Do you zip? Or have you zipped today?
If Jonathan Pearce has his way, those phrases would soon be rolling off our tongues. The MBA student at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is founder of Zipnosis, a virtual way to confer with your doctor. Pearce recently won the top student award in the Minnesota Cup, the annual statewide contest to find breakthrough business ideas.
“A lot of times when you’re sick and need to go to a physician or visit a clinic, you have to take time off work, pay a co-pay, sit in the waiting room, and then just get seen by a nurse,” says Pearce. How about, instead, logging into a system via your computer or cell phone and answering a series of structured questions that will allow a physician to make a diagnosis and treatment decision within a few hours. “And if something looks awry,” he adds, “then the physician can say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come in.'”
Online housecalls are not new. The American Academy of Family Physicians has endorsed virtual or electronic visits, more commonly known as e-visits, for a few years now, and the service continues to gain popularity as technologies improve, consumer demand increases, and major health plans adopt it.
Zipnosis, which is expected to enter the testing phase within six months and hit the market in fall 2009, stands out among four competitors because it offers mobile access. You can lie in the warmth of your bed or sit in your favorite coffee shop with, say, your brand new iPhone and zip in a matter of minutes. Physicians who conduct virtual visits have reported that e-visits average five minutes, compared with 15 to 20 minutes for comparable office encounters.
“It’s really up to you as a patient to decide how you want to [take care of your health care needs],” says Pearce, who hails from Lawrence, Kansas, and is the oldest of seven children. “What we’re doing isn’t for everybody.”
Through its e-visit pilot program, launched in January 2006 with 36 practices, the American Academy of Family Physicians found that patients regularly used e-visits for common, nonurgent ailments like sinus and ear infections and to renew prescriptions, request appointments, and fill out histories before office visits. Pearce said he is targeting Zipnosis to the younger generation, who’ve grown up in the age of cell phones and who can’t easily take time off work.
Pearce, who spent nearly five years working at a medical software company, came up with the idea for Zipnosis about a year and a half ago after a physician friend had wondered aloud if he could consult with some patients without seeing them in person.
“For him the frustration comes especially with chronic care patients whom he has a long-term relationship with, people who need to [check in regularly] every two weeks or every month,” explains Pearce. “These visits to his clinic are largely routine and kind of involve the same questions. It could be a lot more efficient for them and [for him] if they just answered a few questions from the convenience of their home or pull out their phone from their pocket.”
For the physician, a zip could mean more time with a patient who is really sick and needs to be in there for a physical exam.
However, says Pearce, there are some physicians who are rightly skeptical of e-visits. Their main concern: an accurate diagnosis. It can be hard for them to make one when they don’t have the patient in front of them.
“The success of Zipnosis will depend on whether or not patients can be a reliable source of information and whether or not physicians believe what the patient is telling them,” says Pearce. “I think it really comes down to our product not being a replacement of a physician-patient relationship but an extension of it. What we are is a more effective way of maintaining that relationship.”
His Minnesota Cup winnings of $5,000 will go toward “some nuts and bolts” to keep building the product, as well as the company. Zipnosis is a dream come true for Pearce, who has wanted to own a business for as long as he can remember.
“I enjoy the challenge, the complexity, the lifestyle of trying to do something that’s high risk and high reward,” he says. “And I find that [as an entrepreneur], I get a chance to work with exceptionally intelligent people, who also enjoy having a great time. For me going back to school and getting my MBA was more about [getting more experience], specifically on the finance side.”
T alums once more
The 2008 Minnesota Cup grand prize of $50,000 went to Christine Horton and Britt Norton of CoreSpine Technologies, a company focused on developing advanced devices for spinal surgeries. Norton, an alumnus of the U’s Institute of Technology (IT), continues the tradition of former IT students winning the big purse.
In 2006 IT alums were among the creators of Vast Enterprises, the makers of composite pavers from 99 percent recycled materials, and in 2005 an IT duo was responsible for ArcSwitch, the patented product and company to route optical signals more efficiently.
For more information about the annual competition, see Minnesota Cup.