Improve the experience for doctors. We need talented people to enter medicine. It’s a long road to becoming a physician, and there need to be strong incentives for our best and brightest to pursue medicine. We should not be in a situation where talented people are saddled with large debt burdens as a percentage of income for years, as is the case now. Changing the experience will also reduce physician burnout and frustration, which will ultimately improve patient care. Fixing the provider side is important for the future of healthcare, both to avoid doctor shortages and to attract talented young people to medicine.
As a part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure to interview Julian Flannery.
Julian Flannery is the founder and CEO of Summus Global. He previously served on the management team at Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG), the world’s largest membership-based platform for professional expertise. He oversaw GLG’s service operation, products, and content, and directed management of its 400,000+ expert membership base. He formerly worked at Morgan Stanley as Associate and Chief of Staff to the Chairman & CEO and in Special Situations and Investment Banking. In 2001, he served in The White House as an aide to the Chief of Staff to the President. He received his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and B.A. in Economics from Duke University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
A series of experiences, an idea I couldn’t get out of my head, and a bit of family history came together at a point in time to create Summus. My early career brought me to Washington, where I had the privilege of serving in the White House and learning the complexities of public policy and politics. After graduate school, I was drawn to the world of finance, where I was investing in and advising companies. An inflection point happened when I decided that I was most interested in building companies versus investing in them, so I joined a company, GLG, that had built a novel concept: a technology-enabled marketplace for accessing expertise. GLG allowed business people, nonprofits, investors, and really anyone responsible for making decisions on capital and resources to quickly access people all over the world who had specific expertise. I learned how the business model could accelerate decision-making and also improve the quality of decisions.
After five years, I was starting to think of new adventures and had a chance conversation with a close friend, Aftab Kherani, a former surgeon turned investor. We discussed a simple question: What if we could bring a similar marketplace concept to healthcare? At that point in time, I had deep experience in building and running human-driven marketplaces, and Aftab knew medicine. I also come from a family of physicians, so I understood the challenges doctors face. We ended up founding Summus together as a novel way to access high-quality medical expertise from anywhere in the world. Today, we are proud to have built a new way for families to make more informed medical decisions through fast virtual access to high-quality providers across the US healthcare system.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We see powerful stories unfolding every day! Given our service and industry, being a part of people’s personal lives is an important obligation and one we are intensely focused on getting right. Helping families make medical decisions and become more informed about their options is core to what we do and is incredibly gratifying. Whether we are helping someone who has struggled for years with a chronic condition finally discover the path to a better quality of life, or supporting someone newly diagnosed with cancer get to the right treatment, we feel the impact every day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As most founders will tell you, mistakes are only funny in retrospect. When we started the company, we were thinking about names. We wanted something that could be global, was unique, and would apply to the essence of our culture and mission. With healthcare consumers ranking quality of providers and hospital systems #1 and #2 when thinking about “quality of healthcare,” we landed on Summus, Latin for “highest or top.” After a year of building Summus, I sat down with a good friend to update him on the company. He happened to be a classics major at a prestigious university and actually gave a graduation speech in Latin. The first sentence out of his mouth was, “You are pronouncing Summus wrong. It’s Sum, not Soom.” So we had built a company that stood for quality in healthcare, but we were mispronouncing our company name. Fortunately, most everyone else in the world had no idea how to pronounce it either, so we moved on quickly and quietly.
The lesson is really one that founders learn early on — we make many mistakes. It’s part of the journey. At Summus, we have no ego. Our team is relentlessly focused on finding the best answers to any question and is always thinking about improving the experience for our customers and doctors.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Summus was built on the premise of creating fast virtual access to high-quality expertise from doctors. Data shows that when a person can access a high-quality doctor when they are diagnosed or struggling with a health condition, better outcomes result. Otherwise, they are wandering around the healthcare system, which is complex, trying to find answers and direction. This can be costly, inefficient, and painful for families. Summus has created a marketplace that attracts leading doctors to work through our platform and give quality time to our members — to the tune of 44 minutes per appointment on average, 2–3x the normal time of an in-person visit. We have deep respect for the medical community and have designed a platform that is ideally suited for top specialists. Our model also supports what consumers value most — accessing high-quality providers for support and care on their health concerns. Summus members come to us on everything from complex allergies for their kids to ongoing and preventative health concerns to more complex and serious health diagnoses like cancer and ALS.
