Kronos Improves its Healthcare Acuity via the OptiLink Buy

My recent in-depth report from the KronosWorks 2011 conference entitled KronosWorks 2011: Beyond Time Clocks for Modern Workforce Management asserted that vertically-oriented tuck-in acquisitions were likely in store for Kronos in 2012. Lo and behold, in mid-January 2012, Kronos announced that it has acquired the assets of OptiLink from The Advisory Board Company in an undisclosed cash transaction.

As a result of the acquisition, Kronos has added one of the industry’s leading acuity-based staffing solutions to its health care workforce management (WFM) suite. Kronos now offers possibly the most advanced clinically-focused WFM suite designed to help healthcare organizations deliver high-quality patient care. More than 3,000 hospitals and 4,000 long-term care organizations use Kronos Workforce Central solutions every day. Other notable competitors in the space are API Healthcare, McKesson, and Lawson Software (part of Infor).

What Is OptiLink?

Headquartered in a suburb of Portland, Oregon (US), OptiLink helps health care organizations such as Intermountain Healthcare, Seton Family Healthcare, and Tenet Healthcare Corporation to align staffing levels to actual patient needs. The OptiLink acuity solution empowers nursing executives and their staff to manage workload, schedules, and productivity using actual patient demand rather than static long-term budgets and plans that were created well in advance. Using real-time data on admissions, discharges, and transfers, OptiLink delivers a clearer picture of patient population and staffing from the unit level through the entire system. This enables hospitals to staff more effectively based on the intensity of patient care needed.

With this acquisition, Kronos is creating a common platform within which the finance and nursing departments can collaborate to control costs and deliver high-quality patient care. The idea is to pair the acuity data with other WFM data to create better workforce plans and schedules that can improve patient care and outcomes while better controlling costs. OptiLink’s 40-person staff will continue to operate out of its Oregon facility in a "business as usual" manner.

What Is Acuity?

In a nutshell, acuity is a type of patient classification used to assess the severity of illness of a patient. It is a clinically focused measure of workload given that different illnesses require different effort by medical staff. When hospitals schedule nursing staff, they face many challenges such as a nationwide shortage of nurses, the need to comply with regulatory mandates of some states to uphold certain patient-to-nurse ratios (while not exceeding the total amount of working hours per day and/or week), and the inevitable pressure to keep costly overtime and other payroll costs down. Needless to say, all of these requirements must be met while concurrently meeting the quality of care and safety needs of patients.

In other words, making sure that “the right staff is in the right place at the right time” not only means someone with the right skills, but it also means someone who will not cost the hospital unnecessary overtime. General WFM and talent management software tools can help with some of those challenges, assisting nursing managers to staff shifts and departments more efficiently than manual, paper-based scheduling processes of the past.

But it is not that common to see broad WFM suites offering their own patient classification solutions (also known as near real-time “acuity” of individual patients or patient units). The purpose of acuity tools is to determine more precisely the appropriate time that a nurse needs to spend on a particular patient with a particular medical history. As an illustration, not all chronic heart failure patients or pregnancies are the same. During shift scheduling, the acuity tool can inform nurse managers that, say, a heart surgery patient is also diabetic and sight-impaired, or that a pregnant lady is dangerously overweight and has a risk of high blood pressure. That insight could influence a decision to assign a nurse with particular expertise to care for those health conditions during a given shift.

Real-time feeds from clinical information systems about patient acuity must then be mapped to staffing and scheduling tools. Based on the patient's acuity scores, which generally run on some scale (say, from 1 to 5), the patient classification software helps nurse managers schedule shifts based on the mix of patients' needs in any unit, expertise of particular staff members, and allows managers to take into consideration other factors such as patient loads, overtime, and outside nursing agency (contractor) costs.

Kronos in the Health Care Sector

Some might remember that in early 2011 Kronos attempted to merge with API Healthcare. Both companies entered into the routine regulatory review with great enthusiasm when the proposed transaction was announced. Over the course of several months, it became clear that the regulatory review would take longer and be more expensive than anticipated. As a result, both parties decided that they would terminate the pursuit of the acquisition and redirect their focus to their respective healthcare businesses.

Kronos is reportedly quite pleased with the acquisition of OptiLink that its health care customers and prospects have been requesting. Other leading vendors in the acuity/patient classification market include Meditech, McKesson, and Clairvia (acquired by Cerner in October 2011). OptiLink’s acuity capabilities are possibly the best in the market, and because of the relatively lower value of the Optilink deal (in dollars), there was no Hart Scott Rodino notification required prior to closing the transaction.

Kronos now seems well positioned in the health care sector with these additional critical capabilities. I don’t really see acuity functionality being applicable outside health care. Perhaps the closest analogy might be with clienteling (customer history analytics) in retail, where store associates might want to adapt their customer service to the needs/wants/preferences of the individual customer. Perhaps we can expect some similar best-of-breed acquisition by Kronos in the retail sector with regard to clienteling and store task execution?

Dear readers, what are your comments and opinions with regards to this acquisition and to the healthcare WFM and staff scheduling needs? I would certainly be interested in your experiences with WFM and acuity scheduling software in general and with OptiLink and Kronos in particular.
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