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The company uses AI to help patients navigate their healthcare journey
Even under the best of circumstances, getting the right healthcare information is difficult. Googling symptoms can lead you down a rabbit hole of misinformation and misdiagnosis. Add COVID to the mix and it can seem totally overwhelming.
Enter Buoy Health, an AI-powered healthcare navigation platform that was made just for times like these. The company offers patients an online portal that can give them accurate information to give them better health outcomes, as well as where to go to seek care.
On Tuesday the company announced that it raised a $37.5 million Series C funding round led by two of the major insurance companies: Cigna Ventures and Humana. Optum Ventures, WR Hambrecht + Co, and Trustbridge Partners also participated, bringing its total funding to $66.5 million.
Becoming a healthcare navigation company
Founded in 2014, Buoy started life as a way for people to find out how best to seek care through its smart symptom checker. It asks patients a series of questions over two or three minutes, starting with information such as how age and sex, then allowing patients to insert their symptoms. The idea was to help patient better understand what might be wrong with them.
The company has since grown beyond giving patients information about their potential diagnosis to giving them information on where to go to seek care. Having Cigna, Humana and Optum invest in Buoy reflects how the company has changed since it first started, Andrew Le, MD, CEO and co-founder of Buoy Health, explained to me.
"We have evolved from a company that is helping people simply think about their symptoms to now being truly a navigation offering for the end user. The way we frame it is, when you get sick, you suddenly have to become not only a doctor, but also an insurance expert," he said.
For example, if someone is sick, they may not know which doctors to go to, or which of them are covered by their insurance plan. Partnering with the insurance companies helps Buoy give patients the most accurate information. Ultimately, this helps the patients, as well as the insurance companies themselves.
"Our different backers, what’s unique about each of them, and health plans and employers in general, is that they've done a lot of work to curate exactly what services are in network for their particular plans. Then you combine that with what we're capable of doing, which is clinically figuring out what's going on like a doctor," said Le.
"We really see ourselves as this navigation AI that can be optimized for any one of our users who are using Buoy where, based on their set of services, we can navigate to their specific in-network providers, their in-network virtual solution."
Getting ahead of COVID
Like every other company in the space, Buoy has been affected by COVID: since the pandemic started, Buoy has seen about 700,000 people specifically asking about the disease, thereby saving the healthcare industry more than $15 million, or about 1,300 days of work by alleviating strain on the healthcare system.
The company was proactive about getting in the front of pandemic, even launching its own COVID-specific version of the platform in early February, when there were still only a few cases in the United States. As a result, the company was able to track the spread of the disease around the country: across 17 different states, Buoy identified pockets of high risk shortly before a confirmed case.
As a result, the company was approached by different states and different insurance companies, and was actually hired to help them handle the surge of questions and uncertainty from patients "who were completely overwhelming telemedicine and the ability to call into a doctor," Le said.
In March, the company launched the COVID navigation tool for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Commonwealth of Virginia, all of United Healthcare, Cigna, Humana, Express Scripts and Optum. All together, that equaled roughly 180 million Americans who had access to a commercial version of Buoy that took into account their insurance and got them to the right care at the right time and helped them navigate for purposes of COVID.
"There just weren't enough doctors to pick up the phone, there weren't enough nurses to pick up the phone, and that kind of overwhelming demand was perfect for exactly what our use case is in non-pandemic times, which is to navigate people to the right care at the right time," Le explained.
After that, seeing the risk involved in reopening the economy, Buoy launched Back With Care, a platform providing health resource navigation and personalized guidance for employers and employees. Essentially, the platform allows employees to check their symptoms every morning. If they don't have symptoms, if they don't have the right exposures, they are given a pass to come back into work. If they are symptomatic or they have been exposed, Buoy can then navigate them into in network care, as it does for non-COVID related health issues.
So far, the company is supporting 23 different employers, over 1,200 different offices and 100,000 employees. The company also found that employees actually trust their employer 83 percent more because they've installed something like Buoy.
"COVID has been a terrible time for the country, but it has highlighted the use case for something that's automated, something that's scalable, something that's science driven, to empower people to make better decisions, and to better navigate the healthcare ecosystem," Le told me.
"Healthcare navigation used to be a problem that you faced maybe three times a year when you got sick. Now it's an everyday problem. Do I go to the grocery store? Do I see my parents or do I go to work? Every single one of those decisions is suddenly a healthcare navigation problem."
Implementing a remote-first strategy
Now that it has this raised this new funding, Buoy will use it to build out its IP, specifically its artificial intelligence, along with other technologies. The goal, Le said, is make healthcare as efficient as other industries.
"There's so many different constituents in the healthcare ecosystem that the complexity just makes it so difficult for the average person to navigate in a way that other industries are just so much more seamless and so much easier. We really see where we sit in healthcare, which is right at the beginning of the healthcare episode, well before they ever see a doctor, engaging with the patient then gives us the opportunity to be, as we call it, the sidewalk to the front door of healthcare. Being that sidewalk here means we're uniquely positioned to take out a lot of that friction throughout your healthcare journey," he told me.
The funding will also be used as grow the Buoy team, which is currently 100 people, by 75 percent over the next year. The company will be looking to build out its R&D team. Importantly, the goal going forward is for Buoy to implement a remote-first strategy, which means hiring from all parts of the United States, not just in Boston, which is where it is headquartered, or in New York, where it has its second office.
Remote work, of course, has become more common in the age of COVID, though Le says the company always knew it would implement such a strategy as it expanded; COVID simply accelerated the process and also showed how well it could work.
"We knew that for us to reach our goals as a company, which is to build a big public company that is really thinking about the patient at the end of the day, we knew that we were eventually going to have offices all over the world. However, COVID accelerated that process immensely, just because we started to see how our culture was able to scale remotely, how it really opened up not just the talent pool and where we could recruit them," he said.
"Also, it just made our employees really happy with the idea that if they want to move close to my family, that's okay. Or if they want to buy a house in an area that is a little less expensive than Boston, that's okay. We were just really pleased with not just the productivity but and talent opportunities, but just like how happy it made our teammates to be able to be given that kind of trust and flexibility."
This isn't to say that Buoy won't be building more offices going forward; if the company finds it is getting more of a concentration in a particular area, it will open an office while still giving people the flexibility of either coming in or working remotely, depending on their own preference.
"Even employees in Boston will be given the option of coming in every day or half the time or every now and then. And we'll continue to build offices in new areas once we have enough folks there because some people want to come in, some people don't and some people want a hybrid and we want to be able to support the environment that ultimately just makes people happy."
In the longer run, though, what Le really hopes this new funding does for the company is to allow it to not have to raise private money again.
"Our goal with this capital is to not need to fundraise in the private markets again. That sounds kind of outlandish but we're really a tech company, which means that we're a company that doesn't have to hire physicians or coaches to provide service. That kind of scalability means that we should really be thinking about getting to sustainability from a business perspective over the next few years."
(Image source: buoyhealth.com)
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Buoy is a digital health tool that helps people – from the moment they get sick – start their care on the right foot. Studies show that when most Americans (72%) get sick, they google their symptoms. But, the information they gather is both unreliable and risky – “I typed in cough and got cancer”. Buoy flips this all too familiar script on its head by leveraging advanced artificial intelligence to resemble an exchange you would have with your favorite doctor – where you get an accurate analysis of your symptoms and understand options for where to go and what to do next. So that you can easily and quickly embark on the right path to getting better