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From 72-Hour Waits to Real-Time Rides To Save Patients’ Lives

Episode 3
Being an outsider can be a benefit for those looking to disrupt an industry, especially in healthcare. “I think our obliviousness to the difficulty we faced and our nontraditional approach helped us,” says Kinetik founder and CEO Sufian Chowdhury. “We saw a need and set out to fix it from the bottom up and I think that’s why we’ve been successful in an industry where so many startups fail.” This is just one of the insights Chowdhury gained as he set out to transform an industry whose services can mean life or death.
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Rachel Schreiber:
Hello and welcome to the Spark of You of innovation and healthcare. I’m Rachel Schreiber, your co-host, and in this episode we’re speaking with Sufian Chowdhury, founder and CEO of Kinetik. He and his team have created a digital infrastructure that connects stakeholders of the transportation industry. I’m also joined by Stuart Hanson, CEO of Avaneer Health.

Stuart Hanson:
Thanks Rachel. Sufian and welcome. We’re really looking forward to, I personally, having known you for a number of years through your journey. I’m really looking forward to this discussion, so I’m glad you were able to join us. Thanks for coming,

Sufian Chowdhury:
Rachel. Thanks for the intro. And Stuart, I’m excited. I’ve actually been really excited for this podcast for a couple of months.

Stuart Hanson:
Well, when we put this together, you were one of the first people that came to mind, so I’m glad you were able to do it. Why don’t we go ahead and jump in. One of the first questions I want to ask is, what was the original impetus for creating what you built at Kinetik? I love the name, by the way. We’re all fighting as disruptors, the kinetic energy of the status quo. So, I can’t think of a better name for a company than Kinetik, given the disruption that you’re doing. Tell me — what was your personal catalyst for getting Kinetik off the ground?

Sufian Chowdhury:
Honestly, the intention was not what it is today. Our vision, or at least mine when I first started, was very simple. I had a friend of mine who was running a local transport company out of Brooklyn, New York. I went to his office and I was trying to help him fix his database, and I had no idea that this entire industry existed. The niche marketplace, I guess that’s often overlooked. And so when I went in, I was just curious to figure out why it is so difficult to submit payments for these transport providers. And I had no idea that there are hundreds of millions of rides that take place that are fully subsidized by Medicaid.

And I started my journey there, and it was really to solve for the payment problems and cashflow issues that small businesses, local transport companies were facing. Prior to Kinetik, when they needed to work with different health plans, they would use different mediums from each health plan to submit claims. As those who work with healthcare claims know, it’s not the easiest form to fill out and let alone for a small business where the operators are running the business. They also have to submit the claims, and oftentimes they leave a lot of money on the table because they didn’t submit the claims properly. And so that’s what I was really trying to solve initially. As we built the company and as we started studying the market and listening to the needs of the market, we realized that the claims in the backend were so difficult to generate because their scheduling in the front end, it was all free text, and there were no real guardrails around scheduling these rides there.

Stuart Hanson:
I don’t mean to interrupt you. Just back up. The first thing is that you found a part of the healthcare industry that I don’t think most people even know exists, right? You found this medical transportation niche industry. Maybe we should have started by having you explain.

Sufian Chowdhury:
So non-emergency medical transportation –it’s all things are not an emergency when you’re on Medicaid. It’s primarily for folks that are on Medicaid who are low income, and they have subsidized insurance. It’s the to and from their medical appointments that’s covered. And their goal is to encourage folks and make it easy for them to get to their medical appointments to avoid any type of long-term healthcare issues that they might face by skipping out on just checkups or going to your dialysis. Vast majority of these rides are dialysis rides, so they’re important. Rides you must go on to address your health issues.

So it’s an industry, again, there’s hundreds of millions of rides across the country that take place. Lots of folks in rural areas who don’t have access to public transportation or easily access transportation services. They rely on non-emergency medical transportation. They rely on their insurance to provide the service for them to get to and from their medical appointment.

Stuart Hanson:
So you found this industry that just was basically born out of primarily Medicaid coverage to ensure that patients can get to their appointments, but you really were just going in to help a friend to figure out how to improve his business, right?.

