After a harrowing encounter with emergency surgery, Cole Sirucek and Grace Park have devised a virtual network to help patients find the best possible care for themselves
As children, a trip to the doctor can be a harrowing ordeal. Needles, tubes, and hospital beds can frighten a child. Even as adults, going to a hospital is often equally as worrying. It is significantly worse when someone you love is ill, and facing a life-threatening disease.
Eight years ago, Cole Sirucek and Grace Park found themselves in a similar situation when their infant daughter, