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."

The new tech hub at Houston Methodist has trained hundreds of physicians in telemedicine practices. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

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

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.