The Doctor Will Email You Now: Sherpaa Handles Healthcare Online

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Jay Parkinson

Dr. Jay Parkinson, 36, gained notoriety in 2007 when he started his own practice in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for its influx of arty types and bars. Gawker quickly dubbed him the “Hipster Doctor.” He’s also appeared in the pages of Esquire, Newsweek, the Boston Globe and Fast Company.

His claim to fame? Bringing private practice into the Internet Age by talking to patients over email and IM and accepting payments via PayPal. Parkinson offered the slightly more anachronistic service of making house calls as well.

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Now he’s moving beyond the small, neighborhood practice with his new healthcare start-up Sherpaa. He met me at a coffee shop with the company’s co-founder, Cheryl Swirnow, who has spent the last 10 years in human resources helping companies choose and manage their healthcare plans.

The idea, in Parkinson’s words, is to connect “tech-savvy doctors and tech-savvy patients,” as opposed to the inefficient way things are done now.

He gives the example of someone who wakes up and thinks she might have a urinary tract infection. “First, she has to call and make an appointment,” says Parkinson. “Then she has to get in her car, drive to an office, talk to the receptionist and fill out paperwork. She waits next to about 10 sick people, sees the nurse, sees the doctor, sees the nurse again, sees the receptionist and then she has to go to the pharmacist. There’s about 15 unnecessary people that are involved.”

The result is a lot of wasted time, both for those who are sick and for their employers, who have to foot the bill for healthcare costs and deal with the lost productivity of a worker taking time off. Sherpaa aims to make the whole process more cost- and time-efficient.

“With us, you send us an email or give as a call, the doctor takes out her iPhone and then fires off a prescription for Cipro to the pharmacist. No billing, no nothing, because it’s free for the employee to contact us.”

Got a nasty cut? Snap a photo, send it in, and a doctor will write back telling you whether it can be handled outside of the emergency room. If it requires surgery, they’ll set up an appointment with the appropriate specialist and tell you how to treat it in the meantime.

The idea is to cut costs by eliminating unnecessary doctor visits and by helping small, inexperienced start-ups find cost-effective healthcare plans. Right now they’re working mostly with tech companies, including blogging platform Tumblr, which hosts Parkinson’s own personal blog.

Both Parkinson and Swirnow stress that this isn’t some healthcare call center; Sherpaa only deals with New York-based businesses, and each doctor only handles about 1,500 patients, which they say is about the same number of patients a general practitioner would be dealing with anyway. Eventually Sherpaa plans to expand to other cities and develop its own messaging app that will help enable and organize conversations between doctors and patients.

The shortage of primary care physicians in America is another reason why Sherpaa could make waves in the healthcare industry. After racking up more than $100,000 in medical school loans, many young doctors are opting to be cardiologists and orthopedic surgeons instead of primary care doctors — mostly because they have the lowest average salary of any physician, according to Merritt Hawkins’ 2012 Review of Physician Recruiting Incentives (PDF).

“When you have a system that’s almost entirely made up of specialists, you need some way to coordinate,” says Parkinson. “That used to be the primary care doctor.”

Sherpaa hopes to fill that role, with quick, personal service minus the time-consuming office visits. Whether or not more companies and doctors buy into it is up for debate, although Parkinson points out that doctors who need to spend more time at home — like new parents — could increasingly choose to practice online.

“For me, that’s the future of healthcare. When our generation is running things, that’s what healthcare is going to be.”

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