Vermont-based startup OhMD is making HIPAA-compliant texting free for medical practices across America and accelerating the ubiquity of telemedicine.
March 26, 2020 6 min read
Sometimes, the stats just speak for themselves. “We know that 98 percent of patients will read a text message, and 90 percent of those patients will see that text message within three minutes,” says Ethan Bechtel, founder of telehealth startup OhMD. “When you compare that to email, which is read 20 percent of the time, or a patient portal message, which is read 7 percent of the time, you quickly realize there is literally no other way to do this at scale.”
When Bechtel says “this,” he’s referring to the desperate battle that healthcare workers across the globe are waging against the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. One of the most essential ways that doctors can slow the pandemic is by communicating with patients from afar, so this is a moment tailor-made for OhMD. The Vermont-based company offers medical providers a HIPAA-compliant communication platform, centered around texting, which they’re now making free to hospitals and medical practices across the nation.
A time to text
“Texting is such an important technology to leverage right now, because it doesn’t require that two people be on the phone at the exact same time to share information,” Bechtel says. “You can send a message out to 10,000 patients at the same time and be sure that 90 percent of them are going to read it. You can say, ‘Hey, if you have X, Y and Z symptoms, this is where you need to go for the testing facility. Do not go to the ER. Do not go to your family practitioner.’ We have clients in all 50 states, and the number of text messages being sent through the platform has tripled in the last week. Everything changed overnight.”
Until now, telehealth companies have been relative newbies in the glacially evolving landscape of healthcare, and their biggest challenge has been getting covered by insurance companies. But on March 17, Medicare announced it would be covering telehealth services for an unspecified time period. “Medicare just set the bar for reimbursement for telehealth in a massive way,” Bechtel says. “It would have taken a decade. Before this I believe the estimates were that telemedicine was going to be a $64 billion industry by 2025, but I would assume that number is no longer relevant because everything has changed. This is going to be the primary means of communicating and conducting a visit in the coming months, and I don’t think that genie gets put back in the bottle.”
Bittersweet boost for business
Like many people working in industries unexpectedly benefited by the crisis, Bechtel says he has mixed feelings about this being a take-off moment for OhMD. “What I feel is an internal struggle over the world being on fire and us being here, solving an important problem. It’s a good thing for our company and it’s a good thing for patients, and we’re helping doctors save lives, end of story. But it’s just hard to reconcile that with, I guess, the sheer size of this catastrophe.”
In a sense, Bechtel has been preparing for this his whole life. Healthtech might not be the first industry that comes to mind when someone says, “My family has been in the business for generations” — but as a kid growing up in Burlington, Vt., in the ’90s, Bechtel spent weekends helping out at his mom’s company. She was an orthopedic nurse practitioner turned X-ray tech who got her MBA and then started a business that provided financial services software to medical practices.
After college he began working for the family business and honed in on electronic medical records. He quickly understood that one of the greatest challenges for online medical portals was communicating with patients, and that’s how the idea for OhMD was born. In 2014 Bechtel took OhMD to the NYC healthtech accelerator Blueprint Health, and in 2016 he got funding from Burlington-based healthtech company IDX Solutions, which helped him make the decision to headquarter his business back home.
Tracking a virus and fast-tracking telehealth adoption
Bechtel says that OhMD was closely following the coronavirus spread in China in early January, and his team began working overtime to fast-track a video function they’d planned to release later this year. In early March they began to hear from physicians in different states that OhMD was being used to triage patients before bringing them into the office. At that point, they realized how useful their services could be for this moment and decided to make the platform free or subsidized for as many practices as they had the bandwidth to help.
“Offering free features has always been part of our DNA, but right now stakes are much higher than they’ve ever been,” Bechtel says. “So while there’s a cost to offering free texting features for practices, we believe it’s our responsibility to bear as many of those costs as possible.”
Bechtel hopes that the distant blue sky in this storm will be the ubiquitous adoption of telehealth services, which he believes will play into the evolution toward a healthcare system that is ultimately more sustainable and effective. “As time goes on, more and more doctors will be reimbursed based on how healthy their patients are, versus how many patients they see. Because at the end of the day, this is all about outcomes,” Bechtel says. “How do we make you healthier? Healthcare is a very slow-moving system with many different stakeholders. But this is an inflection point for a number of us in this space. And I think if there’s a silver lining at the end of all of this, it’s that in 12 months, we’re going to look back and wonder why it took a pandemic to force us to use technology that actually improves patient care and access.”