Shining the Light On… Steve Schelhammer of Phytel

schelhammer-150x123Steve Schelhammer is the Chief Executive Officer at Dallas-based Phytel where he leads an outstanding team dedicated to improving patient outcomes through proven population health technology.  Steve is a 30-year healthcare veteran and an expert in disease management. Prior to his leadership at Phytel, Steve founded Polaris-backed Accordant Health Services, one of the countries first disease management companies.  As you will read below, this Polaris Repeat Entrepreneur’s passion for patient health is only matched by his commitment to the highest quality management principles. The result is a win-win for patients and physicians alike.

Can you explain in layman’s terms what Phytel does and how it is changing the world?

phytel_inc-150x150Phytel provides an automated way of identifying individuals who have unmet healthcare needs and encouraging those people to engage with their providers and get necessary care.

An example of such a patient is a diabetic who, according to evidence-based guidelines, needs to get blood work done every three months. For a variety of reasons, they may not follow through with those instructions.  We identify those patients that have fallen out of compliance with necessary care and communicate with them using smartphone and mobile technology.  It’s amazing how responsive they are.  Once reconnected with the provider, they become engaged in their care and, as a result, will improve their health outcome.

This process was almost impossible to do in the past because data was imprisoned in paper.  Someone had to go through documents and generate phone calls or write letters in a laborious, manual way.  With digitized health data – we now can do amazing things to improve the health of entire populations. 

We are in a data revolution.  I tell people – digital data is oxygen.  With it you can do all sorts of things and impact millions of lives on a daily basis.  We improve lifestyles, patient outcomes and allow physicians to become more effective.  It’s a win-win.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges you face in moving the company forward and how will you address them?

Our biggest opportunity is the fact that the company is in significant growth-mode.  We just had our biggest sales quarter ever last quarter.  This success stems in large part to our commitment to “skating to where the puck is going.”  We are way out ahead with our strategy of provider-led, population health management.  Many of the changes that are occurring in healthcare are putting wind in our sails.  In the past 10 years, we have moved from 5 percent of office-based physicians using electronic records to 72%.  That momentum is really driving what Phytel has brought to the market.

The challenge with the explosive growth is you have to be ready for it.  Getting the right people in place and creating an environment where you can attract and maintain top talent is crucial. You need to be able to replicate excellence.  In this regard, our work on corporate culture and quality management has paid off.

The most obvious market challenge is the changing rules of healthcare.   The level of noise within the space has been unprecedented.  Every one of the changes to the Affordable Care Act has impacted reality on the ground.  The market has bifurcated in terms of its reaction – some panic, others move. There are always changes in healthcare, but in 30 years, I’ve never seen anything remotely close to what is happening now.

Who inspires you?  Are there other CEOs or industry leaders you look up to for their leadership qualities?

One of the people who really set me on this path was Doug Stickney, the former CEO of Quantum Health Resources. Sadly, Doug passed away recently. He inspired me because of his entrepreneurial zeal and spirit. I had worked with him for 5 years, and he knew that I had this passion for disease management that would not be realized at the company where we worked.  He encouraged me to go out and follow my dream. He and I stayed in contact over the years, and I learned a lot from him.

I’ve also had some really great, really smart mentors from my venture investors.  Polaris Partner Dave Barrett has been a tremendous asset to our board.  As was Don Lothrup at Accordant and Don Fisher at the AMGA.

What is your favorite part about your job?

The people I get to work with, hands down. It’s just fun to be in business with people of high integrity who you respect and with whom you can grow with.   I hire people who are accomplished themselves, not just with experience but with successful experience. The people around me have all had great successes. The work that we’re doing is enormously important. Sometimes it can be really hard and challenging.  When I go home at night, I know I’m running a company that’s doing really good things.  That’s a very satisfying part of the job.

If you could give one piece of advice to a startup CEO, what would it be?

At any given point someone else knows more than you do about specific things.  That is why you hire great people.  Ask people “what do you think?” Not soliciting input and ideas from your employees is a huge mistake and one that many managers make because of pride.  Remember that you don’t have to have all the right answers.  You just have to get all of the right answers.  And your employees have many of them.

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