The healthcare industry hasn’t exactly been a leader in customer service, as Guillaume de Zwirek, CEO of the digital health patient communication company WELL Health, is quick to point out. After being frustrated and overwhelmed by the inefficiency of trying to communicate with his health system during a health scare, de Zwirek founded WELL in 2015 with the singular mission to make healthcare No. 1 in customer service.
If that goal seems far-fetched, de Zwirek is determined to see to it that his Santa Barbara, California-based startup leads the way to get there; and the company is gaining steam. WELL now works with over 400 hospitals, and it received KLAS Research’s 2022 “Best in KLAS” award for patient outreach after earning the same distinction in 2021.
WELL has raised $97 million total to date in Series A, B and C funding rounds, and the company recently confirmed plans to invest $32 million in research and development by the end of fiscal year 2022, which ends January 31, 2023. Dragoneer, WELL partner and cloud communications platform Twilio, and Lead Edge Capital contributed to its Series C round in the fourth quarter last year, de Zwirek said, though he declined to disclose the amount raised in that round.
The R&D investment will be used, in part, to grow the number of teams working on WELL’s patient communication solutions, as the company adds engineers and brings on new leaders to guide innovation. That continues growth from 2021, when the startup hired about 150 new employees to more than double its size.
WELL is also putting R&D funds into product development. That ranges from extending language support to translate text messaging into more than 100 languages to improving workflows for scheduling, so it’s easier to book appointments and follow-up visits.
“I’m trying to upend the status quo of customer service in healthcare, and fix what ends up being really complicated, burdensome communications for patients,” de Zwirek said.
Last year alone, WELL added more than 160 new customers, including Baptist Health in Kentucky and Prisma Health in South Carolina. Its customers also include many other notable health systems such as Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, Nashville-based Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
The company has been working to simplify communications for patients through text, online chat and other channels. The goal is for patients to be able to promptly and easily get a pressing health question answered, schedule a new in-person appointment or follow-up visit, or jump right into a virtual medical consult. But where the objective to simplify patient communications might seem straightforward, the process to get there is anything but.
“Healthcare is probably the most complicated industry in my humble opinion,” de Zwirek said.
That’s why what sounds simple is more complicated to deliver, he said.
Last year, WELL launched ChatAssist AI, which automates thousands of conversations between patients and providers, and hands off to staff when human intervention is required. ChatAssist AI independently navigates complex, multi-step patient communications.
Improving the patient experience and engagement also means helping health providers reach patients to make sure there aren’t gaps in recommended care.
“For everything from the way you are solicited to come in (during a gap in recommended care) to the way you are discharged from a knee surgery and the interactions that you have, we’re building out the user interface, the analytics, the integrations to support new users in the hospital, so that you have an exceptional experience,” de Zwirek said.
The way he sees the competitive landscape, potential WELL customers have three primary options to handle patient communications: They can hire developers to build what they need themselves (using Twilio, for example); hire a consultant to build the workflows on top of an existing system (like Salesforce Marketing Cloud or Microsoft Dynamics); or buy a purpose-built application that’s designed to fix a health system’s specific patient communications issues like WELL.
There’s certainly no shortage of interest in purpose-built solutions for patient communications. In fact, many have been acquired in the last year 18 months, de Zwirek pointed out. That includes companies like Klara, which was purchased by the EHR ModMed in February, and CareSignal, which was acquired last year by the population health company Lightbeam.
In terms of where WELL fits in, de Zwirek believes the company is not only an innovation leader, but a cost-effective solution—particularly compared with health systems trying to solve patient communications in-house. Health system customers license the WELL Health platform through an SaaS model. The price is based on the size of the customer (provider count or patient visit volume) and the number of vendor integrations required, he said.
WELL remains independent—it has not been acquired like many of its peers—but it relies heavily on partnerships to improve the patient experience. Collaborations between WELL and Cerner and MEDITECH, for example, make WELL the patient-communication solution for both EHRs’ healthcare provider customers. The partnerships have been instrumental in its growth, according to the company.
But even while WELL partners with many different vendors and works behind the scenes, de Zwirek isn’t exactly trying to keep a low profile. Instead, he said that he wants WELL to be top-of-mind for hospital CIOs when communication issues arise, and for the company to be seen as the go-to solution to turn things around and provide a much better patient experience.
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