DrFirst Pres. G. Cameron Deemer: “Not a Sprint”

by Jerome Knyszewski
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G Cameron Deemer DrFirst

Cameron Deemer is the president of DrFirst, bringing “more than 20 years of healthcare industry experience to this position.”

In 2004, G. Cameron Deemer joined DrFirst as the “Director of Product Management.” The next year, he was appointed general manager of the company.

Throughout his tenure at DrFirst, G. Cameron Deemer proved to be an instrumental part “in formalizing and driving improved business processes, while developing new technology strategies to leverage the benefits of e-prescribing.”

G. Cameron Deemer was also valuable in DrFirst’s efforts “to leverage the benefits of other DrFirst platform services for providers, hospitals, payers, and other healthcare stakeholders.”

Likewise, with DrFirst, G. Cameron Deemer “has also been a strong proponent of promoting interoperability in the healthcare industry by sharing clinical data between systems.”

Before DrFirst, G. Cameron Deemer used to work as the Assistant Vice President of Product Management for PCS Health Systems/AdvancePCS.

G. Cameron Deemer and DrFirst also “led the e-prescribing and practice management product strategy for NDCHealth.”

Before becoming president of DrFirst, G. Cameron Deemer started out as a youth minister, and then as a senior pastor in Tempe, Arizona.

Around this time, IBM introduced its first personal computer, which kindled G. Cameron Deemer’s interest in “programming and the application of technology to linguistic problems.”

Check out more interviews with healthcare executives here.

I got into healthcare IT quite accidentally.

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

G. Cameron Deemer: I started my career in the ministry, first as a youth minister, then as a senior pastor for a church in Tempe, AZ.

This was around the time when the IBM personal computer was first introduced, and I got interested in programming and the application of technology to linguistic problems.

I lived for a number of years in Papua New Guinea, working on reducing spoken languages to written languages in order to translate the Bible into those local tongues.

I got into healthcare IT quite accidentally.

I returned to the States in the middle of the recession in the early nineties, and after an extensive search, found work with a prescription benefit management company in Scottsdale.

A decade in the PBM industry led me to work more specifically on electronic prescribing for a large company that was developing the network to carry prescriptions, then later to DrFirst, where we’ve been working on innovations around medication management for over 20 years.

Jerome Knyszewski: What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

G. Cameron Deemer: Jim Chen founded DrFirst when he realized that the VPN technology he’d developed at his first startup could be applied to the problem doctors were facing in the late nineties: a demand that they adopt expensive electronic medical records and claims systems at the same time that they were facing major reductions in reimbursement for their work.

It soon became clear that the internet in 2000, the year DrFirst was founded, didn’t yet have sufficient bandwidth to support remote access to physician systems, and DrFirst pivoted to electronic prescribing.

I joined the company in 2004, at a time when it was struggling to survive. I was drawn to the company by two things, really.

One was that medication management was a sweet spot for me; the other was the character of the founder.

After experiencing the culture of a couple of very large HIT companies, I was searching for a CEO who viewed people as people, not resources, and I found that at DrFirst.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

G. Cameron Deemer: In 2004, DrFirst was out of cash and struggling to meet payroll every two weeks.

Physicians weren’t buying electronic prescribing, well-funded competitors were popping up, and our then-president left the company to join one of them.

The staff was devastated. On the positive side, our company had the best e-prescribing technology in the industry and the awards to prove it.

Too bad no one wanted it.

What motivated me to keep going was the challenge of solving the puzzle, how to get this great tech into doctors’ hands and how to get them to use it.

By the end of 2004, we figured it out.

Sell it to someone who did care and who wanted change: major health plans.

We shifted our focus to payers. They were willing to buy thousands of licenses, which we would then give away to physicians.

It still wasn’t easy, but it became the start of a much safer, more informed way of managing medications that today is largely taken for granted.

Jerome Knyszewski: So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

G. Cameron Deemer: Like many companies, we didn’t go through just one hard time, or even two.

The healthcare IT industry has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, particularly as the federal and state governments stepped in with extensive regulations.

To stay relevant and continue to grow, we had to be willing not just to pivot but to commit completely to those pivots.

One of the things we’ve talked a lot about over the years was the “flywheel” concept that Jim Collins discussed in his book, “Good to Great.”

It’s the idea that it’s very difficult at the beginning to launch a business or product, and you’ll initially do a lot of work for little payoff, but if you stick with it and put energy into the initiative day after day, that flywheel will begin to move and will gain speed over time until it’s very hard to stop.

We clung to that concept as we launched innovations, then drove those new technologies until they succeeded.

Today DrFirst has a thriving business providing a number of medication management and secure collaboration services to hundreds of medical record system vendors, thousands of hospitals and post-acute care facilities, and a growing number of pharmacies.

