As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform the health landscape for consumers, MobiHealthNews Buoy Health CEO Andrew Le who has worked on some of the toughest health navigation challenges for years.
Le talks about his company’s activities over the past year, the consumerization of healthcare, and the gap between inpatient and virtual care.
MobiHealthNews: I would like to start with a quick overview of what Buoy has been up to since our last conversation in February 2020. I know, of course, that COVID was a big part of that. So if you could just talk to me for a minute about what happened to the company and what you went through.
Le: I think back to the last time you and I chatted, but only in February 2020, so much has happened so far. As you remember, the last time we talked [Buoy] Basically updates our AI to understand when we humans should navigate to COVID tests.
Since we have millions of people using Buoy all the time, we started to see trends where we would see a high risk area just before a confirmed case emerged in that area. … The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and then the Commonwealth of Virginia selected us as their COVID navigation product during the pandemic, where we adapted Buoy to essentially all of the testing services in the state, as well as all of the various telemedicine services offered to people in the state to help navigate when to speak to a doctor, when they don’t need to speak to a doctor, when they need tests, where tests are readily available at the same time.
We then started with United Healthcare, all of Cigna … so within the time span of – I want to say like a month – We were fit for more than 180 million Americans from a navigation perspective.
Right after that, we began to really understand the problem of navigating the workspace. When employers returned, we developed a product called Back With Care to help employees decide whether or not to get back to work that day. We launched this in July 2020. … At our peak, we had around 100,000 employees returning to work with the kind of frontline navigator that brought us into 2021. We got our Series C at the end of last year and in 2021 we have been very focused on navigation Non-COVID Reasons. …
There is a natural evolution of Buoy, evolving from a navigation tool to a marketplace that navigates directly on Buoy and creates services – not from ourselves, but from partner companies – so that we can take care of you after navigating. That’s kind of where we’re headed.
MobiHealthNews: Do you think the consumerization of healthcare and patient involvement are really setting the course for digital health or what is out there? How is the demand?
Le: Oh, definitely. It’s really fun to trace this back to 2017. Four years ago we advocated thinking about the consumer … and now it’s really exciting to see the entire market think about it like that. And I think what made COVID irreversible is proven that virtual care is something that consumers want, something that a lot of health care can offer. And I’d say those two hypotheses weren’t really proven before the pandemic, and now the cat is out of the bag. …
I think it will raise a lot of questions about whether health care really needs to be more local and that yesterday’s hyperlocal, monopoly practices may no longer exist. And I think that’s really good for the consumer. I think it’s really good for society if we go further down and follow these trends and create an ecosystem that makes people better in the most efficient, consumer-centric and easy way.
MobiHealthNews: Are there any other trends you’re interested in, including post-COVID, that could transform healthcare?
Le: I’ve talked about how virtual grooming is a really big thing, a really big trend. I really feel this on the inpatient side of care because of the pressure that virtual care is putting on inpatient care. I think it’s going to be very interesting [to see] how health systems respond to how the world is changing to be more virtual and less localized. Does this mean that health systems will be doubled because they are super virtual? What does this mean for outpatient care?
… What does this mean for competence centers? Do they multiply? Are more hospitals tending to become centers of excellence for certain clinical pictures or not? I think it’s really starting to ask the question of inpatient care. What role does it play in the new virtual world?
MobiHealthNews: I am also very interested in this question. Companies that are almost like a tech-first hybrid, like One Medical, compared to everyone else [traditional provider] this is going to be a hybrid. … I think that’s a really interesting gap. You both now raise hybrid grooming to some extent. But what’s the big gap between tech-first and brick-and-mortar?
Le: I can’t agree anymore that it will be really difficult to really understand differences. When the bricks and mortars move and lean into the virtual side, then the more technically advanced think about the bricks and mortars. I can’t agree anymore that this is going to be a really interesting thing. And you’re starting to wonder if all of these different vendors that have a lot of VC support have the endgame? In many ways, they are building their own health system … across the country.
MobiHealthNews: Something that keeps coming up is the price. Traditionally, the patient goes to the nursing home and comes with a bill that has been customized for your insurance company. But you don’t really know your cost [beforehand]. Do you think that could change too? And do you think marketplaces could be a way to make that a little clearer?
Le: I compare it a lot to Uber, where when you think about the price transparency of getting into a taxi, you never know how much it will cost to get there because the taxi driver didn’t know where you were going … and they don’t know any traffic patterns so they don’t know how long it will take to get there. So they cannot give you an advance price.
Because of this, you don’t know what the upfront price is. And so there is this information asymmetry between you and the taxi driver.
Uber largely solved this problem by forcing you to use Google Maps to indicate where you want to go and running a real-time option with a number of drivers to figure out what the price should be to get you from point A to point B bring. and now you have a price upfront. I love that comparison with going to the doctor because the doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with you.
So it’s hard to say, “Okay, Laura has a cough. She was at a conference last week and then they said, yes Laura, I’ll take care of you for $ 55.
It’s very hard because they don’t know what’s going on. That is why we have so many records that are necessary to ensure that there is no medical waste. But there are also documents that are necessary to find out the price afterwards.
If the marketplace could make a smart, clinically based match between the supply and demand sides, and the supply side accepted that the marketplace actually shows what is going to happen to the demand side … it’s as if the taxi driver knew [you are] I want to go to Boston Logan from the South End. Then they could offer an upfront price. And so I think that in the marketplace, if the marketplace does the matching, that’s the key; it would bridge the information gap between whoever provides the care and whoever receives it, which would allow for upfront pricing and competition.