- The pandemic was a watershed moment for telehealth as people looked to access medical care while avoiding hospitals and other crowded medical centers.
- While healthcare can never go fully remote, the introduction of digital platforms and tools to the industry will only improve it.
- Telehealth can also improve the work experience for doctors as well, allowing them to schedule appointments at different times that better fit their schedules.
The Covid-19 pandemic put an even larger strain on doctors, hospitals, and the entire healthcare system.
It also put a larger spotlight on telemedicine, which had been embraced before the pandemic but saw an even larger uptick as care seekers looked to avoid crowded waiting and emergency rooms or allowed them to see a doctor without a significant waiting period.
K Health, which ranked No. 11 on this year's CNBC Disruptor 50 list, has looked to advance the telehealth space through AI and machine learning. Using the combination of symptoms and personal information from a patient alongside the knowledge and experience of thousands of doctors and their clinical insights, it provides a possible diagnosis along with additional resources to provide help for whatever is ailing the patient.
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Now with more than 5 million users and available across the entire continental U.S. 24/7 in both English and Spanish, K Health is looking to expand further into mental health as well as expanding its coverage to the whole family. In January, it launched a new pediatrics platform providing care to children ages 3 to 17.
The company has added significant amounts of funding to support that growth, raising a $132 million Series E round in January. K Health was valued at more than $1.6 billion in that round, according to PitchBook.
K Health CEO and co-founder Allon Bloch recently spoke with CNBC about the trends in telehealth, how doctors are being impacted by the increase in virtual visits, and why the company is focusing on increasing its mental health offerings.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
CNBC: The pandemic was a watershed moment for telehealth. What kinds of tailwinds did K Health see as a result?
Bloch: My founders and I have always believed that quality healthcare should be available at your fingertips. We dreamed of a 24/7 primary care model that gave you access to accurate data and doctors from anywhere. We thought if you wake up in the middle of the night with a stomach ache or are on vacation and your kid gets a fever, you shouldn't have to wait to get care.
With this aspirational goal, we built K Health to be this magical tool that uses AI and data to make medicine smarter and it caught on almost instantaneously. Just three years after launch, K Health became trusted by millions of people who relied on the platform to help them understand their symptoms, connect them with a doctor, and get them treatment so they feel better faster.
And then the pandemic happened. Overnight, we saw our users grow by 1000% as people desperately searched for ways to get access to medical care when hospitals became overwhelmed, or if they were afraid to leave home. But this is a consumer behavior that was accelerated by Covid, not introduced because of it.
CNBC: Are people really going to give up in-person visits in droves, the way we've seen the past year and a half?
Bloch: We don't foresee this relationship between the doctor and consumer changing. Every other industry has digital platforms and tools — I can buy my groceries online and do my banking from my phone. Healthcare hasn't changed in meaningful ways since the 1980s. Adding video to the doctor/patient relationship isn't innovative. But developing a proprietary technology that combines billions of anonymized clinical data points to show someone how others like them were treated and gets them better, faster care — now that is smarter medicine.
Healthcare can never become fully remote, because certain procedures, surgeries, and exams will always need to be done in person. But we can tremendously reduce the volume of people needlessly waiting for an in-person doctor visit, paying exorbitant fees, and potentially getting sicker as they wait for answers. And this is only the beginning.
CNBC: How do you see telehealth changing the medical profession, if at all?
Bloch: We hear from doctors all the time that they didn't choose a medical profession to spend hours on paperwork or feel like they can't give their patients the level of care they deserve. Doctors spend an enormous chunk of time dedicated to admin activities that don't directly contribute to patient outcomes, and we're also seeing burnout levels, especially during COVID, like never before. This is a big part of why they join as affiliates of K Health.
K Health makes it easy for a doctor to get all the info about a patient they need. By the time a user gets connected with a doctor, they've already seen all the info from the symptom checker. This gives them an idea of what could be wrong and how the user can be treated, which makes the visit more efficient. They also can easily reference past K Health visits with other clinicians. Finally, we know that even the smartest doctors can make mistakes or miss something. Our technology enhances the doctor by showing them what millions of people like this patient ended up having to ensure great quality care and better outcomes, with fewer mistakes.
With virtual care platforms, doctors can also choose their hours. Many clinicians, especially at the junior levels, often have to work the graveyard shift and have more hours in the day to see patients. Others can set their hours around their family's schedules. With K Health being available 24/7, there is lots of flexibility.
CNBC: K Health recently acquired a behavioral health app that offers on-demand, text-based therapy – what post-pandemic opportunity do you see in mental health services?
Bloch: The mental health crisis in America is a profound issue that we haven't begun to solve, despite an abundance of paid apps and services. It's simply too expensive, and a shortage of hundreds of thousands of therapists certainly hasn't helped.
We believe mental health and physical health are linked, so we integrate anxiety and depression treatment - and now text-based therapy - into our primary care offering. We already offer mental health solutions and have seen incredible, heartwarming feedback: people are so eager for treatment for basic issues, but they've been unable to access care anywhere else until K Health. Every day they tell us that we've saved their lives, their marriages, and their wallets.
CNBC: What's your view on some of the mandates we're seeing in both the private and public sector, whether it has to do with masking, vaccines, and any related restrictions throughout the country?
Bloch: We take guidelines from the CDC and FDA seriously. When the Delta variant surged, we reworked our remote work policies. Our employees' health is our number 1 priority.
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