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Our healthcare system failed me, but I’m still optimistic for its future

The CEO and cofounder of telehealth platform Wheel believes well-designed virtual care can offer a bridge over what others are calling the healthcare ‘swamp.’

Our healthcare system failed me, but I’m still optimistic for its future
[Source photo: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash]
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I’ve experienced our broken healthcare system firsthand. Growing up in a rural part of Texas with an undiagnosed autoimmune condition, I spent 15 years of my life shuttling between doctors’ offices and exam rooms trying to figure out why I felt so sick. But my symptoms only grew worse over the years.

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No surprise, my personal experience with our healthcare system ignited a fire in me. As a result, I founded a virtual care company that makes it easier for people to connect with the best clinician for their care needs. What makes our healthcare system so challenging for patients also presents an incredible opportunity for reform and innovation. And with the digital health sector bringing in nearly $7 billion in funding in the first quarter of this year, I’m certainly not alone in seeing the promising potential.

That’s why I was surprised to hear this take from the CEO of telemedicine giant Amwell when asked about Amazon’s decision to expand into virtual primary care: “I would just say welcome to the swamp. It’s much more complicated than you think.”

This rather brief statement spoke volumes. Here’s what I heard in his answer: Fixing our broken system may be a lost cause. It’s too hard, it’s too challenging, and you’ll most likely fail if you try.

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Of course, any healthcare CEO, especially in health tech, recognizes that it’s incredibly difficult to drive change in healthcare. Even the biggest and most successful companies are grappling with enormous challenges, underwhelming results, and delayed timelines.

At the same time, it’s discouraging to hear that the future of digital health feels waterlogged and bogged down, both as a founder and as a patient. Why are telemedicine companies choosing to slog through a swamp when we could spend our efforts building a bridge?

One of the biggest problems here is that the digital health industry is largely still trying to bring a broken system online. Today’s telehealth, sadly, doesn’t look that different from in-person care: with long wait times, impersonal experiences, antiquated tech, and a failure to holistically treat patients across all of their care needs. Many telemedicine companies talk about building a better experience for patients but aren’t always willing to think outside the box.

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Taking a step back, there are three foundational principles that could fundamentally improve the patient experience in telemedicine:

Take care of the people who take care of us: Doctors and nurses are taught how to practice medicine but they aren’t taught how to manage the mental and physical exhaustion that often comes with providing care to patients. And the pandemic has only exacerbated their anxiety, depression, and burnout: Nearly half of doctors are rethinking their careers. Virtual care offers clinicians the opportunity to set a flexible schedule, work from home, and expand their earning opportunities, but it comes with its own set of challenges. So far the telemedicine industry has failed to provide clinicians with the training, tools, and support they need to make sure they feel comfortable and confident providing great care to patients behind the screen.

Build technology to address access disparities: Access to healthcare can look very different from person to person. My neighbor in Austin can have just as much trouble getting care as my family did when I lived in a rural part of the state. The typical telemedicine video visit solves only part of the problem. Getting on a three-month waiting list to see a specialist or driving for two hours to see the nearest doctor is just as unreasonable as building technology that works only for people with a smartphone or high-speed internet. Patients should have a variety of options at their fingertips to get connected with either a primary care doctor, psychiatrist, or dermatologist to make sure we’re not simply bringing access disparities online.

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Earn our trust to earn our wallets: Of course part of the “swamp” comment was likely driven by a certain level of anxiety now that Big Tech companies are increasingly recognizing the potential with digital health. This should largely be welcome news for patients because increased competition will lead to lower prices for healthcare visits. Of course the true differentiator will be which companies can provide the most seamless and high-quality experiences. Once you feel comfortable seeing a telemedicine company for a birth control prescription or flu symptoms, you’ll be more likely to trust that same company for more of your acute and chronic healthcare needs.

As a health technology startup founder with an ambitious agenda, I recognize that my perspective is different. I look at some of the most challenging problems in healthcare with the drive of someone who was wronged by the status quo for nearly half my life. But if we’re able to approach the potential of digital health with a relentless and ambitious mindset, then the idea of improving the patient experience at scale will feel less like a swamp and more like an opportunity we can’t turn away from.


Michelle Davey is the cofounder and CEO of Wheel.