Sufian Chowdhury:
Yeah. So the name Kinetik comes from a different company that I was working on before this, and it was all about GPS coordination and feeding information into Waze and Google Maps. And so when I saw this opportunity with my friend and it was a problem that other people were having, so I wanted to solve it. I decided to keep the name. I didn’t want to rethink the name, so I was like, you know what? Let me just bring this name here. So let’s build something here. So that’s how it started. I had no idea what I was doing initially, but fell in love with fixing this. It became an obsession. And we’re going into year seven, as you know, and the obsession has not died.

Stuart Hanson:
It’s been amazing to see the team that you’ve built and yourself, your passion for really changing the space. So you went in kind of as a favor learned about this business, figured out, hey, there’s massive problems here, which is how a lot of people stumble into healthcare and they realize how complex it is, and then they realize why. So maybe tell me a little bit more about what you’ve built to solve the why, right? Because you’re actually trying to cure the disease, if you will, of NEMT with technology as opposed to where you started, which was just figuring out how to simplify or streamline the billing process on the very end of the experience. So tell us more about that and what Kinetik become.

Sufian Chowdhury:
So I’m very grateful that it started the way it did because I had this oblivious outlook to what the reality is going in there and saying, well, I could change it and we’ll do it in the next year or two. And not realizing the bureaucratic nature of the healthcare industry and why incumbents have yet to fix this problem. You’ve got to be either oblivious or ambitious or a combination of both tackle something that’s larger than you’ve ever anticipated. And so when we started, again, it was a payments platform. And because we were on the ground floor and we started this company from the bottom up, and we started with claims, we had insight into what data sets were missing. And so we were able to reverse engineer all the missing data points to the other end of the spectrum, which had nothing to do with payments that had everything to do with scheduling these rides and care coordination and logistics.

And so naturally we started digging into all the different dispatch platforms, all the different brokers that are serving this marketplace, all the different stakeholders that were being impacted by a lack of integration or lack of appropriate technologies. And so that’s when we said, okay, the claims in the backend that we’re generating have missing data. So our revenue cycle management platform won’t have much use if we connect the dots all the way to when these rides are booked. And that’s when we said, okay, we need to build out a scheduling platform and layer it on top of all the different dispatch platforms and introduce the concept of interoperability. Because if we bring interoperability to the table, then the data flows from the time it’s scheduled to the time it’s billed and paid out. And so that’s why naturally when we started off payments, we had no choice but to jump into the scheduling care coordination side of things because if we didn’t do it, the RCM product wouldn’t have value.

It was only a couple years ago when we said, you know what? Let’s build the digital infrastructure. And the difference here is that we didn’t want to just build an end-to-end platform and mandate the plans to use it or the brokers or the transport companies. We took an agnostic approach. Let’s build a scheduling platform that connects with all the different scheduling tools that are already out there. Let’s not reinvent the wheel or let’s not mandate the use of ours.

And so one of the biggest challenges was convincing all the stakeholders to say, Hey, let’s partner together. Don’t see us as a competition. See us as a partner where we could take this end to end solution to the health plans, to the brokers, to the states, but we need to work together, don’t see us as a competition. And so that’s why we didn’t go on to build some of the technologies that were already being used in the marketplace. We decided to build a scheduling platform that connects with the existing dispatch platforms and then connected in the backend with their revenue cycle management platform that’s making it a digital infrastructure for this industry. And we plug and play with whoever is servicing the marketplace.

Stuart Hanson:
So you recognize you needed to meet the industry participants where they were.

Sufian Chowdhury:
Yeah, if you look at Manhattan, it’s filled with all these buildings, and then you have the core infrastructure that’s still there, but then you have glass windows on the facades are different. And so where you could keep a lot of the core participants and the folks that have been servicing this market for decades, they’re domain experts and they know their patients, they know the health plans very, very well. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just need to convince them to say, Hey, take a look at this marketplace from our vantage point. If we have a digital infrastructure that you live on, this is how it impacts you operationally and growth wise. And that’s what we had to sell to the marketplace.

