Diagnosing doctors

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

Ignite Healthcare Network has hosted a pitch compeition for a few years now, but this is the first year for its mini-accelerator program. Courtesy of Ignite

Within health care, female consumers make 80 percent of the buying power while women hold 65 percent of the workforce's jobs, according to a recent study. However, when you look at the C-suites in the industry, those percentages fall drastically, says Ayse McCracken.

"For as many women as there are involved in health care, it's not reflected in leadership," says McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network. "That's what brought us together."

Just 30 percent of health care C-suites are women — and only 13 percent have female CEOs, per the report by Oliver Wyman. Houston-based nonprofit Ignite is an organization comprised of over 150 of these rare female health care execs and focused on clearing a path for future female leaders in the industry.

McCracken founded the network in 2016, and her team established a "Shark Tank-style" pitch competition. After three years of the annual event seeing successes, Ignite is introducing its inaugural mini-accelerator program.

"As we saw this innovation economy and startup space begin to evolve in the city, it seemed that our contribution to this was that we could help incubate and find companies that had high likelihood of success," says McCracken.

Ignite and its partners identified 13 female-led companies from all around the world were selected from over 80 applications and now will go through a 10-week program called the Customer-Partner Program. Each company is paired with a partner and potential customer — from Memorial Hermann and Texas Children's Hospital to Humana and Gallagher.

Here are the participating female-led startups:

  • iTreatMD from San Francisco
  • BabyNoggin (by Qidza) from San Francisco
  • Ria Health from San Francisco
  • Savonix from San Francisco
  • MotiSpark from Los Angeles
  • UpHold Health from Chicago
  • Sound Scouts from Sydney, Australia
  • Augment Therapy from Cleveland, Ohio
  • Oncora Medical Philadelphia
  • Materna Medical from Mountain View, California
  • Path Ex Inc Houston
  • PyrAmes Inc. from Cupertino, California
  • Spoke Health Denver

The Fire Pitch Competition will take place on October 17 at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes is on the line for the 13 companies.

"This year's event is already receiving increased recognition from investors," says Ignite board member and event co-chair, Cheryl Stavins, in a release. "In addition to the top three finalists sharing awards that include entry into the TMCx Digital Health Accelerator, over $125,000 in professional services, and cash prizes of $10,000, Fire Pitch participants will be eligible for investment prizes."

The Texas Halo Fund will be awarding its $100,000 investment prize, called the Corona Award, along with a $50,000 prize from TMC Innovation Institute.

Beyond the new program, McCracken says she wants to expand Ignite's reach and capabilities for its members and startups — including new investment opportunities.

"I think what we're doing now is reaching out beyond Houston and looking at how we can continue to grow the opportunity to have an impact and help women-led companies and women in organizations," she says.