Docent Health

Service industries like consulting, hospitality, restaurants or the local car mechanic, are judged on experience. Healthcare folks would like to think that it’s all about outcomes but no one would argue that experience is just as important. And most healthcare experiences suck from a patient’s point of view.

Docent Health caught my attention last year in July when they raised a healthy $15M Series A round from big names like NEA and BVP. Their ‘Docent Program’ is an intriguing service approach, to say the least. They offer docents -people who are familiar with the healthcare system, like ex-nurses- to act as a liaison between the patient and caregivers. These virtual and/or onsite docents integrate with the clinical staff to act as a representative of the patient’s anxieties and preferences.

Fair enough. Can’t argue with the benefits of having a personal concierge throughout hospital journey. Building a personal relationship with the patient allows the hospital to create a better brand impression. That kind of word-of-mouth marketing is priceless and spreads fast. Additionally, the learning from one patient’s preferences may be transferable to the next, creating a patient experience-related ‘best practices knowledge base’ that has never existed in traditional health organizations.

But it’s not a panacea. Revitalizing service experience shouldn’t necessarily be about adding more humans into the mix or creating one more layer of touch points. I understand that the current environment doesn’t allow clinicians to have the ideal 1-on-1 time with patients, but adding a new resource into the mix increases the human interfaces through which information has to travel. A new team member gets added to the physician/nursing rounds and the incumbent care team may not like dealing with someone else on their turf. The overall cost goes up too, since someone is ultimately paying for the added cost of docents. Needless to say this added cost will ultimately be handed-off the patient.

If healthcare service experience sucks, the solution should be to fix the fundamental issues (for example overworked caregivers and unhelpful EHRs). It’s the same argument I make against scribe services: fix the EHR user interfaces rather than adding another minion to the mix.

Criticize someone else’s solution is like shooting fish in a barrel. I realize that the current system is straining while waiting for salvation. Docents may be a good-but-temporary fix but tech-enabled services are here to stay. Omada, Livongo, Virta are good examples of how this trend can transform condition-specific care experience and outcomes.

Virta Health

Virta burst on to the digital health scene recently boasting a $37M funding round and a tech-heavyweight CEO Sami Inkinen who previously co-founded Trulia, the online real-estate platform.

Virta is the latest digital health star to follow the trend of what I’m now beginning to identify as tech-enabled care management. Think of it as a healthcare service delivery model where traditional care providers’ interaction with patient is enhanced (in terms of quality and quantity) using modern technology infrastructure like sensors, mobile, machine-learning.

Virta focuses on Type II diabetes management. They offer a dedicated health coach (someone who can help mentor and guide the patient through the health choices they need to make), a personalized nutrition plan and an overall physician supervision of care. All these service experiences are supported by technology that definitely includes a mobile app; and probably includes the needed wearable sensors (for weight, BP, etc. monitoring) along with relevant biomarker tests (like HbA1c).

Diabetes is a complicated multifactorial lifestyle condition that is often made worse with neglect of one/more aspects like exercise, weight, nutrition, mental health, medications, stress, BP, etc. So a comprehensive, closely-monitored program can surely make a difference. And technology is key for scaling services while keeping them personalized. So this kind of solution approach makes sense.

Omada (for diabetes) was an early player in the tech-enabled care management space. Livongo (also diabetes), Lantern (mental health), Hinge Health (musculoskeletal disorders) are some other examples. It’s a good sign to see standardizable niches of healthcare service delivery being scaled up with clever technology use. Of course all this still needs to pass the muster of traditional third-party payment machinery in our healthcare system. Given the accountable care trend I’m optimistic about the viability of such companies as long as they show real outcome improvements.


AmplifyHealthLogoMost of the time, Health IT spawns artificial concepts – born as a result of relentless media hype, each reaches a precocious peak of publicity and then quickly fades away. Buzzwords like RHIO, NHIN, PHR, Chronic Disease Management, etc. were all touted as game changing at one point or other in the past. Now it’s more about patient engagement, HIE, Analytics, Care Collaboration. One stands out in my mind though – Population Health Management (PHM). I think that even though it may be riding the hype cycle like all others, it has signs of legitimacy.

