Amidst a Pandemic, WELL Health Is Shaping the Future of Healthcare
Every soon-to-be parent tries their best to prepare for their first birth, but some things are plain unpredictable.
Just ask Guillaume de Zwirek, CEO and founder of WELL Health.
When de Zwirek’s wife went into labor in the summer of 2020, she realized something was missing from her carefully packed overnight bag: a mask that she could wear during labor. With no time to turn around, she realized she had a solution. Since the hospital partnered with WELL Health, she simply texted them.
When the de Zwireks pulled up to the front door, a nurse met them with a clean surgical mask and escorted them to the delivery room.
Experiences like making a patient’s delivery less stressful is just one perk of working at a mission-driven company, DevOps Engineer Rachel McLaughlin said.
Founded in 2015, WELL Health is on a mission to disrupt the antiquated $3.5 trillion healthcare market by making communication simpler and more accessible for all.
“WELL delivers what patients expect today — the ability to engage with their healthcare provider as easily as they’d text a friend,” de Zwirek said.
“Although the pandemic fueled the adoption of digital health by many healthcare providers, patients today expect real-time, personalized communication, an expectation that will never fade,” he said. “This year alone, WELL technology will enable more than 200,000 healthcare providers to send over 1 billion messages to 30 million patients and counting.”
WELL Health’s platform integrates into a hospital’s electronic health record (EHR) infrastructure and enables secure, multilingual messaging in the patient’s preferred communications channel: texting, email, telephone or live chat. By unifying and automating patient interactions across an organization, WELL Health’s technology claims to enable greater efficiency, improved patient experience and better coordination among healthcare staff.
At the start of the pandemic, when hospitals saw a massive influx of patients with possible COVID-19 symptoms, they also experienced a mass cancellation of nonessential appointments. To ensure patients received the care they needed at a time when many feared being inside a hospital or waiting room, the engineering team at WELL ideated quick solutions. One WELL Health feature the team rolled out is the “the virtual waiting room,” which allows patients to wait in their cars safely and receive text messages when the doctor is ready to see them. Another feature includes WELL Health’s ChatAssist bot, which offers a telehealth virtual visit when a patient cancels their in-person office appointment.
Responding to late-night outages means something different when it impacts people’s health and wellbeing, McLaughlin said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic put severe stress on healthcare systems, WELL’s engineering team pushed out the Rapid Release Program, a pared-down version of the WELL platform that hospitals could quickly implement and begin using within 48 hours to communicate with patients. In January 2021, WELL Health’s engineering team launched the Vaccine Deployment Program to rapidly execute secure patient messaging for COVID-19 vaccine communications, including patient education, vaccine safety reassurance, appointment scheduling (both doses), adverse event monitoring and more.
Since the first COVID-19 vaccine became available in the United States, WELL Health has been used by more than 70 healthcare systems to send 845,000 COVID-19 vaccine communications and schedule 53,000 COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
Below, members of WELL’s engineering team shared how a mission-driven culture motivates their work, leads to innovation, and has helped 31 million patients access healthcare thus far.
What are the challenges for healthcare patients in hospitals right now? How does your team help address those challenges?
Evelina Lurye, Frontend Software Engineer: With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, there’s an overwhelming influx of patients at hospitals and hospital administrations have been struggling to communicate with outgoing patients concerning aftercare and follow-up.
We help facilitate that communication by building a system that allows patients to easily communicate with their hospitals through texts, emails and phone calls.
Keith Dutton, Engineering Director: I ran into this myself a couple of weeks ago, regarding an appointment with my primary care provider scheduled a year ago. I got a message asking me to confirm my appointment. When I declined, I immediately received a message asking me if I wanted to schedule a telehealth appointment three seconds later. That transaction was accomplished on the back end with our ChatAssist bot. I wouldn’t have thought of calling up and asking to reschedule to telehealth, but now, the hospital system got an appointment from me that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’m going to get my checkup.
Rachel McLaughlin, DevOps Engineer: I think one of the biggest challenges is quickly adapting to the changing protocols. The capacity of healthcare systems in March versus August versus now is very different, and their protocols and everything that they need is very different.
One of the things that the DevOps team can help with, and can help facilitate for the engineers, is that if someone can come up with a solution for a healthcare system, we’re able to go from proof of concept to customers’ hands as quickly as possible. For some of those solutions, if we delayed, the urgency would no longer be there and lives would be lost along the way. So I think that’s kind of the important perspective we have to keep.
Can you tell us about working on the ChatAssist bot?
Lurye: Chatbots haven’t existed in the healthcare space, so many of our customers weren’t used to using them for healthcare needs.
I think ChatAssist was my favorite feature to work on in the past year. It was a very interactive group process where I helped flesh out the design with the designer. We did a lot of testing with users internally to make sure that it was intuitive enough to configure, while still being an optimized version of our beta product. It was a very collaborative process.
Currently, we’re working on Version 2.0. Version 1.0 was more made for the internal kind of customer. Version 2.0 will be intuitive enough for customers to configure themselves.
