Jerrod Ullah of HealthTalk AI: “Avoid the barriers that patients vocalize”

The first step is to identify the administrative workflow and any gaps that may exist and make it easy and natural for your end-user. We want it to be easy for patients from start to finish with outreach, appointment scheduling and reminders, Telehealth services and follow-up check-ins. One of the consequences of the pandemic is […]

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The first step is to identify the administrative workflow and any gaps that may exist and make it easy and natural for your end-user. We want it to be easy for patients from start to finish with outreach, appointment scheduling and reminders, Telehealth services and follow-up check-ins.

One of the consequences of the pandemic is the dramatic growth of Telehealth and Telemedicine. But how can doctors and providers best care for their patients when they are not physically in front of them? What do doctors wish patients knew in order to make sure they are getting the best results even though they are not actually in the office? How can Telehealth approximate and even improve upon the healthcare that traditional doctors’ visits can provide?

In this interview series, called “Telehealth Best Practices; How To Best Care For Your Patients When They Are Not Physically In Front Of You” we are talking to successful Doctors, Dentists, Psychotherapists, Counselors, and other medical and wellness professionals who share lessons and stories from their experience about the best practices in Telehealth. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jerrod Ullah.

It’s not every day you encounter a healthcare tech CEO who is also a BIPOC registered nurse with some pretty rad tattoos. Meet Jerrod Ullah — a patient engagement professional who has spent his whole career caring for patients and developing technologies that engage patients wherever they are, in the best language and modalities that will ultimately lead to the best healthcare outcomes for them, their families, and the clinicians that care for them. Jerrod is the founder and CEO of HealthTalk A.I., a company that provides Telehealth services along with A.I.-fueled text message-based patient engagement, referral management, and reputation management for healthcare providers.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started my healthcare career at the bedside as a registered nurse. I worked for about 12 years in pediatrics, pediatric hematology/oncology and NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). I knew from working in that environment that clinicians were great problem solvers in the moment, but I also knew that healthcare was falling behind other industries in digital transformation. I always loved technology and finding ways to make clinicians’ and patients’ lives easier and better. I was fortunate enough to bring that clinical lens to the tech landscape and to be able to identify ways to make healthcare work more efficiently for everyone. It was that passion for improving healthcare that led me to embrace healthcare technology as a career path. The transition wasn’t easy, but I made the jump about 11 years ago and have loved every minute of it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

If you told me when I was entering nursing school that I’d be a startup CEO, I don’t think I would’ve believed you. I never saw this in my plan, but I love that I’m making a difference in improving the way patients receive care and taking a load off our overworked nurses. I think the most interesting thing is how versatile nursing is as a career. If you have a vision for where you want to go and work hard at it, the possibilities are endless. One interesting story is that I’ve actually been part of an initiative to bring Telehealth to places you wouldn’t expect. I think a lot of people think of Telehealth as dialing in from your couch to ask a doctor a question. But I actually got to work on a “Tele-EMS” solution as well, in partnership with Mercy Flight and Keystone Health Partners. It’s cool because it gives first responders more tools in their toolbelt and connects them with emergency department clinicians to help them in their decision-making. It’s needed because the Journal of Emergency Medical Services recently published data indicating that 20–40% of EMS incidents aren’t urgent and could have been managed in a primary care setting or clinic. Obviously, that’s a big waste of time and money for patients and first responders. So if we just give them these unconventional Telehealth tools, we can create a better experience for patients in crisis and also the first responders who are trying to help them. The first responders can get paired with a virtual ED provider 24/7 based on a quick identification of what ED providers are available for immediate assistance. It’s a win-win!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Patience and persistence are key in business and life.” I am not the most patient person, but I am very persistent. Things don’t happen on our time, but if you keep your head down and be kind, things usually work out in your favor.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My dad (Motiur Ullah) was the first to go to college in his family. He became an electrical engineer and has an incredible business background. He retired as an aerospace executive and has always been my biggest fan and supporter. Even when my company had no customers and we were paying our employees with personal checks, he gave me the support and confidence that we would get there. We still have a long way to go, but we would not be here without his unwavering support.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how doctors treat their patients. Many doctors have started treating their patients remotely. Telehealth can of course be very different than working with a patient that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity because it allows more people access to medical professionals, but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a patient in front of you?

