Exceeding All Expectations

D04a.jpg (10151 bytes)When Pam Gillis, president of somniTech Inc, Overland Park, Kan, launched her company in 1992, her original plan was to provide sleep medicine in limited access areas and patients’ homes. Now almost 12 years later, Gillis is both elated and, in many ways, surprised that somniTech has evolved into one of the Midwest’s largest sleep providers with locations in Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa. The company has had substantial growth each year.

“The company has grown and changed in ways that I could never have imagined compared to the business model I first developed,” Gillis says, a former respiratory therapist and intensive care unit coordinator. In fact, she actually started the company in Dallas, but in 1995 saw greater business potential in the Midwest, so she relocated somniTech to the Kansas City area. As she developed the business, she learned that it was not just rural areas that needed her services. Large hospitals, insurance groups, and physicians throughout the region were in short supply of sleep specialists. “We started working with these groups so that all of our eggs were not in one basket,” Gillis says. As a result, somniTech is now a truly diversified company, working in both freestanding and hospital settings. Its clients include hospital administrators, physicians, insurance professionals, as well as individual patients who are either self-referred or referred by physicians. Home sleep studies were the only services from Gillis’ original plans that were not developed, yet somniTech occasionally provides them for morbidly obese patients or other patients who cannot leave their homes.

Although the majority of somniTech’s sleep studies are conducted at its freestanding facility in Overland Park, the company also has its own facilities in Omaha, Neb; Sioux Falls, SD; Lee’s Summit, Mo; Kansas City, Mo; and Des Moines, Iowa. In addition, somniTech contracts with more than 100 hospitals in the six-state region. With the majority of these hospitals, contracts are set up so that somniTech sends its technologists along with portable polysomnographic equipment to their facilities. In some instances, somniTech’s sleep technologists will travel for a week, working 3 or 4 nights at a time in various locations. All the data from the studies is downloaded to a branch office, scored by a registered technologist, and then sent out to the interpreting physician. The hospitals typically perform the patient billing, and somniTech, in turn, charges the hospitals for the service.

Despite all the activity in the field, the Overland Park office still serves as the company’s flagship with eight beds and the most technicians. This facility is housed in a brand-new, 10,000-square-foot building and was accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in fall 2003. Gillis spared no expense to make this center as home-like as possible and hired a professional decorator to select the most appropriate furnishings, carpeting, window dressings, and fireplaces. This attention to detail is one of the reasons somniTech has been so successful.

D04a.jpg (10151 bytes)Sabrina Obeidat, RPSGT, research assistant, performs a primary vigilance test between a patient’s naps during an MSLT.

Flexibility is Key
The rapid growth of the company has also been attributed to the flexibility of the staff. “The willingness of employees to basically do what needs to be done, irrespective of titles, is a key to our success,” Gillis says. For example, daytime staff, who are also registered technicians, have willingly gone back to working nights to perform polysomnograms when an acute need for sleep studies occurs. Gillis adds that another reason for somniTech’s profitability is that it offers a nonbureaucratic environment, which prevents “red tape” syndrome. The company has approximately 70 employees, and the majority of them are clinically trained in some aspect of sleep technology, including those who do not work directly with patients. “Instead of employees being required to attend multiple meetings by committee to change things that will benefit the patient, the staff is empowered under the direct supervision of Rhonda Gillette, RN, clinic administrator, to use their skills to the best of their ability to make sure we are providing the best care possible,” she says. Recognizing that education is critical in developing skilled staff, somniTech holds an annual education conference in which all staff are invited to hear several physicians lecturing on everything from pediatric sleep disorders to nocturnal seizures. The sleep technologists and respiratory therapists receive the appropriate continuing education credits for their participation.

