Inspired by the sad tale of one patient, Sonya Kim, MD, MBA founded One Caring Team to create a way to keep patients better connected through Virtual Reality.
Article: One Caring Team: VR for the Lonely
Steve Krupa: Welcome to the Breaking Health Podcast. I’m here with Dr. Sonya Kim, CEO of One Caring Team. Welcome to the Podcast, Dr. Kim.
Dr. Sonya Kim: Thank you for having me, Steve.
SK: So I’d like to really just get right into the business, and from there talk a little bit about how you got here. But I think this is a very unique value proposition relative to some of the companies that we’ve spoken to on the Podcast. So as a quick summary, give me a sense for what your company’s doing and the value that you’re looking to add into the healthcare system.
DK: Sure. At One Caring Team we use a little VR to reconnect seniors to life.
SK: That’s pretty good. That’s pretty good.
DK: Thank you.
SK: And I’ll tell you a funny story. So VR, for me, started with a movie called Disclosure, which was like, I don’t know, 25 years ago. It was the first time that I ever thought about VR with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, and there was like this VR scene where somebody put goggles on and they converted a computer into a filing cabinet and all kinds of cool things happened. So where is VR today? When people think about what it can do, what is it that we think about most frequently about virtual reality?
DK: I think virtual reality is mostly known in the gaming community because that’s where it’s coming from. But we’re using it in healthcare. I am a physician. I have 20 years in healthcare experience, so I’m using it to solve an old problem, timeless problem that we face in Asian population, where most of the seniors that I’ve taking care of in the past are extremely lonely and isolated. So we’re using VR as a tool to give them an avenue to really help them reconnect to life and find a new happy place in virtual reality.
SK: That’s very cool. We had a guest on the show from the Sync Project, which is using music and doing studies around music and its ability to have a clinical outcome, whether that be around cognition or mood or behavioral health. And I thought that was awesome because from my perspective, I use music to sort of set the mood for whatever I’m interested, when I get interested in when I get a chance. So as you start to think about using VR to meet the goals that you just mentioned, is this a content production endeavor? Is it a content production plus clinical trial endeavor? Where does the sort of development of the product and the clinical outcome of the product come together as you begin to build the business?
DK: I love complex problem where there’s 5 different answers to 5 different questions all embedded in one. Let me try to isolate your questions and then try to address them one by one. OK?
DK: So when I used to make house calls as a conscientious medical doctor in the Bay Area, I got called in to take care of a patient named Betty, who’s 88, stopped eating, drinking water, ended up in the emergency room three times in one month, got admitted into the hospital twice. Her medical bill was $56,000 in that month. And her daughter was going through a painful divorce in Las Vegas and she couldn’t come visit her mom in California because she was out of state. So her daughter Googled me and found my Best MD House Calls and asked me to take care of her mom. So I spent two hours and ten minutes with Betty in her nursing home and asked her, Betty, why did you stop eating and drinking water? And she said to me, Dr. Kim, I don’t matter anymore, no one loves me, no one cares about me. Why should I eat, why should I drink, why should I live? I just want to die today. In fact, can you help me die? So as a single woman without any kids, I couldn’t stop sobbing on my way home. And that’s the truth. And that’s why I decided to do something about social isolation in seniors. And it turns out we’re wasting $100 billion a year in healthcare due to frequent ER visits that’s avoidable, and preventable hospital readmission that’s costing us billions of dollars. And there’s report for that and research paper based on how we got the numbers. But anyway, it’s a huge problem. So America doesn’t know – basically the bottom line is America doesn’t know what to do with social isolation, period. So I wanted to do something about that. We launched Human Kindness program 1.0 through our proactive care platform on One Caring Team two years ago with mild success. And I was giving a talk at an assisted living in San Francisco where one of the audience raised his hand and said, Dr. Kim, I love what you’re doing. You’re doing such a noble cause. I mean giving compassion, empathy to these seniors, your care call. How awesome is that. However, how about my mom? She’s got dementia. Can you do something for us? I just want my mom to be happy. So that was his request. So basically I got a new homework assignment from a potential customer. But said, All right, let me see what I can do, because at the time we couldn’t really help people with dementia because they could not participate in our care call. Having a coherent conversation like you and I are having right now on the phone was impossible because they had lost the ability to carry on a conversation. So I looked around and I was always different tech trends, and virtual reality came up to my radar. So I thought OK, well, let me see what this virtual reality is all about. So I went to GDC VR mixer in San Francisco some time ago, and I tried on the Rift DK2, and I was blown away. And I had never seen anything like it, and I was so happy to find something that I could actually do, I could play with and actually, they developed a program for my seniors who can’t go anywhere because they’re in a wheel chair, or they’re locked up in a locked up unit in a memory care. And I thought, well, I can just think of all these endless possibilities. So I got really excited and when I was giving a talk at a preventive emotional care conference in Hawaii, I borrowed somebody’s Gear VR headset and I took it with me. And I was meeting with half a dozen executives at different high end VCRCs in assisted living facilities. And I tried them out and I said, Hey, do you like this? We’re doing this. And I was basically doing my customer development chapter one.
