"Still, there’s often confusion about who is caring for the patient ... " Playing off of Jimmy the Greek's comment,…
Guillaume de Zwirek is CEO of Well Health of Santa Barbara, CA.
Tell me about yourself and the company.
I started Well six years ago out of personal frustration. I was an athlete, an endurance athlete at the time. That was my hobby. I wound up in the emergency room. They had concerns about cardiac issues. I loved my doctors and I loved the facilities, but the process of coordinating my care was super frustrating. I just couldn’t escape the thought that I was in an industry that was in the top five in terms of gross domestic product, but worst in terms of customer service despite having everything going for it.
What drove me nuts was the phone and having to navigate many different people in the health system. I thought, how great would it be if there was a technology system sitting on top of all the individual systems and technologies at a hospital so that I could save one phone number in my address book, get all my needs handled, and something behind the scenes would take care of the logistics and coordination? That was the inspiration for Well.
Health systems could me automating communication and engagement to improve the patient experience, but some may be focused on the potential to save FTEs. What motivation are you seeing?
I’m glass half full. I rarely encounter health systems that are trying to reduce FTEs. Most people came into this field for the reason of bettering patient health, and they live that in the conversations that I have with them. Usually it’s about providing quicker resolutions to common questions, elevating their staff to the top of their pay grade where they can handle more complex issues versus routine, rote communications that really aren’t sophisticated and aren’t a good use of people’s time.
I also want to add that I don’t believe in automating the patient interactions. I actually think that has the potential to do a lot more harm than to help. You should only automate when you are positive that you can give patients the answer they are expecting. The rest of the time, you need to kick things to the right live agent. That’s where there’s a lot of sophistication, routing, rules, logic, and escalations.
I’ll give you an example. My wife is pregnant. If she is texting her health system because she has cramping, that should immediately go to a nurse to respond to her over text or call her to resolve her query. If that’s getting stuck in an automated machine, you’re just going to frustrate patients more than help. It might look like you’re saving FTEs, but really you’re hurting patient health. If you’re on any value-based contracts, you’re probably hurting your margin. That’s my point of view.
How are health systems managing their use of those systems to make sure that messaging is consistent, understandable, and appropriate based on patient preferences?
That’s part of the reason this should exist in a single technology provider that handles the last yard of patient communications across the entire life cycle of the patient journey, from acquisition into the health system through discharge and long-term health maintenance and chronic disease management. If you don’t have everything in one platform, it’s impossible to manage.
A patient going in for a primary care visit may need to get an MRI, go to radiology, and see a specialist like a cardiologist, like I did in my case. If they are all using different systems, you are guaranteed to burden the patient. If you bring all the communications into one engine, you can see what workflows are configured. You can see where there might be over-communication. You can control language and make it consistent across the enterprise. That’s why I think it’s so important to bring everything under one umbrella.
There’s still a lot of work that I don’t want to diminish. There are operating work groups that need to be set up to define the tone that we want to have and the frequency with which we want to communicate with patients. Analytics departments need to look at the data and determine what’s working, what’s not, and what’s most effective. Usually there is central administration, where you set specific rules that are consistent at the enterprise level. Then, let the individual practices customize things for their specific workflow needs. All of those are considerations that we’ve built over our six years of having Well in the market.
But it’s precisely what you’re describing. It’s hard to manage and it’s complicated, and that’s why I think it needs to be in one system. That’s the only way you get the visibility.
How can technology offer patients the “they know me” experience?
I’d like to answer this without centering on Well. When you think about the “they know me” concept, most people think about Customer 360, and they think about CRM, customer relationship management. EMR, CRM, and patient communications all live in a similar format. We personally are focused on giving you a complete history of the patient communications across departments so you’re not having to repeat redundant questions and tasks. Then, displaying that information in context of all the patient demographics and information that might be relevant to them.
CRM takes it a little bit further in terms of the context of the patient, bringing in psychographics and other things across different systems, applications, and licensed data. That can be a complement that we embed and integrate into EMRs and CRM tools to provide that full picture. We are focused on that entire communications history.
Going back to my wife, true story. She was going into labor and it was in the middle of COVID, so she was wearing a really thick mask and was concerned about giving birth in that mask. She texts and says, “Can you please greet me with a 3-ply?” When the health system gets that message, they know that Katie is 40 weeks pregnant. They understand that she is on the way to the hospital for her delivery. They can respond and say, “No problem. We’ll meet you at the front door.” That’s what happened.
There’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of different solutions to solve for this. We’re focused on displaying that comprehensive record of all the interactions you have had with the health system so they can respond to you in context without repeating a bunch of questions.
