Innovator CEO profile: Wellframe’s Jacob Sattelmair

In this Innovation Lab interview series, Sattelmair discusses the unique challenges Wellframe is helping payers address, what to expect from the company in the next 18-24 months, the hardest challenge he has overcome and more.

Health Evolution | December 7, 2020

When Wellframe’s founders started the enterprise in 2011, the primary motivation was not to be a business. Instead, they began with a mission to enable customers to deliver high-touch care outside clinical settings and at scale to support people in critical times in their lives with a human connection.

Jacob Sattelmair, co-founder, President and CEO of Wellframe, explained that the founders ultimately realized that becoming a for-profit company would accelerate that work and embarked on that path. And today the company is positioned to achieve that for millions of people in the future.

Health Evolution interviewed Sattelmair about Wellframe’s origin story, what CEOs should understand about the technology, initiatives the company is working on for the next three to five years, and more.

What is the inspiration fueling Wellframe’s co-founders?
When we founded Wellframe, there were four of us coming from different backgrounds: an epidemiologist, a primary care physician, a computer scientist and a data scientist. What brought us together was the recognition that people get good care in front of a doctor, but the vast majority of their life is what happens in between visits. As a health care system, we’ve struggled to figure out how to provide high-touch care and effective guidance in those in-between times and do so in a manner that is scalable across the system. Historically, the things that worked involved a lot of friction and cost. We wanted to help payers leverage technology, including mobile devices and machine learning, to provide support and care to people where and when they need it, outside the four walls of a doctor’s office or hospital. Wellframe brought together a diverse team, coming from different backgrounds to apply our collective skills and experience to have a daily impact on people with one or multiple chronic conditions, who often struggle to get the care they need.

We’ve seen during 2020 the impact that COVID-19 has had on people with chronic conditions. Has the pandemic changed your strategy?
When we started thinking about chronic disease use cases — and that is the defining challenge of our health care system in the 21st century — they are very different from episodic care. They’re driving the vast majority of cost, and that really hasn’t changed in the pandemic. With COVID, we have been helping customers support members who are at the highest risk of complications, severity and death from COVID. In 2020, we’ve been working with people that have motivation, more than ever, to invest in using digital to help those folks know what to do when they can’t go to their provider as often and to help them follow best practices for prevention. In a way, the COVID pandemic serves as a forcing function for using technology to manage chronic conditions.

As you primarily work with health plans, what are some of the unique challenges those organizations are currently facing?
COVID has posed challenges to everybody and every stakeholder. Health plans had to adapt very quickly to enable all their employees to work from home, then to change plan parameters to make it free to get tested for COVID, and to make it easier to access telemedicine solutions. These shifts encourage people to get care and reduce the financial barriers to seeking care relative to COVID. From a financial perspective, in the short term, COVID meant people were consuming fewer discretionary services. For plans, their losses were reduced and their profit margins increased, but longer-term, the pandemic has introduced a lot of uncertainty. Will there be a demand to catch up with care that has not been provided? How can plans take actions today to future-proof their organizations?

Wellframe is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to build a business. One of the most exciting parts is I get to learn ten new things every single day — and one of the most challenging aspects is that I have to learn ten new things every day. I am continuously being challenged to grow as a person, a leader, and a business owner.

Jacob Sattelmair , Wellframe

Given their unique situation, what other kinds of problems are you trying to solve for health plan members?
For members, our focus is making it convenient to get support despite a growing number of needs for health and care. Our starting point is digitally modernizing services for people with one or multiple chronic conditions, so we developed a way for care management teams to connect with members through a mobile app for day-to-day guidance and support in managing their condition, tracking symptoms, accessing programs to learn about developing good long-term behaviors. This amplifies the reach of the care management teams so they have a sense of how their members are doing day-to-day, and allows members to access care via a mobile channel in a way that fits into their daily lives.

From there, we are expanding the scope of our offerings to combine care management and clinical programs with aspects of administrative support and benefits management. This platform allows health plans to provide members with an advocate, a single point of contact to interface with their plan to get questions answered about their chronic condition, their kid’s rash, or anything in between.

Our ambition is to evolve the role and reputation of our health plan customers, since they have not always been looked upon positively by members. The complexities of navigating plans, benefits, care, and working across providers are challenging, but we believe with modern technology we have helped health plans achieve a better relationship with members. We believe that the demands and expectations of the market, employers, state Medicaid units, and consumers make it imperative for plans to invest in digital tools to be more competitive.

What should CEOs understand about the Wellframe technology?
CEOs should think of Wellframe as a partner that helps them reimagine and own relationships with their members, and accelerate digital transformation to deliver a better experience.

What should existing and prospective customers expect in the next 18-24 months?
Over the last 18 months, we’ve been investing heavily to expand the scope of the digital infrastructure to help them serve members across more domains. Over the next year or two, we will be extending our digital health management platform to help members in a more holistic manner and we will be integrating core capabilities and benefits information, making significant investments in our technology to help plans not only modernize one service line but organize multiple service lines more effectively.

And looking a little more ahead, what should they anticipate during the next 3-5 years?
One thing that has come out of the pandemic is that digital engagement is not a sidecar to traditional care, it’s a primary means of care. We will be working with plans to build the infrastructure so the primary way they interact with members is digital. If plans don’t invest urgently and proactively, they’ll find themselves unable to catch up, so we’ve focused our investments on how we can help plans go through this transformation to preserve the privilege of serving members.

What accomplishment are you most proud of as a founder and CEO?
The fact that our tech is being used to enable support for a growing number of members is what gets me up in the morning. The idea that we are positioning our customers to offer higher-touch and more convenient support to people in critical points of their lives, so they feel that someone is looking out for them is incredibly gratifying. We’re on a path to do that for many millions of people in the coming years. That is a privilege.

What is the hardest challenge you’ve overcome during your career?
Our health care system is very established, and Wellframe’s approach is not to disrupt the system, but to partner with established organizations and help them modernize to overcome inertia to change. Achieving that at scale requires a lot of persistence to create the attention and expectation as market demands evolve. This is not something you go into if you want a quick win or a quick flip.

Wellframe is also the first time I’ve had the opportunity to build a business and one of the most exciting parts is I get to learn ten new things every single day — and one of the most challenging aspects is that I have to learn ten new things every day. I am continuously being challenged to grow as a person, a leader, and a business owner to constantly think about how to make us successful and then execute against that. It’s a true challenge and one I approach humbly.

What advice would you share with other innovators and CEOs?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice but the best advice that was offered to me that I can pass on is this: “If you’re looking to start something yourself, make sure it’s something you care a lot about and make sure you will care about it for years into the future, otherwise it won’t work.” Another piece of memorable advice I received is: “In the pursuit of a long-term goal, it’s important not to let your highs be too high or your lows too low; be relentless in your pursuit.”

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About the Author

Health Evolution, Staff Writer