ConsultingMD

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 GrandRounds.com and has since then raised about $106M dollars. Let the good times roll!

Careticker

CaretickerLogoI know nothing more about Careticker than what their spartan website says. But the first time I read it, something clicked. Careticker is a sort of personal (health) productivity app that lets users manage their interaction before, during and after hospital stays. I think that is a great niche.

Except for hypochondriacs, no one likes hospital stays. Most of the anxiety related to a hospital stay can be attributed to the fear of unknown. Patients simply dont know enough about what they need do or what is going to be done to them during that stay. It’s like visiting a foreign country with no map or translation tool. That, is where I think niche context-aware companion apps can help. For common inpatient procedures (like hernia, tonsillectomy, etc.) a focused mobile app that gives patients reminders, education, to-do lists like functionality is  a tremendous value proposition.

Note the word ‘focused’. That’s the key. There are plenty of WebMD, MedlinePlus like generic health information apps that have wide variety of conditions covered. But to make the experience worthwhile the app needs to align all interaction vectors and focus on one intervention (or a group of closely-related conditions/procedures). Take a look at the list of most common procedures performed in US: all of them are candidates for an app. An app to remind patients when to stop eating/drinking for surgery, what to expect during stay, read FAQ posted by surgeon, get a copy of handout/discharge summary, etc. etc.

Back to Careticker. It surprises me that with the fundamentals rooted in an interesting niche, why did they pick a generic, already-crowded-with-apps condition of pregnancy as their first product. To be clear, Ob/Gyn is surely the right subdomain since the majority health-related app user skews to female gender. But a sharper focus (like Caesarean section) may have been smarter. The slightly derogatory name ‘Knocked Up’ doesn’t help either.

There is definitely room for growth in the target market. Especially since outpatient surgeries surpassed inpatient a couple of years ago. For a service like CareTicker, the gamut should run all types of procedures, regardless of care setting. Watch out for more entrants in this space.

Zweena Health

ZweenaLogo

Zweena Health provides a service to collect real-world paper medical records, digitize them and enter it into a Healthvault account. That way users can have a Personal Health Record (PHR) created for them, without dealing with multiple bricks-and-mortar medical offices.

I’ve endorsed the validity of services offering such ‘last mile’ value propositions before. Note MotherKnows for getting pediatric medical records, Phrazer in the medical interpretation realm, etc. No doubt there is a need to fulfill here.

Couple of interesting things about Zweena Health. First, they store the digitized information in Microsoft Healthvault, and not in their own proprietary application. That’s smart because it adds a layer of disintermediation that could be a sell for the rare savvy PHR users. Better to store information in a more-recognized brand name platform than in a startup’s coffers. To me it also underscores the need for ubiquitous platforms in the Personal Health Record space. After Google Health’s untimely demise, seems like Healthvault is the de facto choice. Microsoft could definitely use some more competition.

The other interesting aspect is Zweena Health’s pricing model. It has three parts. First, there is a base monthly access fee ($10) which is to be expected in any subscription based service. Second are the copy charges which are no fault of Zweena Health. They are an absurd figment of conventional healthcare system, so still okay to pass on the the user. The third part is about ‘page bundles’ – a set number of pages that a user needs to buy on Zweena Health. I find that to be an archaic way of thinking about digital information. The bloated paper records, when retrieved, should be parsed into discrete information that is in bits and bytes. So why should the payment be modeled on paper units? What if a provider took 3 pages to describe a simple procedure or left one blank intentionally? Sadly, this is the part where a new-age idea seems to be bogged down by antiquated processes. PHRs continue to be a valid need that hasn’t been solved to any shred of viability. Sigh.

InQuicker

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.

Sandalbay Life

The personal wearable-sensor devices trickle that started with FitBit around 2008 is now starting to look like a flash flood. For every one offering that has got media love (like Basis), there are perhaps five other being incubated (like Node).

It’s an embryonic market, and one that is tackling complex health problems with commoditized sensor technology. Every smart inventor in a garage seems to be capable of doing something about it. So a few things are bound to start happening now:

  • Event Managers will take notice. Exhibit A: Quantified Self Conference
  • Doubts on where does this lead us or what we learn
  • Hardware and software platforms that unify the myriad devices start sprouting

Sandalbay Life exemplifies the last. It’s is a young startup (started last last year) at LA-based accelerator StartEngine. Not much information out there about details of the offering, but their aim is to provide a single software platform for manufacturers to leverage. Given the device and format proliferation, it makes sense that someone should try to manage the complexities of dealing with application and network security, cross-platform performance and reliability issues, etc.

“Providing the white-labeled consumer software for manufacturers to utilize”, as Sandalbay Life founder Neil Malhotra puts it in an interview, is smart, since so many of these offerings are from small players. But the big guys are noticing it too. Qualcomm’s 2net platform is going to be close competition. It too, is a cloud-based system designed to be universally-interoperable with different medical devices and applications and provide easy access to the aggregated data.

I’m also not sure how to align it with other platform approaches that are already out there. Biggest one being Microsoft Healthvault. Healthvault may not be white-labeled, but does provides a way for device manufacturers to contribute their data to a PHR. They do have API’s that let a developer get to the unified Healthvault data. Plus they have a fast-growing ecosystem of devices and apps that are integrated with it.

There are smaller, but committed players going at the aggregation value proposition from multiple angles: Digifit (cardio), WellDoc (disease management) for example. Open-source grassroots projects (OpenYou, Cosm, LockerProject, Sen.se) are surfacing too.

The play for sensor manufacturers to have a common platform for reducing their development cost is valid. Remaining value propositions (single app for consumers, unifying data from multiple devices, giving providers tools to create workflows and insights, etc.) all come with crushing competition. Plus the whole field of personal wellness tracking is too nascent – we need the devices to take a hold in the mass market before aggregating platforms truly become a viable business themselves.

2017 update: Sometime in the last few years, Sandalbay Life has recalibrated its offering to be more about wellness training programs. More about services than data aggregation.