Doctor and... Virtual Consultation Entrepreneur

Nomad Health interviews Dr. Jennifer Kherani, Co-Founder of Summus

Day after day as an attending Emergency Medicine physician, Jennifer Kherani, MD, FACEP encountered patients who didn’t have easy access to the right experts for their problems. Often, they felt they had nowhere to turn but the emergency room.

The issue led her to co-found Summus, a company that connects individuals to leading specialists across the US healthcare system for virtual consultations. Its goal is to simplify access to insights on more complex health issues and to create a new marketplace for specialist expertise.

In this edition of our "Doctor And..." blog series, we talked with Dr. Kherani about how her clinical work fueled the idea, and how she hopes to see it grow.

What drew you to medicine? What did your initial path toward it look like?

My path was anything but linear. I wasn’t pre-med in college and ended up returning to school while working in order to complete my prerequisites.

My first deep connection with medicine happened when I traveled with a volunteer organization to Guatemala after graduating from college. The group was multi-faceted, and while some people worked on community outreach programs like repairing schools and orphanages or building playgrounds, there was also a medical team. The doctors, nurses and assistants performed cleft lip and palate repairs and also traveled into distant villages with a mobile clinic.

I had gone in as part of the community team, but the medical staff was kind enough to allow me to join their group while there. I was exposed firsthand to the humanitarian side of medicine and fell in love. From there, I discovered that there was so much more.

To me, medicine is a science but also an art form. It’s a career path that has allowed me to help others, challenge myself, learn and evolve, and be consistently creative.

For all of those reasons, I became convinced that there was no turning back. I finished my requirements, applied to Duke and headed down South to start my career.

At what point on the journey did you decide you wanted your work to include more than clinical practice? How did that begin to take shape?

I was working in the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, solely on night shifts so that I could see my children more (I have a 4 and 6 year old). In that role, I was palpably feeling the holes in our medical system.

Patients were seeking help and were lacking understanding about both their condition and whom they should turn to.

The “hub and spoke” medical model, where primary care doctors knew their patients inside and out and referred them to specialists as needed, has largely ceased to exist. The unfortunate reality is that primary care physicians have been forced to increase patient volume in order to financially sustain their practices, and this has reduced the amount of time and attention they can devote to each patient.

One particular event that summed up the issue happened late one night when a woman came to me in the ER with a whole bag of medicine saying, “I don’t know what to take, and I don’t know why.” It was such a simple, relatable question and on hearing it I thought, “There just has to be a better way to do this.”

The more time that passed, the more fixated I became on changing health care for patients—their exposure to it, and potentially even its outcome.

From there, how did Summus come about?

My husband is a physician, too; we met while working in Mehmet Oz’s lab studying cardiac physiology. We had a friend, Julian Flannery, who was at the time on the management team at Gerson Lehman Group, which specialized in connecting professionals with experts around the world with the goal of creating context ad insights for more informed decisions.

During a conversation we got to thinking: I was an emergency physician, Julian had run a complex information services business, and my husband had moved to private equity healthcare investment -- we realized that between the three of us we had the tools to tackle this healthcare challenge.

From there, there was no turning back; the possibilities were an immediate magnetic draw. Today, I’m part of a company that improves the healthcare experience and outcomes for our members, and I am able to balance my family and personal life far more successfully that I could as an ER doctor. The shift took shape naturally and easily for me.

How would you describe your role at Summus today?

As Medical Director, it’s my job to ensure that we are as accurate and efficient with our medical data collection and specialist curation as possible.

I recruit and hire Summus physicians to lead member cases and also provide interesting and educational content. Our blog content can range from a piece informing our members on concepts such as genetic testing and bacterial resistance as a growing global health crisis, to Q&As with our medical specialists so that readers can learn about interesting fields and topics while meeting our tremendously talented physician base. We are soon launching an “Intelligent Prevention” series aimed at teaching our readers to be smart about healthcare before having an active issue.

I also work with our staff on any element of Summus that would benefit from a medical professional’s insight or advice, such as when we are constructing a new concept or member offering, or designing an element of our digital platform.

What are some of the ways your clinical background has helped inform your current work?

I’m trained in Emergency Medicine and, as such, when I was practicing I would greet any and every patient that came through the door. There was no complaint or malady that was avoided.

I learned very efficiently to discern whom I could treat and who required admission or referral.

In a very brief period of time, I learned to synthesize a patient’s history as well as his or her present issues, and to then formulate a plan for moving forward with the best physician for the job. That is exactly what we do at Summus.

Along the way, I’ve encountered members with common as well as rare diagnoses. Some have a desire to learn the basics of their options and others have very specific, well thought-out, nuanced queries. I’ve learned from them all and love that my job enables me to draw on my previous work and training to build a new kind of healthcare experience.

What have been some of the benefits of taking time away from clinical work? If you decide to weave it back in at some point, are there elements from this current experience that you think will shape that step?

It’s tremendously satisfying to feel as if we’re “fixing health care” for our members. I also have a far greater personal life balance than I did when working clinically.

However, I must admit that I miss direct patient care. While I’m guiding our members and learning so much myself along the way, I don’t have the opportunity to sit with someone at a time of need and to reassure them, help them, and treat them firsthand. That is a special relationship and honor.

It has always been a great love of mine while working clinically, and it was the top reason I went into medicine. I definitely plan to return at some point, and when I do, I’ll take with me all of the lessons I have learned from my cases here.

I’ve been reading about a wealth of topics and learning from member queries as well as specialist education, and this has reinforced for me the knowledge that time is one of the greatest and most effective gifts we can give our patients. When I return, I know that clinical practice now tracks the speed with which we treat our patients, but I would temper that pressure with the knowledge that, at the end of the day, you just have to do what’s right for the patient.

You have to give them your time and expertise; it is far more impactful that any test I could order.