The Digital Health Guy Gets The Expert Opinion: Leah Sparks, CEO & Founder, Wildflower Health
Meeting the needs of the underserved is exceptionally challenging. Because telehealth and population-health technologies help us manage diverse and dispersed demographics, you would think tools for managing things as straightforward as women’s and family health would be robust and plentiful. Yet family health has remained stuck in a gap. Why is that? Often, because the wrong people are making the decisions. In once glimpse, a friend of mine recently forwarded me a photo of healthcare policy being set in Washington, DC. There was not a single woman in the frame! Fortunately, in the wider world of healthcare innovation, that is not the case.
More often than not, it is a woman who is selecting the family healthcare plan, scheduling the doctor appointments, reconciling the co-pays and generally doing all the heavy lifting. It starts early, from pre-natal to caring for young children, on through to adulthood. Understanding a woman’s perspective as the family healthcare point person is a huge advantage. Combine this with many women’s personal experience and passion for improving things, and you get Wild Flower Health. Meet Leah Sparks.
In 2012, Leah was pregnant with her first child. Navigating regular doctor visits, she recognized that what should have been a time of joy was often tempered by uncertainty about health plan benefits, hospital services and appointment schedules. She realized pregnancy could be a powerful context for teaching women how to use the health care system in a smart way.
So Leah started Wildflower Health. In the years since, Wildflower Health has taken a transformative role in helping families connect to quality care.
Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation I had with Leah Sparks about her, her company, about the state of care today, and about the future.
Kevin Pereau: What was the impetus behind starting Wildflower Health?
Leah Sparks: I started Wildflower Health in the summer of 2012 when I was five months pregnant with my first child. At the time, I had worked in health care for nearly 10 years and thought I knew how it worked. It wasn’t until I decided to start a family that I actually had to navigate the system firsthand. Suffice it to day, the experience left a lot to be desired. I didn’t know which hospital was covered by my health plan and was confused by my medical benefits. The real kicker was when I received a mailed letter from my health plan telling me I was a high-risk pregnancy, just because I was over 35, and to please call a 1-800 number to talk about it.
Meanwhile, I was using all these slick consumer mobile apps to help me with everything from my baby registry to picking out a stroller. I thought that if we could bring that type of consumer experience to health care, we could not only make the experience about 10 times better for new families, but we could make a dent on quality and outcomes in maternal-child health. And once I dug in further, I learned that the United States lags far behind other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries on quality measures in maternal health, which translates into tens of billions of excess costs to the health care system. The scale of the problem from a cost perspective gave me the confidence that the system would pay for the type of solution that Wildflower Health could provide.
Kevin Pereau: You have a family health product designed from the ground up for consumers, yet the business model used to accelerate your access to market is B2B2C. What lessons can you share about getting consumer products to market through complex relationships with payers, providers and employers?
Leah Sparks: Today, we sell to health plans, hospitals and self-funded employers – all of which can be complex sales cycles to navigate. I’m very proud of the fact that we work with some of the largest health plans in the country, with contracts that cover nearly 50 million lives. Back in 2014, our contracts only covered one million, so we’ve experienced tremendous growth. Our average sales cycle is about 8 months, which is actually very good for health care enterprise software. The health care industry as a whole is not particularly consumer-savvy, which can make it hard to push through innovation and to implement solutions that resonate with consumers. Added to that are the challenges with security and privacy requirements, bureaucratic approval processes, and just managing to budget seasons with each client.
However, the good thing about health care is that the vast majority of the people working in this industry are doing so because they really care about making a difference in people’s lives. And over and over again, we’ve found individuals in these behemoth, complex organizations who share our passion for improving the health and happiness of women, children and their families, and are willing to work with us to knock down the obstacles to innovation in health care. Our sales team’s mantra is “start with the why” – always remind our buyer why we are here, why we do this, why it matters to them and the people they serve. Ultimately, that’s not only the best way to ignite the type of passion that helps us get sales closed, but it also helps us build long-term relationships with our client partners and drive ongoing innovation with them.
