When COVID-19 spread to the United States, the pandemic exposed two conflicting realities: a healthcare system that excels at high-cost, complex treatments while failing to provide sufficient access at the local level.
That lack of access to public health infrastructure might be the country's biggest challenge. It has also created opportunities for healthcare startups, founders of Carbon Health and Color said Monday during TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, which kicked off today.
"When we think about making healthcare accessible, we tend to focus on the cost of care, which is definitely a big problem," Othman Laraki, founder and CEO of Color, said during the Disrupt panel "Tech, test and treat: Healthcare startups in the COVID-19 era." The other big side of making healthcare accessible is actually taking it to people where it's part of their lives. I think oftentimes for underprivileged communities, etc. that sometimes the cost of care is a lesser problem compared to the access of it."
Primary care startup Carbon Health and Color are already tackling that issue. And in Carbon Health's case, the company's business model to bring high-quality primary care to the local level gave it early insight into the spread of COVID.
Carbon Health has 25 primary care locations today. Co-founder and CEO Eren Bali noted that as early as February, the company started seeing patients coming to its clinics directly from Wuhan, China with COVID-like symptoms.
Carbon Health's technology platform asks patients questions prior to their visit, which collects important data and assesses patients' symptoms and problems ahead of time. Those early insights left Carbon Health with two options: shut down and wait for the COVID storm to pass or jump all in. Carbon Health chose the latter, Bali said.
Laraki and Bali's comments Monday during TechCrunch Disrupt match up with their respective business models and growth trajectory. COVID has merely accelerated that development.
Earlier this week, Carbon Health launched a new pop-up clinic model. These clinics are now open in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The company is adding more in the coming weeks, including a clinic in Detroit. Ultimately, 100 new COVID-19 testing sites will be added with a collective capacity to handle 100,000 patients per month across the country. Carbon Health and Color are also collaborating to run all of the CityTestSF testing sites across San Francisco.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic swept into the U.S., Color built a platform to help ease the logistical and supply chain constraints around COVID testing. The company, which runs a large, automated testing lab in the Bay Area, is now processing 75% of the testing in the city.
Today, there are still limits to that hyperlocal level of healthcare. For instance, someone who needs surgery must go to a hospital, which might be hours away.
"It's not that easy to push that to the edge," Laraki said, using the surgery example. "But I think what's happening now — and I think what's going to happen in the next 10 years — is that we're going to have really, truly edge-distributed healthcare."
The idea is that technology will allow healthcare to be taken into communities in a more cost effective model, which will make it more accessible. "That's something that really hasn't existed in the U.S. so far and I think it is really starting to happen and it is fundamentally a technology problem," Laraki added.