Think of it this way. For decades, we have endured and participated in a healthcare system that is geared towards encounter-based medicine. Patient comes in with complaint X, gets treated and billed for complaint X. Now with changing payment models though, it is important for the payers and providers to broaden their perspective. They need to keep track of patient (member) over a period of time, and keep them out of hospitals/ERs. As a result they need a “Longitudinal Health Record” that spans across encounters. This is what HIEs promise to provide and interoperability standards promise to enable.

From a Health IT vendor perspective, PHM means tools that help user do two things:

This is done by analyzing a population in a given care context. Like HbA1c tests for diabetics. PHM construct is based on the premise of looking beyond those who need immediate care (i.e. are having an encounter) and provide insights on the entire cohort under care.
This is where the analytics graduates into what it should be – Actionable Analytics. The ideal PHM tool will not only help find at-risk individuals, but also make it easy to do something about it. So if the PCP user has found the 50 at-risk diabetics in his/her 1000 patient panel, they now need to send reminder letters or queue them up for some kind of outreach. This workflow integration is what really legitimizes the emerging niche of PHM. Just analytics on it’s own doesn’t cut it.

But the devil is in the details, of course. One can argue why EHRs, the perennial stolid incumbents of health IT world, don’t have this as native capability. The answer is clear if you’ve ever used an EHR. They were (and are) built as transactional systems that focus on the current visit billing and documentation. Doing a parallel meta-analysis of how this patient fits into a population profile and what they need outside the context of this visit is a humungous leap for almost all EHRs. And that is why a new crop of startups have started to focus on this niche.



AmplifyHealth says all the right things on it’s website. They point out the need for finding patients that are going off-track. Like most startups, it avoids putting a live demo video on the site (so frustrating) so I’m going off of what the webpages claim as capabilities. The three areas they speak of:

  1. Patient Management: Seems like this provides ability to create custom lists, akin to registries. That is a valid value-add, aligned with actionable analytics as described above. But the website description veers off into “engage new patients, influence productive behavior, establish relationship” which is confusing. All those belong to the foundational practice management and EHR system.
  2. Measuring Outcomes: This would be the ‘meta-analysis’ that doesn’t come native with EHRs. Tracking outcomes based on measures is just starting to get engrained into the EHR DNA, thanks to the bullying by Meaningful Use regulation. But even that is a very regimented approach to this meta-analysis, and may not suffice for an ideal user. Hence the value-add opportunity.
  3. Client-Sales Support: Very interesting. This seems to be an administrative dashboard for provider groups, self-insured employer groups to analyze of potential savings for a population. So it goes beyond just the clinical aspect of Population Health Management. I can see that as a separate sell to administrative, non-clinical users.

Buoyed by the hype that usually accompanies anything new Health IT, PHM is ready to bask in media limelight. But this may be one of the rare occurrences where there is actual substance underlying the claim to fame. Of course, only time will tell. One thing is for sure – you will see this term splattered across a lot of vendor booths in HIMSS 2014.


One the joys of working in an opaque system is that there are endless opportunities for curators. “Handpicked“, “Invite-only“, “Top 0.x%” slogans carry emotional value because the perennially ill-informed consumer is guaranteed to be frustrated with the complexity and impersonal nature of the given opaque system. The national prize for opaque system has been consistently won by healthcare ever since Medicare was signed into law in 1965. And after a few decades of helter-skelter with managed care acronyms, the age of healthcare service curators has arrived it seems. Thanks to the ubiquity of internet and communication infrastructure that connects everyone, there are a number of startups looking at how to match the demand for medical opinion with an …ahem… ‘hand-picked’ supply of experts.

ConsultingMD made news recently with it’s $10M series A round. They are in the very legitimate second-opinion niche of healthcare startups. There is a clear need for facilitating a marketplace between patient and doctors. But as I read more about what they do, two issues surfaced.

