Care Convene Aims to Make Telemedicine as User-Friendly as Facebook

Jefferey VanWingen is a family doctor who has been practicing medicine for 17 years. Although he’s based in Grand Rapids, MI, he’s also been taking medical missions to India for the past decade. It’s always been his goal to use technology to bridge his physical distance from the Wi-Fi-enabled community he works with in India.

“It seemed like the perfect avenue to utilize telemedicine technology,” VanWingen says.

Little did he know he was about connect with telemedicine in a big way a little closer to home. It was while he was pondering ways to communicate with the clinic in India that he first crossed paths with Chris Bailey, co-founder and CEO of Care Convene, a Michigan-based telemedicine startup that launched in 2014.

At the time, Bailey was developing a digital platform enabling video chat consultations for low-severity health issues. He wanted to find a way to conduct doctor visits via smartphone app that would be faster and more convenient than trying to reach a nurse on the phone or taking a trip to urgent care. Care Convene eventually brought VanWingen on as its medical advisor.

“I challenged them to approach it as patients and not Web developers,” VanWingen says.

Care Convene works by enabling short virtual appointments with doctors and care teams via the use of on-demand, HIPAA-compliant, secure chat and video. Patients can also use the Care Convene app to access their electronic health records, track their physical activity, and get personalized health recommendations.

Patients initiate an eVisit by checking in to the app, requesting the appropriate provider, choosing from one of the conditions listed on a drop-down menu, and describing their symptoms. They can even submit a photo documenting an injury, for example, with their request. A status bar like the trackers used by pizza delivery apps tells the patient how far along the doctor is in the review process.

After the doctor receives a text notification, she logs on to Care Convene to review the patient request, which appears on a dashboard integrated with the patient’s health record. Then, the doctor begins an eVisit—a video or text chat—with the patient, asking additional questions and offering treatment advice. If a prescription is required, the doctor can send it electronically to the pharmacy if allowed, or leave it with the clinic’s reception desk for the patient to pick up. (Here’s a video that goes into more detail about how the platform works.)

Bailey believes one of the company’s key innovations is modeling its platform after Facebook to make it more user-friendly. Another key: Care Convene charges what it calls a “minimal standard transaction fee” per eVisit, but it doesn’t charge a platform fee to patients or providers for eVisit services, which Bailey says is a departure from many other telemedicine vendors. It also makes money on implementation services for physician groups that want additional tech support. Bailey says the company does not plan to sell ads on its app.

“It starts to grow when doctors invite patients to participate,” Baily says. “Our niche is providing the technology to clinicians without an absurd licensing fee.”

VanWingen has seen firsthand the forces that keep doctors from embracing telemedicine. In many cases, they’ve got a thriving suburban practice and access to tools and specialists within a few miles, so they don’t see a need for it.

“They’ve got everything they need, so the thought [doctors have] is, ‘Why would I want to try something new when I have everything at my disposal?’ You can’t use your hands or a stethoscope for consultations with telemedicine,” he says. “But all doctors learn the art of triage, and it forces us to innovate. It’s a challenge not to touch the patient, but we have so many good protocols and data that [telemedicine] can save a trip to urgent care.”

However, VanWingen sees other uses for Care Convene beyond urgent care visits. “Doctors are asked to screen every patient for mental illness,” he explains. “In spirit, that’s a good thing. In practicality, it can be annoying. What if the onus was on the patient? They could check in to Care Convene weekly to track their mood, and then the doctor would get a ping. I see Care Convene as a tool to make doctors’ lives better by bridging the gap between patients, geography, and care.”

As someone who spends a lot of time with doctors managing both my own and my father’s care, I can attest to a significant desire on the part of patients to have a quick, app-driven way not only to consult directly with providers, but also to get multiple providers communicating and collaborating when they share a patient. Barriers to easy mobile communication with doctors include trying to unite an extremely siloed ecosystem where clinicians are already pressed for time, and overcoming a fear of change, particularly among older physicians.

The payoff, VanWingen says, is worth doctors getting out of their comfort zone. He had an epiphany about telemedicine a few months ago when he was working out with his trainer. He was doing planks, but he was exhausted and really wanted to cheat.

“I realized that I was only going to get out of it what I put in,” he says, much like telemedicine. “Doctors are frustrated with patients, and patients are frustrated that doctors are not responsive. That needs to be repaired. Wouldn’t it be nice if technology could help?”

Despite Care Convene’s novel approach, many other telemedicine companies are trying to accomplish something similar, even in the startup’s own backyard. Competition is stiff, and there’s a lot of money at stake. According to one 2016 report, the global market for telemedicine could be worth up to $48.9 billion by 2021.

Care Convene has nine employees and four physician advisors on staff. The company is “founder funded,” Bailey says, but is currently seeking outside investment. Bailey says Care Convene is currently working with West Michigan Cardiology to help high-risk patients manage their health and conveniently access care.  It is also working with a large physician organization and urgent care clinic in Traverse City, MI, to manage high-risk patients and employer occupational health needs. In the coming months, Bailey hopes to take the platform nationwide.

For his part, VanWingen wants to see telemedicine become a more standard tool in a physician’s arsenal. It’s so far been a struggle, he says, because many telemedicine and electronic health record systems are hard to use and time-consuming.

“I’ve been a bit disenchanted,” he admits. “For telemedicine to succeed, it needs to be user-friendly, very affordable, and able to make our lives easier as doctors.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the Custom Content Editor for Xconomy Insight. You can reach her at sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @Xconomy

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