VOICES: Steve Wade, Chairman and CEO, UnityBPO

This article is sponsored by UnityBPO. In this VOICES interview, Home Health Care News sits down with UnityBPO Chairman and CEO Steve Wade to learn how the technology company is enabling clinicians and patients in their Hospital-at-Home care plan, supporting agencies with IT-as-a-Service, why Unity has a soft spot for smaller agencies and how Wade’s background in research and development helped him chart a new course in health care.

Home Health Care News: You have been CEO of UnityBPO since 2016, with a long career prior to this. What experiences prior to Unity do you most draw from in this role?

Steve Wade: I have been in technology my entire professional life, so I think I look at technology a little different than a lot of people. My team does as well. I look at it from an enablement perspective, focused on outcomes, instead of as a bright, shiny object with bells and whistles. I ask, how does technology enable a business to move forward? Answering that question was central to why we started Unity.

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Part of my current executive team was also my executive team at another company that I owned that was well known in the science and R&D space, and also served health care. After we sold that company, we formed Unity with the intent to focus on that foundational health care work. The science and R&D work was really interesting because it was working with U.S. National Laboratories, pharmaceuticals, the National Institutes of Health and even aerospace companies. We ran the IT for the company that put the space shuttle into space 135 times without an engine failure.

If you wonder what those environments have in common with health care, well, they’re mission-centric, where science takes precedence over everything else. This is just like the focus on patient care in a health environment. They’re culturally complex. You have bright people with a sense of urgency who are vocal in nature. We understand and appreciate that.

When we look at those environments, we understand how IT impacts the work they’re doing and how necessary IT is in terms of being integrated in those environments. At the end of the day, we want the best IT experience for those who are doing the most important work — whether it was scientists back in the day, or the doctors and nurses that we care for today.

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That’s such an interesting connection. With all that said, explain Unity’s mission.

Wade: We’re a health technology company. People often ask me, “What do you do?” and I think the short answer is we’re a lifeline for clinicians and patients in the use of their technology. We started Unity four years ago because of the data that we were researching around health care. The technology was becoming more complex. When you look at these electronic health records that are $300 or $400 million, and even upwards of a billion dollars in terms of costs, they’re built for compliance, they’re not built for convenience.

As a result, 75% of the clinicians prior to COVID were experiencing extreme burnout. It’s a real public health crisis. We also knew patient engagement was a big focus. Telehealth at that time was still fledgling, even before COVID. We knew that at some point, because of shortages of staff, physicians and clinicians, there was going to be an opportunity in telehealth. We wanted to humanize technology, to support those frontline health care workers, and give them an opportunity to spend more time with their patients.

Today, we do remote and onsite technology solution services for acute and post-acute clients around the country, and I think we’re growing rather quickly.

You’ve just noted a number of challenges, burnout being one example, that are challenges for the entire home health industry. How do they specifically affect smaller home health agencies as opposed to larger ones?

Wade: Smaller agencies, clearly, have smaller budgets and fewer tools. So when we look at smaller agencies, we see that each clinician’s work is impacted by technology in even bigger ways. When you talk about the stress of having to accurately input data into electronic health record, and you’re having issues, and it’s taking days to do that, you can see how challenging that could be in smaller agencies. Those challenges impact not just productivity but morale and revenue.

We understand the intimacy of smaller agencies. They rely on a small group of trusted technology staff. I had my own startups. I know that deciding to bring someone in to work with you is a very personal decision, and a difficult one. So when we talk to them, we try to give them advice and guidance as they’re thinking about these changes. We have to add value to them and impact their bottom line.

What does Unity do for larger home health agencies, and how does that overlap with the needs that smaller agencies are facing today?

Wade: There are multiple components. There’s the engineering infrastructure side, the clinical technology components such as informatics, and the patient-facing and clinician-facing function. We do all three. I think the spiritual essence at Unity is that clinician- and patient-facing activity. Successfully talking to a 55-year-old nurse who is having issues with technology requires a certain presence. Nurses are very influential here. It’s one of our tenets as a company and we train our people specifically for a clinician perspective.

So when I look at what we offer, our platforms for collaboration, communication and automation, they certainly work for both sizes of clients: the larger ones and the smaller ones. Best practices, IT thought leadership — we deliver that to everyone. I think the one thing that’s probably different is that we do offer mid-sized or smaller agencies turnkey IT-as-a-Service. The licensing and the challenges that they have with just trying to bring technology in their environment today, they can get that for pennies on the dollar with us.