First is price. ConsultingMD’s opinions are priced at $3750 a pop for individuals. For an industry with a culture of third-party payment, that is huge! Which means that sadly, their usage will skew to high net worth individuals who already have a lot of healthcare options at their disposal. <soapbox>Which brings me to the philosophical argument of how should we solve the ‘second opinions’ need in healthcare? I think it’s by giving patients *all* their data back in an understandable way and make them informed consumers. Not by giving expensive access to an elite club of medical experts. If we do the former, the right options will automatically become popular (because of good outcomes), and hence easily discoverable. Just like it happens in retail.</soapbox>. I’m sure a significant part of that hefty sum goes towards collecting the myriad medical records on behalf of the patient and putting them in one digital place (silo alert). That manual aggregation service is probably a real value… I made the same point about MotherKnows previously.

Second  is the referrals part of ConsultingMD. The website says $200 per referral for an individual. Wait…What?? The patient pays the lead generation service to connect to doctors? That doesn’t make sense to me. Referrals are a visceral  process in the care ecosystem, part of the intrinsic flow that physicians generate as part of care continuity. I find the notion of patient-requesting-paid-referrals-directly (without a Primary doc in loop) as the wrong type of consumerism. Par8o has a better approach to referrals. We need Patient Centered Medical Home based solutions, where primary care team guides care.

However, both the issues fade away when one considered ConsultingMD as an added benefit from an employer to it’s workforce. That’s where the sweet spot is. Employers (good ones, at least) try to elbow each other out in providing fantastic benefits around health. So ConsultingMD services are meant to be sold to employers. That’s how the current system works anyways. You prevail by getting someone else to pay.

There is competition for ConsultingMD, of course. Second opinion companies (like BestDoctors, 2nd.MD, WorldCare), academic medical centers (like Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic)  and even generic expert-request sites (like JustAnswer) are in the fray. Not to mention the free, yelp-like review sites (like Vitals) that have existed for a long time. So while I’m excited at the continuous movement in Healthcare IT startups, the central thrust of it still feels a bit misguided. Its like the big silicon valley echo chamber sucks in the few glitzy healthcare ideas that it inherently likes/understands; while ignoring the ugly hairy ones that roam outside praying for salvation.

Mar 2017 Update: ConsultingMD changed name to and has since then raised about $106M dollars. Let the good times roll!


In the standard healthcare IT media landscape, increasingly all I find are the ruinous signs of bloated, overcomplicated conventional healthcare IT systems struggling to do everything that they claim to do. Alongside that increasingly infertile landscape are green shoots of some startups doing few things, and doing them right.

I’ve harped in the past on scheduling being a ripe area for disruption, perhaps something that we will see being ‘done right’ very soon. Zocdoc is forging ahead, turbo-charged by humungous funding and legendary backers. But it only handles non-emergent situations where both patient and provider have the luxury to find a mutually convenient time.

Nashville, TN based InQuicker takes that value proposition to a new level. Besides facilitating non-urgent outpatient scheduling, it allows patients to ‘hold their place’ online in the urgent care or ER waiting room queues. That way patients with non-life threatening medical conditions can stay at home till it’s their turn to be seen. ER and Urgent Care Centers avoid overcrowding and patient frustration. The operational benefits of having a smooth flow in such round-the-clock care delivery centers is huge from a staffing, customer satisfaction and overall efficiency perspective. Which is why InQuicker has a growing list of participating facilities that underwrite this free service for patients. The conspicuous absence of a mobile InQuicker app is a bit odd though. This is a perfect context for mobile solution.

Enabling just-in-time operational strategy for emergency care operations… it’s a small but important piece of the overall process of delivering healthcare in a efficient and cost-effective manner. If you expect the incumbent EHR, EDI, HIE vendors or payers to get to this, don’t hold your breath. Pragmatic innovation like this will happen faster at the periphery of the perceived center of healthcare IT. InQuicker was founded in 2006, and has never raised a single dollar of venture capital. Their 2012 revenues are expected to be around $4. That, is a sign of a real business.

The need has not gone unnoticed by others. ERExpress, ERTexting are already there as direct competition. iTriage (now a part of Aetna) takes an almost similar approach with their ER wait times and check-in features.  ZocDoc may very well get into it with relative ease. Regardless of the competition, InQuicker is a great example of what laser-sharp focus can do in a nascent, over-regulated industry. Look out for such small and significant success stories in other healthcare IT sub-niches like clinical analytics, consent management, diagnostic decision support, care collaboration, transition of care, PHRs etc.