98point6, a telemedical startup whose platform pairs clinicians with AI to provide text-based care, today announced that it secured $40 million in financing. CEO Robbie Cape, a former Microsoft executive and the founder of the family organization company Cozi, said the capital would be used to hire three times more physicians by the end of April.

The hope is that with the expanded team, a new free COVID-19 assessment tool, and a dashboard that lets patients see wait times over the past week, 98point6 will be in a better place going forward to address the patient influx resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since January, when the company created medically based resources and created clinical guidelines based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cape says there’s been a 200% increase in traffic — 40% of which has been COVID-related.

98point6 appointments take place digitally 24/7, via an app for Android and iOS or a web dashboard. The company offers a personal plan and an employer-sponsored plan, the latter of which covers dependents aged 1 year and up. Some individual health plans are accepted, but customers who lack them pay $20 for the first year (and $1 per visit) and $120 for the second year, in addition to outside-app costs like prescriptions and visits to referred physicians.

Patients fill out a profile with their personal information (identity and contact details), care preferences (pharmacy and preferred care provider), and coverage details. Next, 98point6’s chatbot-like automated assistant solicits answers to health questions and information about the person’s symptoms, all of which it relays to licensed, board-certified medical professionals.

98point6

Cape says that on average, the majority of medical interviews on the platform are conducted by the assistant, which taps natural language processing to enable the patients to express themselves in plain English. The assistant can understand short phrases like “my head hurts” or even multiple descriptive paragraphs, helping to foster a natural dialogue even in the context of machine interactions.

The platform learns from each visit, becoming more perceptive each time it’s used. According to Cape, 98point6’s AI determines the most relevant information to gather from the patient, also in a natural dialogue format. On the back end, it’s trained to ensure that physicians are presented with material related to each patient’s complaint.

Clinicians can respond in-app using a secure messaging tool, where they can text, exchange photos and videos, or refer more complicated cases to in-person physicians or specialists. At the conclusion of each virtual visit, patients get a personalized care plan outlining any necessary prescriptions and lab work. Subsequent notifications alert them when said prescription is filled or lab results are ready.

Currently, 98point6 services all 50 states, up from 40 in 2018. It’s been a slow but steady rollout since 2015 — because each jurisdiction has its own telemedical regulations, and federal regulations prohibit for-profit companies from practicing medicine directly, 98point6 has to set up subsidiaries in each state that comply with local laws.

98point6’s terms of service make clear that it’s not intended to replace an emergency room or primary care physician, and that humans — not AI — are behind diagnoses. Its dozens of full-time doctors, most of whom are based in the company’s Seattle headquarters, treat conditions that don’t necessarily require a trip to the office, namely acne, allergies, asthma, back problems, cold sores, eye infections, sunburns, and sexually transmitted diseases.

98point6

This type of service could help address the dearth of new health workers in the U.S., Cape said. The Association of American Medical Colleges forecasts a shortage of up to 49,300 primary care physicians by 2030, and 98point6’s research found that adding just one clinician to a population of 10,000 people would reduce the group’s mortality rate by 5.3%.

During beta testing, 98point6 achieved a 93% resolution rate. Its goal is to reduce wait times to 30 seconds or less, which compares favorably to the 24 days on average patients wait for primary care physician appointments.

98point6 has competition in CirrusMD, Heal, Pager, Kry, HealthTap, RubiconMD, SnapMD, Mfine, Pager, K Health, Doctor on Demand, and dozens more telemedical providers. But its business model and client list of over 200 employers, health plans, and retail partners — which includes over 200 organizations such as Seattle Children’s Hospital, TAG, Sur La Table, KinderCare Education, and Office Basics — help it to stand out from the crowd. According to Cape, 98point6 serves more than 3 million people.

Indeed, the real trick will be convincing folks to pick up their smartphone instead of driving to the doctor’s office. Of the more than 70% of consumers who say they’re interested in virtual health care, according to an Accenture poll, only 20% have tried it.

But telehealth is having something of a moment as the COVID-19 crises rages on. The global telemedical market, which encompasses tech that facilitates remote medical diagnosis and treatment, is now anticipated to climb from its current $38.3 billion valuation to $130.5 billion by 2025. And Americans are changing their tune: A recent survey by Becker Hospital Review found that over 75% say they’re willing to attend a doctor’s appointment remotely. (Teladoc, for example, says it’s averaging 15,000 patient visits a day in the U.S.)

In anticipation of a surge in telemedical patients, the recent $2 trillion U.S. emergency funding bill sought to waive some of the financial and health care coverage difficulties around telehealth. For instance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it would temporarily pay clinicians to provide services for beneficiaries residing across the country, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unveiled a $200 million plan to boost telehealth services by purchasing the necessary services and equipment.

98point6’s latest round of funding was led by Goldman Sachs with participation from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal, former Goldman Sachs CEO David Viniar, and Frazier Healthcare Partners Managing Partner Nader Naini, and it brings the Seattle-based startup’s total raised to $129 million following a $50 million series C in October 2018. It has 241 employees, and it expects to have over 350 by 2021.

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