PRACTICAL MEDICINE: Dr. Olusegun Ishmael (pictured here with a nurse colleague) launched BeSafeMeds, a telemedicine app that creates treatment options for the more than 20 million Americans who contract STDs annually. FOUNDERSWIRE PHOTO
By SHELAGH BRALEY
CHICAGO—It took an ER doctor on a work trip to look around and realize: What happens in Vegas definitely does not stay in Vegas.
“What happens is, you take it home with you, and you spread it,” says Dr. Olusegun Ishmael—or Dr. Ish as he’s affectionately known. His comfortable, familiar manner is an occupational requirement, as he takes in stride a seriously uncomfortable reality on a daily basis.
He is an urgent care physician as well as the founder of BeSafeMeds, a web-based app that treats sexually transmitted diseases through telemedicine—from wherever a patient happens to be when they realize they’ve been affected. The service currently serves Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Missouri and New Mexico.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STD rates in the United States have reached a record high, with 1.5 million chlamydia cases reported; nearly 400,000 cases of gonorrhea; and nearly 24,000 cases of syphilis. You can point, anecdotally at least, to online dating apps and the ease of finding partners, Ishmael tells FoundersWire in a recent interview at WeWork Kinzie.
“One in two people under the age of 25 are now diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases,” says Ishmael, who earned his medical degree at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and his MBA from Purdue. “As we are becoming a more tech-enabled society, we have way less interpersonal relationships. Dating has become swipe right/swipe left, without that six degrees of separation that used to happen.”
So 50 percent of potential partners are carrying an invisible communicable disease. “If I’m under 25, I’m 21 or 22, in college or a young professional, it’s like flipping a coin. Wow, that’s bad,” Ishmael says.
He mentions an acquaintance preparing for a trip to Seattle. “He pulls out his phone, I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m going to find a date.’ That’s the society we live in. You could go into the U.K., Europe, wherever and find a match. They’re all over the world. You could go from one place to another and literally bring (an STD) and spread it.”
So he created an app where patients—from anywhere—can access a licensed physician or nurse practitioner, then direct them to the most convenient pharmacy where medication can be picked up.
“We made the app web-based, that was a decision we made,” Ishmael says. The last thing people want, understandably, is to have something on their phones that identifies them as having an STD or even fearing the possibility. “ ‘Hey, that’s that STD app.’ Busted,” he says.
Since January 1, Ishmael says they’ve already consulted with more than 5,000 users on the site. “With 20 million annual cases of new STDs, there’s a huge population. At $20 a pop, that’s good revenue while we hit our mission to treat people who are unwilling or unable to access traditional care.”
Ishmael describes the user journey from the perspective of being in an unknown city, away from home and primary care network. “Let’s say I’m in Seattle, but I’m from Chicago. I don’t know the town, I don’t know where I’m at. But I need treatment,” he says. “So we have a geolocator function, on basically every smartphone, and a database of licensed providers and pharmacies—because the end solution is to get treatment.”
The site provides a diagnostic questionnaire to triage the severity of symptoms and risk, then the care provider contacts the user. Once the options are clear, treatment is the next step.
“The provider doesn’t have to spend time doing prescriptions, because we can transmit it to the pharmacy of your choice. That could be on the route to the airport. ‘Hey Uber or Lyft driver, can you just stop at this pharmacy here?’ It’s perfect, you can pick it up on your way to the plane.”
Ishmael says BeSafeMeds was designed to be efficient, convenient and private. “When I say convenient, you can do it on the fly, just like everything else. We order food, we get everything on Amazon, why not this, it’s the same thing,” he says.
Efficiency is a huge priority, he points out. Without new strategies to streamline patient care, more often, patients won’t be treated.
“In the next three years, we estimate we’re going to have at least a 90,000 deficit of physicians in the country, so who’s going to take care of people?” he asks. “I had a person in the emergency room who it took two-and-a-half hours to get an STD treatment, and all because I finally walked out and said, ‘You know what, come on back. I can get you in and I can get you out really quick.’ Because otherwise, he’s not an emergency.”
And privacy is so crucial to addressing an issue as rife with stigma as STDs.
“Patients are actually afraid to talk to their doctors,” Ishmael says. “(They worry we think): ‘I’ve been taking care of you for 20 years, and ugh, you’re nasty.’ But doctors truly don’t remember. I could see you at Walgreen’s or Wal-Mart and not know you; we turn it off as we walk out the door. But people don’t know that, and they don’t want people to know about this, it’s a stigma we have.
“We don’t like talking about it, we don’t even like talking about sex. We were discussing the whole topic as the product was rolling out, and someone said, ‘People are monogamous.’ I was like, ‘Which world do you live in?’ Swans are monogamous. Some fox are monogamous. We are not monogamous.”
“But sex is great, sex is fun. When I talk to patients, I say, ‘We all make mistakes, we’re human.’ It goes back to that saying, to err is human. We do make mistakes. I come across patients, and I say, ‘Let’s deal with it and move on, and you never have to talk about it again.’ ”
Ishmael cautions users: The ideal treatment plan would be to go to a facility and get tested. But the problem is, “The people that tend to use the app are people who either don’t have (medical) access or choose not to.” He points to the common scenarios where patients check into the ER but by the time the doctor gets there, they’ve left. “Those are the people who are unable or unwilling to access traditional health care,” he says.
“Or a user calls in and says, ‘I’ve traveled on a business trip, I’m happily married, I made a mistake while I was traveling, I can’t go home without knowing.’ That person wants a prophylactic treatment.” So BeSafeMeds makes that possible.
Ishmael, whose specialty is patient-centric emergency medicine but also has experience as a medical director and vice president of care management on the insurance side, says he’s looking at other ways to use the provider network they’ve built, to scale the technology.
“We’re going take it to another disease state—not just STDs. Telemedicine is a paradigm shift. The medical industry is slow to adapt, we’re creatures of habit. We work how we are trained. But we have to meet the supply and demand.”
Especially with college back in session, he sees BeSafeMeds as a way to address many of the behaviors that put people at risk through sexuality. The first step is being honest and nonjudgmental about it.
“We can put our heads in the sand all we want, but it’s still happening. Hopefully over time we can change behavior. Our slogan is, we’re there for whatever happens. But we hope we don’t get repeat customers,” he says.
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