While consumers can search for and compare and contrast various providers to find which works best for them when it comes to finding a plumber or internet service provider, it can be difficult for the average patient navigating the healthcare system to make informed decisions about which doctors they see.
Aiming to bridge this information gap for patients needing a specialist doctor is Patient Connector.
Founder Tess van der Rijt came up with the idea at Christmas one year, when her uncle became unwell and needed surgery.
Coming from a family of doctors, van der Rijt said everyone “hustled their networks” to find a suitable specialist that was working over the summer break, but in the end they couldn’t. Her uncle had to wait several weeks before he was able to have surgery, which in turn prolonged his recovery.
“It got me thinking – if my family can’t find a suitable specialist from our lucky position of knowing lots of specialists, how on Earth does the average Australian?” she said.
“I have worked in health system policy and reform for the past 10 years and had constantly heard from a system perspective that there was a lack of access to transparent information for patients and it was a serious issue, yet it was the first time I’d experienced it first hand.”
So van der Rijt set about trying to find a way to fix the problem, taking care to ensure she was building something that would solve the issues for both the patients and the specialists.
As it currently stands, someone who needs to see a specialist will get a referral from their GP. As van der Rijt explained it, the GP selects the specialist on their patient’s behalf – which can be problematic, because just like the patient, they don’t know how long the specialist’s waitlist may be, or what their fees are.
“Often patients are referred to a specialist, only to find the specialist’s fee is too high or their waitlist is too long. So they have to return to their GP and find a new referral. This is costly and time consuming for the patient and is also creates an inefficient referral pathway for the GP,” van der Rijt explained.
Meanwhile, specialists also face some roadblocks: due to regulation, van der Rijt explained, they can’t advertise directly to patients, but rather have to advertise their services to GPs and then wait for referrals.
“It is very difficult for a specialist doctor to proactively grow their private practice. It is particularly challenging for those who have studied in a different geographical location to where they’re currently serving patients – they don’t have a strong GP referral network or a strong clinical reputation amongst patients in the area,” she said.
With this in mind, Patient Connector allows patients with a referral to make a request for information: they can outline the type of specialist they’re looking for, some information about their medical condition, and upload their referral and any relevant scans or reports.
Specialists are then invited to respond with their fees, waitlist times, and any procedures they think will be required, with this information securely shared with only the patient.
Patients can compare and contrast the specialists and then contact the one they prefer.
While she had experience in the health system and was intimately connected with the issue at hand, van der Rijt said she faced the age-old problem on her road to building Patient Connector that many a non-tech founder faces at one point or another: finding a tech partner.
“[I] suffered the typical ‘war stories’ of originally not matching with the right tech person. It is truly a big hurdle to overcome,” she said.
However, van der Rijt said she was always happy to ask questions and learn to overcome any obstacle she came across.
“When I don’t know the answer to something – and when running a startup there are many of those moments – my approach has become to ask advice from those who have an opinion on the right approach,” she said.
“I listen a lot, take on board everyone’s perspective and then independently we come to our own conclusion. It’s often based on a mix of tried and tested experiences of those before us.”
With a CTO on hand, van der Rijt received a Jobs for NSW grant to assist in the development of the MVP and run a trial of the platform in Western Sydney. According to van der Rijt, the trial helped uncover a few interesting trends.
“Interestingly, before we released to market some people made the assumption that patients would choose the cheapest doctor and there would be no consideration of other important factors, such as the specialist’s experience of areas of expertise,” she said.
“I can unequivocally state that not one patient has chosen the cheapest doctor. I think people forget that patients are people like you and me – we want access to the right information, tailored to our unique needs, so we can then make better decisions.”
van der Rijt added that the trial reinforced the notion that patients need help to navigate the complex health system.
“For example, you need a GP referral to see a specialist, but that referral doesn’t need to be addressed to that specific specialist doctor – it can say ‘dear doctor’ or can even have another specialist’s name on it,” she said.
With the platform aimed broadly at specialist doctors, van der Rijt said she has been working with hospitals to onboard specialists, while also approaching them directly via email.
“Of course having a patient on our books looking for the specialist’s skills has been a great carrot for sign ups as well,” she said.
The platform is free for patients to use, with specialists charged a tiered referral fee for any patients they find through the platform.
On the other side of the market, the platform is looking to bring on patients in need of a specialist, with private health insurance.
“We have been establishing relationships with GP medical practices to advertise to patients and also have signed a contract with a health media company to strengthen our reach directly to patients,” van der Rijt said.
According to van der Rijt, over 60 patients have used the platform so far, receiving responses from more than 160 specialists.
As she looks to grow the platform, van der Rijt acknowledged the various competitors in the space, such as HealthEngine, however she believes that Patient Connect is differentiated by both the fact that it is focused on specialist doctors rather than the likes of GPs, and that it allows specialists to send patients information directly.
“Some of these platforms are moving into the specialist doctor field, but they rely on databases obtained from health insurance rebate claims to collect data about specialist fees. As a result patients can access the average out of pocket fees of specialists, but these aren’t tailored to the patient’s unique medical need,” she said.
“We are completely independent, which is why specialists are willing to share their commercially sensitive information with us. No other platform provides patients with access to a specialist’s waitlist for surgery.”
van der Rijt hopes to have helped both 1,000 patients and onboarded 1,000 specialist doctors on the platform by the end of the year.