Making ‘Med Tech’ in Milwaukee

The doctor will see you from just about anywhere – and three other ideas from young area companies

The emergency room patient has come in with a really bad tummy ache – “severe abdominal pain” in medical lingo. The triage nurse takes some initial vital signs (temperature, blood pressure) and asks a few questions. But he also pulls up a webcam-equipped computer monitor and calls up a long-distance physician.

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The doctor is miles away in front of a bank of monitors, connected to half a dozen hospital emergency rooms around the region. Within minutes of the patient’s arrival at the emergency room, that physician can be asking some more detailed questions and ordering certain tests – often hours sooner than might be possible otherwise.

That’s the premise behind EmOpti, a company founded in 2015 by emergency doctor Ed Barthell and one of a number of businesses in the region that leverage new technology to solve old problems in health care.

The idea is to get a doctor in on the patient evaluation almost as soon as the patient arrives – something that’s been tried in person but found to be too expensive. An in-person doctor will still complete the ER evaluation and order whatever follow-up is needed –from a prescription to a referral for surgery – but the remote “physician in triage” helps advance the ball, and ultimately increases patient satisfaction and hospital productivity, Barthell says.

EmOpti provides the necessary software and some hardware to make it all work; employment has now reached nine full-time and five part-time people. Early adopters include Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee and MedStar Health, a medical group in metro Washington, D.C.

Southeast and south central Wisconsin have quietly become a new incubator for these kinds of businesses in the last decade. “It’s a confluence of factors,” says Barthell. To begin with, “Wisconsin has had a very high quality health care system in general.” As well, some major business players – Verona-based Epic Systems, the electronic medical records business, and suburban Milwaukee’s GE Healthcare, the worldwide manufacturer of X-ray and other medical imaging machinery – have built a regional talent pool in the sector. UW-Madison, Marquette University, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and UW-Milwaukee bring expertise not just in medicine and engineering but also entrepreneurship. Several startups also credit Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

And angel networks to invest in early-stage businesses have shown increased interest lately, especially in health-tech combinations. Concerted collaborations such as Bright-Star Wisconsin in Milwaukee and BioForward in Madison are part of “a specific, coordinated effort in Southeast Wisconsin to make that happen,” says Nick Maris, CEO of Somna Therapeutics, a Germantown med-tech startup founded in 2012. Somna’s business is centered around the Reza Band, a medical device for patients who suffer from a form of chronic acid reflux disease caused by a weak upper valve in the esophagus. Devised by Somna co-founder Reza Shaker, an MCW gastroenterologist, the Reza Band is fitted like a collar around the throat to provide enough pressure to allow the weakened valve muscle to keep digestive juices out. Maris says the company’s research suggests that the $149 device could replace a significant segment of the market for expensive acid-reducing drugs. Manufacturing is contracted out; Somna itself now employs four people. Access HealthNet, with offices in the Third Ward, works on the other end of the sector by helping employers and employees manage the cost of health care. The company’s basic service is a web-based platform of health care providers that it sells to employers who are self-insured, paying employee medical costs directly instead of through an insurance plan.

The key, says Access co-founder and CEO Eric Haberichter, is that the providers Access has signed up have set fixed prices for their services that they are willing to live with – not prices padded knowing that insurers will then demand negotiated discounts. Access also includes in its terms a warranty that providers will provide follow-up care resulting from a provider error at no additional charge. By cutting out insurance-company middlemen and markups, Haberichter says, the Access approach has cut costs anywhere from 10 to 80 percent and “saves employers so much money they can eliminate the out-of-pocket cost to the employee.” Founded in 2014, the company has grown to 40 employees.

Then there’s iDAvatars, a 15-employee Mequon software company building cartoon-like avatars that guide consumers through potentially difficult choices online.

The company markets its chatbot software to insurers, and the industry has used the program initially to help people choose, for instance, which of several different car or homeowner plans would be best for them. The next step, says founder and CEO Norrie Daroga, who founded the business in 2013 after careers in engineering and law, will be providing medical information.

But not medical advice, Daroga says: “I’m not researching medical journals or trying to diagnose you.”

‘Meet the Disruptors’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.