The Future of Healthcare: “AI needs to be integrated into the clinical workflow” with Jason Bellet Co-Founder of Eko
Integrate AI into the Clinical Workflow — AI needs to be integrated into the clinical workflow in a way that augments, without replacing, clinicians. By doing so we’ll be able to help physicians feel comfortable with the technology because it’s less of a threat, and will alleviate some of the concerns associated with AI, instead showing how it acts as an immediate second opinion to the doctor.
As a part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure to interview Jason Bellet. Jason is the Co-Founder & Chief Commercial Officer of Eko, a Berkeley-based digital health company applying machine learning in the fight against heart disease. Eko is a platform of cardiac screening devices, care coordination software, and interpretive algorithms that has helped clinicians across 2,000 health systems screen for, and monitor, heart disease in millions of patients around the world. Jason has been named to the Forbes Magazine 30 Under 30 list of rising leaders in healthcare and was invited by the Obama Administration to speak at the White House Dialogue on Men’s Health on pressing issues in cardiovascular care. He holds a bachelors in Business Administration from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
We started Eko as undergraduates at UC Berkeley. It was born out of my co-founder’s senior thesis bioengineering class where he was asked to examine gaps in the modern healthcare system. Connor Landgraf, Eko’s CEO, was doing user research, talking to cardiologists about their pain points, and one of the doctors looked at his stethoscope and said, “This is a tool that’s worn around the neck of myself and almost every clinician in the world, but it’s extremely inefficient.”
A lightbulb went off for Connor. Here we were at Cal, in Silicon Valley, there’s a smartphone in everyone’s pocket, and machine learning is proving to advance every industry — there had to be a way to build a smarter stethoscope. At the time I was in the business school at UC Berkeley, Connor was studying biomedical engineering, and our third co-founder, Tyler Crouch, was a mechanical engineering student. We all came together and decided this is what we wanted to dedicated ourselves to after graduating.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2015 we launched our first product, the Eko CORE and it was only about a month later we got an email from a nurse named Christine with People for Haiti. She explained that she and a group of nurses from Florida had been traveling there every year since the earthquake, scraping together medical equipment and going to help people in the country. She said her team of volunteers would screen around 1,000 kids in a weekend, and that for many it was the only medical care they received all year. She then asked if we would be willing to donate a CORE Digital Stethoscope, as she thought it might solve the problem they have of not being able to truly identify if the heart sounds they are hearing need immediate medical attention. Having a stethoscope that allowed her to record what she heard and send it to a trained colleague in the states would enable her to get a sense of urgency for issues, and to guide a family on if they needed to pursue additional treatment (something that was not easy to obtain).
This proved to be the case on her very next trip, where she heard a murmur in a young girl. She recorded the sound through the Eko software platform and sent it to a cardiologist who was able to play the recording and immediately identify that this child was born with a congenital heart condition known as ventricular septal defect, and that she needed to get to a doctor immediately. This story demonstrated the power of our product and was a wakeup call that there are many patients that have no way to get the care they need.
Can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the healthcare field?
My team and I try to focus on the impact our work has on patient care and we are so proud that we can now walk into half the hospitals in the U.S. and see a clinician using our product. Providers tell us daily that it’s helping them to better screen for cardiovascular disease. That impact — and the potential we see to grow it — motivates us to keep working hard every day.
What makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes us stand out are the stories of how clinicians are doing what they would have done anyway, but we are giving them tools to amplify their skills.
For example, a few months ago one of our customers from George Washington University Hospital used the Eko DUO on a colleague in the lunchroom who said he wasn’t feeling well. The DUO helped him identify that the patient’s heart rate was 30 beats per minute and that he had a heart block. Dr. Mercader knew immediately he needed to get to the ER where his friend received the appropriate lifesaving treatment.
The stories from so many different clinicians on what the Eko products have done for them are hugely impactful because they show the difference the product makes in actual practice.
Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to and/or see in the healthcare industry? How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo? Which “pain point” is this trying to address?
Healthcare is broken in many ways. Patients aren’t getting the care that they need in a timely fashion, often go undiagnosed with diseases that they could be treated for earlier and with better outcomes, and are subject to exorbitant healthcare costs. While there are thousands of possible fixes for these gaps in our healthcare system, one macro trend we’re excited about is the application of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to help providers at the front lines of care identify and treat disease more effectively.
Our platform embodies this trend by equipping providers with AI-powered digital stethoscopes and ECGs to assist them in the detection and monitoring of patients with cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, not every patient can get in to see the best cardiologists. But, if you can put some of the power of the best cardiologists in the hands of every provider, that raises the bar of the healthcare system as a whole.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Never stop networking. In the very early days of Eko, I was constantly attending entrepreneur and health tech networking events, looking to expand my network, meet other interesting people, and spread the word about what we were building. But as the business started picking up steam, it was so easy to get caught in the day-to-day crunch mode of company building that I would often go months without attending an entrepreneur networking event. I quickly began to lose touch with the SF startup community and the opportunity to learn from all of the amazing health tech founders around me encountering many of the same issues we experienced. Even when things get busy, networking should remain a priority.
- Find the right conference and double down. Healthcare in particular is known for having an overabundance of conferences for each specialty and vertical. It’s important to try a number of conferences and when you find the one that best aligns with your customers, double down and stay focused.
