Interview with Debbie Sheppard

By ComputerTalk Contributing Editor Maggie Lockwood

Ateb, based in Raleigh, N.C., first got into the pharmacy industry to apply large-scale telecom solutions to the pharmacy department. Twenty years later, the company has carved out a niche for itself in pharmacy, and maintains a vision to provide tools that allow pharmacists to communicate with their patients, and to manage their healthcare as well. The company’s VP of sales and marketing, Debbie Sheppard, talks about the company’s growth.

CT: What was the impetus for founding the company?

Debbie Sheppard: Frank Sheppard founded Ateb in 1992 with four partners to provide unique solutions to automate and test telecommunication infrastructure. These solutions focused on helping Ateb’s clients automatically detect, report, and resolve problems in their network, and then negotiate with the end customers to rapidly close trouble tickets. We had the privilege of working with utility companies all over the world, including BellSouth, Ameritech, Duke Power, Matanuska Telephone in Alaska, Malaysia Telecom, New Zealand Telecom, and Bahrain Telecom.

CT: Why did you target the pharmacy market? How did you see IVR benefiting this business sector?

Sheppard: When the telecommunications industry began to slow in the early 1990s, we targeted the pharmacy market because we identified that the technology Ateb had deployed in the telecom and utility space was directly applicable to the pharmacy. We could effectively handle a significant portion of the calls between the pharmacy and the patient, while maintaining a positive experience for both the patients and the pharmacy teams.

In 1995, we entered the retail market and sold our first retail solutions. Instead of having a huge number of lines and ports, and tons and tons of lines, we moved to four- and eight-port solution versus having something at a switch that would handle a huge number of concurrent calls.

From 1995, forward, Ateb has focused on providing solutions for pharmacy to help pharmacy more effectively interact with patients.

Originally we thought we were going to start out in pharmacy and then go into other departments in the store — the floral, deli. But we found a home in pharmacy and never moved.

CT: So there was a workflow overlap?

Sheppard: More specifically, there were similar characteristics. For example, calls to the pharmacy were a repeatable event, and one that caused disruptions and would benefit from automating. Pharmacy had significant labor costs that could be reduced if the phone calls could be automated. Patients would benefit from the pharmacy installing an IVR system because it would give patients 24-hour, seven-days-a-week access to the pharmacy. With fewer interruptions, there is a quieter, calmer pharmacy that is more conducive to fewer filling errors.

The big thing when you look at the solutions, and one that we analyzed, is the labor costs in the department. The call flow was predictable, and when you eliminate the task of answering the phone, you can allocate that labor to other departments. When we first started, pharmacists would remove the labor costs, but now there is a bigger focus on adherence and patient care. IVR quiets the pharmacy down, and the pharmacists aren’t interrupted for counseling and to perform more accurate filling.

CT: What were some memorable moments in those early years?

Sheppard: Ateb has been very fortunate to be able to work with so many wonderful companies and individuals throughout the years. We truly value these relationships with our customers and vendor partners.

In the early years, Ateb had user group meetings that were very well attended by our customers. It was very interesting to see pharmacy organizations that competed against each other participate in very open discussions on what was needed to improve how a pharmacy operated. We are looking to have a user group meeting again in 2013.

Perhaps one of the funniest situations Ateb encountered came during a nine-month rollout with one chain. Two months into the rollout, I got a call from a pharmacist at one of the chain’s stores pleading with me to get them an IVR as soon as possible; he could not wait for another three months for the scheduled installation of the IVR. What made this so funny was that the pharmacist had worked at another chain that Ateb had installed IVR into, and originally he was the loudest skeptic of installing IVRs. Now he was championing that pharmacy could not run effectively without IVR. And this probably summarizes the biggest change in IVR over the past 15 years: IVR has gone from being a nice-to-have feature to a critical and integral system in the pharmacy.

Also, in 2009, Ateb was awarded the first of our patents for Patient Messaging. These patents help differentiate Ateb from any other pharmacy IVR supplier. Ateb is the only pharmacy IVR provider that can provide real-time, 360-degree targeted communication with patients to help patients better manage their conditions and increase adherence.

CT: How have the company and its services evolved over the years?

Sheppard: We initially developed a suite of solutions for retail stores and with a specific focus on the pharmacy department. Our initial plan was to reach out to other departments throughout the store. Instead of moving to provide other IVR solutions to other departments in the store, Ateb has remained focused on pharmacy. As our customer’s telecommunications infrastructure has evolved, Ateb’s configuration options have expanded. Our philosophy is to provide solutions that will fit without our customer’s infrastructure.

Ateb built a suite of workflow solutions in the early 2000s that could be bundled or installed individually including accuracy Check (NDC check), bin management, electronic signature capture (SignatureLine), to name a few.

Ateb has always been focused on patient communications. To that end, Ateb has developed solutions to help pharmacy increase patient adherence with Ateb’s adherence solutions including Time My MedsTM (automated med sync tool) and our suite of comprehensive care solutions both of which are proving to increase adherence scores, including the proportional days covered (PDC) scores. Ateb has moved from helping pharmacies with patient communications to helping pharmacy manage patients.

CT: How do you see the company growing as the industry and technology changes?

Sheppard: Ateb is very fortunate to have created a team with a wide variety of strengths. We have world-class developers, senior software architects and engineers who track the latest and greatest technology trends, pharmacists, retail specialists, pharmacy techs, and senior managers. Together, these teams work to identify and develop new solutions to help Ateb’s clients better address their patients and customers. We added a dedicated privacy officer to track and manage HITECH and HIPAA. Four years ago, Ateb invested in building an analytics team using sophisticated analytics tools and hiring senior statisticians to help build the data models to help pharmacy better identify patients who are not adherent and figure out how to help these patients become more adherent.

Ateb has found pharmacy and healthcare a wonderful fit for our team, because pharmacy is constantly evolving. Ateb can blend technology, operations, business intelligence, pharmacy, and healthcare into novel and innovative solutions that can truly impact the healthcare problems in the United States.

CT: What has been special about this year’s anniversary? Has your vision changed?

Sheppard: Ateb is grateful to our customers, many whom have been with our company for many, many years. We would not have made it to this milestone without the support of our customers. We know that we have made mistakes along the way, but knowing that the company and our customers are partners in finding solutions makes every day a positive experience.

The interesting thing is how it’s changed from where we started, with just inbound calls. It’s now much more than that, more sophisticated, with inbound calls and different types of messages, such as text messaging and mobile apps. More importantly, the systems are able to surround the patient with 360-degree communication strategy to drive the patient into the pharmacy.

It’s just not about communicating with patients; you can only do so much adherence through automated machines. It’s about driving the patient to pharmacy so the pharmacist can manage therapy. With the process automated, the pharmacy has a huge influence on adherence.

Ateb’s vision has evolved since our early days. Pharmacy has changed and regulations have changed – with HIPAA privacy rule, HIPAA security rule, and HITECH, to name a few – and the fee for service model is changing. Opportunities arise with change. One thing that has not changed is Ateb’s commitment to build lasting relationships by providing solutions that utilize proven technology and work operationally for the pharmacy.

Ateb’s challenge right now is that folks think of us as an IVR company. Our vision is as a patient management company. We are using technology to allow pharmacy to provide comprehensive patient management. CT