Kris B. Mamula
Three years ago, family doctor Stephen Ritz came up with a way to try to upend the medical system by making it easier to contact health care professionals while lowering costs.
The result was MyHouseCall, which is a way to summon a doctor or other health care provider through a smartphone or tablet app. Like hailing a ride from Uber, MyHouseCall offers videoconferencing with a health care professional for patients throughout Pennsylvania, and home or work visits for residents of Allegheny County.
“The target audience is the millennial generation, who are more tech savvy, but a fairly broad range of patients are using the services,” Dr. Ritz said.
North Side-based MyHouseCall, which began answering calls from patients in December, is among local efforts to revolutionize medicine through smarter technology, a field that tech giants Amazon, Apple and Google also have been taking a whack at.
Among the local beneficiaries of the drive is Bloomfield resident Bernice Renkawek, who spends most days in a wheelchair because of arthritis. On Oct. 6, the 68-year-old Ms. Renkawek began experiencing severe lower back pain and texted MyHouseCall.
“There was no way I was going to be able to get out of the house, so I began to panic,” Ms. Renkawek said. “The pain level was just really bad.”
Less than an hour later, Ms. Renkawek said she received a call from a nurse practitioner, who “narrowed down the problem very quickly” to a bladder infection. Four hours later, a local pharmacy delivered prescription medications and she was soon feeling better.
“For someone trapped in their home, that is amazing,” Ms. Renkawek said.
Using tech to reinvent health care
The prize for entrepreneurs taking aim at spiraling medical costs is a piece of the $3.78 trillion health care pie, the estimated expenditure in 2018 for everything from hospital admissions to prescription drugs to home care, according to Houston, Texas-based market research outfit Plunkett Research Ltd.
Tech giants also see money to be made in lowering the cost of care while breaking down the barriers to access.
Alphabet Inc.’s new research organization Verily, which was launched in April, has been focusing on using machine learning to better predict the onset of disease and explore ways to improve surgical robots. Alphabet is the parent company of Google.
E-commerce giant Amazon created an experimental lab in Seattle where researchers are looking at ways to use machine learning to better leverage data from electronic health records. Recently, the possibility that Amazon might get involved in the prescription drug business has pressured some pharmacy stocks.
Leading the way locally in disrupting medicine is hospital and health care giant UPMC.
MyUPMC is an online portal that allows patients to communicate with doctors, see medical records and lab results, and schedule appointments, which is similar to a software program that Allegheny Health Network offers its patients. MyUPMC is free, but some of its features — including UPMC Anywhere Care, which provides online consultation with medical professionals for minor medical problems — are fee-based.
UPMC Anywhere Care, which uses Boston-based American Well’s telehealth software program, was launched in November 2013 as a platform for medical “visits” through secure messaging. Since then, it has expanded to audio- and video-enabled interactions. The program has received more than 11,000 patient “visits.”
For Pennsylvania callers, a UPMC emergency medicine physician answers UPMC Anywhere Care inquiries between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., while system nurse practitioners are available from 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. Although volume has been high, keeping up has not been an issue, according to UPMC spokeswoman Wendy Zellner.
UPMC has been investing in development of ways to use technology to change how patients receive care.
In February, UPMC led a $17 million investment in San Francisco-based Lantern, which provides online mental health services. The Pittsburgh health system also invested in Plano, Texas-based Vivify Health in 2016. Vivify provides software to monitor patients with chronic health problems and offers other cloud-based services.
Speaking at a recent reception, UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff compared the coming changes in health care to the emergence of online retailer Amazon, which “killed retailing and changed how we shop,” he said. “This is about to happen to health care.”
“Consumers will control health care on hand-held devices, which will be revolutionary. And UPMC wants to own that,” Mr. Romoff said.
Ultimately, smarter technology will make it easier and cheaper for consumers to access health care services, said C. Talbot Heppenstall, president of UPMC Enterprises, the health system’s innovation and commercialization arm.
“Amazon made ordering faster and simpler. That’s going to happen in health care, which will reduce the costs. You’re going to get better quality care at a lower cost and all of these digital tools are another way to do that.”
Balancing gains vs. resources
Nationally, hospital executives are getting wise to the promise of improved digitalization but many worry about adding administrative burdens when resources already are strained. The implementation of electronic health record systems, for one, proved challenging for many institutions.
In a recent survey of 317 health care executives, more than 75 percent said they believed that digital innovation was important to an organization’s long-term strategy.
More than half admitted to delaying innovation because of inadequate capital, fear of creating operational burdens and other reasons, according to the September survey by the American Hospital Association, a trade group, and health care consultant Avia, both based in Chicago.
Not having to staff a billing department or process health claims helps keep down costs for MyHouseCall, according to the North Side company, which doesn’t yet accept health insurance and charges $39 for a telemedicine visit; $99 for an in-person visit.
Dr. Ritz, 51, a Detroit native who grew up in Franklin Park and got his first taste of medicine while volunteering at a McCandless ambulance service, founded the company with Eric Cole, Michael Cole and physician Chris Fleissner.
The startup is self-funded and employs five people, plus about 10 independently contracted nurse practitioners who use their own vehicles for patient visits.
When a request is made, MyHouseCall’s goal is to contact the patient within 10 minutes to assess the patient and verify their location. Common ailments treated include rashes, sinus infections, coughs, colds and other issues.
The company declined to disclose the number of calls it has received.
Health care is ripe for improvement through technology, Dr. Ritz said.
“Things have been headed in this direction in the last three or five years by the thought leaders in health care,” he said. “Right now, there’s a real opportunity to disrupt health care.”
Kris B. Mamula: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699