Practice Fusion’s data footprint gets even bigger with health expense tools for consumers

San Francisco-based Practice Fusion may bill itself as an electronic medical records company, but that’s definitely not all it is.

Since launching in 2005, the company has attracted 150,000 physicians with its free, cloud-based software for managing patient health information, scheduling, billing and other tasks. But last month, it rolled out its first consumer-facing service, a ZocDoc-like doctor appointment booking site that positions it to manage additional data about patient conditions, medications and treatment outcomes. And on Wednesday, it plans to expand its footprint even further with consumer-oriented tools that help patients track and manage their health expenses.

The electronic health record may have been its foot in the door — as founder and CEO Ryan Howard recently told VentureBeat, it’s “somewhat of a Trojan Horse.” But that’s enabling the company to build an enviable online community for physicians and patients, all with an eye on bringing some light and efficiency to the health system while amassing a valuable treasure trove of patient data. To date, the company says it manages health information for more than 62 million patients.

“Every part of health care is obfuscated,” Howard told me in a recent interview. “But we’ve just opened it up – from the administration to scheduling to the clinical data to now health spending.”

With its new health cost tracking tools, which are similar to products offered by startups like Simplee and CakeHealth, for example, PracticeFusion connects to patients’ healthcare accounts to help them better understand and manage their health finances. For example, it lets patients easily visualize their out-of-pocket expenses, costs covered by insurance and the remaining balance of their deductible.

For now, the health tracking tools can only be used by patients whose doctors use Practice Fusion, but Howard said the service will expand to other patients in the next quarter.

Considering that the average family spends more than $3,000 on out-of-pocket medical expenses and that medical debt has been cited as a leading cause of bankruptcy, it’s no wonder that Practice Fusion is zeroing in on health spending. For many patients, medical expenses are a big black hole and, as healthcare costs climb and employers continue to shift to high-deductible health plans, the need for more transparency and guidance around price is becoming even more needed.

Offering more tools to consumers gives Practice Fusion more opportunities to build its growing advertising business (the company, which advertises to doctors, doesn’t yet market to patients, but has indicated that it will). But, over time, the health-tracking tools could also give the company an interesting and comprehensive window on to the varying prices consumers pay for different providers and treatments.

Companies like Castlight Health and ClearCostHealth already work through employers to help patients get health care pricing information and encourage “healthcare consumerism.” But in the context of PracticeFusion’s community and appointment booking platform, pricing information could play an even bigger role in helping patients choose doctors.

Recognizing the potential sensitivity for physicians, the company doesn’t have immediate plans to display pricing information for patients. But given the need to bring more price transparency to patients, it seems to be something the company is carefully weighing.