Stuart Hanson:
So let’s understand — 10 – 15 years ago, someone had to schedule a ride to a doctor for a dialysis or for primary care or a physical or whatever if they didn’t have their own transportation. And they did that by making a phone call, scheduling two, three, four days in advance, maybe calling to follow up, maybe the ride didn’t show up, whatever to something that’s now much more real time kind. Explain where we’re at today in terms of what that patient experience looks like and what you’ve changed

Sufian Chowdhury:
Right now for vast majority of this industry, you don’t have to go back 10 years ago – it’s 10 days ago. You could just go back literally a minute ago, somebody had to book a ride 72 hours in advance. That’s the status quo. We’re challenging in a world where everything is in real time, medical rides did not take 72 hours of advanced booking. Now you dig into it. And that’s what we started digging in and that’s the status quo. We started challenging. Why does it take 72 hours to book a ride when you track it down? It’s because of lack of interoperability. The reason why, if I call my health plan or if I call a broker and it takes 70 towers up to book a ride, it’s because they don’t have a digital infrastructure where they could appropriately locate the mode of transportation that’s needed for you in real time. And the reason they can’t do it is because they’re not integrated with all the other stakeholders, the transport providers, the drivers, etc.

Stuart Hanson:
That’s how Taxi used to work, right?

Sufian Chowdhury:
That’s how taxi service worked before Uber, Lyft, and that’s the NEMT market today. And we’re changing that. So the clients that we’re working with and we’re finally commercializing our digital infrastructure and we’re going to start scaling it the next couple of years for the first time. The clients that we’re working with — their members can request the same day. So we collapsed it from about 72 hours to three hours today, but we’re not done yet. We need to continue to iterate, build out the mobile application and really realize our vision and bring that vision to fruition, which is any patient anywhere can request a ride in real time. You can see how many rides are allotted to them. They get to choose some mode of transportation from their mobile app, vehicle comes, picks ’em up, drops ’em off, and bills are insurance in real time to drive what paid in real time. So that’s what we’re bringing. We’re almost there. We’re getting very close to bringing that and then hopefully in a few years from now, that is the new marketplace and that’s the experience that every member across the country has.

Rachel Schreiber:
When you think about every health plan having this in place for their members, what I’m hearing is that the patient member experience becomes more like other ride service experiences where it’s an app, you request a ride and it happens in minutes.

Sufian Chowdhury:
The insurance component was the really cool part where I’m sure many people have had this similar vision. And like I said, I think our obliviousness to the difficulty of building something like this has helped us. You have this other mindset of we’ll make it work. And if you looked at it from a top down perspective, you wouldn’t be able to fix this. You had to fix it from the bottom up. You had to start from the local transport companies to then go to the healthcare providers and the plans and the states and the brokers. And so we were very lucky to start where we started.

Rachel Schreiber:
And then the organizations that don’t embrace this type of change and this type of disruption, their members will continue to struggle to get to their doctor appointments, and that just leads to lots of complications developing or just not improving health.

Sufian Chowdhury:
The ones that don’t embrace that, I think there are a lot of competent folks out there. So hopefully they do embrace it. I’m really excited later this year going into 2025 for us to really bring this to the white papers that we’re looking to publish, the marketing campaigns that are going to go out to bring visibility into what we’re doing, but also educate the CEOs of the larger payers and plans, state legislators, just how impactful what we’re doing is. So yeah, I’m excited for that to bring to light.

Rachel Schreiber:
And this type of disruption isn’t new in the world where a service has been very manual and then gets digitized and creatively connects to consumers.

Sufian Chowdhury:
Like Uber has done a phenomenal job of doing this in the taxi industry, going in there and completely disrupting. It was very difficult before Uber, Lyft. I mean, you’ve always worried about safety concerns at night. If you were out at night to get a taxi, you didn’t know what was going to happen. Especially I grew up in Chicago and New York City. These weren’t the safest places in the world.