What are the most exciting ways that Unity is bringing high ROI to home health agencies?

Wade: When you’re in greenfield environments, you have to recognize the need to be a partner and, I know this sounds cliche, but to co-invest. It’s sort of a modern day version of symbiosis. What’s good for you is good for us. When I look at what we do and what we offer, let me give you my top three.

The first one would be 24-7 multilingual IT and EHR support and services for clinicians and patients. Right now, we take tens of thousands of calls a month, and we resolve big issues. We look at all those calls, we record them and we use that data to eliminate these defects that are occurring in the environment. That is one thing that I think we certainly bring ROI to, because we solve 90% of their problems within minutes and they’re back caring for patients.

As home health agencies start to move into a higher level of patient engagement, telehealth, skilled nursing in the home, device in the home — all of our capabilities, tools and platforms — are built, proven and available for a fast, seamless transition. The nurses are using tablets quickly and efficiently. We negotiate great deals for our clients and on their behalf.

You’ve mentioned this now a few times. What is IT-as-a-Service, and what work is Unity doing with it?

Wade: For us, IT-as-a-Service is the idea that we run all of your IT for you as an organization. We bring all the tools, platforms and infrastructure that you can plug into and utilize, but you’re utilizing it at scale. Clearly, we see advantages for smaller agencies where they can get progressive tools and technology at a much lower cost than them investing in it themselves.

That’s how we sort of look at it. There really are four primary disciplines. There’s service management, where we’re automating and doing things to make their environment more efficient. There is the IT services or service management component, with health care compliance automation already built-in for those clouds. The third is around your devices, and the last one is helping with your platforms: a unified communications collaboration platform.

Those are the things that we bring when we talk about IT-as-a-Service. Full lifecycle.

What work is Unity doing with Hospital-at-Home?

Wade: Hospital-at-Home is gaining a lot of traction. We’re seeing a lot more focus from our acute clients on the home, and I’m not sure what that means for home health agencies, to be honest. I look at these potential conflicts as an opportunity. Home health agencies know the home better than anyone else. They have a track record in it. I think they deliver care at a better price point. We are seeing our clients focused on that and moving to what we call these hybrid models.

We are helping agencies build out what I would call cost-efficient technology support for patients in the home. Cost-efficient is the operative statement here, because we’re trying to bridge that digital divide between patients and their physicians and clinicians. It’s really challenging, so how do we do it?

One way is making sure patients are ready for telehealth, or what we call a televisit with their physician or nurse. That means that the technology in their environment, whether it’s devices in the home, or the tablet, or the phone that they’re using, has to be ready for that telehealth visit. Those calls can take 30 minutes, maybe longer, so we have to deploy technology.

We have clients who have 800,000 or 900,000 patients in their portfolio. They can’t afford for us to be doing 30-minute calls with them, so we have to build automation and use technology to compress that time. We understand the urgency of making sure that these telehealth events go off without any complications or issues.

2020, obviously, was a terrible year, but there’s a reason for hope this year. What makes you hopeful about the home-based care industry in 2021?

Wade: Yes. It was a terrible year both from a business perspective and, for many of us, from a personal perspective. I used to tell my staff, “Hope is not a strategy,” and I have to say after this year, I’ve changed my perspective on that a little bit. Honestly, I have tremendous respect for home health agencies.

I lost my parents in the last few years and both of them had a deep desire to age in place. My family was only able to do that and be successful because of our partnership with home health hospice agencies. I can’t tell you how many extended family, friends and other people I know who I’ve recommended home health and hospice agencies to.

I can’t talk about hope without talking about some of the challenges, but honestly, I think in the next 7 to 10 years, home health is probably going to have the best opportunity it’s ever had. In that time, we’re going to have a clinician crisis. We’re going to lose 100,000 physicians and 200,000 nurses and probably more because of what COVID has done to that industry. I think home health is going to grow tremendously in the next 7 to 10 years and become stronger and even more prominent.

The data’s telling us that’s where it’s heading and I think that makes me hopeful from a business perspective. I certainly am passionate about the industry and what they’re doing.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UnityBPO supports clinicians in their use of technology, clinical applications and EHRs. To learn more, visit unitybpo.com.

The Voices Series is a sponsored content program featuring leading executives discussing trends, topics and more shaping their industry in a question-and-answer format. For more information on Voices, please contact sales@agingmedia.com.

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