Health-care social network would move medical sales completely online

An emerging health IT startup in Minnesota wants to create a health-care social network that would move sales between vendors and hospital systems completely online.

Consider Qualtrx a mix between Twitter and Match.com, says its founder and CEO Rashaun Sourles. Hospitals and physicians in the Qualtrx network broadcast their needs, which can be as specific as the desire for an individual product or patient care need or as broad as an organizational goal. Then, medical sales representatives will buy access to the system, respond to the health systems’ needs and (presumably) make a sale.

The startup may win some traction, since there’s increasing evidence that face-to-face medical sales jobs are slowly dying. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted how one in four physicians in 2010 refused to meet with a sales rep because they found office visits “intrusive and annoying.”

Already, Qualtrx has signed up the pharmacy department in Minnesota’s Hennepin County Medical Center for a three-month trial that begins when the software launches in August.

Qualtrx, which is rebranding itself Needl, hopes that its independent web-publishing platform will become the tool of choice for hospitals and doctors. Qualtrx’s so-called Goals Database and NeedFeed will allow hospitals to create streams of their needs and overarching goals.

For instance, a hospital could say, “I need HIV education materials printed in Somali” or “I have questions about the recent FDA warning regarding the birth control patch.” But the need could also be a broad one like the one Hennepin County Medical Center has about Accountable Care Organizations: “By 2012 we will have an Accountable Care Organization. How can you help us integrate our care?”

Hospitals sign up for free to use the Qualtrx platform. The company plans to make money by selling a subscription to vendors looking to sell products or services to the hospital.

“Information is currency,” and without information vendors won’t know what is important to hospitals and how to target them, Sourles said.

And Sourles should know. He spent seven years at Johnson & Johnson during which he was a drug representative and account manager for the company. He saw the relationship between hospitals and industry reps deteriorate. Qualtrx is his vision of how that broken model of interaction can be repaired efficiently.

Some companies have already replaced people with digital tools. But Sourles thinks physicians don’t have enough control over those tools. Plus, the interface for one company’s tool is going to be different from that of another company. And even on something everyone uses, like e-mail, health-care providers can’t exactly decide what comes through on their inbox.

“When [doctors] look at digital tools that the Medtronics, St.Judes or J&Js are presenting to them, they look at it with the same skepticism as an industry rep walking in,” Sourles said. “They see it as walking spam.”

Sourles noted that if a doctor has a specific scientific question on a drug or device, then the Qualtrx platform allows the rep to bring a medical director or scientific liaison to answer the question. And so, the model is not purely transactions based.

He hopes the pilot with the Hennepin County Medical Center will help to prove that his model works. Vendors have signed policies with the hospital to allow communication to occur through the Qualtrx platform, Sourles said.Armed with that data, he hopes to raise $250,000 to $1 million.

The company recently got a spot as a semifinalist in the biosciences division of the annual Minnesota Cup business competition. It also has been selected as one of eight startups to be mentored through the new Project Skyway tech accelerator program for software entrepreneurs.

Whether or not Qualtrx succeeds will depend on how many hospitals buy into the company’s philosophy, acknowledged Sourles. But for now, Sourles and his partners are dreaming big.

“We do see ourselves doing something as revolutionary as Twitter,” Sourles said.

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