Health Evolution | November 9, 2020
Chris Nicholson left a remunerative executive position at Humana to fill an unmet need in health care: finding a better way to engage patients and members with more effective digital capabilities than legacy channels, with the direct goal of reducing health disparities and improving outcomes.
Today, Nicholson is the CEO and co-founder of mPulse Mobile. The innovator provides Conversational AI over digital channels that enable health care payers and providers to interact with patients in natural language.
Health Evolution spoke with Nicholson about mPulse Mobile’s origin story, what CEOs might not know about Conversational AI, outcome improvements, what to expect in the near future and the need for positivity in chaotic times.
What was the inspiration that lead to you founding mPulse Mobile?
Nicholson: The origin story is that I was the Chief Operating Officer for Humana’s Health and Wellness Division, running communications and other business units over roughly a 15 year career there and I was blown away by the fact that we were spending over $200 million a year on printed material and legacy engagement and not getting much patient engagement or even the slightest insight to their preferences or needs. I looked at vendors doing this type of engagement and at the time did not find any. They didn’t want to deal with health care, so I partnered with a company that specialized in messaging for consumers, restaurants, casinos, and retail as an advisor. That board asked me to step over and start a new company to engage health care head on, add domain expertise around health care use cases specifically. That was the vision. We had to create a platform for the digital age, that engages all healthcare consumers and create a truly real-time and interactive platform that “got smarter” with each consumer interaction.
One thing kind of funny about the deciding factor was that when I told my wife I was thinking about leaving Humana, she said “first, let’s put our house on the market and see if it sells, because it would mean moving from Kentucky to California.” The housing market was not great at the time. Well, our house sold in about 24 hours and so literally that was kind of a sign to go and take the opportunity. We spent 3 or 4 weeks driving an RV across the country with my family and we were looking at houses online as we traveled. That was an awesome experience and milestone trip for my family.
Chris Nicholson, mPulse Mobile
Conversational AI. Payer, provider and life sciences CEOs understand it conceptually. What should top executives know that many perhaps do not?
Nicholson: The most important aspect is that we use this Conversational AI and ML as well as natural language understanding (NLU) technology to make the conversation relevant to whoever we are engaging. They can say “yup,” “un-huh,” or “I hate needles I’m not getting a flu shot,” even something such as responding to the question of whether they took their medications that day with “No, because I cannot afford it.” Even though it’s technology, the experience is humanizing to build much deeper trust with the patient or member than you could before by giving them the ability to respond, interact and engage. That is more powerful than sending a letter or email. We collect 90 percent of responses within three to five minutes instead of looking at claims data 60 days later to obtain that same information, so it’s a near real time way for health plans and providers to get feedback. We can glean insights from the conversation that inform clinicians’ and care teams ability to influence interventions in ways that are meaningful. And we have approximately 50 million members in our database that are actively engaging, which creates a tremendous database of insights and population analytics.
What should existing and prospective customers expect from mPulse Mobile in the next 18-24 months?
Nicholson: In the next 18-24 months the biggest areas of investment are twofold. The way we have adjusted our mission is to improve equity and outcomes for underserved populations. We are working to level the playing field and address health disparities by making information available to improve outcomes by reducing confusion. The second area is the data asset. We’ve built proprietary activation scores for social determinants of health, actual sentiment, response rate, topic analysis on what consumers are engaging in to predict who is likely to engage in health — and that piece is a game changer. The technology will continue to evolve while communication channels and preferences will become more and more important. The privacy, compliance and control consumers have over their information will grow stronger.
Looking beyond that, what should they expect in 3-5 years?
Nicholson: The longer-term area really interesting to us is the expansion of the channel. Today we’ve seen mobile app development and health care rushing to apps, we’ve seen mobile web utilization grow. In the next three to five years we’ll see communication services frameworks. We are engaging health plans, for example, to build rich apps for a Conversational AI exchange over SMS that connects back into their platform to facilitate an app-based world to drive engagement via the messaging platform. The strength of the data insights around population level engagement are going to continue to scale exponentially and we feel strongly about our strategy here.
What are you most proud of as a founder and CEO?
Nicholson: I’m very proud of how our leadership team practices the highest levels of agility, focus and positivity during this crazy COVID-19 time. We’ve grown the workforce by 35% and are at 130% of our revenue plan for this quarter’s growth. The team just looked at this as an opportunity to create a strategy to deploy relevant services that are needed more than ever. We’ve always been focused on a diverse portfolio of providers, health plans and wellness, pharma, dental. The ecosystem we doubled down on is Medicaid and Medicare so that’s a resulting strategy from COVID-19. Secondly, truly proud of our client partnership. We are working with enterprsie leaders – IDN’s Med Tech, Pharma, Behavioral Health, and of course the Plans segment like Medicaid and Medicare Advantage.
What is the most difficult challenge you have overcome?
Nicholson: It’s probably more internal than market based. As a CEO, maintaining culture, agility training and a forward look have been the biggest challenges during these summer months with everyone virtual. We have to be so much more disciplined. Hiring people virtually is a different world than the early growth-based company where we would literally spend a lot of time with each individual before bringing anyone in. You have to keep the team motivated and positive with so much uncertainty in the world.
It’s interesting that you the word agility and the phrase agility training …
Nicholson: I think of the famous quote about change often attributed to Mark Twain. “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is always 10 years behind the times.” We use discussions around agility to highlight the fact that all these challenges create new market opportunities, and we don’t want to be at the back end of that. That’s where the team has seen success, it has taught them that change and conflict can create growth for those that are quick to understand, strategize and execute during these times. So this is the time substantive change will be made and from the perspective of someone who sees the data we see, the industry can get to a better place than where we started. This agility helped us accelerate the move to digital.
What advice would you give other innovative CEOs and founders?
Nicholson: Based on my experience, it would be to focus on the team, give the team a lot of leeway to chase different strategies and ideas they are passionate about. I used to be more controlling of the company and we would execute but we didn’t have the resource to pursue new opportunities. This last year has forced us to trust the team and empower them to deliver for the market, and that is a result of giving more to the team and wanting them to be successful versus trying to control everything. I’m still working on this, but getting better at it as I see the team succeed