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Selecting Startup Partners Can Be Hard for Health Systems. Here Are Some Tips.


We examined the early days of health data company Carium for insights on how hospitals can choose young vendors.

healthcare business,healthcare executive,healthcare vendor

In the early summer of 2018, Petaluma Health Center in Petaluma, California, fielded a meeting with a health-tech startup called Carium. The company, founded by local entrepreneur Mike Hatfield, had only just launched operations but had already gained the regional community care provider’s attention. The pairing made sense for both parties geographically. However, more important, Carium offered Petaluma Health Center something that others hadn’t yet: a collaborative approach to providing greater medical transparency before, during and after visits, between the health center and its patients.

“We didn’t go in there with pre-packaged software and say, ‘Hey, buy this,’” Carium’s chief transformation officer, Lygeia Ricciardi, formerly of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, told Inside Digital Health™. “The magic was in sitting down with real people and asking them what they need — let’s solve this problem with you.”

It’s no secret that the health-tech vendor space has become crowded and overwhelming. Walk the exhibit hall floor at HIMSS, and a health system leader sees every kind of solution but little insight into their efficacy, from artificial intelligence platforms ushering in the ‘care of tomorrow’ to vague technologies that are supposed to ‘make healthcare smarter.’

How can healthcare decision-makers sort through the marketing blitz? And even further, what can health systems look for in up-and-coming tech companies — the kind that lack vast marketing budgets and are only beginning to collect customer testimonials — to make an informed buying decision?

Inside Digital Health™ caught up with Carium officials earlier this year to try to answer these questions. The thinking: If this promising new company knew how to get its tech inside cutting-edge provider organizations, it must understand what they’re looking for.

Health Systems Must Look for Custom Solutions

Carium wants to harness everyday tech (from wearables to smartphones) to allow patients to better share their information with their healthcare providers. And it also aims to develop customizable mobile and web apps that best serve both parties. With Petaluma Health Center, Carium focused on patients with diabetes, which is heavily composed of Spanish-speaking migrant workers, a population that the provider had a hard time tracking after treatment. By Thanksgiving of last year, Carium had referrals and a working platform that allowed patients with diabetes to track their progress.

“We’re about strengthening providers by asking how we can help them integrate data,” Ricciardi said. “A lot of providers didn’t know what to do with all of that outside data. But if we partner with folks who get that vision and have enough pull within an organization, we can help give them that ammunition.”

Look for the Right Health IT Expertise

It’s perhaps no surprise to the Sonoma County business community that Carium is Hatfield’s brainchild. He brings a résumé steeped in communication technology. (The Petaluma-to-Santa Rosa corridor of Sonoma County was once known as Telecom Valley for its abundance of telecommunication businesses.) Two of his most recent ventures, telecom businesses Cyan and Calix, both went public this decade and each garnered more than $80 million in initial stock offerings.

Ambitions for Carium are similarly high, as Ricciardi sees the company’s ability to streamline multiple forms of patient data and healthcare portals as an asset that will separate Carium in an increasingly saturated health-tech marketplace. (Ricciardi, of course, made a name for herself by boosting patient data sharing at the ONC.)

“We help providers maximize the services they provide — we plug into tools, class, swimming, clinical data,” Ricciardi said. “We steer consumers toward them and make that connection outside regular hours and appointment hours. They know if person followed through on referral.”

Ricciardi credits the background of Carium’s 35-person workforce for allowing the company to address the needs of each client. With Petaluma being a little more than an hour’s drive from the hub of Silicon Valley, Ricciardi mentioned that Carium’s team comes from places as diverse as Pinterest, Facebook and other telecom and healthcare giants.

“That experience absolutely helps with fast builds,” she said. “If a partner says, ‘I’m launching a new product in three weeks. Can you turn around a feature?,’ we’re absolutely equipped to handle it.”

Vendors Must Really Partner With the Health System

Carium considers patience and open-mindedness the key elements in getting platforms off the ground with prospective clients. With so much data and so many client needs going into each partnership, the process cannot be rushed. John McLaughlin, who oversees customer success at Carium, explains that properly training the teams of each client is paramount.

“If you don’t properly onboard and train the health system and the key stakeholders there, it’s going to be hard to get off the ground,” he said.

After immersing himself in the workflows and systematic requirements of each client, McLaughlin and his Carium colleagues set up a series of checkpoints to ensure that there aren’t any setbacks in developing a care-based platform and app that work for the provider and its patients. This is essential to ensuring that every project is highly customized. For Petaluma Health Center, everyone from the chief medical officer down to physicians and then medical assistants and diabetes coaches have to be well-versed in Carium’s project. Vendors should actively look for roadblocks that impede progress.

“If the vendor is very focused on enterprise efficiency alone, I think that’s a red flag,” Carium’s president and co-founder, Nirav Modi, said. “Making enterprise efficient may generate some incremental returns, but it doesn’t actually move healthcare forward.”

The Health-Tech Takeaway

It’s Carium’s outside-the-box approach that Ricciardi believes can fuel Carium’s future success. In order to move not just the business but the industry forward, Carium’s team and their partners need to break the existing systems that have prevented technological breakthroughs and patients from seeking preventative and continuing treatment.

“You have to understand that we experience the world digitally as consumers,” she said. “We have expectations, and certain practices just won’t cut it anymore. Younger generations are going to say, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not going to wait. I’m going to go to the Minute Clinic. Your phone is your life, and your healthcare is, too. We want to be able to manage it conveniently.”

That’s also why health systems of all sizes and capabilities need to devise plans to analyze and consider offerings from up-and-coming tech vendors. The big, new ideas won’t always come from established industry titans. And if the improved outcomes or data accessibility are there, patients won’t want to wait.

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