Sorry that I’m talking a lot about pregnancy, but it’s highly relevant for me. We went through this recently because my wife is pregnant again. At 12 weeks, she had really bad cramping and it was like 4:30 in the afternoon. We were at a different care provider that doesn’t offer convenient access to patients — you have to call. So we called on the phone at 4:30 and they couldn’t recognize the phone number. I had to give all of my wife’s information. It took about 25 minutes just to get to the right department and get everything documented. At 4:55 p.m., the person on the phone said, “So, Guillaume, I’m putting a note in the record to have someone call your wife. But to be honest, I don’t think anybody will. If you can call us back in five minutes, we transition to our after-hours call center and they can help you.”
I said, let me get this straight. You want me to call you back in five minutes and go through all of this information again so that I can get an on-call doctor to give us a call back? She said yes. I was really frustrated. It would have been great if I could have had that same experience that we did with the 3-ply and just texted and said, “Hey, my wife’s having cramps, we’re 12 weeks in, and we’re concerned. Can you have the on-call doc call me back?” That to me is a great experience that will make my wife and I never leave that institution and get all our care there for the rest of our lives.
What have we learned from the pandemic-related rollout of conversational AI chatbots?
A lot of people are surprised by how accepting patients are of talking to somebody over digital mediums. Symptom checkers are a great example. A lot of companies sprung up to help patients self-triage and decide the next best course of action. I think the market as a whole is much more receptive to communicating with patients over different mediums that aren’t the telephone. That’s a really good move for the industry.
I believe where we need to go is to help the market understand that they can start with a use case, but they really need to think about the end-to-end patient journey and patient experience and deliver that level of access across every step of the life cycle. If they started with a symptom checker, great. How do we expand from that and start building workflows for post-discharge or transitional care management or pre- or post-operative directions? There are thousands of workflows that can be enabled through digital mediums that don’t have any friction and that relieve staff from a burden and allow them to act at the upper end of their license.
And when I say staff, I don’t just mean doctors, MAs, PAs, and NPs. I mean call center staff too, folks that can deliver a lot of value for healthcare, but are spending a lot of time cold-calling patients to try to get them to act and adhere or answer really, really simple questions that can be automatically resolved without a human being.
How can this kind of technology be applied to patient payments?
There are regulatory restrictions to what you can communicate with regard to billing and payments. There’s a special consent that you have to get. That and marketing messages have a different threshold of requirements under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
We have proven that establishing a strong, two-way, consistent relationship with patients, providing that access, will make them more likely to do the things you want them to do. It’s human nature. When you build strong relationships, you feel a sense of burden to deliver on your side of the relationship. If you go in to get care and you are responsible for a co-payment, being asked that in context of that relationship makes it much more likely that you will adhere.
There’s a lot of interesting things happening in the payment space. Companies like Experian and RevSpring are licensing data on your behaviors from companies like Amazon and others to determine what your propensity to pay is, and if they should offer you a payment plan or waive the payment completely. They deliver that to health systems. That’s a valuable asset for healthcare. We’re pursuing integrations with a lot of folks in the space to deliver that information natively over the same thread, where you’re having conversations about the 3-ply mask going into labor, your pain at 12 weeks, and your postoperative directions to handle your C-section after-care.
Weaving that all together is a really compelling message. We’ve proven that patients are more likely to adhere when they have that relationship. Armed with the intelligence that a lot of these rev cycle companies have, you can be precise with what you offer to the patients. It not like a catch-all, spray-and-pray method. You owe 30 bucks, I’m going to send you a mailer, but it costs me $2.50 to send. I can be thoughtful that Mr. H has different socioeconomic needs and he’s unlikely to pay, so let’s just waive this payment and not even bother chasing him. Perhaps somebody else would be more appropriate for a payment plan.
I’m seeing a lot of interesting innovation on the rev cycle side. Our goal is to integrate with those companies. I want to be Switzerland. We have the APIs to deliver that information in the context of a really strong relationship and increase the likelihood that the patient adheres.
Where you see the company’s focus being over the next several years?
I want to be the underlying technology that powers every interaction between patients and their healthcare providers. We started deliberately in the space of care, coordinating your care for the administrative logistical items. We did that because the laws were different six years ago and that was a space that we could enter that had little friction. It had a clean path into the healthcare organizations.
As I mentioned earlier, we want to own the end-to-end patient journey, starting from patient acquisition through to discharge from the health system and long-term care management, which will extend to the home and other areas. Over time, I think establishing a strong relationship will provide a lot of value up the value chain. Think payers, pharma, and life sciences. All of those industries exist to serve patient health. If you can inject and influence the patient journey to lead to the best healthcare outcomes and have a platform that handles that end-to-end last yard of communications, it can be really, really powerful. There are applications for clinical trials. There are applications for drug discovery. There are applications for changing jobs and your insurance changing and your historical provider no longer accepting your insurance. All of those things can be proactively intercepted when you have a strong relationship with patients.