For the U.S. health care system’s most chronically ill patients, going back and forth between the home and hospital is, unfortunately, a well-worn routine. Care management teams that insurance companies and hospitals provide struggle to give the necessary care for these patients in constant need. Joe Khan, 23, and Yasyf Mohamedali, 23, are using their personal experiences and computer science backgrounds to create scalable, personalized healthcare management by starting Karuna Health. Karuna Health provides software that automates ordinary care coordination tasks for hospitals. The San Francisco-based team has gone on to raise $ 1.25 million from First Round Capital, Founder Collective, SV Angel, and BoxGroup.
Frederick Daso: What is the problem you two are trying to solve here?
Joe Kahn: In the health care system, where a tiny number of patients account for the vast majority of health care spending and utilization, roughly one percent of patients account for 20 percent of all spending. The tiny number of people who are extremely vulnerable and not getting better are cycling in and out of the emergency department and don’t have the adequate support they need. What insurance companies and hospital systems have done over time has been to create great care management teams composed of nurses, social workers and health guides. The problem that we found is that while the work those care management teams do is extraordinarily impactful and inspiring, it’s also quite expensive and challenging to scale. We see that as a massive opportunity for change.
If we can figure out how to make care management so scalable that it’s not only more useful for the people who currently get access to it, but also the primary interface that every patient has with the health care system, that would be pretty extraordinary. That’s kind of change we’re targeting.
Daso: Fantastic. I love, I love the mission, and what you guys are doing and I hope that you guys can make an impact. One thing, when looking into to you and Yasyf’s backgrounds, I’ve noticed that you guys don’t have formal knowledge in the healthcare space, right? You guys are both gifted, computer science majors from Harvard and MIT, respectfully. What gives you guys the ability to solve this problem in healthcare without any direct experience?
Kahn: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. When I went to high school and college, I got incredibly sick and effectively for five years now, I’ve been chronically ill with what some people think is a sporadic congenital disease than what others believe is just some undiagnosed or immune disorder of the intestinal tract. I’ve had this wild experience as a patient where I’ve been bounced around health systems on three continents and had been able to see how broken and fragmented the system can be. I’ve been unable to do something about it. I had this really privileged view into what works and what doesn’t from the patient’s perspective.
Yasyf came from a healthcare family that was very community oriented. I’ve been a patient and over the course of our time at Harvard and MIT respectively, we channeled that into side project with the hackathons. It’s a whole range of other work as well. Around the time that we were starting the company, we took all of this emotional energy we have around wanting to solve the problem that I faced as a patient and just began interviewing people. To this day we’ve probably spoken to about 100 different executive-level stakeholders in healthcare ranging from investors and entrepreneurs to physicians, researchers, clinicians, management at hospitals and insurance companies to understand what the incentives are in the industry, how the industry works, how people make purchasing decisions and what the problems and priorities are.
Daso: Fantastic, your focus on empathy is critical. How do you guys keep empathy at the center of the automation software you build for the care management process?
Kahn: A thing to do is to get rid of the back office work issues around prioritization and documentation so that all of that time can be put into doubling down on the patient relationship. That’s the first step. There are gains to be made regarding face time with the patient regarding automation. The next thing is to try and automate away parts of the communication and talk that are more procedural so that ultimately the interactions that can take place are very relationship focused. For example, there could be an acute event that means you need the level of expertise that a nurse or any nursing system can provide.
Daso: Great. Given your personal experiences with healthcare and being treated in the US and/or the Canadian system, how do you guys, because health care is a very regulated space, especially with HIPAA, how do you guys manage to integrate your automation software with current existing hospital workflows?
Kahn: Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. The privacy and security of healthcare data are paramount. It mostly just requires being diligent and putting in a lot of work upfront. We spent the last couple of primarily focused on our technology infrastructure, making it easy to keep data secure and shareable with multiple parties. I think the more interesting question is what you were mentioning around workflow.
My goal here is for the system to be so modular that for us to integrate with any health care system is a seamless effort. Also, we do not want our system to be disruptive to the different workflows that people are using. One other thing that is special about the software we’re building is that it alternates to the level of intent or goals rather than action. We automate away a lot of that work, which allows one to operate at a much higher level where they can effectively use all of their clinical knowledge and background and intuition to determine what the right goals are and then allow the doctor to take care of the rest. We avoid the issue of integrating with workflows altogether in some cases.
Daso: Wonderful. My last question encompasses everything that we’ve discussed. You and you don’t have a formal background yet. You’ve been able to build a fantastic product that makes a difference in the way that care is managed in the US medical system. So for other young founders who have an interest in a particular space, but they don’t necessarily have the expertise or formal training to be involved in that space, what would be your advice to them as they try to make an impact as you have?
Kahn: First, learning the language of that industry. Almost every vertical or sector, there are a small number of thought leaders or very influential books or papers that have been written that become the foundation for how people think about that industry, so your first step should be to learn those foundational texts. It’s super important.
The next thing I would say regarding getting familiar with the industry is to start pitching as soon as you possibly can. As soon as you’ve got a couple of connections, any thought, some of the vocab down, start telling people what you think you are seeing, saying, hey, listen until I believe the industry works, poke holes in this. What am I missing? What am I not considered? Whereas my logic and inconsistent and then go back and fill in the gaps and start pitching it again. I find that if you’re able to say to someone, Hey, here’s what I believe, what’s wrong with that? It’s a lot more efficient than asking them to tell you everything. It’s such an open-ended question. You never get anywhere.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
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