlanta for several reasons.

The area had a rich vein of financial IT and managerial talent, says Steve Rushing, senior strategic adviser for the Health IT Extension Services at Georgia Tech.


“The group of early [health IT] entrepreneurs built other new companies,’’ Rushing says. “It’s kind of natural entrepreneurial growth.”

Another strength of metro Atlanta is the array of universities and medical schools located in the area.

The state’s good business climate and the presence of Atlanta’s huge international airport have also boosted the industry here, said Tino Mantella of the Technology Association of Georgia.

The revolution in patients’ medical records has fueled the IT growth spurt, with physicians’ offices across the U.S. giving up folders full of written notes and turning instead to digital data.

The Georgia Tech unit helps Georgia doctors and hospitals develop their electronic health records systems. It also works with startup health IT companies to solve the perpetual problem of getting digital systems “to talk to one another,’’ Rushing says.

Age of the electronic file

Greenway Health, based in Carrollton, has taken advantage of the demand for electronic health records.

Created in 1998, the company now has 1,700 employees. And it’s still expanding. In November, Greenway announced that it is establishing an IT development center in Cobb County that will create 150 new jobs.

CEO Tee Green envisions a future health care system that’s “smarter,’’ one that does a better job at controlling medical costs. Digital data can fuel that development, he says.

Gov. Nathan Deal attends a ceremony marking Greenway Medical Technologies' new headquarters.
Gov. Nathan Deal attends a ceremony marking Greenway’s new headquarters.

“We have to tear down walls’’ between medical providers, health insurers and patients, Green says. “And at the end of the day, it saves lives.”

Among the many results of the far-reaching 2010 health reform law was the creation of Accountable Care Organizations, combinations of doctors and hospitals that are rewarded with higher payments for better quality. Greenway has more than 20 of these ACOs as customers, Green says.

“We think we’re heading toward a smarter system, built on efficiency and quality,” Green adds.

Navicure, a medical claims firm based in Duluth, has developed a product that lets consumers know how much they will have to pay after a medical visit.

Jim Denny, Navicure’s CEO, notes that most of the plans on the ACA health insurance exchange, while modestly priced, have high deductibles. With the first $1,000 or more coming out of a patient’s pocket, it’s crucial for that patient to know what individual services cost.

The rapid consolidation of hospitals and doctors’ practices also provides business opportunities for health IT firms, Denny says.

‘A great opportunity’

Baha Zeidan
Baha Zeidan

Baha Zeidan, CEO of Azalea Health, sees future growth opportunities in telehealth, which allows the transmission of video and data to physicians at a remote location.

His company, with offices in Atlanta, Valdosta, Macon and Gainesville, Fla.,  provides electronic health records and revenue management for physicians’ offices.

The twin goals of reducing health care costs and improving quality will benefit the industry, Zeidan says.

“It’s a great opportunity for Georgia and health IT companies, and also patients [being] engaged in their health care like they are with their finances,’’ he says.

Georgia Tech’s Rushing says the sector will continue to grow.

“There’s a very large latent demand for [information technology] in health care,’’ he says, adding that the medical field in general “has trailed a lot of other industries in automation.”

Consumers are getting more engaged and connected to health data, Rushing says, pointing to the surge in mobile monitoring devices.

“Big Data is being applied more and more to health care,” he says. “Georgia is at the center of a lot of this.”