From Engagement to Relationships

StartupHealth announced its most recent batch of 16 startups as part of its "Healthcare Transformers" group this week. That brings the number of StartupHealth companies to 63 (or it may have been 63 before this infusion of 16 — it’s unclear in the press release.) The goal is to grow the number of transformers to 1,000 by 2020.

StartupHealth is an ongoing program rather than an accelerator. Companies get coaching and mentorship, but aren’t forced to move to another location and for 3-5 months. I don’t think there is any sort of demo or launch day event, either.

Also this week, WellFrame announced it had closed a $1.5 million round of funding from an impressive list of angel investors that includes Jonathan Bush. Kudos to Wellframe, a company I liked back in 2012 when it launched as part of Rock Health Boston. I hadn’t heard much about Wellframe until a few months ago and now this most recent news about funding. Wellframe offers what they call a GPS for people with chronic conditions.

What’s interesting isn’t StartupHealth’s new companies or WellFrame specifically, but that everything now is about relationship management. StartupHealth has companies that compare themselves to a CRM (customer relationship management.) Wellframe says it "uses technology to amplify rather than replace therapeutic relationships." The key word is relationships.

People in the health tech industry, at least the ones I hang out with, have been talking about relationship management, patient relationship management (PRM), or CRM for healthcare for some time. But it’s only been in the last six months or so that we’ve seen a broad shift in the industry in terms of how people are approaching the problem / challenge / opportunity of patient engagement. It’s less about "engagement" (which is a loaded term anyway) and more about "relationships" (an equally loaded term.)

I’ve been thinking about CRM, the non-healthcare kind, a lot recently because I’ve been trying to avoid Salesforce as a CRM. We’ve tried a bunch of cool, lightweight CRM solutions like and Nimble, but ultimately we’ve decided Salesforce is the tool we need to use.

Am I the only one who is surprised by how unpleasant Salesforce is to use? I always thought it was this cloud pioneer of a company, and I guess it was in a lot of ways, but it still feels clunky and unfriendly to me. We’re using a couple of tools on top of Salesforce, but Salesforce remains the contact manager.

That brings me back to the concept of a CRM for healthcare. Just like how Salesforce got started, it begins with complete and accessible contact management. Salesforce freed up contact information from back-end systems like Oracle, stored it in the cloud, and then made it easier for salespeople (and now support and other functions) to collectively manage relationships with customers and prospect customers. Salesforce now does a lot more than that because of the huge number of add-on apps that are a part of the Salesforce App Exchange.

The reason a contact manager is so important for managing a relationship, either for a customer or a patient, is that a profile / contact should drive all interactions with the customer. Profiles should be used to segment groups of patients, deliver campaigns, and learn what is the most effective type of campaign for that type of profile. Every interaction with a patient should add to a profile. That could be a missed appointment, a phone call to a nurse, a missed refill, some type of self-reported data (from a connected scale or app, maybe), or any number of other relevant events. These relevant events add the Big Data dimensions to a patient. There is a question of relevance when it comes to EHR data, and I still wonder what percent of an EHR is relevant in this context.

A CRM for healthcare, with intelligent analytics, should guide itself, or at least act like the GPS that Wellframe and a couple of others like WellBe are talking about when they describe their products. This intelligence is why we see a lot of data scientists as a part of healthcare startup teams, either as founders or as early hires. It’s also why investors are talking about and investing in data scientists in healthcare.

Intelligence in a CRM doesn’t only mean sending an automated text message to a patient to take their morning meds. Just like Salesforce CRM being used to drive sales through better relationship management, healthcare will have to integrate higher touch services into a healthcare CRM. Companies don’t sell with automated messages alone. They spend a lot of money on salespeople to make phone calls, follow-up on emails, and generally hustle to close deals.

That’s the process and people side of CRM for healthcare, the other piece of the puzzle. Triple Tree had a nice post breaking this out. The question to me is what will it take for healthcare organizations to commit to managing these relationships, both the tools to do it and the people to drive it?


Travis Good is an MD/MBA and co-founder of Catalyze. More about me.

  • SchluterRooter

    Travis great post!

    I agree with you that patient relationships are incredibly important and the systems that currently exist are too clunky and straight out of the 90s (much like Salesforce IMO). Where I see web based Healthcare technology being effective is by filling the gaps that the EMRs have created, and treating the EHR as the database. Tapping into the PHI database and surfacing the content in a user friendly and intuitive way will give the industry (physicians, patients, nurses, admins, IT, etc.) more insight and access to actionable data that can help drive results – at a fraction of the cost of the typical Health IT systems. The company I work has dealt with the same pains you are experiencing with Salesforce, but is also working on solving the same issues for Healthcare. As web solution architects my team naturally progressed from extensive Salesforce integrations to more complex systems such as Oracle, SharePoint and now slowly into EMRs.

    Great article.

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