Andrew Shirk has more than just one startup under his name. The founder and CEO of Durham-based CityPT, which leverages technology to improve quality of care and speed of access in musculoskeletal health, also runs Durham-based startup Magneta Health. (Note: We previously profiled CityPT in late 2021.)
And Magneta’s vision? To create compelling experiences for all healthcare patients using bespoke conversational applications to save patients time and money, while ultimately breaking new ground on the healthcare tech frontier.
It’s a daunting task to create software that improves the patient experience across healthcare, but it’s certainly a challenge Shirk is eager to meet.
The path here all began when Shirk was a software developer at UNC, assigned to a project to develop the first chatbot for UNC’s patient portal. The pandemic had accelerated the usage of UNC Health’s hotline, and the chatbot proved a more efficient way to get basic information to patients.
Shirk ended up building one of the first Covid-19 screening bots, which screened thousands of patients throughout the coronavirus crisis. From there, he gained a deeper understanding of just how little has been invested into creating good chatbots even though they hold so much potential.
It matches our basic human experience of conversation and can easily collect the same information as a traditional form. The current chatbots largely in place, however, tend to provide poor user experiences, Shirk said.
“Technologies for improving patient engagement and experience have historically been made a very low priority in the U.S,” Shirk said. “The pandemic highlighted how far the healthcare industry has fallen behind in this regard. Despite all the innovation and exuberance in digital health the last couple of years, traditional healthcare hasn’t changed much.”
Patients still find it incredibly difficult to accomplish simple things like finding the most affordable MRI in their areas, and these frustrations all build up to a reduced quality of life and poor clinical outcomes, Shirk said. In such a market ripe with problems, Magneta Health, founded in 2020, is hoping to make an impact.
“People are not willing to invest the money into creating these good experiences,” Shirk said. “And to create a chatbot that has truly human-like intelligence would require what’s called artificial general intelligence, and that’s just not going to be possible for decades.”
Even though more innovation is needed, chatbots are still a promising element of healthcare’s future, according to Shirk.
“Chatbots are still really powerful user interface devices, and very specifically task-targeted tools to accomplish complicated things in a very easy way,” Shirk said. “It just takes all these other skills to do them in a compelling manner.”
The potential chatbots that Magneta Health will focus on include an interface to help patients find the fastest available specialist from a primary care doctor or even a way to find specific affordable drugs.
Inevitably, chatbots are nearing a trough of disillusionment by users, Shirk said, but he sees this as a good thing because that means something even better is around the corner.
“The technology isn’t sophisticated enough that I know of to really deliver on the promise,” Shirk said. “I think that’s a good thing because it’ll really push more creative uses of technologies.”
Shirk said the remainder of 2022 for Magneta will be spent completing some major projects for initial customers. What they learn from the rollout and iteration of these products will ultimately shape the strategy for 2023.
As a founder, he’s already learned something incredibly vital: it’s all about the story and value proposition you can explain to customers.
“You’ll succeed if you can tell a really compelling story,” Shirk said. “A lot of being a founder is being able to really refine and refine and refine your concepts and your stories to make them simple enough to be understood by your audience and your investors.”