XML pioneer Confer aims at Web standard for healthcare

October 18, 2000

XML pioneer Confer aims at Web standard for healthcareDell alliance opens door to ancillary marketsIn the healthcare space and beyond, software vendors are leaping onto the extensible markup language (XML) bandwagon (HNN 9/20/00). Just as

XML pioneer Confer aims at Web standard for healthcare

Dell alliance opens door to ancillary markets

In the healthcare space and beyond, software vendors are leaping onto the extensible markup language (XML) bandwagon (HNN 9/20/00). Just as having ASP-type subscription-based pricing is a must for firms to remain competitive, each day seems to bring at least one announcement about a product, initiative, or alliance that will take data further and faster with XML coding. In fact, HL7 has just released its first standard based on XML (see News Briefs, page 5).

Redwood City, CA-based Confer Software was arguably the first pure-play healthcare independent software vendor to recognize XML's value in the medical field. The ConferWeb platform and related applications are based on the eProcess concept‹automating workflow and integrating the systems that house data into the workflow process. The firm claims that its XML-based platform and products can be installed and implemented in around four months.

"eProcess is centered around workflow," said Carl Tsukahara, vice president of marketing and strategic alliances for Confer. "We took existing paper-based information and made it browser-based."

According to Tsukahara, the firm chose to concentrate first on clinical applications because 85% of data collection and entry takes place at the point of care. Confer's initial applications (ConferWeb Disease Manager, Utilization Manager, Case Manager, and Self Care) are developed around automating and streamlining care management.

However, these applications are not just about process. Confer has also obtained the right to take the clinical content from the disease management program it has been running for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield (HNN 7/12/00) and embed the content into its software.

"Now the software that we sell is a complete turnkey solution, including validated, proven content, healthcare guidelines, and protocols for congestive heart failure," said Rex Wang, Confer's director of product marketing. "We can sell the aggregate data, the process, and the protocols to provide a comprehensive health management suite to get the client up and running instantly."

Confer and Anthem are involved in another pilot program that will take their products directly to patients. The partners are implementing a disease management program for gestational diabetic patients (women who develop diabetes during pregnancy), in which the patients will get Web-enabled cell phones that will remind them to take glucose readings. The results can then be entered into the phone and transmitted to the Confer system for review by clinicians. Phone.com, another Confer development partner, is providing the infrastructure for the wireless Web.

"As opposed to other companies using handhelds for delivery, we are giving phones to the patients, not the doctors," Wang said. "Our goal is to improve patient compliance, and the data can be retrieved by physicians over an extranet using regular computers and a regular browser."

According to Wang, using XML as the platform for each of these projects means that existing data can be formatted to any form factor for viewing on Web phones, personal digital assistants, and other devices with smaller screens than laptops or PCs.

"As Confer manages and captures patient information, it is a straightforward process to modify the applications to make certain data elements and certain screens available over the Web," he said. "Right now Confer is being used to support clinicians. In a subsequent phase, we'll extend the system out to other constituencies. We're watching the trend toward defined contribution and the empowered consumer."

Although Confer has the requisite ASP offering, the firm hasn't seen much hard interest from customers so far. Confer partners with Exodus Communications to deliver its ASP-based applications and to provide ASP-platform services to customers who want to launch their own hosted applications.

"Our customers are interested in ASPs, but most still buy," Tsukahara said. "They like the subscription-based pricing, but large health plans want to own their data and keep it in-house."

In the meantime, Confer recently closed high-profile partnerships with W3Health, Vitalz, and Dell to expand into ancillary markets such as scheduling and reporting. The firm has also received inquiries from companies interested in licensing the eProcess infrastructure for both healthcare and nonhealthcare applications.

The Dell alliance has the potential to dramatically increase Confer's visibility in the healthcare market. It also offers Dell the opportunity to increase its market share in healthcare. According to Richard Melby, senior manager for Dell Healthcare marketing, Dell will provide the hardware, deployment, and technical support for Confer's applications.

"Dell's core expertise is in the Internet, as well as factoring and service capabilities," he said. "What we have with Confer is services, product, and deployment expertise, coupled with technology."

Dell's healthcare vertical group has just reorganized and is now part of the public sector vertical, which includes federal government, K-12, higher education, and state and local government. According to Melby, Dell plans to double the number of employees in its healthcare segment over the next six quarters and increase its presence in the sector.

"We are underrepresented in healthcare compared to other markets," he said. "We are looking at this as a great opportunity for investment, and we are proactively working on establishing relationships with major application houses."