Kevin Pereau: Let’s talk about smart money for a second. Rock Health tells us in their 1H/2018 Investment Report we are in the midst of another record-shattering year for health care investing. How important is it for companies like Wildflower Health to work with investors capable of helping them navigate the challenges of bringing innovation to market through such complex channels?
Leah Sparks: I’m a first-time founder and I was a bit naïve to venture fundraising when we first started the company. Since that time, I’ve learned how crucial it is for companies to match their business plan to the right investors. There are a couple of key aspects that are important to get right in that match. First, if you are an enterprise health care company, it’s essential to have investors with deep experience in health care, and better yet if they can help connect you with customers. The health care sales cycle is a slog and you need investors who will have the patience to stick with you as you figure it out. Second, the majority of digital health companies who have successful exits will get taken out by acquisition rather than IPO. Many of those acquisitions will be modest. Depending on the size of the exit you think your company can achieve, it’s important not to take too much capital or raise from funds that need $1B+ exits to meet their own internal return thresholds. I have a mix of financial and strategic investors who are all well-aligned with our business strategy and commercial plan. As a bonus, my Board members are terrific advisors to me and my team and great people to be around. That is a huge and under-appreciated key to one’s sustainability as a venture-backed CEO.
Kevin Pereau: Let’s focus for a second on who actually consumes health care. You have coined a phrase I love…the Chief Health Officer. Describe the typical CHO — how can we make health care a more consumer-friendly experience and what problems do we need to solve for her?
Leah Sparks: The data is very clear – women make the vast majority of health care decisions, not just for themselves, but for their entire families. Often, this journey as the “Chief Health Officer of the Home” begins with parenthood, but it can also start with caring for a partner, an aging parent, or themselves as an individual. And certainly some of the “CHOs of the Home” are men. But whoever that person is for the family, we aspire to make the CHO’s life easier through personalized and elegant connections to health care.
What we hear from our users is that they are struggling to keep track of all the health needs for their family and plug into the different silos of health care when they need it. In a user’s words, I would sum it up as – “I’m tired of having to go to so many different places to get what I need for my family’s health.” She has one portal for her kid’s vaccines, another one for her employer’s benefits, and maybe somewhere else she has to go to to make appointments for herself. On top of that, when she switches employers and her health plan changes, she has to start the process of “finding stuff” all over again.
Our vision at Wildflower is to reduce that frustration and fragmentation through an elegant technology experience that follows the user from pregnancy through pediatrics and family caregiving, and that connects her to plans and providers all along the way. Given that we have a huge footprint of health plan and employer clients, as well as a growing base of provider clients, we believe we are well-suited to execute on that vision create a truly game-changing window into health care for the Chief Health Officer of the Home.
Kevin Pereau: Where do you see health care in 10 years?
Leah Sparks: Last weekend my youngest son’s hurt finger looked like it might be getting infected. I called my pediatrician’s nurse advice line and left a message. I got a call back about 20 minutes later and she sent us to urgent care. We drove to urgent care and waited for about an hour before having a 10-minute visit with the doctor. Then we had to go to CVS, hand the pharmacist our handwritten prescription, and wait another 30 minutes to get it. All of this with a three-year-old boy on a Saturday evening.
Ten years from now, a parent in that situation will use a digital symptom checker with intelligent logic, which will then connect the family to an on-demand video visit to take a look at that infected finger. The telemedicine clinician will then send the prescription electronically to a pharmacy that will deliver the medication to the family’s home within two hours. Three-year old boy gets to go back to his Legos and his mom gets that much-needed glass of wine. Win-win.
Leah Sparks is CEO & Founder, Wildflower Health, follow her on Twitter. @leah_e_sparks
#RHSUM (ROCK Health Summit) is happening September 24-25, 2019!
Leah Sparks, thank you for your contribution to my book, The Digital Health Revolution. – Kevin Pereau.
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