DK: To see if they would actually buy it, they would actually use it. Because why bother developing a program if no one’s going to buy it? This is lesson number one that I learned from Steve Blank when I took his class, Advanced Entrepreneurship class at Berkeley, where I got my MBA. So that’s what I did. And their response was phenomenal. People wanted to buy it from me before I even began the development. So I came back to California and I said, Look at that. I was having more success with this product that I haven’t even built than the Care Call plan that I launched and I spent a year developing. So I said all right. So we started developing in-house product because there was no content that was out there that was suitable for my patients with dementia or any kind of a debilitating neurologic disorder such as MS. And I’ve dealt with a lot of chronic complex care condition patients because that’s what you see in the ER as an ER physician. So long story short that’s how I got started. So we ended up doing some of our own content, and then we started getting attention from some of the leading VR developer studios because they had content, but they didn’t have an audience to sell to. Because obviously if you spend 6 months, 12 months developing an awesome VR experience, and you could own the VR store, whether it’s Oculus or something, whatever, and you’re making $9.99 per download, and that’s all you’re making per each unique user, it’s going to be a while before you can actually pay rent in San Francisco.
DK: Because it’s really expensive here. And so these guys were hungry indie developers, and I basically said to them, Listen, we’re not a content studio, but you are, so if you want to develop something that’s suitable for my patient population, we have a market. And so we started working with them as a distribution partner because we have the ability to distribute their content and actually sell for them. So that’s how it got started. So to answer your question, do we produce our own content? Yes. But are we a content, full-on content studio and that’s it? No, because we’re actually leading the distribution of the content that some of these partners are giving us because they don’t have a customer base. They don’t have an install base to really push out their $9.99 per download content. So does that answer your question?
SK: It does. You covered a lot there, actually, which is cool. It sounds like your business started from a framework of care calls for the elderly. Is that –
SK: – that’s the bricks and mortar business.
SK: And I’m assuming that’s still part of the product at this point in time?
DK: Depending on who I’m talking to.
SK: Well, fair enough. But there’s obviously demand to send nurses out to the elderly for a variety of different reasons. A lot of that is just to see how they’re aging in place, to make sure that they’re taking care of themselves, taking their medications, dealing with the issue of being alone or, more importantly, being unable to attend to themselves. So that issue, I’m assuming, doesn’t go away through your virtual reality approach. But I’d rather hear from you about that. It sounds like the approach that you’re taking with the VR is more about giving them some experiences that can improve mood or improve attitude, improve compliance and things like that. So can you take me through sort of how the two ideas come together?
DK: Yeah. So just a minor correction there, or a real correction there.
SK: Yeah, sure.
DK: We don’t send anyone to anyone’s home. That would be way too labor intensive, and that market is incredibly saturated. The margin’s getting thinner and thinner.
SK: Oh, fair enough, sorry.
DK: And they got a huge hit in California, at least in the state of California with regard to some of the label law and regulatory matters that really squashed their margins again recently, over a year ago or so. So home care service is what you’re alluding to there is not what we do. That’s not what we did. One Caring Team’s Human Kindness Program 1.0 was all virtual. It was basically a group of caring listeners. And it’s on our website as well. So if you go to Onecaringteam.com, you’ll see that anybody who has aging parents or neurological patients, they can go onto our website and sign up for our care call plan. And so if you sign up for three care calls a week or whatever, one of our caring listeners will actually call your mom three times a week and take care notes onto our proactive care platform, which is cloud based, and we have a proprietary system that we already built in house a while ago, and that’s already in market place. So that’s the care call plan. So it’s not somebody going to somebody’s home. It’s all by telephone. And there’s limitation to that product. Obviously if your mom or dad has severe hearing loss, they can’t really participate because it’s by the phone call, it’s not by visits, human visiting you, right. And so those limitations actually played into our decision, our corporate strategy decision to really focus on VR because VR is visual. So even if you have slight hearing loss or you can’t really hear or whatever, most people, most dementia people really enjoy our program because it’s pretty to look at. Who would say no to a beautiful paradise island scene in Fiji or Thailand or something like that?