Our newest business reaches over a million patients a week, helping make sure they are able to get started on therapy.

Success is usually a marathon, not a sprint.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

G. Cameron Deemer: I would love to share a funny story, but every mistake I remember seems more horrifying than funny.

The cost of a mistake when you’re dealing with healthcare tech can be very high in terms of regulatory compliance or human suffering.

One of the earliest mistakes I remember was doing some fax marketing before we fully understood regulations governing the use of fax machines.

We had intended to send a special offer to our existing customers, but we inadvertently included some chiropractors on the fax list with whom we did not have a pre-existing relationship.

About a month before the statute of limitations ran out, we began to hear from a handful of those fax recipients that we were going to face a class-action lawsuit.

We were, fortunately, able to resolve the situation, and we could laugh about our near-miss later, but it made us very careful to be sure we thoroughly understood the regulations governing our marketing activities from then on!

Jerome Knyszewski: Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

G. Cameron Deemer: Things I wish I had known:

#1: Success is usually a marathon, not a sprint. When I joined DrFirst, the founder sat me down and said, “Cam, I want to be number three. Help me keep us alive long enough to finish third!”

His theory was that in tech industries, there are always three companies standing at the end of the day, and he wanted to be one of them.

For me, this was a wake-up call that building our business would be a war of attrition, a struggle to survive long enough to thrive.

And it was an acknowledgment that our job wasn’t to hit a home run the first time we stepped to the plate. Our role was to load up the bases.

Eventually, success caught up with us.

#2: The talking heads aren’t always right. I’d love to say they’re never right, but it would be more accurate to say they are seldom helpful in creating true innovation.

In the late 2000s, I had breakfast in Washington with our founder and two executives representing one of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers.

They wanted to elicit our participation in an industry-wide initiative to secure the drug supply chain, from the factory to the final dispensing event.

The security framework they had developed was based on a “public key/private key” framework.

It was a very standard approach, and “everyone” knew it was the right way to move forward.

Our founder disagreed; he said it was too heavy, too expensive, that it could never be implemented successfully across the number of providers who practiced in the US.

Over the next few months, we developed an alternative approach based on the common “trusted network” that existed in our market, and today the entire system for EPCS (electronic prescribing of controlled substances) is based on our work.

This type of story is very common. “Experts” in industry and government are often behind the curve and actually slow innovation, but they get a lot of press.

#3: Leaders don’t fit a single mold. I don’t believe that I’m an outlier when I say I’ve spent most of my career feeling inadequate to my role.

I’m an introvert. I’m more comfortable alone than surrounded by people. I like to think and not talk.

And in my eyes, I never fit the mold of the bold, confident leader. It took many, many years to realize that leadership isn’t a matter of show; it’s a matter of effectiveness.

And there are many paths to effectiveness.

I benefited a great deal from Jim Collin’s description of leadership in his book Good to Great.

For me, it pointed to defining effectiveness as my ability to enable others rather than to be a certain type of personality.

#4: Caring is different when you’re in charge. During my early years at DrFirst, I remember looking for our founder and being told that he had flown to visit a group of our family and friend investors; we were not going to be able to pay staff unless he came back with enough cash to fund payroll.

When you are the last resort, the final decider, all the problems roll toward you.

If you have a good team, they’ll intercept many of these, but the worst ones will end up at your feet with no one but you to make the decision or perform the action.

And that’s rough when you think about not only your shareholders but also your staff and their families, whose welfare depends on your wisdom and ability and willingness to see and do the right thing.

#5: Ninety percent of a leader’s role is freeing up your staff to think and perform. Like many companies, we’ve reminded ourselves over and over that we should hire staff who are better than we are, that we should hire A players, and I think we do a good job of identifying and hiring strong talent.

But then what? What do you do with a company full of A players? Hopefully, your answer is to get out of their way.

That’s a good answer, but it’s only half the right answer.

The right answer is to get out of their way and remove any obstacles in their path. Why hire great people but trim their wings?

As a leader, your most important role is making your staff successful.

Bonus #6: Time management is not about getting everything scheduled. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to implement time management techniques.

It wasn’t until I read and reread the chapter on time management in Peter Drucker’s little book, The Effective Executive, that I finally understood what was wrong with the conventional wisdom about organizing yourself.

Drucker very pragmatically noted that you will never have enough time for everything your organization wants from you, so there’s no point stressing too hard about your calendar; just accept that it will fill up.

Instead, focus on setting aside large enough chunks of time to do the things that only you can do.

If you don’t, those things just won’t get done.

Make sure to schedule that small number of vital tasks and just lightly manage everything else.

My personal secret is that most of what I don’t do resolves itself anyway.

As a leader, your most important role is making your staff successful.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

G. Cameron Deemer: Follow me and learn more about DrFirst on LinkedIn.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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