Season 3: Episode #89
Podcast with Ian Shakil, Co-founder, Augmedix
In this episode, Ian Shakil discusses how Augmedix became the first company to launch a clinical application using Google Glass and a phone to convert the natural clinician-patient conversation into medical documentation.
There has been an increase in adoption for natural language interface technologies for clinical applications in healthcare involving hardware, software, and data analytics. Augmedix works as a tech-enabled remote scribe that processes conversations and distills it real-time into a structured note in the electronic medical record.
Ian also discusses the differences between Google Glass and other conversational interfaces such as voice recognition technology, and how conversational AI tools are evolving in healthcare, specifically in clinical use. Take a listen.
|01:12||About Augmedix and the journey about launching the company.|
|06:08||What are the differences between a voice recognition tool like Alexa, Nuance, Siri and what an Augmedix type service does where the hardware is a little different?|
|11:05||How your technology space is evolving in the context of clinical applications in the healthcare space?|
|13:49||In the clinical context, what is holding back the growth of these kinds of conversational interfaces?|
|16:32||How do you see your competitive landscape? Who do you think you're competing against?|
|18:55||What is the reimbursement environment look like? How do you build a case for a solution like yours?|
|21:01||What do you see as a big trends emerging as it relates to the moves that big tech firms are making in the market?|
|26:17||What is your advice to digital entrepreneurs and VCs who are getting into this space?|
Q: Tell us a bit about Augmedix and your journey.
Ian: I’ve always been excited about healthcare, technology, wearables, and the Internet of Things. So, around 2012, I’d just graduated from Stanford and was meeting some friends from Google. They shared news about some secret hardware they were developing — the Google Glass. In 2012, no one had ever heard of or knew about Google Glass. They let me try this secret hardware but under caution. When asked, “What do you think about this glass prototype hardware?” I said, “Have you thought about doctors? Here’s what you could do in the world of healthcare.” And that was the background.
I got laughed at because they were thinking about consumer applications more like “Dads in the park go pro at selfies” but I stuck to my theory — doctors and enterprise. We agreed to disagree, but I got obsessed enough to find the very first glass company of any sort and create an application for healthcare; for doctors, specifically. With Augmedix, we endeavored to really rehumanize the doctor-patient interaction using technology, such as, Google Glass. Today though, our service has evolved, and we now use many different hardware above and beyond Google Glass.
If you visit a doctor now, it’s a pretty miserable experience as they are typically typing, charting on the computer rather than paying you attention. So, crucial hours of the day are wasted in updating electronic medical record. Fundamentally, we solve that problem. Our doctors put on technology, have phones in the room or use Google Glassand from there on, we are virtually present. Augmedix takes natural doctor-patient conversation and produce EMR notes better and faster than what the doctors would do on their own. In essence, what Augmedix does is, it enables doctors to focus on what matters most — patient care for the patient right in front of them.
Q: Is it that the technology is automatically transcribing the conversation?
Ian: It’s true. But there are a lot of details beyond that. Most of our doctors use smartphone kits, Glass, and the phone. We transmit the visit, the audio and the video to our platform. So, a tech-enabled remote scribe processes the conversation and distills that into a structured note for the EMR. Unfortunately, natural language processing in AI hasn’t reached the stage where an ambient conversation can be processed and results in a perfect note without human involvement. We’re unabashedly human but we skip the chit-chat and focus on what’s medically pertinent and constructive in that conversation to create a note in the EMR — Epic or Cerner – used by the doctor.
This tech-enabled remote scribe at the backend operates within what we call a Scribe Cockpit. It’s a bunch of specialized automation modules that de-burden the Scribe. So, when the note is being constructed, a few clicks and edits happen in our natural language processing Note Builder. This is described as invoking a SR or Speech Recognition modules to create parts of the note in the scrabble and edit those attempts. A marriage of human involvement and technology make a service like Augmedix possible. Yank the humans out of the loop and try to do something with only software, then, it’ll only be something like dictation with the doctor being verbatim throughout the note. That’s been around for a while and isn’t helpful at all.
Q: What’s the difference between what a voice recognition tool like Alexa, Nuance, or Siri and what an Augmedix type service does where the hardware is a little different?
Ian: I’ll segment-out the market and help you understand this. Voice Recognition or Speech Track or Dictation is a whole category that’s been around. A dominant player there, is Dragon. The key marker here is the doctors are basically being verbatim — pressing a button, taking their device and noting their patient presented with this and that.
There’s another category of solutions — in-person, on-site scribes – very like having a third person in the room following you around, computers up, typing, charting, clicking, observing the conversation as it unfolds. There’s no time wasted having to structure, dictate, and review those dictations in this case. The downside is that it’s not scalable – these persons take up physical space, they call in sick and there’s all kinds of quality issues.
We’re in a new category of being remote. We offer all the benefits of that in-person scribing experience but are more cost effective and scalable. We also layer-in technology in ways that were previously impossible. So, like Dragon in-person scribes, and now we’ve got remote scribing or ambient remote documentation.