SK: Sure. Yeah.
DK: And so VR program actually addresses, fortunately, although VR allows us to address some of the limitations that we faced when we first launched with Human Kindness Program 1.0. And this is really a true startup story here. People ask me, Wow, you’re so successful with LLBR What’s the secret? And I said, there is no – it’s not about having a smartest brain in Silicon Valley. It’s about trial and error; it’s about understanding truly who your audience is and what their unmet psycho-social needs are. And as a physician who’s taken care of over 40,000 patients, I understand my patients. I understand what’s necessary, what’s needed, and what are the top ten unmet needs. And that’s why, when I produce products, whether it’s Care Call or LLBR, it’s a completely patient centered solution. And that’s why I think that really plays a lot of big role in our success.
SK: Well, thank you. I mean so when you think about the BR, and you gave it a previous initial. I was trying to catch that. But when you’re developing those programs, how are they developed and how are they developed around taking into consideration the needs of the elderly people that you’re serving?
DK: So that’s the secret part. That’s where I come in. Just so you know the technical part, I love to learn new things, so I taught myself how to do Unity in the beginning. So I wanted to follow my developers and see – not follow, but be able to follow their work. So that’s why I started teaching myself Unity. And it’s not that hard if you actually put the time and effort into it. So it’s like learning any other language. So I started learning Unity Development so I can be closer to my developer team. And another thing that you asked was how is it clinical. So if you grab a whole bunch of genius developers, they’ll be able to create beautiful expanses. But that’s not enough because I’m trying to have a positive clinical outcome that actually moves the needle. And hopefully, eventually we want to have the insurance companies reimburse for some of our programs for the right type of patients with ICD-10 code and so on and so forth. And so we have a mission here. We have a mission. Our mission is to really help seniors reconnect to life by giving them, delivering them a happy new place that they haven’t seen before, or that they haven’t visited in 20, 25, 30 years. And we’re doing that while we have all the clinical insight that I have from 20 of experience in healthcare. So that’s where the secret comes into play.
SK: OK. And in order to get reimbursement, presumably, you’re pursuing measuring some form of medical benefit to the product. Is that right?
SK: So that involves some sort of a system of distributing the product to the seniors, giving them the experience, which is your secret sauce, and then measuring what happens as a result of that experience. So can you give me a sense for what outcomes you’re seeing through the experience?
DK: Oh, it’s been incredible. This is why we’re getting a lot of PR coverage left and right. And it’s all of our PR has been inbound. We don’t have $5 million PR budget, so everything that we’ve got so far is all inbound, which I’m really grateful for. So you’re asking what kind of outcomes. So I’m going to just stay on a high level because a lot of the details, that’s proprietary.
DK: A lot of people want to know like what are stuff that we’re measuring. Oh, yeah, I’m sure everybody wants to know. We have metrics that we’ve been monitoring from our private patients as well as group therapy sessions. And we have lots of juicy stuff. But hey, if you want to invest in us, or if you do invest in us, I’ll be happy to show you another layer.
SK: What if I want to buy the product for my parents or something, right? I’m sure your customers –
DK: What’s that?
SK: Well, your customers are probably asking these questions, I would think, no?
DK: No, actually investors ask me these questions, or potential competitors ask me these questions. Customers don’t care. Customers just want them to be happy. That’s all they care about. But anyway, so yeah, so if you invest in us, I’d be happy to tell you more. But on a high level, we want Grandma Betty to be happy. And that’s what we’re seeing. And like I said, there’s a lot of other clinically relevant metrics that we have in our system, and no one else has this system. I looked around. Believe me, we did research and we couldn’t find anything anybody else was doing because nobody else was doing VR in dementia care, or seniors who are lonely, anxious, depressed, all that. So we had to create one. So we did.
SK: Very cool. Can you share with me what some of the experiences would be like in terms of what I would be – if I was Aunt Betty and I was feeling lonely or feeling unhappy? What would be the essence of the VR experience that I would be getting?
DK: Sure. So that’s another area that I get asked a lot because obviously, people say, Well, if she’s having so much fun and so much success so quickly, maybe we should do something like that. And the first thing they ask is, What kind of experiences? So again, I’m going to stay on a high level. We have a variety of different kinds of experiences in different categories because every senior is not – all seniors are not created equal, as you’ve probably heard.
DK: They’re all different. So you can’t just have – even if I gave you the magic formula, it’s not going to work for everybody. So the best answer I can give you at this time, Steve, on a Podcast that you’re going to publish for everybody to hear in our level and stage is that we have developed a system to show and share different kinds of categories of programs for various seniors, depending on all kinds of factors. And we take into all kinds of different factors that is relevant to what we’re trying to achieve. So the end goal is to make them smile and be happy, and whatever we need to do to get there. We have come up with multifactorial systems. And that’s proprietary.
