Pediatric telehealth startup Summer Health expands text-based service into primary care for kids

Summer Health launched a year ago as a text-based service for parents to get answers to urgent needs from pediatricians.

The startup developed a telehealth messaging platform that aims to answer patients’ medical questions via text in 15 minutes or less. 

But, parents often come to the platform with questions about their child's development or looking for advice about other health issues.

New parents make over 2,000 Google searches a year for queries about their baby's health – that’s an average of six searches a day, according to a survey from OnePoll.

An estimated 7% of Google's daily searches are health-related, or about 70,000 health-related searches each minute.  

"What we discovered is that because the average parent after a child turns two gets to spend about seven minutes a year with their kids' doctor, they have a lot of pent-up questions. It's still such an unmet need," said Summer Health CEO Ellen DaSilva in an interview.

To meet this demand for information and primary care services, Summer Health rolled out Everyday Care, a new 24/7 on-demand text message service for parents to connect with pediatricians, sleep coaches and lactation experts. 

"We want to be there not only for our customers' urgent needs 24/7 but to also be there for those everyday questions that they need answers to," DaSilva said. "We've launched an app that now houses a CareHub that is meant to be the singular place you go to for information about your child's development, health and wellness. More radically, we're also assigning a doctor to your family. In the same way that you have a primary care physician, you now have a doctor who is assigned to you on Summer Health with whom you can build a relationship and a rapport and you can rely on for your card needs beyond your primary care physician."

For $20 a month, or $192 for an annual subscription, families get unlimited access to medical practitioners assigned to each family’s account, similar to a primary pediatric practice. Families are assigned a lead pediatrician and medical team for continuity of care. The subscription also includes unlimited access to specialists, including sleep coaches, lactation consultants and nutritionists.

The companion CareHub app helps parents track and manage a child's health all in one place with visit notes, milestone tracking and treatment plans.

"We've listened to the requests of our customers and we know there is a real need for this," DaSilva said. "There's not much between their one annual well visit and searching the online archives to basically diagnose their kids. We want to be there for all of those in-between moments."

For many parents, a child's bump or scrape turns into a visit to urgent care after hours because a pediatrician can't be reached.

These trips often mean waiting for hours to be seen by a doctor and getting hit with hefty out-of-pocket costs. DaSilva, who had experience in the digital health market as an early executive at Hims & Hers, decided to tackle the problem by focusing on the smartphones that most patients already carry in their pockets. 

DaSilva and co-founder Matthew Woo launched Summer Health to bring the information economy to healthcare, a market where Google Search is still predominantly the first turn, DaSilva told Fierce Healthcare in an interview last year.

Summer Health began by treating some of the most common, urgent ailments, including viral infections, mysterious rashes, upset stomachs, ear infections and pink eye. The company treats its patients fully virtually and includes an online prescribing service in cases where the company’s pediatricians deem it clinically necessary. 

The startup's services are not intended to replace a primary care pediatrician, but instead to provide an additional layer of convenient care from home, according to the company.

There are now more than 22 million millennial parents in the U.S. alone, and countless studies have shown that millennials prefer to text, versus picking up the phone. With a high-quality video or image from a smartphone, physicians are increasingly finding that they can diagnose a wide range of conditions remotely.

Reimbursement rates are often higher for video and in-person services. "But as a mom of three myself, I know that parents sometimes just want a quick gut check or second opinion from a trusted, knowledgeable source," DaSilva said.

The company's service helps improve access to care as 60% of patients wait two weeks to see a primary care doctor. This is compounded by the increasing shortage of physicians. One in 5 doctors plans to leave the industry in the next two years, according to a survey from the American Medical Association.

There also is a growing shortage of pediatric clinicians nationwide as the number of physicians choosing a pediatric focus has not kept up with the demand for clinicians. This shortage threatens child access to critical healthcare services, according to the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners.

Nearly a third of U.S. counties don’t have a single pediatrician, a primary care doctor specially trained for years to care for those under the age of 18, data from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration

"We're seeing a yawning gap in terms of the needs for patients and the number of providers who are able to treat those patients. We're starting to see that crunch dramatically and the wait times to actually get seen by a pediatrician are rising," DaSilva said. "We are definitely facing a major shortage of doctors, which then pushes individuals to use urgent care for primary care needs as opposed to using the primary care system, which is what it was designed to do. That's why we see such a need for Summer Health to add a primary care offering because there's such a pent-up demand for more primary care services."

Summer Health also is leaning into artificial intelligence to provide clinicians with tech tools. 

"Offering the best clinical tools to our providers is ultimately going to result in the best medical care. We want to give them the best tech available at their fingertips. The way we use AI is mostly on the back end. We want to automate as much of their workflows as possible so that we can delight our patients and make it extremely seamless for the provider to do so," DaSilva said. "We've heard loud and clear from our patients that they still want to talk to a doctor. Our patients are not talking to a bot but we have put the tools at our providers' fingertips so that they can be as efficient and personal as possible."

Looking ahead, Summer Health is exploring adding more services including dermatology and allergy care needs.