Keith, what has been your favorite feature to work on?
Dutton: Our engineers love to tinker and do new things. People on the team have fun playing with an engine called Temporal, which is a workflow-based processing mesh engine. We’re trying to move a lot of the customer-facing workflows into a domain-specific language that can run on Temporal.
Instead of having to code a lot of these things, we can do it in a domain-specific language and then it becomes configured and the engine will run the workflow for us. The goal is to be able to get things out 10 times faster, which will be a huge business advantage. Also, it’s just plain fun to work on. It’s like a brand new job. A whole new engine is a whole new approach to things and people are really enjoying it.
How does being in a mission-driven company impact the culture of the engineering team?
McLaughlin: When you are working at a company that has a mission, especially one that’s tangible and improves people’s lives, the questions are no longer, “Can we build this?” but instead, “Should we build this? Does this help people? Does it make things better? Are we creating accidental harm? Are we creating intentional good?”
What do those conversations look like on the engineering team when you are asking yourselves, “Should we build this?”
McLaughlin: Even though a lot of the engineering cycle happens at that higher level, my manager will solicit my opinion on how things will impact other parts of the system.
Dutton: It’s great to hear Rachel say that because that perspective is exactly what we’re trying to generate. We work collaboratively with the product owner and the product management group.
I think that one of the hallmarks of the company is mutual respect. Just like open feedback, we promote open design. Our product managers talk to the users and come back with ideas to use. Then the product managers turn to us and want honest feedback and assessments around the feasibility of building things, time estimations and input on whether we think we should change features in order to make things better and faster.
Lurye: Our focus is helping patients at the end of the day. We’re driven by knowing we’re actually impacting people's lives.
Because we’re in smaller team environments, we don’t have deadlines that are set before we can add input to their feasibility. I don’t even see a deadline until it’s approaching near the end of the project. We care more about delivering quality and adding value. Within our engineering team, the mission is to help patients and to build the best product that we can.
One might argue that the pressure is even higher at a mission-driven company when deadlines affect people’s lives. What does your team do to avoid burnout?
Lurye: I used to work at an entertainment company where I would get phone calls in the middle of the night to fix bugs. To not get in trouble, you had to be on call and fix user errors frequently. But at WELL, I’m doing things for a mission to help both providers and patients with this whole health care system, which evokes a different focus and a different motivation.
I think one of the biggest drivers of burnout is not being able to impact change.”
Dutton: I consider it one of my critical job functions to monitor my team. I do one-on-ones every week and assess how people are feeling relative to their job. I sometimes insist that people take vacation when I can tell they’re getting toward the end of their rope. I’d much rather have them take a week off and come back refreshed than get burned-out.
What are the telltale signs of an engineer who is close to burnout?
Dutton: I try to keep a very open, honest relationship with my engineers so they can come and talk to me. We have radical transparency. There’s a lot of early signals when people need a little bit of a step back. A person is in engineering because they like to tinker.
To keep them aware of the bigger picture, which is their career, education, progress and overall happiness, we encourage people to go to external training on whatever interests them.
McLaughlin: Sometimes, we do have to be on call and if we are woken up in the middle of the night, I know it’s because it has the potential to be devastating for the health care system in the morning. With a mission-driven culture, I know that when I do have to work outside of the office, it’s because I’m doing something vitally important.
I think one of the biggest drivers of burnout is not being able to impact change. It doesn’t matter how much work you put in, you feel like you’re spinning your wheels.
What makes the engineering culture unique at WELL Health?
McLaughlin: In terms of teaching and learning and respecting each other, I think a big canary in the coal mine is how well-respected our QA team is at WELL. I think an engineering culture that respects its QA team respects their tests. The testing process is a big indication of trust in the product and trusting each other.
Everyone is constantly learning from each other and mentoring one another.”
Lurye: Even as the team grows, it still feels like a small community where we have weekly meetings at the beginning of the week and then we can see the progress we’ve made by the end of the week.
The engineering team has been mostly remote for a while, even before COVID-19. When the pandemic happened, we were already well-positioned to take a ticket on. Consistent meetings and touch points during the week help us stay in communication.
Dutton: I’ve been at startups for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a team that is so cohesive. Everybody on my team has a complete willingness to help each other out and support each other, which is very rare. Everyone is constantly learning from each other and mentoring one another.
Which is the most exciting part about working in healthcare tech?
McLaughlin: From the technical perspective, healthcare has a lot of interesting problems to solve with cutting-edge technology. We get to figure out how to make our products grow and scale with technologies that were built 20-plus years ago.
Especially as an infrastructure person, I find that fascinating and fun because these are very specific problems. They’re not just plug, play and maintain.
Dutton: Everybody talks about personalized medicine and health care, personalized genomics, this and that. There’s a whole parallel to that, which is the human interaction side.
Without the human interaction side, what is the point of personalized medicine? We have so much work to do because it’s a wide open field. The standard right now is so low and the need is so great that I believe we could spend years trying to make this better. It’s really fun to be working on a problem that’s both important and intellectually challenging and long-term.