SK: OK, fair enough. Let’s see if I can ask you a question that isn’t proprietary. Give me a sense for the types of culture that you’re building in your company, the types of people that want to come and work for you, and how you’re motivating those people to get excited around the value your providing to these seniors.
DK: Sure. Great question. The culture is very simple. The first set of interviews – obviously, we want to work with competent people who have done VR development before, or who have worked with seniors if they’re on the clinical side. But after the basic screening is done, the question that I’ve always trained my team to ask, and I’ve asked for everybody that we hire is knowing the difference between me-centric universe and other-centric universe, and our mission is to inspire others to live in other-centric universe, where we’re giving our heart energy to improve quality of life for others, and not just focusing on our own happiness. And by that, we really filter out a lot of people that we don’t want to work with because we are not interested in just smart people who think that being selfish and self-centered is OK. It’s not OK. I’ve been there. In my 20’s I was in a me-centric universe, too, you know, me, me, me, let’s do this, let’s do that, overachiever, I want to be number 1 in this, that and the other. But after winning a few wars, you realize it’s not about you. It’s about making the world a better place and having a positive impact, and leaving a legacy behind you when you leave this world. So I live in an other-centric universe where my heart grows every day. Every minute I spend on building my company and our LLVR program gets stronger, my heart grows bigger and bigger. And that’s why I can smile all the time, despite I don’t get enough sleep or whatever, and there’s a lot of life sacrifice on my end. But I love what I do. I absolutely love what I do. And when I see a new crop of seniors smiling and laughing and tapping their feet and singing because they’re so happy with our program, it just touches my heart deeply. And it’s been such a rewarding experience as a serial entrepreneur. This is my favorite company so far. I’ve done a few other startups in health tech, and this has been my first – I mean this has been my favorite startup so far.
SK: Yeah. That sounds awesome. Every company has a way of finding people that fit into their mission. And if you figure out how to find people that are heart-centric, I think that’d be a pretty powerful and proprietary system in and of itself, to be honest with you. Because I know we’re all searching for those people. And the cool thing is I’m seeing a lot of them coming from sort of the younger generation that probably 15 years ago would have wanted to go work for a social media company, now having an interest in applying their skills into healthcare with the notion that not only will they be doing something interesting and fulfilling, but they’ll be doing something good. Are you finding that that’s the type of person that’s attracted to work for you?
DK: Absolutely. We work with a lot of younger generation folks who are interested in our CVRT role, which is a certified VR therapist role, who are the Navy SEAL team that I bring to roll out our program at any new accounts in our region. And we’re having so much success. In fact, because we are heart-centric and because we are all about making a positive impact in study while building a scalable, profitable company, a lot of people resonate with that mission because we’re not just about dollars and cents, Steve, and it’s about meaning. And people actually gravitate towards – the right people, at least, I should say, the right people actually gravitate towards meaningful positions that has more meaning than just a paycheck at the end of the month. So yeah, we’ve been really fortunate to be able to recruit so many good people. If I recruit one person from one area, they usually bring in five more because they have such a positive experience with us, our startup culture and our momentum with all of our VR movement, that they end up talking to five of their girlfriends or guy friends, and then they end up bringing five more people and asking me, Hey, I got all these friends who want to do this same thing that I’m doing. Can you hire them? Or do you have places for them? And so it’s been really amazing to be able to recruit the right type of people from our own team, small team, so we just grow organically.
SK: That’s great. I know we’ve got a limited amount of time left. I think you’ve done a great job of sort of whetting people’s appetite around this concept and how it can create better lives for people that are aging. And of course we could probably spend a half an hour talking about all the psycho-social issues that lead to that. But there’s also a lot of information about you online and in the media. So I’ll just leave with asking you to tell the audience how they can find out more about you, where can they find you, are you a regular on Twitter, Facebook, your website, those types of things.
DK: Sure, thank you so much, Steve. So you can – if you want to just check us out, you can to go our website, Onecaringteam.com. And that’s ONE, caring, CARING, team, TEAM.com and send us an email through the website. Or you can reach out to me on LinkedIn. My name is Dr. Sonya Kim. SONYA KIM. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn, and that’s actually better because then I can get a sense of who you are and what you’re looking for, and be able to filter our schedule system. Thank you.
SK: Terrific. Well, thank you for joining me, and best of luck. It sounds like a really cool company you’re building.
DK: Thanks so much.