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GERGEN & VANOUREK: Making good on a promise

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

When Todd Park was 24, he and a colleague from Booz Allen, Jonathan Bush, decided to strike out on their own and buy an obstetrics practice in San Diego, using a mixture of all of their life savings and some seed capital from friends and family. The practice took a holistic approach to medicine that wrapped preventive care and education around mother and child.

Despite serving the poorest 20 percent in the city of San Diego, the practice had outstanding health outcomes. The only problem was that it was losing more than $1 million a year and couldn't sustain itself.

After studying the problem carefully, the two young consultants and their team determined that the challenge was getting paid in a timely and comprehensive manner. They set out to look for a solution. As it turns out, everyone was struggling with the same problem, and no one had come up with an elegant solution. Mr. Park and Mr. Bush decided to build their own - using the power of a new technology, the Internet.

Their breakthrough solution dramatically improved the practice's financials and put the clinic back on track. It also set the young entrepreneurs on a new course.

Though still committed to improving health care options for underserved communities, they began to realize that the best way they could help transform medical delivery was by removing the administrative burdens that were taking doctors away from the important work of healing. With this realization, the pair and their team set off to provide their software system to other practices across the country, and Athenahealth was born.

Based in Watertown, Mass., Athenahealth serves thousands of physicians and clinicians across the country. The publicly traded company has more than 600 employees and a market capitalization of more than $1 billion. The company has expanded to a range of new support services and has positioned itself beautifully for continued growth.

During the company's skyrocket ride, Mr. Park married his college sweetheart, Amy (herself a physician) and made a promise to her. Once the company stabilized and could fly freely from its nest, he and she would move close to her parents and start a family. It took four years longer than anticipated, but this year, he made good on his promise. Their son is expected in August, and they are moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall.

The move is serving as a catalyst for deep personal reflection for Mr. Park, who has set three personal goals for himself:

mLove his family and friends like there is no tomorrow.

mDo as much good as he possibly can.

mBe true to his spiritual self.

With these value-based goals in mind, he is setting out to figure out what he wants to do next and what he doesn't want to do.

Despite their new wealth, Mr. Park and his wife are determined not to change their lifestyles but want instead to "take the gift that Athena has provided and use it for more good."

Their strategy is to invest in entrepreneurial solutions to public health problems in the United States and abroad to achieve permanent institutional advancement in health care.

They are starting by establishing the Athenahealth Foundation to try to contribute to the improvement of medical care underserved Americans are receiving. (According to Mr. Park, 45 percent of Americans are receiving inadequate care because of a lack of coordinated systems.) Additionally, they have started a new company, Maria Health, which is seeking to bring the same kind of Internet-based help to patients that Athenahealth provides to physicians.

Furthermore, Mr. Park and his wife are looking at ways of supporting the expansion of a breakthrough birthing center enterprise in India named LifeSpring that is taking a comprehensive approach to dramatically improving the healthy outcomes of childbirth in a country that suffers one-third of all maternal mortality cases worldwide.

LifeSpring's success rates rival those of most developed countries - but LifeSpring delivers this care for less than $40 per birth. (The U.S. average is $8,000 per birth.) The goal is to serve 5,000 low-income patients every year and to provide outpatient services to more than 1 million people over five years.

Another project they have gotten behind is VisionSpring, a social enterprise started by Dr. Jordan Kassalow, an optometrist who has figured out how to provide affordable eyeglasses to people across the developing world who make less than $4 per day and is training teams of local "vision entrepreneurs" to evaluate and provide the appropriate prescriptions.

The impact each of these projects has is noteworthy. Taken together, they represent a major advance in health care. Mr. Park recognizes the challenge of pursuing each of these initiatives while staying true to his family and spiritual values - but he is determined to try. It's a promise he's not taking lightly, and we all stand to benefit from his success.

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are the co-authors of "Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives" and the founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development firm. They can be reached at authors@lifeentre preneurs.com.