digital check up

This Houston virtual health care platform makes it easier to get answers

Houston-based Ways2Well puts control back into the hands of patients. Photo via ways2well.com

As hard as he tried, Brigham Buhler couldn't achieve the weight-loss and fitness goals he'd set in his mid-20s. Plus, he constantly felt tired and stressed out. On top of that, Brigham's entire immediate family has diabetes, and he was exhibiting the warning signs.

Buhler's nutritionist recommended he get his hormones checked. It wound up taking three months to get an initial appointment with a urologist, who then recommended a comprehensive blood test.

The blood work revealed that he did, indeed, have a hormone deficiency. Subsequent hormone treatment, in addition to taking vitamins and supplements to combat various risk factors, got Buhler's endocrine system back on track.

Born out of that frustrating situation and spurred by his more than 15 years in the medical-device industry, Buhler launched Houston-based Ways2Well in 2018. Propelled by a virtual health care platform, the company envisions a better way to treat patients by challenging the traditional health care model.

"While most virtual health care providers focus on sick care — treating patients experiencing symptoms that indicate sickness — Ways2Well is focused on preventative health care," says Buhler, a graduate of the University of Houston.

Through his own patient journey, Brigham Buhler saw a need for Ways2Well to exist. Photo via ways2well.com

Here's how Ways2Well works.

A patient visits the company's website to schedule a blood analysis at a Houston-area location of Quest Diagnostics. (Each year, Quest Diagnostics serves one-third of American adults and half of U.S. physicians and hospitals.)

Before the lab work, the patient discusses health concerns and wellness goals through a virtual appointment with a Ways2Well nurse practitioner.

Once the blood analysis is done, the nurse practitioner reviews the test results during a virtual appointment. The practitioner pinpoints underlying causes of chronic symptoms and potential risks for major conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Those three ailments are the main drivers of the $3.5 trillion in annual health care costs racked up in the U.S. Ways2Well strives to reverse the symptoms of these and other chronic illnesses.

Finally, the nurse practitioner shares lifestyle or dietary changes that can reduce the likelihood of developing chronic diseases.

"Our online platform allows you to manage your health care journey from the convenience of your home or office, as long as you have access to a computer or phone and internet," Ways2Well says on its website.

Ways2Well charges nothing for a patient's initial 15-minute consultation. The blood analysis costs $299; Buhler says it goes well beyond what primary care doctors normally offer. The review of the blood analysis costs $120. Follow-up appointments cost $60 each. Neither Ways2Well nor ReviveRx accepts health insurance. However, an insurer might reimburse some out-of-pocket expenses.

The Ways2Well clinical team can prescribe medication, hormone therapy, prescription-grade vitamins and supplements, and other remedies through Ways2Well's partner pharmacy, ReviveRX. Ways2Well and ReviveRx occupy offices in the same building.

Typically, health care providers and pharmacies don't collaborate that closely on patient care. "Ways2Well is bridging that gap to offer better treatment to our patients," Buhler says.

Although ReviveRx is a full-service pharmacy, it doesn't operate like retail pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS. Rather, patients are referred directly to ReviveRx by Ways2Well or Houston health care providers.

Today, Ways2Well focuses on the Houston market. But Buhler says the 12-employee, self-funded startup aims to expand to other Texas markets, such as Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio.

"Because Ways2Well is a virtual health care provider that offers appointments via video conferences and leverages the Quest Diagnostics network for blood analysis, Ways2Well can treat patients from anywhere in Texas," he says. "Ultimately, the goal is to make Ways2Well available nationwide, with a team of clinical experts across the U.S."

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Building Houston

 
 

Meet MIA — Houston Methodist's new voice technology assistant. Photo via Getty Images

Hey, MIA. Start surgery.

These are the words Houston doctors are learning to say in the operating rooms, thanks to a first-of-its-kind voice technology developed by the Houston Methodist's Center for Innovation in collaboration with Amazon Web Services. In the same way we use programs like Alexa or Siri to make our everyday tasks easier, the Methodist Intelligent Automation, or MIA, is allowing medical professionals to improve the way they interact both with technology and patients alike.

"There's been a push in the industry for a long time that people sitting behind computers and typing and staring at a computer screen is inadequate," says Houston Methodist Chief Innovation Officer Roberta Schwartz. "There's been a desire to return people back to each other rather than physicians and look at a screen and patients look at a doctor looking at a screen."

Currently in its pilot phase, MIA is working to do just that through two key functions that shift the way medical professionals work in what Schwartz calls the "era of electronic medical records."

The first is through operating room voice commands. Here medical professionals can run through a series or checklists and initiate important actions, such as starting timers or reviewing time of anesthesia, through voice instead of by typing or clicking, which can become cumbersome during lengthy and highly detailed surgeries. Information is displayed on a large 80-inch TV in the operating suite and following surgery all of the data captured is imported into the traditional EMR program. The technology has been prototyped in two Houston Methodist O.R. suites so far and the hub aims to trial it in a simulation surgery by the end of the year.

Additionally, the hub is developing ambient listening technology to be used in a clinical setting with the same goal. Houston Methodist and AWS have partnered with Dallas-based Pariveda to create specialized hardware that (after gaining patient permission) will listen into doctor-patient conversations, transcribe the interaction, and draft a note that is then coded and imported directly into the EMR.

"For EMR the feedback is that it's clunky, it's click-heavy, it's very task oriented," says Josh Sol, who leads digital and clinical innovation for Houston Methodist. "Our goal with the Center for Innovation and this technology hub is to really transform that terminology and bring back this collaboration and the patient-physician relationship by removing the computer but still capturing all the pertinent information."

The ambient listening technology is further off and is currently in user acceptance testing with clinicians.

"They've had some great feedback, whether it's changing how the note is created, changing the look and feel of the application itself," Sol adds. "All feedback is good feedback at this point. So we've taken it in, we prioritize the work, and we continue to improve the application."

And the hub doesn't plan to stop there. Schwartz and Sol agree that the next step for this type of medical technology will be patient facing. They envision that in the near future appointment or surgery prep can be done through Alexa push notifications and medication reminders or follow up assessments could be done via voice applications.

"It's all going to be of tremendous value and it's coming," Schwartz says. "We may be taking the first baby steps, but each one of these voice technologies for our patients is out there on the horizon."

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