Despite working in Telehealth, I admit that having a patient in front of you is the best option for the provider. You can assess them head to toe more quickly and with fewer questions. You can see their breathing effort, skin color, gait, and so much more. And if a patient needs an IV put in their arm, unfortunately, there’s just no way to do that virtually. It’s those things that can be hard to replicate in a Telehealth setting. But what we learned throughout the COVID pandemic is that sometimes patients have to overcome huge barriers, like traveling long distances, to see providers face-to-face. While Telehealth has existed for a while, adoption was low. COVID was absolutely the catalyst for widespread virtual care adoption because we became more sensitive to the barriers that patients have been overcoming for decades to come see us.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a patient is not in the same space as the doctor?

Although Telehealth has been extremely helpful throughout the course of the pandemic, there are barriers. Most Telehealth providers require the patient to find the app, download it, create a username and password, and a number of other steps. Often, patients get stuck and need endless hours of support from front-end staff to help them get into their Telehealth appointments. Even getting them to the point where they actually connect with a provider can be a challenge. I saw the issues patients were facing and understood that staff had a number of other responsibilities beyond serving as tech support. That’s why it’s so important that we meet patients where they are and help them through all steps of the care continuum.

We also can’t forget that long before the pandemic, there were lots of patients in rural areas or those who didn’t have reliable transportation, and those have always presented problems in receiving quality, timely care. Now that we’re (hopefully, fingers crossed!) moving out of the worst days of the pandemic, we’re excited for patients to start receiving more in-person care. But we’re also happy we have new ways to overcome barriers we’ve been facing for decades. Pandemic or no pandemic, we’re better equipped to serve patients using a variety of modalities now.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Best Care For Your Patients When They Are Not Physically In Front Of You ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The first step is to identify the administrative workflow and any gaps that may exist and make it easy and natural for your end-user. We want it to be easy for patients from start to finish with outreach, appointment scheduling and reminders, Telehealth services and follow-up check-ins.
  2. Understand the social determinants of health affecting your patients. From language barriers to travel, COVID has brought to light many of the struggles patients face to receive adequate care.
  3. Avoid the barriers that patients vocalize. We’ve seen patients struggle to find the correct app to download and asking for help when they can’t remember their log-in credentials. Make Telehealth services easy to access. For example, a browser-based solution with minimal clicks and signups will help. Leverage text messaging capabilities — it’s easy for patients and can be done in any language.
  4. Meet the patients where they are. 75% of patients say they prefer appointment reminders and surveys through texts, so we listened and integrated that feedback into our platform. We’ve actually found that text-based engagement with multilingual capabilities has increased patient response rate by 209%.
  5. Documentation is key to increase the ROI for everyone. By engaging patients prior to their appointment, providers are able to see the bigger picture and provide the patient with a more holistic care. Alternatively, providers are able to more accurately report to payers about the care they provide. That’s incredibly important for providers, as it’s how they get paid!

Can you share a few ways that Telehealth can create opportunities or benefits that traditional in-office visits cannot provide? Can you please share a story or give an example?

Telehealth has provided us with outreach opportunities that are easier or that may have never existed before. Prior to Telehealth, staff would have to manually call or send appointment reminders in the mail. As the pandemic first set in, this caused a lot of stress for staff trying to balance caring for patients and providing outreach services. We’ve automated outreach and reminders so that staff can focus on higher-level tasks. Another benefit is that our post-visit follow-up feature has proven to significantly reduce 72-hour returns — so patients are doing better on their own and having better outcomes after they receive care.