To survive in this type of marketplace, flexibility is key because schedules are constantly changing. Late-night cancellations or unexpected requests for service in outlying areas mean employees are often required to multi-task to meet these needs. “I’ve found that it’s a certain breed of employee who enjoys working in this environment,” explains Steven Hull, MD, FCCP, medical director, who is board-certified in sleep medicine, pulmonary medicine, and internal medicine. “They like variety in their jobs, enjoy traveling to different locations, and feel comfortable operating as a team,” he says.

d04c.jpg (13067 bytes)Allen Boone, RPSGT, educates technologists during a 5-day didactic training seminar.

Sleep Medicine Research
somniTech’s commitment to the field of sleep medicine is also evidenced by its presence in sleep research. Helping with the advancement of various medicines in the field of sleep has been a priority for somniTech. Since its partnership with Vince and Associates Clinical Research in 2001, the team has participated in more than 25 sleep-related clinical trials—many of which are in the early stages of development. As Principal Investigator, Hull has participated in various therapeutic areas of sleep research, including adult and geriatric insomnia, sleep apnea, shift worker sleep disorders, and transient insomnia. “Our organization has recently published research that will be presented at both the American Psychiatric Association and the Associated Professional Sleep Societies conferences,” Hull says.

Record Growth
With somniTech’s record growth, spending large sums on advertising or other marketing programs has been unnecessary. Although the company does traditional Yellow Pages advertising and produces printed patient education materials, its primary method for marketing is word-of-mouth promotion. A sales force team, led by Jennifer James, RPSGT, director of sales and marketing, meets regularly with physicians to teach them about sleep disorders and find out what services are needed. “My focus is on consultation and education as opposed to selling somniTech,” James says. “I want these doctors to recognize the signs and symptoms of sleep disorders and to understand how to use the Epworth Sleepiness Scale,” she says. One of her goals is to get every family practitioner to think of sleep as a vital statistic just like height, weight, and blood pressure.

somniTech has also grown to become one of the preferred providers of several large managed care companies, which has been profitable since HMO penetration is extremely high in the Kansas City area. One aspect the managed care companies find appealing is that Hull has agreed to a global contract, which few physicians accept because of concerns about low interpretation fees for sleep studies. Hull, however, believes it is a win-win situation for the managed care company, somniTech, and himself. “I get a steady stream of business from these providers and do not have to do the billing, and their patients’ sleep studies are read by a board-certified doctor,” he says. Besides managed care and private insurance, Medicare represents about 30% of somniTech’s business.

Gillis points out that somniTech’s focus on reinvesting money into equipment and technology has also strengthened the company. A custom networked database system allows sleep studies to be burned on CDs, which in turn can be reviewed by physicians at remote locations. Dictation can also be performed, proofed, and printed without going to a dictation service. In addition, the database is used to document patient satisfaction, technician competency, and report turnaround time. Ann Hubert, RPSGT, is a full-time scheduler who also uses the database to schedule appointments, which are available 7 days a week. Having the scheduler be a registered technician is helpful because she can easily answer patients’ questions.

d04d.jpg (11973 bytes)Standing from left, Jennifer James, RPSGT, director of sales and marketing; Steven Hull, MD, medical director; Pam Gillis, president; Rhonda Gillette, RN, clinic administrator; and seated, Kim Stanley, financial administrator.

A Committed Team
This commitment to technology as well as personnel is a major reason somniTech has become such a respected sleep provider in the Midwest. Although the company has grown differently than first planned, Gillis has met her original goal of expanding access in limited areas. The company has found that individuals who do not wish to travel outside their communities to receive health care represent a major share of somniTech’s patient base. This market segment exists in other geographic regions, which Gillis hopes to develop in the years ahead. Other goals include seeking opportunities in education, partnering with local teaching communities to provide education to students in various medical fields, and increasing outreach in the communities somniTech currently serves to increase sleep and wake disorders awareness. Given its track record for broad expansion of services, somniTech most likely will continue to diversify its portfolio in the years ahead. “I am excited about all the possibilities,” Gillis says, “and look forward to continuing to play a major role in providing quality sleep-related services.”

Carol Daus is a contributing writer for Sleep Review.