At our core, we are a human company. We support people connecting with people to solve important problems. One example: a member who is getting conflicting advice on a cancer diagnosis comes to Summus on a Friday afternoon, and has an hour-long conversation with a leading oncologist at a top academic hospital on Sunday. Or, a member who is struggling to interpret recent testing results and thinking about how to proceed with a complex medical history is connected virtually within hours to a highly trained Summus MD who helps them sort through the data and provides guidance on concrete next steps to take.
Summus is unique in the quality we bring to every health question and the business model, which has attracted leading doctors globally to support our members.
What advice would you give to other healthcare leaders to help their team to thrive?
First, take the long view. Healthcare is complex and hard. We know this and always try to think a few steps ahead of where we are today. Large, complex systems take a long time to change, so patience, combined with picking your moments to accelerate change, is important.
Second, remember that healthcare is human. Technology or a business model can’t solve problems in healthcare without a focus on compassionate human interactions to support families.
Finally, focus on what you can do best and what you think matters most. If either one is missing, the probability of success will be lower.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this study cited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high-income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us three to five reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?
A large lever to improve healthcare is changing the experience for physicians. Today, the incentives are wrong for providers. They are mired in bureaucracy, compensated far below other vocations (law, as an example), and are driven by volume in a system that rewards throughput. This is not how medicine should be practiced. The move to value-based care and capitated models is good, but we need to focus on improving the lives of physicians in delivering quality care.
In the US, our system is set up to create gaps in coverage across different parts of society. The pandemic has shown how people will retrench from getting care if they aren’t employed. This has a trickle-down effect on the entire healthcare system — clinics and hospitals see fewer patients, and the delivery systems of care become distressed and begin to run out of money. The volatility of income streams for hospital systems, clinics, and individual doctors is very problematic for ensuring proper care, and we enter a vicious cycle. In good and bad times, health systems should be able to invest in the most important element of healthcare: care and improved outcomes for patients. There are different ways to fix this using bold policy ideas, but today’s political environment makes it very difficult.
A third challenge is that health systems are not connected. Patients and doctors alike are challenged to “connect the dots” in their care. There are disparate data sources, and even with the advent of electronic health records, there is a high degree of inconsistency in the way data is recorded, even within a hospital using the same EHR. There is a huge opportunity to improve outcomes and reduce inefficiencies if we can get the data to talk to each other more effectively.
Finally, geographical barriers are significant. It takes a surprisingly long time for cutting-edge innovations to make their way into local community hospitals, and we see huge variations in treatment paths based solely on where a patient lives. That’s why we think it’s so important to transcend those boundaries and help families access the best information for their particular diagnosis, regardless of where they live.
You are a “healthcare insider.” If you had the power to make a change, can you share five changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.
- Improve the experience for doctors. We need talented people to enter medicine. It’s a long road to becoming a physician, and there need to be strong incentives for our best and brightest to pursue medicine. We should not be in a situation where talented people are saddled with large debt burdens as a percentage of income for years, as is the case now. Changing the experience will also reduce physician burnout and frustration, which will ultimately improve patient care. Fixing the provider side is important for the future of healthcare, both to avoid doctor shortages and to attract talented young people to medicine.
- Move away from the fee-for-service reimbursement model. Healthcare is a unique industry, and the current reimbursement structure largely incentivizes physicians to overtreat. There has to be a better way, through some combination of bundled or capitated payments, to share some of the risks of care with the provider. A number of companies are successfully doing this in primary care, and changing the reimbursement structure will force doctors to rethink how they approach preventive care and how they can increase the value of care they provide.
- Enhance virtual care offerings across the care continuum. COVID has driven consumers of healthcare and doctors onto virtual platforms. I think the market has realized that there are several points along the care continuum where virtual interactions can be powerful, impactful, and more cost-efficient. In our case, we are able to connect families in different states or countries with a doctor from a top US hospital within days for high-quality interactions. The virtual experience is inclusive, saves time and travel for healthcare consumers, and is efficient for the physician.
