This column has seen its fair share of coverage on various telemedicine startups over time—and for good reason. Long before the word “coronavirus” became a staple of the everyday vernacular, virtual services like remote doctor’s appointments have proven accessible to many people, particularly those with mobility impairments. It isn’t only that Covid has demanded the masses shelter-in-place as much as possible that has spurred adoption of so-called virtual visits. The fact is, remote doctor’s appointments—or anything else, for that matter—are godsends for those who cannot (or should not) travel outside the home to a community clinic or hospital. Disabled people have known about this forever; it may be a novel idea to abled people due to the pandemic, but that’s because the majority have been forced to confront accessibility-as-necessity for the first time.
Count Amwell as another company whose mission is to make medical care more accessible for everyone. Founded in 2006, Amwell focuses on building technology which “combines a delightful experience for patients with best-in-class workflows for providers” on a continuum ranging from urgent care to acute care, according to their website. The company boasts partnerships with over 55 health maintenance organizations, as well as more than 2,000 hospitals and healthcare systems. All told, 102,000 providers make use of Amwell’s technologies.
“We are committed to connecting and enabling the key players in healthcare to deliver greater access to more affordable, higher-quality care,” said Dr. Ido Schoenberg, Amwell’s chairman and chief executive officer, in a recent interview with me conducted over email. “We do this through our comprehensive, integrated digital care delivery platform [called] Converge, which is designed to support all digital health needs across the care continuum.”
Like those with other health-focused companies I’ve covered, Dr. Schoenberg is a true believer in technology’s power to revolutionize healthcare for the better. The journey has been, and still is, a slog. “Digital care finally has a seat at the table, but it wasn’t an easy road to get here,” he said. “When we started Amwell, no one knew what telemedicine was. We faced opposition and spent countless hours convincing people—particularly [those on] medical boards—that virtual care was an effective way to deliver healthcare. Covid changed the game. Now that there exists an understanding that some of our care will happen through technology, we’re focused on powering today’s new era of hybrid healthcare—which extends well beyond telehealth and combines physical, virtual, and automated interactions.”
However old hat digital-first services may feel to the disability community, there can be no denying the pandemic has been the accelerant for the fire of awareness. Dr. Schoenberg explained there’s a “pressing need” to improve the quality of patient outcomes and operational efficiencies, particularly as healthcare workers continue to face unprecedented levels of burnout and fatigue. He believes Amwell’s Converge technology is ideally suited to help drive innovation in this arena. To wit, Dr. Schoenberg cited a statistic from a 2020 New York Times report that some 8.6 million Americans live at least a half-hour from the nearest emergency room. That means critical healthcare is literally inaccessible for a not-insignificant swath of the population, disabled or not. Fixing such disconnection is the driving force behind Amwell’s (and its contemporaries) ethos.
“Today, the care experience is disjointed and disconnected. Virtual visits can be inconsistent and delayed with multiple logins and disparate portals made even more confusing by referrals to specialists,” he said of telehealth today. “Patients struggle with a lack of information on what is covered and how to follow up. With Converge, we’re enabling a seamless patient experience that is easy to navigate across the care continuum. Our platform provides an infrastructure that extends well beyond telehealth to connect care teams to one another, the information they need, and disparate tool sets throughout their organizations, driving new efficient workflows so that clinicians have more time to focus on their patients.”
Amwell’s focus on the infrastructure of telemedicine is “table stakes” for shaping a positive user experience, according to Dr. Schoenberg. Patients and clinicians alike should expect “fast, high-quality care experience no matter where and how they are connecting,” he said. The Converge technology is the facilitator of everything Dr. Schoenberg and team are trying to do. Its cloud-based nature means it’s readily available and easy to configure and customize. “Converge features fast and reliable video and audio connections and the ability to easily upgrade these core components over time, ensuring that clients have access to the best connectivity experience for the future,” he said. “The platform can be integrated with existing workflows, EHRs [electronic health records], patient portals, and consumer experiences to support the delivery of care no matter where the patient or provider originates and resulting in faster and easier deployment. The single platform approach means a unified identity system that enables a streamlined and regulatory compliant exchange of information and services across the ecosystem.”
Feedback, Dr. Schoenberg told me, has been positive thus far, with many commending Amwell’s design of Converge to be “highly reliable, faster, and more streamlined.” Looking towards the future, he told me Amwell’s goal in the near-term is to continue its buildout of Converge and work on iterating upon it. Everything points to a future where an ever-increasing amount of industry will be virtualized to great effect, where appropriate. What the pandemic has wrought for the masses is not merely a matter of public health; it’s accessibility awareness too. Over the last two-plus years, abled people have gotten the tiniest taste of some of the things disabled people have done forever to survive an inaccessible world.
For Dr. Schoenberg and Amwell, the work is truly just beginning.
“Telemedicine is only the tip of the iceberg. When we think about care delivery in the future, we believe the care of any one patient will be made up of a combination of in-person care, virtual care, and automated care,” he said. “It’s this hybrid model that we believe holds the greatest promise for transforming healthcare, improving patient engagement and outcomes, and making lives [better].”