HR Technology Column New Corporate Medical Benefit -- Via Email!

Why don't more doctors use email? With office visits averaging 12 minutes, it would seem a useful extension of their practice. New York-based Sherpaa has joined a handful of other startups creating a virtual medical service restricted to email and phone. Not to replace traditional healthcare, but as an overlay that could save your company money.

Monday, March 3, 2014
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Remember five or 10 years ago when you couldn't understand why your doctor wasn't using email -- at least to communicate with you -- not even to make appointments? Well, you probably still can't understand it, not even in the last few years, when your doctor may have started walking around the office with a laptop for taking notes or even electronically ordering prescriptions from your pharmacy of choice.

The first doctor I knew to use email with patients was in San Francisco, naturally, and charged $25 for each incoming email he opened and read. Well, he was a high-priced psychopharmacologist, a shrink with extra experience and training using drugs to treat mental illness. And he therefore actually knew what he was doing, which many doctors fooling with those drugs do not.

Anyway, my first reaction was "Great, a doctor finally using email!" But my second was, "How dare he charge for it?!" Dumb, huh? A doctor's time is the same whether you are together in the examining room with your clothes off or he or she is at a keyboard. For years, many lawyers have charged a tenth of their hourly rate to open your email. More if it takes longer than six minutes to read.

Let's take this to the next step and suppose you never see your doctor, instead communicating solely via email or phone, while occasionally snapping a cell-phone picture of that nasty whatever and sending it along for a look-see.

Hey, if a bank is willing to accept a picture of a check as a legitimate deposit, why not email your doc a photo of that cut to see if you need stitches? Remember your shock when you first learned radiologists in India were reading x-rays and CT-scans emailed to them by American labs and writing the diagnostic reports?

Well, it's all come home with Sherpaa, the latest Web service sold to corporations as an employee medical benefit, a full notch below health insurance and one above the employee assistance program.

For what was the old price of $50 per employee per month (currently changing), members get to send emails to Sherpaa's three full-time doctors, general practitioners ages 40 to 55. Working 12- or 24-hour shifts (no worse than a resident, though they're lots older), together they provide the network's 24/7 coverage. With an urgent issue, members can telephone the doctor on duty.

Sherpaa also has a network of 100 medical specialists for in-person visits. Since the service refers the specialists a lot of patients (directly from the docs on the phone or via email), co-founder Dr. Jay Parkinson says subscribers get appointments quickly. Which, in NYC where Sherpaa is headquartered, might mean within a month, but probably less. 

Obviously, Parkinson does not intend Sherpaa to replace F2F medical care or the yearly physical. Instead, it is designed as an overlay on a health-insurance plan, eliminating unnecessary emergency room and hospital visits and maybe saving companies money. He likes to call it, "A wellness plan that works."

It's certainly a 2.0 twist on the traditional medical-delivery model. Unless you're married to a doctor or the father or mother of one, how else can you get a doctor through email or even on the phone at 9 p.m.? Instead, you go to the emergency room.

The GPs on the other end of the wire do more than talk and type. They can record history in the Sherpaa app's text box. Or order tests via email or phone and review the results.

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"A patient talking to most doctors face-to-face is interrupted within 18 seconds," Parkinson says, "unless you're telling them exactly what they want to hear."

And much as with tech support in chat boxes, the doctors do have templates of questions they can use after hearing your story -- more than 200 for something as common as a sore throat.

Started in 2012, Sheerpa has 75 corporate clients -- many, but not all, NYC tech start-ups. Parkinson says his docs solve 70 percent of the cases they get and he claims to save companies up to $4,000 a year per employee.

Either because it's such a cool idea or because it's in our media capital of NYC, Sherpaa has gotten incredible press, so just scroll down after clicking on the link to see the videos or read the stories. But Parkinson says this is the first time an HR publication or website has written about Sherpaa.

Sherpaa has already expanded into California and New Jersey with other targets this year. Do you think Parkinson will have a problem getting new doctors to work this way? He says, since first discussing the Sherpaa concept on his blog, 5,000 doctors have contacted him!

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 17th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 8-10, 2014.  You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which doesn't require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show®. He can be reached at

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