The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the demands on health care technology, so Santa Barbara-based Well Health accelerated its own.
Partnering with health care systems and business partners like Amazon and Twilio, the company rolled out a rapid release program for its text message communication platform, adding thousands of doctors and millions of patients, and taking its integration process from 12 weeks down to 48 hours.
As it prioritized speed, it also sought to make the products as cheap as possible and develop ways to help health systems recover lost revenue, said CEO Guillaume De Zwirek.
“Everyone thinks health care is doing fine because it’s health care and people are sick, but it’s the opposite,” he said. “Health care is in a lot of trouble.”
The first big challenge was adapting the waiting room for the new environment.
“When you think about the typical health care experience, you go in the front door, you go to the front desk, you sit down next to a bunch of sick people,” De Zwirek said. “That doesn’t work in the time of COVID.”
Using text message instructions on the platform, the company helped providers arrange for patients to check in virtually and wait in their cars on arrival, where staff could meet them to check their temperatures and give them the green light when their doctor is ready to see them.
“It gives them all the instructions, so they never have to talk to anybody, so they’re prepared, and it minimizes exposure for patients,” De Zwirek said. “The alternative is really expensive — people calling every single patient and if one person doesn’t answer their phone, they put everybody at risk.”
Once providers were able to establish distancing and safety policies, Well began tackling the second major problem: a more than 60 percent decline in appointments as most patients cancelled visits and declined to seek treatment.
Patients even sought fewer emergency care services out of concern for safety, and hospitals across the nation have furloughed staff as major revenue streams waned.
The solution was to migrate as many appointments as possible to telehealth, De Zwirek said, which were approved for equal reimbursements by insurers as in-person visits. The company developed software that could automatically follow up with cancelled appointments and reschedule them.
“It’s helping health systems save a lot of money because visits that would have been cancelled are now happening over telehealth,” he said.
Despite helping its customers make back lost revenue, Well itself is losing revenue on the projects. Early on, it reached out to business partners like Amazon, Twilio and others, who provided credits on their products to help bring down its prices, but many of Well’s products are still being offered below cost, De Zwirek said.
The crisis “has created a lot of innovation really, really quickly,” he said. “When an event like this accelerates the urgency, it makes people think in a totally different time frame.”
Though the new offerings are not sustainable in the long term, the company expects to be able to continue to provide services below cost into 2021, De Zwirek added. Well closed a Series B funding round in October, but declined to give details on the raise.
“Thankfully we’re well capitalized and we’re able to invest in people and technology at a weird time like this,” he said, even doubling the size of its customer relations team and reaching the 100-employee mark.
Customers acquired during the pandemic have also begun to transition to more robust contracts that drive profits for the company, he said, which could be an engine for future growth.
The rapid rollout of new offerings has put pressure on his fully remote workforce, De Zwirek said, though as a health care company, Well had previously invested in security systems that facilitated the transition quickly.
“The interest in what we do had definitely gone up because the health care delivery model has fundamentally changed,” he said. “Virtual is going to be a significant part of care. Because the in person interactions run the risk of spreading disease, a lot of communications need to happen in advance, digitally.”
Since it developed its cheaper, rapid release program, the company has added some 5,000 doctors per week, with around 3.5 million patients added through the program alone. Overall, that adds up to tens of millions of new patients on the platform since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as 50,000 new doctors and providers booking half a million telehealth appointments.
The technology helped Sansum Clinic reach around 30 percent of its patients who had been unable to access telehealth through its MyChart platform, said Sean Johnson, vice president of applications and analytics. It also integrated chatbot technology that could respond immediately to keywords like “COVID” or “pandemic” with updates and links to information.
“The integration with texting, we now are leveraging the Well technology backbone,” Johnson said. “They’ve worked with us in all these really niche ways in helping us adapt to the pandemic.”
Since then, 60-70 percent of its appointments have been conducted virtually, a new structure that could help providers reduce overhead costs significantly, he said.
“Almost every health care organization in the country is running on a shoestring,” Johnson said. “It’s dire. A lot of us reduced revenue down to 20-30 percent … when you’re dealing with half a million to 600,000 visits a year and we’re trying to encourage people whenever possible that we’d like them to stay home, it was a no-brainer to figure out how to start leveraging our communications platform.”
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