And what the Ubers and Lyfts of the world is completely chainging our experience and that’s our goal. How do we do this? But in healthcare and the rides we’re providing is truly and can be life or death rides. These dialysis rides are critical for that member to receive as frequently as they can and as easy as they can. Whenever investors, they ran a very large cancer institution and they said the reason the transportation component is so important is that for us, somebody who has cancer, we can never imagine a day in the life of that person, but it’s our duty to make everything else around them very, very easy and very peaceful and very tranquil.

And so when you go there and you already have to deal with life-threatening complications or health issues, et cetera, the last thing you want to do is sit there and say, well, I can’t get my ride. I can’t find my driver. I don’t know where they are. And now the ride’s canceled and I’m going to miss my appointment. And so for us, I think it’s incumbent on us to make this experience better for tens of millions of people who desperately need these services.

Rachel Schreiber:
That’s really important.

Stuart Hanson:
I love the health equity component. In a lot of cases, patients may not have access to, or don’t have a credit card that they could put an Uber ride on. But you’re trying to give them that experience that most of us enjoy in terms of if I want to go to the airport, I could probably be there from my office. It’s about 15 miles away. I could probably be there 25 minutes from now without a car, and for 40 bucks in eight minutes, I can have an Uber or a Lyft downstairs to probably beat me to the lobby.

That’s not an experience that a lot of healthcare consumers have and those that really need it for these medical experiences. So I think we can all wrap our heads around that improved patient experience because trying to give patients who need it, that type of really streamlined electronic integrated experience on their insurance, which their insurance wants to pay for, and that’s a huge benefit. I think we can all wrap our heads around.

How do you quantify some of the results and the benefits that you’re achieving for some of your clients, which I assume are mostly health plans, right?

Sufian Chowdhury:
Yeah, exactly. So the benefits, although the health plans are the paying clients, the folks that are impacted by this, it’s the transport providers, it’s small businesses, it’s local businesses, and more importantly, the members of the health plans. So for health plans, if you look at it from just a macro perspective, the cost savings around managing this program in-house through a digital platform where they have full visibility into every single ride, the data analytics, being able to track healthcare outcomes of that patient in a much more accurate fashion, and then having it tied and integrating with the different EHRs and creating all sorts of different analytics around the life of that patient over time, that’s critical for them to make long-term decisions around how they design these Medicaid programs. So beyond just transaction cost savings platform, that there’s long-term cost savings around how you properly design these programs for transport providers. They are the heart and soul of this industry and the most neglected stakeholders.

These are small businesses with very, very low margins. And if you dig into why they have such low margins, inefficiencies around running their business, they’re paying five 6% of a billing services company. When you use proper technology, if it’s fully interoperable, there should be no data manipulation of any kind or missing data or anything of that sort. It should be an automatic build claim. So that 6% for a small business margins, it’s the difference between life or death for that business. During covid, we saw that a lot of the industry, the churn rate was enormous. They had no rides. They ran out of business, they had no money to keep their business alive. But then if you look at it, they are the network. The providers in the network that enable access to care.

Now, as you have providers churning and if we could improve their operational efficiencies, increase cashflow, and get them paid faster–they’re in business. There are more drivers on the road. And what that means for the members is that now I don’t have to wait 72 hours, there’s ample drivers around, I could get my ride in that five or 10 minutes. It’s twofold. It’s the problem of getting a ride, but also lack of drivers, lack of transport, providers near me.

Without data, you can’t really make data-driven decisions on where these providers should be. So a health plan can’t take a look at a transport provider when they have data and say, Hey, you should base yourself over here because that’s where most of our volume is. So when you have data like this, you can make decisions that impact all the different stakeholders. And that’s why having a digital infrastructure is so important, being able to understand and analyze the data to make better decisions that will ultimately impact all the stakeholders in a much more positive way.

Stuart Hanson:
Yeah, it’s a lot more complex problem in healthcare than it was for just booking a ride to the airport, right?

Sufian Chowdhury:
This is complex.

