MD Ally Ensures Appropriate Use of Emergency ResourcesBy Ronnie Thompson
If you’ve ever been to the emergency room, you know that it usually takes hours to be seen. MD Ally helps facilitate the most efficient use of emergency resources by directing 911 callers to the most appropriate point of care. I sat down with the founder, Shanel, to learn more about her unique approach to solving this important problem.
Because Emergency Care Shouldn’t be a Competition
Can you name some of the most common reasons for calling 911? If you said difficulty breathing or motor vehicle accidents you’d be correct, but you’d also be right if you said a cold or even a stubbed toe. Clearly these are issues with vastly different medical acuities, but they are all funneled to the same emergency response resources.
“If you are going to the ER with a stubbed toe, which is a popular example for why people call 911… you’re going to be waiting for a long time.”
– Shanel Fields, Founder of MD Ally
When individuals call 911 for non-emergency assistance, it creates two problems. First, it ties up ambulances, EMTs, and other limited emergency response resources, which can slow down response times for more acute emergencies, such as strokes and heart attacks. Second, it fills emergency room waiting rooms with patients who might be better treated by their primary care physician or an urgent care clinic; this increases wait times for everyone.
Upon learning that higher ambulance wait times lead to higher rates of DOAs (dead on arrivals) among some minority groups and communities, Shanel Fields (WG ’19) created MD Ally. MD Ally helps ensure the appropriate use of emergency services by navigating low-acuity callers to the most appropriate site of care. When 911 responders determine that a situation does not require an emergency response, MD Ally takes over, helping patients with everything from arranging transportation to the appropriate medical facility to booking an appointment with the right doctor. To help field these calls, MD Ally relies on a network of providers (doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals). They handle the calls of low-acuity patients, re-routing the path of care from emergency rooms to urgent care centers or primary care physicians.
Initially, Shanel envisioned MD Ally as a platform to help field emergency calls. By integrating telehealth into the dispatch process and allowing patients to talk to a physician while they waited for an ambulance, she hoped to move up the clock of care. However, as Shanel learned more about the space, she realized that there was an opportunity to enable more efficient care by matching low acuity patients with the appropriate resources.
The MD Ally Team
As the daughter of a former EMT volunteer, Shanel is passionate about both emergency care and entrepreneurship. After working at Athenahealth, she came to Wharton determined to start her own company. During our interview, she laughed as she recalled as how, as a child, she received a doll for Christmas and immediately modified it in hopes of selling it back to Toys “R” Us. “I love the interaction of creating value and seeing what it is worth. This time last year, I just had an idea and a concept. It didn’t know if it was crazy and not feasible and deciding to not recruit and focus solely on this was risky, but it’s something that I couldn’t imagine moving forward in my life and not doing.”
At the moment, the MD Ally team is compromised of Shanel, Kojo DeGraft-Hanson, and a part-time employee who is focused on building out the MD Ally provider network. Based in Atlanta, Kojo joined MD Ally in June and serves as the company’s technical lead. MD Ally is the second startup on which Kojo and Shanel have collaborated. As undergrads at Cornell, they worked together on a sports news aggregator.
The Power of Collaboration
MD Ally’s business model is based in collaboration; it helps patients, medical professionals, and emergency respondents all reach the best outcome. To deliver its services, MD Ally relies on providers to help field calls. Over the summer, Shanel and her team led a successful recruiting campaign at Penn Med, bringing a good mix of doctors, residents, and nurses onto the platform. They also developed a provider portal, which allows providers use to set up transportation and appointments with nonemergency doctors.
At the same time, collaboration has helped accelerate MD Ally’s own growth. MD Ally has partnered with an organization that helps with the prioritization of medical calls and currently has a large market share in the US. In a space where one of the biggest hurdles is the current status quo, working with partners who are already integrated into the existing system has helped MD Ally gain traction.
While current emergency response systems are fairly entrenched, there are other companies and organizations hoping to catalyze positive growth and development in the space. For example, King County in Washington state recently piloted a program that distinguishes high and low acuity 911 calls and calibrates the response appropriately. Additionally, other companies, such as Capture911 and CentralSquare, have begun to hone in on the space and create products that optimize the path of care in emergency situations.
Though there are many companies trying to add value in the nonemergency space, Shanel sees them as potential future partners, not competitors. For example, there are some companies focused on “community paramedicine,” delivering care at patients’ homes, while others, such as UberHealth, provide nonemergency transportation. All of these services have the potential to be integrated into the MD Ally model. In a space where incentives are well aligned, MD Ally has leveraged collaboration to improve patient outcomes and grow its business.
The Importance of Sales
While MD Ally aims to help every day people like you and me, at no cost, its real customers are local governments and counties. Over the summer, Shanel and her team focused on their sales strategy and successfully brought five potential partners into their pipeline. As of early October, MD Ally was finalizing a contract to roll out a pilot program in 2019 and has several others in the works.
The speed of their sales cycle surprised MD Ally; they expected it to take about two years on the government side, not six months. Shanel credits this success to MD Ally’s highly focused sales strategy. After establishing their target segments, Shanel and her team ran campaigns out of their CRM system over the summer. They used A/B testing to hone in on the right messaging, paying close attention not only to what people were responding, but also to who was responding to their content and the roles these individuals had within their organizations. Shanel also noted that she was careful not to force a fit when meeting with prospective clients. When a potential client wanted to roll out MD Ally’s services in 60 days, she said no because she wants each client to have an excellent experience. At this point in MD Ally’s growth trajectory, Shanel understands that success is not just about quantity, but also requires managing implementation.
MD Ally’s quick success has given the company a huge advantage and has also helped Shanel realize the importance of sales. Though she has an extensive sales background, she had not previously realized how critical they were to entrepreneurial success. During our conversation, she stressed how important it is to learn sales strategy as a founder: “Having and building something is great, you can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t have someone who can do sales and you can’t sell yourself as a founder, that’s going to be a huge roadblock.” As an entrepreneur who came to business school, Shanel says that sales is something that she would love to see schools add to their curriculum. Eager to help other founders, Shanel has had meetings and coaching sessions with other entrepreneurs to help them learn how to initiate their sales cycles and develop their overall sales strategy.
“Having and building something is great, you can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t have someone who can do sales and you can’t sell yourself as a founder, that’s going to be a huge roadblock.”
– Shanel Fields, Founder of MD Ally
Goals for the Future
As MD Ally looks ahead to the launch of their first pilot program in 2019, their goals are to build out more partnerships and expand their team.
Thanks to the slew of awards MD Ally racked up last spring, including Penn’s Summer Venture Award, MD Ally has received $40K in non-dilutive funding, negating the need to raise capital in the near-term. However, Shanel recognizes that MD Ally will need to raise capital to hit key milestones in the future and has already begun cultivating relationships with potential investors.
Shanel is motivated to be contributing to a field that operates from a stance of equality.
“That’s what I love about 911 and this space; it touches everyone and it touches them all equally. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got $5 in your bank account or $5 million. When you call 911, they come. That is the big thing that drives me everyday. I’m contributing to something that really operates from a stance of equality.”
– Shanel Fields, Founder of MD Ally
It will be interesting to see how many lives MD Ally is able to touch as it grows.