Q: You were the first company to launch a clinical application for Google Glass and its adoption in the clinical context is still coming along. As a dominant player, what does the rest of the market look like? How far as a technology is this and where is it headed from a broad-based adoption standpoint?
Ian: Google Glass, when it originally launched, was all about consumers. But they ultimately pivoted their glass efforts and refocused them on enterprise applications, of which we are one and certainly the dominant player in healthcare. But within the glass space, there are other very interesting applications and enterprise oil and gas field manufacturing, all kinds of fulfillment, applications of glass and things like glass. It’s a vibrant space but still early. We’re on third-generation hardware now, which is better today than it was 7-8 years ago and the devices last longer, plus Wi-Fi is a lot better. There are more robust enterprise-grade security configurations and settings now so further evolution is expected and smart glass adoption in all of those categories may just be on the rise.
Q: Augmedix went public recently through a somewhat unusual process. Can you brief us on how that looks like?
Ian: Augmedix is now a publicly tradable company under the ticker AUGX. We are listed on the OTC and we are public by way of a reverse merger. It’s a really exciting opportunity for us. For one, we raised additional funding through this process, which fueled our ongoing growth, investment and commercial expansion, investment and technology. We see incredible enthusiasm in the market among all sorts of investors to participate in something like this, which really is a play on burnout, digital health, and telehealth. And so, by being public, we’re able to take in the full spectrum of interested parties and investors that want to participate in Augmedix and prepare for more growth ahead.
Q: While the technology and the clinical applications involve special hardware, software, data analytics, let’s talk about Voice, Chatbots and Glass. How is this space evolving in the context of clinical applications in the healthcare domain?
Ian: Conversational AI is creeping in, in so many interesting ways in healthcare especially with activity such as, patient engagement and interaction. There are many opportunities for patients to be reminded of activities and care goals in remote, asynchronous and conversational ways. Many companies are doing this over text, asynchronous text, SMS platforms. But that’s different from what we’re doing though.
I think our area is white-hot since it’s looking at doctor-patient conversations and deriving structured EMR outputs using technology. We’re the pioneers and the biggest and now, in two key areas. Now, there are other areas where, if you think about it, patients do engage with smart speakers at their bedsides but that’s another aspect of conversational AI and innovation. I’m also seeing applications for communicating with staff, sharing information with family members etc. and there’s a lot of activity there, too.
Q: Patient engagement is critical amidst all the technological advancements. How does your technology handle and manage the patient/consumer side of the conversation in the clinical context? What could be the hurdles here?
Ian: Patient resistance or negative patient reaction was a concern when we first launched Augmedix. But patients are widely accepting the use of Augmedix on phone or on glass in their clinical interactions with their doctors. We always ask the patients if they’re comfortable and ok with the use of Augmedix at the point of care that typically happens on the first visit by the front desk or by the MA. We measure the decline or off rate and 98% of the time, patients are OK and accepting the use of Augmedix in that environment. Patients irrespective of their genders, geographies they come from, age, etc., prefer this new mode of interaction with their doctors.
We also provide the patient with all sorts of assurances around security and privacy. If there is a moment of nudity or anxiety, we go on to incognito mode.
We can juxtapose that with other conversational AI systems, like patients engaging with a chatbot but the difference lies in the marked absence of human insight. Is the human reviewing or involved in high impact decision making? Then there are texts coming from a system that may have a picture of a doctor by that or not. But you’re not verifying with your own two eyes that the humans in the loop qualify. I would expect that the level of skepticism and adoption in that system is higher than the level of skepticism in our system. So, I would advise those companies to do everything they can to indicate and highlight the level of human review early especially for high-impact decisions to kind of tackle that skepticism.
Q: What about your competitive landscape?
Ian: The market is enormous and the vast majority of doctors we encounter are using no solution. They’re toiling away in the EMR looking for a way out. This space is getting a lot more attention with many new entrants. I call them – ‘fast followers.’
A big new entrant here, for example, is Nuance with their DAX product. It’s distinct from their Dictation Dragon product. There are others too, but we are distinct from Nuance. One of the ways is we operate in real-time; we are a live service. Our notes and our interactions are being created literally in real-time as conversations progress, so, that benefits productivity and alleviates memory burdens for doctors.
Another benefit associated with being real time is that we can be interactive and offer you additional services — fire off strategic orders and referrals, remind you regarding HCC and other items etc. All this is possible because of our live and interactive presence.
We also offer a non-real time asynchronous service in that category, with advantages – it’s flexible and affordable.
Q: What is the reimbursement environment look like? How do you build a case for a solution like yours?
Ian: We save doctors a lot of time — two or three hours a day and sometimes more. Doctors can use these savings to see more patients per day. If you’re in primary care, it may take one or two more patients a day to forthrightly pay for the service. If you’re a specialist, the hurdle is even less than that. And if you are being saved two or three hours a day, that’s not so much of a huge ask frequently.
In addition, we see that more revenue per charge is generated when documentation is thorough and accurate, as is the case with us, which is another ROI proposition for us.