Stuart Hanson:
The problem you’re solving is so much more complex than a simple online ride booking system. So let’s pull you out of Kinetik. I know you post all the time on LinkedIn. You’re one of my favorite people to follow. What words of wisdom or advice or how to overcome barriers? What would you recommend to other innovators in the healthcare space trying to create some sort of similar disruption? What’s been the biggest lesson learned for you for, I mean, you’ve been at this for seven to 10 years, I’m sure you’ve overcome a lot. We haven’t even talked about

Sufian Chowdhury:
Not to raise too much capital, at least really try to.

Stuart Hanson:
That’s great. Yeah, don’t overdo it, right?

Sufian Chowdhury:
Don’t overdo it. Because what happens is, I think what we did was just build it one day at a time. And this mindset of just staying hyper-focused and doing it one day at a time, it’s very hard to do when your company’s doing really well and the markets are great and you’re raising capital and you have all the folks around you that can make it happen. And then it’s even harder to do stay focused one day at a time when things are not going well and the markets are down and you don’t have funding and you have to go through the layoffs, all that stuff. It’s a battle. But having this mindset of just one day at a time helps you just overcome it. Not getting too caught up in the long-term goals of the company and all that, just staying hyperfocused is so important.

Surround yourself with really, really good mentors. I think the difference between Kinetik, surviving, not just covid, but the SVB crash and the banking crisis and all that stuff was because of the board members that we had or have and the advisors that I had. The constant reminder, I mean so many times, Stuart, this is much more personal during the heat of all this stuff. Last year it was a tough market to raise capital. And so many times Stuart just called me and be like, Hey man, just hang in there and how can I help you? Or don’t give up. Whatever you do, do not give up because this cause is so important. And so it’s knowing that you’re in it. And also whoever starts it today, this is a 10, 15 year journey. You don’t want to do something that you don’t want to commit 10, 15 years. Either join another company that’s more established or go to consulting or something else. It’s a dog fight and it’s a dog fight for about a decade of your life to it and you need to sacrifice pretty much everything.

Stuart Hanson:
And be scrappy.

Sufian Chowdhury:
Be scrappy, and surround yourself with mentors you need. That’s great advice. They’re going to bridge everything. They come in very handy when you’re feeling like throwing in the towel.

Rachel Schreiber:
So that’s a great conversation. To wrap up, what key phrase describes the vision of what you’re creating?

Sufian Chowdhury:
Yeah, we’re healthcare transportation. We are reimagining how this industry functions. The kinetic. Somebody’s like, what do you guys want to be known for? The company that reimagined the way people were transported in the medical space, in the healthcare space.

Rachel Schreiber:
That’s great. Well, we do need more innovators like you who are challenging that the status quo and re-imagining and putting the patient at the center, that’s very important. And the work that you’re doing and the impact on health equity, social determinants of health, transportations high on that list. So keep the work up and thank you for joining us today.

Sufian Chowdhury:
Of course. This is great. Thanks for having me, guys. Appreciate it.

Stuart Hanson:
Yeah, thanks a lot. A very exciting discussion. Thank you.

Rachel Schreiber:
And if listeners want to learn more about Kinetik, how do they do that?

Sufian Chowdhury:
You can follow me on LinkedIn and go to our website Kinetik.care.

Rachel Schreiber
Thanks for joining the Spark. Thank you for tuning into another enlightening episode of The Spark. We trust our discussions have sparked new and fresh perspectives on healthcare innovation and encouraged you to find ways to reinvent the healthcare experience.

Don’t forget to explore the detailed show notes for this episode. Share the insights with fellow innovators and email us at thespark@avaneerhealth.com to share your thoughts, comments, or reactions. Your engagement fuels the flame of innovation, and we look forward to continuing this transformative dialogue with you. Until next time, keep the spark alive.

Non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) helps hundreds of millions of patients get to their medical appointments each year, often for critical life-saving treatments like dialysis and chemotherapy. The decades-old NEMT service industry traditionally relies on highly manual, paper-based processes that often inhibit a patient’s ability to receive the care they need and for NEMT businesses to get paid. Kinetik founder and CEO Sufian Chowdhury saw an opportunity to reinvent how this industry functions through digital innovation. Hear him talk about the obstacles he faced, the lessons learned, and what it means to be a startup in today’s complex healthcare industry.

 

 

 

 

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