HIStalk Connect Interviews Bob Zollars, CEO, Vocera

Robert Zollars is chairman and CEO of Vocera of San Jose, CA.

Tell me about yourself and the company.

I grew up in Minneapolis and was one of four kids. I jumped into the healthcare business right out of college in a sales position with American Hospital Supply and have been in the industry ever since – over 30 years ago.

The first two-thirds of my career were with large companies: American, Baxter International, and Cardinal Health, while the last several years have been with earlier-stage companies including Neoforma and now Vocera, where I’ve been the chairman and CEO for about six years.

Vocera is an exciting company with about 350 people who are focused on solving the communication challenges within healthcare. We’ve been growing quite rapidly, adding over 100 employees in each of the last two years. We now serve over 800 hospitals and healthcare customers and another 100 or so customers outside of healthcare.


Company shares have done very well since the March 2012 IPO. How has being publicly traded changed the business?

I think being public has made us a better company for a number of reasons. We need to be extremely disciplined in how we run the business. We need appropriately detailed backup to substantiate any claims we make. We get a chance to speak with numerous investors who are very smart and have great questions and ideas for our company. 

Going public served as a great branding event for us. We were the only healthcare IPO in 2012 to price above our range and the #1 performing HCIT offering in the year. Of course, retiring all of our debt and having $120+ million of cash on hand as a result of the IPO also gives us great comfort.


How is in-hospital clinician communication changing? Will we ever see the end of pagers and use of devices that aren’t HIPAA compliant?

Great question! Clinical communication is an exciting and rapidly changing environment.

To begin with, the status quo has substantial problems. Poor, inefficient communication is the number one cause of sentinel events and accidental deaths and injuries. It also  costs US hospitals over $12 billion annually. On the flip side, communication is the best predictor of patient satisfaction, so if hospitals get it right, there is great upside, especially as HCAHPS performance begins to influence reimbursement.

I think the use of pagers is in rapid decline, being replaced by smartphones and purpose-built devices like our Vocera badge. This also creates challenges for hospitals and their IT leadership as they try to manage the onslaught of the bring your own device — or BYOD — phenomenon amongst their clinicians.

We’re working closely with our customers to offer this coordination via our software platform. As long as their users select Android, iOS, Cisco, or Vocera devices, our software will ensure a seamless connection. HIPAA compliance is something our customers are very focused on and working hard to corral.


Describe the acquisitions the company has made and how they have strengthened the product line.

We have been primarily organic growth focused, but we did make some small acquisitions in 2010 in three areas.

We acquired Wallace Wireless, which brought us a smartphone platform for HIPAA-compliant messaging that we are integrating with our Voice solution. It also brought to us an amazing group of developers who we are keeping very busy.

We acquired two software solutions focused on care transitions, when a patient is transferred between departments or from one clinician to another during shift change. According to JCAHO, 37 percent of the time these handoffs are done incorrectly. Our software facilitates an accurate and safe handoff.

We acquired a patient experience company, ExperiaHealth, led by Dr. Bridget Duffy, who had been chief patient experience officer at Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Duffy is now our chief medical officer. The strategy behind this acquisition was to show how Vocera solutions can benefit not only the provider, but also improve the patient experience.


What are some typical hospital low-hanging fruit items that Vocera tools can enable?

Well, to the point above, we eliminate about 94 percent of overhead paging, so Vocera hospitals are much quieter, better enabling a healing environment. In a Vocera hospital, nurses may walk two miles less per day, allowing them to spend more time at the bedside focused on the patient and less time running the halls looking for people, things, and information.

We enable quicker operating room turnaround, allowing hospitals to generate more revenue per OR suite. We eliminate ambulance diversions by reducing wait times in the ER and helping our customers get patients out of the waiting room and into the ER and then either back home or up to the floors more quickly. We improve doctor to nurse communication by making it really easy to find the right person immediately, with very little hassle factor. The improvement opportunities are numerous, with clear ROI.


Vocera has had voice-powered commands for a very long time. Smartphones now have that capability through Siri and other services. Does that make it easier or harder to convince hospitals of the benefits of voice commands?

Voice technology has certainly come a long way in terms of ease of use and accuracy. That trend in addition to the prevalence of WiFi has certainly been helpful to our business.


What’s the market demand for critical message and alert delivery and documentation?

We are seeing strong demand from our customers to find a secure way to deliver content, alerts, alarms, and messages. Adding these solutions to our voice functionality is being well received as clinicians want to have multiple ways to communicate – both in sending or being the recipient of these communications.

Looking back to one of your previous questions, a complicating factor is to ensure that PHI is transmitted in a secure fashion. Simply texting via SMS is not acceptable and HHS continues to raise the bar from an expectation perspective as well as the penalties assessed should a hospital breach these security requirements. So the demand is coming from both a convenience perspective as well as a compliance, risk management perspective. Our messaging folks are very busy.


BYOD is a hot topic. How do you see it playing out?

You’re right, this is a hot topic no matter what industry you’re in, and is certainly top of mind in hospitals right now. Trying to fight the BYOD movement is like fighting a religious war. If someone is an “Apple person,” good luck getting them to use a BlackBerry device.

We’ve had several customers ask us to “help them drive their clinicians to one device.” What we’ll recommend is rather than take on that battle, let’s put in place a software platform that will allow a disparate set of devices to work in harmony. This is working very well in our customer base.

While a nurse may prefer the hands-free nature of a Vocera badge, a physician or administrator really doesn’t want yet one more device to keep track of. They’d much prefer to use their smartphone. The same smartphone they use when they’re away from work. As I mentioned earlier, it’s why we’re enabling the share leaders — Apple iOs, Google Android, Cisco, and Vocera devices.


Except for ExperiaHealth, the company has stayed close to the messaging market. How do you see the company changing in the next 5-10 years?

We’re a technology company currently focused on the healthcare market, as we see an enormous market opportunity in helping improve clinical communications across the continuum of care. The pain points, as I described above, need to be solved.

In the next 5-10 years, I would expect our installed base of healthcare customers to grow substantially. We will be deployed globally as hospitals outside the US have many of the same challenges as we do here. We will grow our non-healthcare customer base as we focus on hospitality, power plants, and retail markets, and our product line will continue to grow both through internal R&D investment as well as targeted M&A.

We’re very fortunate to have a business that is at the convergence point of two fast-growing market segments, HCIT and Unified Communications.

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