- Eliminate the volatility in income streams for hospital systems, clinics, and hospitals. COVID has exposed the danger of our current system for providers of care. If the economic viability of clinics (big and small) is at risk, along with a provider’s ability to make a decent living, this is problematic. There are different ways to do this, but it would require real change within the system among all large participants in healthcare.
- Continue to invest in efficiency, data, and tools that enhance interconnectedness among disparate systems in healthcare. Digital health investors and entrepreneurs are working to make this a reality. The ability to quickly assess which provider to see, how much it would cost, see a doctor virtually, and have a digital record that is easily accessible are all important goals. In short, make it simple for consumers of healthcare to make decisions and get care, and make it easy for providers to see all aspects of patients’ engagement in the health system.
Ok, it’s very nice to suggest changes, but what concrete steps would have to be done to actually manifest these changes? What can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities, and d) leaders do to help?
In many ways, investors and entrepreneurs in digital health are already working hard to solve these problems. The ability to leverage technology to make all aspects of the health system more transparent, interconnected, and efficient is underway. There are also innovative economics models driving change for doctors and improving primary care for patients. On some of the larger problems that need solving, we need to rely on regulators and policymakers to push the system to a better place. This takes leadership at the federal and state level, which makes it a significant challenge, given today’s political environment.
I’m interested in the interplay between the general healthcare system and the mental health system. Right now, we have two parallel tracks, mental/behavioral health and general health. What are your thoughts about this status quo? What would you suggest to improve this?
I think that gap is closing, but like all things in healthcare, we could do better to ensure the full medical profile of an individual is interconnected. On the bright side, not unlike a few other challenging topics facing our society today, mental health is no longer swept under the rug. Those with mental health concerns are more open about their need for help and support. Every prospect and client we talk to is interested in mental health solutions for their employees. There is data out there that suggests 25 percent of the US population struggles with some form of mental health challenge, and we are increasingly learning how mental health is linked to other medical conditions. At Summus, we see those coming to us with mental health conditions able to consider the full spectrum of mental and physical health conditions to improve overall quality of life. I do think digital solutions are invaluable for individuals, especially in a remote environment, as they work to understand and get quality care and support across a range of conditions.
How would you define an “excellent healthcare provider”?
At Summus, we take an analytical approach to looking at what makes a “quality provider.” We look at several different factors, including where they trained, their research and work with specific expertise, the quality of the hospital and department where they practice, as well as quantitative metrics like volume of procedures and treatments performed for specific diagnoses. We also look at member feedback and several other factors to measure a physician’s manner and impact and also give weight to referrals from other top specialists.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Two quotes are relevant:
“Be strong, be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding and let people know how grateful you are.”
– George H.W. Bush
The world can be an unforgiving place at times, but decency and compassion should always be guiding principles.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
– Nelson Mandela
I generally believe that fear is a huge inhibitor of progress, both individually and collectively. Our ability to overcome fears big and small helps us make an impact on the people around us.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We think there is an exciting data opportunity for us. There is plenty of literature around the positive ROI of investing in second opinions and expert consultations in order to confirm diagnoses and optimize treatment paths. As data becomes better and better, we think there’s a way to understand the downstream effects of making better medical decisions. We can also use data to identify “inflection points” in a patient’s health journey and intervene at those critical decision points. If we can give patients access to the best information and expertise at these crucial moments, we can improve outcomes and save costs at the same time.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better healthcare leader? Can you explain why you like them?
Arthur Brooks has some very interesting books and podcasts on The Art of Happiness and combating the culture of contempt. He recently joined the faculty at Harvard Business School, and I’ve enjoyed listening to his talks and views on the world. For books, I enjoy reading history and biographies mostly, including Hamilton and Grant by Ron Chernow. Another transcendent fictional book I like is Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.
Overall, learning about history and how people led change and evolved across a diverse range of topics is most interesting to me; it helps ground me as we pursue our mission at Summus.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Taking climate change seriously and creating market-based opportunities for entrepreneurs and business leaders to drive innovation across industries that contribute to climate change. For now, I’ll focus on helping healthcare get incrementally better.
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