Another example that people might not often think about is that most patients don’t have a primary care provider. When people contracted the virus, they had to search to find care. Alternatively, front-line healthcare workers were ready to provide care to those who were sick but needed help identifying who those patients were. There was a pretty widespread mismatch of people seeking care and those who could provide it. We were able to help bridge that gap by providing easily accessible patient engagement touchpoints to help patients get the care they needed from the heroes that were ready to help.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help facilitate Telehealth. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

Artificial intelligence is huge. That’s what has fueled platforms like ours because it helps patients feel like outreach is more personal and natural. The other thing that really helps is the ability to let patients speak with the providers they already know and trust and to let providers serve the communities where they are. We wanted to help regular providers embrace Telehealth for their patients and their communities. So patients who did have a primary care provider can talk to that provider — their trusted resource, rather than a randomly selected provider from somewhere across the country. This also helps because when a patient does need to come into the office after a Telehealth visit, they already know who they’re going to see and they don’t have to retell their unique story. That really helps to replicate the personal touch of the traditional, fully in-person care experience.

That’s actually our newest feature, Care Now. It manages on-call staff to provide on-demand Telehealth services to their local area. You can think of it as Uber for healthcare providers.

If you could design the perfect Telehealth feature or system to help your patients, what would it be?

In my time as a practicing nurse, the gaps in the continuum of care were apparent. Nurses are constantly on the go — caring for patients and trying to keep up with all of their tasks. The biggest gap I noticed was the lack of means for post-visit care to ensure patients are healing properly at home. Once patients left our facility, they were out of our care.

The perfect Telehealth system would fill these gaps in the continuum of care to support the relationship between the patient and the provider from start to finish. I love that about working on Telehealth solutions — we can go beyond basic scheduling and provide a virtual assistant that walks patients through every step of the process — from initial outreach and Telehealth appointments to post-visit check-ins and patient experience surveys. It just makes everything so much easier for patients and providers.

Are there things that you wish patients knew in order to make sure they are getting the best results even though they are not actually in the office?

Everyone in the healthcare industry is trying their best. Although new technology is constantly being developed, access continues to be an issue. Providers really want to do what’s best for patients. Everyone is trying to find new ways to connect and implement patient feedback, but it takes time. We all just need to be patient with each other.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring people together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

From a provider lens, I think VR, AR, and Mixed Reality technologies will provide awesome opportunities for continued education. From a patient lens, virtual assistants will help provide the ease and quality of care that they’re looking for.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

I think clinicians should be careful with technology and know where to draw the line. Technology can provide you with support, but it can’t exactly diagnose you, nor should it. Although Telehealth services and other technologies provide outstanding support, sometimes patients need to come to the office in order to receive the best care. We don’t want technology to be the expert; we want technology to connect you to the expert who can help you most. Additionally, it’s important to understand the workflow of technology. Companies that don’t understand the complexity of ample patient engagement and don’t have a flexible workflow could easily confuse the patient and create a new barrier to receiving care. It’s great to understand shiny new tools, but we have to understand patient behaviors and patient challenges at their core. We have to understand that patients come from lots of different geographies, backgrounds, and demographics. They don’t all speak the same language; they don’t all use the same devices. We need to keep that in mind and make sure there are always people and careful thought behind the technology.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. 🙂

What we’ve seen through this pandemic is there is good intention with HIPAA privacy, but there needs to be more flexibility. As policies have relaxed in an effort to help provide care to patients throughout the past year, we’ve found new ways to engage patients and improve patient satisfaction with outreach efforts. Let’s not be afraid to lean in and talk to patients and allow them to decide how they want to engage. Patients love texting their doctors, so we should do it! 76% found it more convenient than a phone call. Although I do understand the importance of HIPPA, I believe it has played a factor in slowing down transformation. Let’s not be afraid to push the envelope to open up channels to communicate with the patients and let patients have a say in how they interact with their providers. So that’s my movement to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people — embrace a variety of communication tools and don’t let anxieties around privacy prevent us all from providing the best patient care.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I love meeting new people and discussing new ways we can help close the gaps in the continuum of care. Feel free to connect with the HealthTalk team and me on LinkedIn to see what HealthTalk A.I. has in store next for Telehealth services.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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