- Talk to as many healthcare providers as possible. Our company was born out of listening to the needs of healthcare practitioners and I’ve learned to never stop listening. It’s really true that everyone has something to teach us, and as we all look to advance a very broken industry, the more stories and data we have, the better.
- Build a strong Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). It’s important to create a strong network of scientific and medical professionals. When used correctly, a SAB can provide your company with external perspective, constructive criticism, and aid with problem solving. They can also help to raise awareness of your company and provide expert validation to investors, business partners, etc. Identify the primary goal of your SAB at the beginning (though realize this may change over time) and try to get a good mix of backgrounds and experiences. Our advisors have been instrumental to our success.
- Be hungry, but patient. At the beginning, we are all so hungry to address the problems we set out to solve with our businesses that it can be easy to expect quick results, or get discouraged when things don’t go as planned. This is all a part of the process and the sooner you learn to be patient and roll with the punches, the better off you will be.
Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this study cited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us 3–5 reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?
It’s interesting and frustrating that despite having some of the world’s best medical schools and training programs, the US continues to rank as one of the least healthy developed countries. Here are three of many reasons that I see contributing to our ranking on this list:
- Exorbitant Cost of Care — The cost of healthcare in the U.S. has become exorbitant and unsustainable. Patients are often forced to choose between seeking medical care or putting food on the table. Many forego care altogether due to the fear of leaving their family behind with crushing debt. There has to be a better way to pay for and manage the costs of healthcare.
- Limited Access to Care — Access is broken in numerous places, from those who don’t have insurance or a primary care provider, to the millions of Americans that live in rural areas with little to no access to specialists. As a country we have a lot of doctors, but they are more commonly found in urban areas. Though even then the system is so backlogged you could live three blocks from a doctor and wait three months to be seen (something those of us in San Francisco know to be true).
- Healthy living is not incentivized — Patients are not incentivized to seek medical care and take care of their mental and physical well beings. In fact, wholesome groceries, time to exercise, and mental health resources are financially out of reach for a large percentage of Americans.
You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.
- Enable Telemedicine — Virtual care, when appropriate, needs to be reimbursed and encouraged. Telemedicine decreases the overall strain on the healthcare system by reducing travel times for doctors and patients, cutting down on wait times, opening access to rural areas, while delivering overall higher quality care because patients can be seen sooner, or triaged more effectively.
- Integrate AI into the Clinical Workflow — AI needs to be integrated into the clinical workflow in a way that augments, without replacing, clinicians. By doing so we’ll be able to help physicians feel comfortable with the technology because it’s less of a threat, and will alleviate some of the concerns associated with AI, instead showing how it acts as an immediate second opinion to the doctor.
- Pay for Performance — The industry must move toward a quality-based pay for performance model where health systems are rewarded for reducing readmissions, keeping patients with chronic illnesses out of hospital (when possible), and generally keeping the population healthier by promoting healthy living habits. Providers should be rewarded for improvements they make in the overall health of a patient and population of patients rather than putting money toward only treating patients when they are sick.
- Better Connected Electronic Health Records — We need more connected electronic health records (EHR) so that patients have more transparent access to them, and they are more easily shared between providers. This could be achieved through a universal EHR system or interoperability standards to improve communication.
- Health Insurance — This needs vast improvement, as even many people with access to healthcare so often have lifesaving procedures get denied. Insurance companies need to do more for patients when they are sick, and establish equal treatment policies. Right now we live in a society where money can buy you better and faster treatment, with payers deciding what they will cover and what they won’t. Providers also set arbitrary prices on treatments and tests — for example, an echocardiogram does not cost the same at every hospital. Insurance needs better standards and easier patient navigation.
Thank you! It’s great to suggest changes, but what specific steps would need to be taken to implement your ideas? What can individuals, corporations, communities and leaders do to help?
Companies of all sizes have to continue to innovate and build products that allow for cost of care to come down. Startups especially bear the responsibility to build innovations that are affordable, accessible, and scalable for hospitals. Of course, every company has to survive financially, but not at the cost of creating additional strain on the system. Lastly, providers should be incentivized around keeping populations healthy. We need to make the switch from a pay-for-service to pay-for-performance model.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better healthcare leader? Can you explain why you like them?
Here are two healthcare related books I read recently and really enjoyed.
When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi — This New York Times bestselling book documents the life of a neurosurgeon who, at the age of 35, was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. The book gave me a unique insight into the lives of young doctors, the stress they undergo during their training, and the hopes they have looking out at the rest of their careers. It’s also a human story of when a doctor becomes a patient, and the role reversal that changed the doctor’s view of medicine. Highly recommend.
Salt in my Soul: An Unfinished Life by Mallory Smith — Salt in my Soul is a LA Times Bestselling memoir written by an incredible young woman, who despite battling cystic fibrosis her whole life, became an award-winning published author, Stanford educated biologist, and nationally recognized athlete. Published posthumously, the book takes the reader through Mallory’s journey as a patient and pays tribute to many of the doctors and healthcare providers who helped her live her best life. On a personal note, Mallory was my best friend and motivated me every day as a healthcare entrepreneur to continue on our mission to cardiac healthcare.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!