Integrate AI into the Clinical Workflow — AI needs to be integrated into the clinical workflow in a way that augments, without replacing, clinicians. By doing so we’ll be able to help physicians feel comfortable with the technology because it’s less of a threat, and will alleviate some of the concerns associated with AI, instead showing how it acts as an immediate second opinion to the doctor.
Asa part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure to interview Jason Bellet. Jason is the Co-Founder & Chief Commercial Officer of Eko, a Berkeley-based digital health company applying machine learning in the fight against heart disease. Eko is a platform of cardiac screening devices, care coordination software, and interpretive algorithms that has helped clinicians across 2,000 health systems screen for, and monitor, heart disease in millions of patients around the world. Jason has been named to the Forbes Magazine 30 Under 30 list of rising leaders in healthcare and was invited by the Obama Administration to speak at the White House Dialogue on Men’s Health on pressing issues in cardiovascular care. He holds a bachelors in Business Administration from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Westarted Eko as undergraduates at UC Berkeley. It was born out of my co-founder’s senior thesis bioengineering class where he was asked to examine gaps in the modern healthcare system. Connor Landgraf, Eko’s CEO, was doing user research, talking to cardiologists about their pain points, and one of the doctors looked at his stethoscope and said, “This is a tool that’s worn around the neck of myself and almost every clinician in the world, but it’s extremely inefficient.”
A lightbulb went off for Connor. Here we were at Cal, in Silicon Valley, there’s a smartphone in everyone’s pocket, and machine learning is proving to advance every industry — there had to be a way to build a smarter stethoscope. At the time I was in the business school at UC Berkeley, Connor was studying biomedical engineering, and our third co-founder, Tyler Crouch, was a mechanical engineering student. We all came together and decided this is what we wanted to dedicated ourselves to after graduating.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2015 we launched our first product, the Eko CORE and it was only about a month later we got an email from a nurse named Christine with People for Haiti. She explained that she and a group of nurses from Florida had been traveling there every year since the earthquake, scraping together medical equipment and going to help people in the country. She said her team of volunteers would screen around 1,000 kids in a weekend, and that for many it was the only medical care they received all year. She then asked if we would be willing to donate a CORE Digital Stethoscope, as she thought it might solve the problem they have of not being able to truly identify if the heart sounds they are hearing need immediate medical attention. Having a stethoscope that allowed her to record what she heard and send it to a trained colleague in the states would enable her to get a sense of urgency for issues, and to guide a family on if they needed to pursue additional treatment (something that was not easy to obtain).
This proved to be the case on her very next trip, where she heard a murmur in a young girl. She recorded the sound through the Eko software platform and sent it to a cardiologist who was able to play the recording and immediately identify that this child was born with a congenital heart condition known as ventricular septal defect, and that she needed to get to a doctor immediately. This story demonstrated the power of our product and was a wakeup call that there are many patients that have no way to get the care they need.
Can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the healthcare field?
My team and I try to focus on the impact our work has on patient care and we are so proud that we can now walk into half the hospitals in the U.S. and see a clinician using our product. Providers tell us daily that it’s helping them to better screen for cardiovascular disease. That impact — and the potential we see to grow it — motivates us to keep working hard every day.
What makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes us stand out are the stories of how clinicians are doing what they would have done anyway, but we are giving them tools to amplify their skills.
For example, a few months ago one of our customers from George Washington University Hospital used the Eko DUO on a colleague in the lunchroom who said he wasn’t feeling well. The DUO helped him identify that the patient’s heart rate was 30 beats per minute and that he had a heart block. Dr. Mercader knew immediately he needed to get to the ER where his friend received the appropriate lifesaving treatment.
The stories from so many different clinicians on what the Eko products have done for them are hugely impactful because they show the difference the product makes in actual practice.
Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to and/or see in the healthcare industry? How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo? Which “pain point” is this trying to address?
Healthcare is broken in many ways. Patients aren’t getting the care that they need in a timely fashion, often go undiagnosed with diseases that they could be treated for earlier and with better outcomes, and are subject to exorbitant healthcare costs. While there are thousands of possible fixes for these gaps in our healthcare system, one macro trend we’re excited about is the application of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to help providers at the front lines of care identify and treat disease more effectively.
Our platform embodies this trend by equipping providers with AI-powered digital stethoscopes and ECGs to assist them in the detection and monitoring of patients with cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, not every patient can get in to see the best cardiologists. But, if you can put some of the power of the best cardiologists in the hands of every provider, that raises the bar of the healthcare system as a whole.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this studycited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us 3–5 reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?
It’s interesting and frustrating that despite having some of the world’s best medical schools and training programs, the US continues to rank as one of the least healthy developed countries. Here are three of many reasons that I see contributing to our ranking on this list:
You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.
Thank you! It’s great to suggest changes, but what specific steps would need to be taken to implement your ideas? What can individuals, corporations, communities and leaders do to help?
Companies of all sizes have to continue to innovate and build products that allow for cost of care to come down. Startups especially bear the responsibility to build innovations that are affordable, accessible, and scalable for hospitals. Of course, every company has to survive financially, but not at the cost of creating additional strain on the system. Lastly, providers should be incentivized around keeping populations healthy. We need to make the switch from a pay-for-service to pay-for-performance model.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better healthcare leader? Can you explain why you like them?
Here are two healthcare related books I read recently and really enjoyed.
When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi— This New York Times bestselling book documents the life of a neurosurgeon who, at the age of 35, was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. The book gave me a unique insight into the lives of young doctors, the stress they undergo during their training, and the hopes they have looking out at the rest of their careers. It’s also a human story of when a doctor becomes a patient, and the role reversal that changed the doctor’s view of medicine. Highly recommend.
Salt in my Soul: An Unfinished Life by Mallory Smith— Salt in my Soul is a LA Times Bestselling memoir written by an incredible young woman, who despite battling cystic fibrosis her whole life, became an award-winning published author, Stanford educated biologist, and nationally recognized athlete. Published posthumously, the book takes the reader through Mallory’s journey as a patient and pays tribute to many of the doctors and healthcare providers who helped her live her best life. On a personal note, Mallory was my best friend and motivated me every day as a healthcare entrepreneur to continue on our mission to cardiac healthcare.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!