Charlie Health taps former Tinder, Optum execs to build out tech and product design teams as it looks to scale

Virtual mental health provider Charlie Health is making big investments in its engineering and design teams and has tapped former Tinder and Optum executives to lead its technology roadmap.

The three-year-old startup brought on board Udi Milo, who has product leadership experience at consumer brands Tinder, Lyft and LinkedIn, as its new chief product officer. Charlie Health also hired former Optum tech leader Donald Johnson as its new head of digital innovation.

Milo and Johnson will steer Charlie Health’s engineering, product and design organization, focusing on delivering features that cater to high-acuity clients’ needs as the company continues to evolve its virtual care model, executives said.

"Udi and Don’s innovative spirits and proven track records of solving complex challenges with inventive solutions make them the perfect additions to Charlie Health’s team," said Carter Barnhart, CEO and co-founder at Charlie Health. "I’m confident that their impact will further our efforts to address the nationwide mental health crisis we’re currently experiencing.”

Barnhart was inspired to launch Charlie Health based on her own personal experiences struggling with mental health challenges. 

The company offers virtual high-acuity mental healthcare for teens and young adults. The startup aims to make virtual intensive outpatient treatment accessible to young people and their families and the program combines supported groups, individual therapy, and family therapy into evidence-based, comprehensive and personalized treatment plans.

At first glance, building products at companies like Tinder and Lyft wouldn't seem to translate to healthcare but Milo saw an opportunity to help build virtual solutions at a company that also "does good for the human race," he said.

Mental health issues touch almost every family. In an exclusive interview, both Milo and Johnson noted that Charlie Health's accessible and personalized services could have helped their own family members and friends.

"I wish this product existed when I was growing up and had those same types of support for my family and friends," Johnson said. "I've got 23-plus years within healthcare technology and one of the things I was really hungry for was the ability to drive impact in the delivery of care and being able to deliver technology that meaningfully impacts outcomes and also impacts the ability of clinicians to do great work. I found both of those things with Charlie Health."

Charlie Health's services are growing as there has been a significant surge in adolescents and teens seeking mental health services, resulting in a notable strain on existing resources, according to reports. Suicide rates among youth aged 10 to 19 jumped 40% from 2001 to 2019, while emergency room visits for self-harm rose by 88%, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. 

Charlie Health's evidence-based virtual IOP is specifically designed to bridge the care gaps faced by high-acuity mental health patients. The company offers a level of care in between traditional once-weekly therapy and inpatient treatment.

The company pairs every patient with a personalized therapist who is trained to address their specific needs. Patients also are placed into curated groups with peers coming from similar backgrounds and life experiences, executives said.

Charlie Health launched in Montana and is now available in 27 states. Over the past year alone, it has provided care to over 10,000 patients and expanded into 12 new states, bolstering its team to over 1,000 clinicians and other staff members.

Milo plans to leverage his product expertise at major tech and tech-enabled marketplaces to help improve the treatment experience for clients and clinicians, he said. This includes creating new tools to enable the organization to continue delivering precise and efficient measurement-based mental healthcare, he noted.

"When I look at the craft of building products, and specifically at scale, one of the things that I was privileged to see is what 'great' looks like. Coming to Charlie Health, I bring a lot of perspective and rigor around what it means to have products that are high-quality for a very large set of individuals," he said. "I also bring this understanding of how to be 'customer-centric' or how to understand and empathize with our stakeholders, whether it's clinicians or clients."

During his two decades at UnitedHealth Group, Johnson's work spanned core systems, consumer-facing technology, provider technology and the foundational back-end infrastructure. His efforts were instrumental in propelling UHG's expansion into virtual care.

At Charlie Health, he will spearhead the development and implementation of new tech initiatives, including leveraging artificial intelligence.

"From the moment [patients] start interacting with Charlie Health, to the moment of discharge, making sure that we have a great digital experience, that's going to be a big focus," Johnson said. "From a technology perspective, we're a modern shop so we're looking at the ability to drive artificial intelligence in a very targeted way to streamline some of the administrative steps that really get in the way of human-to-human conversations. We're looking at those things that drive efficiency. It's about that end-to-end digital experience and leveraging the best technology and tools to be able to do that in this modern age."

Working together, Milo and Johnson want to leverage their combined experience to provide a better digital experience for both patients and clinicians as digital health becomes a more mainstream part of healthcare.

"I've seen the large side of scale and what it takes to get there and to get there in a way that you don't become distracted by the technology," Johnson said. "My experience with early virtual healthcare, how to scale that out nationally and how to integrate across payers and health systems, all the 'battle scars' and lessons learned on how to do that effectively at scale, Charlie Health needs those same things to be able to make the technology basically invisible and just get out of the way to allow our clients to get great care and our clinicians to do great work."

Milo added, "It's about identifying where people thrive and what are the jobs that people like to do and people are great and what are the jobs that machines are great at. And then understanding how we can remove these mundane, repeatable things that are not part of the care so clinicians can focus on delivering great care."

Virtual care can help to fill a critical gap amid a shortage of mental health resources and also help to mitigate the crisis at the ER. Pediatric mental health emergency department visits are increasing at 6% to 10% per year and hospitals do not have the resources to meet escalating youth’s mental health needs. 

Charlie Health recently released new peer-reviewed research demonstrating that its virtual intensive outpatient program significantly reduced emergency department utilization for mental health services. The study, published in JMIR Formative Research, analyzed survey responses from 735 Charlie Health patients who had been admitted to the emergency department for mental health concerns prior to enrolling in Charlie Health's virtual outpatient program. Findings suggest that 94% of these patients, upon completing Charlie Health, avoided further ED admissions for mental health reasons in the three months following completion of the program.

Tech forms the backbone behind Charlie Health's services from patient scheduling to provider matching and tools for clinicians to support patient care.

As Charlie Health grows, there will be opportunities to use data to improve clinician training and drive more precise measurement-based care, Milo noted.

"Charlie Health's delivery model actually gets better as we get larger, which is fairly unique from a health system perspective," Johnson said.