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Houston medical organizations pivot to telemedicine and remote care amid COVID-19 crisis

Hospital systems and nonprofits are looking for ways to reach patients virtually as face-to-face interactions continue to be limited due to the coronavirus. Getty Images

Hospitals across the country are trying their best to limit the number of people coming in and out — but how does that affect patients in need of non-COVID-19 treatment? Hospital systems are implementing new technology and training so that physicians can use telemedicine to connect virtually.

In March following telemedicine training, Houston Methodist began seeing hundreds more daily telemedicine sessions across its system, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, previously told InnovationMap. And other hospital systems are following suit.

HCA Houston Healthcare's CareNow locations have implemented Virtual Care, a telehealth urgent care service. Patients can check in online during the urgent care center's operating hours to gain one-on-one access to care from a CareNow physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. Providers, via video chat, will evaluate minor conditions and can prescribe non-narcotic medications when indicated.

If the situation calls for it, providers will tell the patient to come onsite to continue care.

"Virtual Care is an extension of our clinical urgent care services and fully supports our purpose to help people return to what they value in their lives, in an even more convenient way. We are proud to provide an easy solution for our patients' healthcare needs at their fingertips," says Dr. Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer for HCA Houston Healthcare, in a news release.

Dallas-based CareNow was acquired by HCA in 2015 and has 16 locations in the greater Houston area.

Health care nonprofits are also taking advantage of remote ways to reach patients. Houston-based nonprofit CanCare is in the business of supporting cancer patients and their families and, despite a global pandemic, has not let up on its services to those in need. In fact, cancer patients with their weakened immune system are at greater risk of developing COVID-19 and are in need more than ever of CanCare's one-on-one matching emotional support service.

"The cancer community is in our thoughts and prayers during this time of uncertainty," says CanCare's President and CEO Cristina Vetrano in a news release. "Now more than ever, the community needs the help of our volunteers and support services. Our mission is not only to ensure the safety of clients, patients and caregivers but also to assure the community that they will continue to receive support throughout this challenging time."

Cancer patients can reach support via email at support@cancare.org or by calling the support line support line at 713-364-1652.

The Houston health care ecosystem will continue to see advances in telemedicine and remote care. One Houston startup, Medical Informatics, has created a virtual ICU program, called Sickbay, and the tech tool is being used to remotely monitor patients in Houston Methodist. The program works around the clock from a control hub to use artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor patients.

"We designed our Sickbay platform to give lost data back to doctors, nurses and other members of the care team so they could save more lives," says Vincent Gagne, vice president of product for MIC, in a news release.

As the world emerges from COVID-19 — whenever and however that happens — telemedicine will have advanced as a viable option for physicians in a quicker way than it would have otherwise, Sol says.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," he says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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