Another key thing to mention is we alleviate burnout which is a serious issue. There’s a scarcity of doctors in America right now. Doctors are partially quitting and are leaving health systems. Whenever a doctor leaves the health system or doctor group, it’s very costly, huge productivity loss, plus it’s difficult to find a new doctor and ensure productivity resumption. It could cost nearly a million dollars when a doctor leaves a health system. There’s evidence that Augmedix really rekindles doctors’ love for the practice of medicine, staves off burnout and that’s why a health system would adopt Augmedix.
Q: You mentioned Nuance’s Dragon technology was about to get acquired by Microsoft. What are the big trends emerging related to the moves that big tech firms are making in the market?
Ian: It’s big news that Microsoft and Nuance are now one. As to the thesis behind that marriage, I would argue it’s a little bit of a Rolodex play. We see that Nuance through its legacy products, such as, Dragon is present amongst the majority of health systems and doctor groups. So, one reason for Microsoft’s interest could be so they can upscale into those health systems and doctor groups where there’s just so much market share and access through this acquisition and upscale Azure and Azure-Related Tools and other Microsoft related tools.
Microsoft is also excited about this ambient documentation space and other things that Nuance DAX is doing. Other big tech companies are equally excited and waiting to jump into healthcare because it is such a huge percentage of the U.S. economy. A lot of these tech companies are creating tools and modules that are going to be very useful to Augmedix, such as specialized, medically tuned speech recognition modules, natural language processing modules, cloud hosting and compute capabilities tuned to healthcare needs with the right types of security and compliance aspects. And they’re getting competitive and innovative. But they are stepping back from providing the end-to-end, go-to market and product solutions in those areas. I saw more attempts toward this earlier so that is kind of a trend I’m seeing among these big tech companies.
Q: The one exception to that may possibly be Amazon, which is actually getting into the healthcare services space with AmazonCare. Where do you see yourself in the context of this big tech firm? Do you see partnering with one of these big tech firms in making your technology available?
Ian: Yes. Tech companies are creating more enabling modules versus end-to-end products but this is more around my domain, specifically. In other healthcare domains though, Amazon is jumping into the fray. Over the years, we’ve had significant partnerships with more than one of the big brands, tech companies and we have diverse partnership projects and collaborations with many of them. We use many different enabling tools, cloud systems and hardware — while we don’t make Google Glass, we rely upon Google for their production. So, there will definitely be opportunities for us to get strategically comfortable and focused with just one of those tech companies but presently, that’s not what we’re doing.
Q: You’re one of the first companies launched in the digital health ecosystem. You’ve seen companies come and go, pivot, fail. There’s enough capital floating around and ideas. What is your advice to a digital entrepreneur who is getting into this space now and what is your advice to the VCs?
Ian: Certainly, this space is a lot busier now than it was in 2012. Most of the areas of great pain and need now have a few different venture-backed startups chewing away at the problem, taking different approaches. While that shouldn’t scare anyone away, it creates a situation where most of the digital health innovation is maybe in the mid or later stages and not so much in the very early founding seed stages. There still is an opportunity to found seed-stage digital health companies. The burden of proof is going up now versus previously fair not to get funding and to get initial traction. So, my advice is that the ROI and the validating metrics required for you to get attention and funding and the expectations there, have increased greatly. This isn’t the time to step in with incremental solutions and sort of iterate your way to path forward. It’s time to meet unmet needs with eye-popping ROI benefits that happen pretty quickly. Otherwise, you’ll be passed over in this extremely noisy space.
Entrepreneurs must really focus on clever go to market strategies to scale faster and be data-driven and metrics oriented so that you can prove to all the stakeholders that you’re adding a lot of value. Early-stage entrepreneurs need to invest in the analytics and ROI on day one and overly so to stand out. That’s necessary in today’s environment.
About our guest
Augmedix Founder, Ian Shakil (pronounced like Shaquille, the basketball player) has an impressive track record of innovation in cutting edge domains such as wearables, smartglasses, global-scale digital health, and IA (intelligence amplification).
In 2012, he founded Augmedix with a mission to harness technology to improve the patient experience and allow doctors to focus on what matters most: patient care.
Shakil holds a BSE in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Before founding Augmedix in 2012, Shakil held a variety of roles at leading healthcare companies such as Edwards Lifesciences (where he still consults), MC10, Intuitive Surgical, and HealthTech Capital. He currently resides in San Francisco.
About the host
Paddy is the co-author of Healthcare Digital Transformation – How Consumerism, Technology and Pandemic are Accelerating the Future (Taylor & Francis, Aug 2020), along with Edward W. Marx. Paddy is also the author of the best-selling book The Big Unlock – Harnessing Data and Growing Digital Health Businesses in a Value-based Care Era (Archway Publishing, 2017). He is the host of the highly subscribed The Big Unlock podcast on digital transformation in healthcare featuring C-level executives from the healthcare and technology sectors. He is widely published and has a by-lined column in CIO Magazine and other respected industry publications.