Fast Company Executive Board member Julian Flannery explains how Summus is on a mission to facilitate clinician-to-specialist interactions—and in doing so, transform access to healthcare.
In a candid assessment of the state of American healthcare today, one might say at best that the system is at a crossroads—at worst, in crisis. Systemic problems such as mounting administrative burdens, capacity limitations and clinician shortages all coalesce into one multidimensional problem, with no quick fix in sight.
At the point of care, patients may experience this problem in the form of hurdles to treatment, diminished access and quality of care, and staggering medical bills. For physicians, the problem manifests in several significant pain points: Clinicians find themselves stretched far beyond capacity, seeing ever-higher volumes of patients due to hospital closures and staffing shortages, while simultaneously trying to navigate systems that often lack interoperability, furthering their administrative burdens. Burnout has reached unprecedented levels, with more than half of physicians reporting burnout according to a 2023 Becker’s report.
For the team behind Summus, a virtual specialty care platform that connects patients and families—and importantly, clinicians themselves—to specialists, both virtually and on the ground, the urgency of the burnout epidemic is one of the main motivations to transform access to specialty care at scale. “Physicians have to constantly think about the value of their time, in that they can only see so many patients in a day,” CEO Julian Flannery explains. “They try to be hyper-efficient in all their interactions.” One crucial piece of that puzzle, says Flannery, is creating smooth, efficient pathways for peer-to-peer consults, one of the few promising by-products of a system where clinicians are in shortage and stretched thin.
FOSTERING INDISPENSABLE INTERACTIONS
In offering a platform that allows clinicians to quickly connect with peers and specialists in other areas to problem-solve, discuss challenging cases, gain feedback and better support patients, the Summus team hopes to ameliorate some prime contributing aspects of the physician burnout crisis: the sense of working alone, stretched beyond capacity, and the associated logistical and emotional burden. “Peer-to-peer consults allow clinicians to make better decisions to guide their patients,” Flannery says. “Through our virtual specialty care platform, they’re able to access high quality, specialist expertise quickly—from simple questions to the very complex. And rather than just writing a referral to a specialist, they can extend their own reach with the patient through that peer-to-peer perspective.”
Flannery emphasizes that peer-to-peer interactions have always been a vital component of the physician experience. “A lot of it happens sort of off-the-cuff,” he explains. “Physicians have always relied on one another for expertise, whether it’s walking down the hall, or picking up the phone to send a text, or making a call to ask things like ‘Hey, what do you know about medications for migraines?’ It’s an interaction between two licensed physicians that happens every day ad hoc.” Summus’ solution, Flannery says, “brings to market an efficient, scalable platform where doctors are able to access specific expertise from thousands of specialists around the country. It gives them a lot of leverage to support and optimize their patient’s care.”
Flannery explains that this ability to optimize care through a virtual peer-to-peer network is especially impactful for doctors working in remote rural settings (where there might not be another expert, let alone a specialist, for miles), as well as those in overburdened primary care clinics. “Having access to this kind of tool also provides continuous education for clinicians in terms of how to direct their patients,” he says. Moreover, peer-to-peer consults facilitate continuity and the ability to see patients through the continuum of care. “You’re not just sending them off with a referral where they may be bounced around the healthcare system, and hoping they find and get the right care,” he says. Being able to guide patients even outside of the primary care setting, Flannery says, is “really empowering—and it’s better for the patient and for their relationship with their primary care doctor.”
A MULTI-DIMENSIONAL SOLUTION
Summus’ platform is also unique in offering a model that aligns with and solves for multiple levels of care complexity. “Effective interactions between peers can’t just be text-based,” he says. “We’ve designed an escalation model tied to the increasing complexity of care that uses different modalities, and works for clinicians across all questions, from streamlined to very complex.”
For straightforward cases where a clinician may have a simple question or be looking for validation, they can post questions (“The first migraine medication I prescribed for my patient isn’t working—what medication should I try next?”) and will receive an answer from a specialist within hours. In cases that are a bit more complex and require a “curbside” consult, which have traditionally taken place in the form of a quick conversation between physicians in the hospital hallway, a physician can communicate one-to-one with the right specialist by video for five to 10 minutes to discuss possible treatment options.
For the most complex cases, wherein a physician may be trying to determine the appropriate procedure for a patient with multiple chronic conditions, that clinician can enlist a specialist to review the case (and any associated records) and offer their opinion. “There are multiple dimensions and use cases for each step along the journey,” Flannery says.
THE NEXUS OF VIRTUAL AND PERSONAL
The Summus team sees its mission as an effort “to restore human connection in healthcare” by offering an efficient, elegant tech solution that transforms access to specialty care. Addressing all health conditions and concerns, Summus has created a new category in healthcare: virtual specialty care, that not only supports its members, but physicians too. “The future of healthcare, in our minds, is very much a combination of virtual meets in-person,” Flannery says, adding that some things, such as lab tests or colonoscopies, cannot be conducted over a screen. “But there’s a lot of healthcare that can be done virtually. And with peer-to-peer, it’s really exciting that you can put technology in the middle of a national network of doctors and empower them to engage with each other across the continuum of care to optimize patient care.”
Ultimately, Flannery says, the Summus team is cognizant of the fact that peer-to-peer consults must extend beyond merely “a video screen between two people” in order to be impactful. What’s really important, Flannery emphasizes, is these substantive conversations being facilitated via technology. The right virtual tool must integrate seamlessly into physicians’ workflows and close the loop around care when a multidisciplinary team is involved. In short, it must facilitate not just the right peer-to-peer connections, but the highest quality of interactions.
When that succeeds, Flannery says, the results are transformative in their simplicity. “There really is a role for technology in healthcare,” he says. “By helping doctors see patients at the right time in their journey, it improves efficiency and provides the ability to help more people. By helping more people, we transform access to healthcare.”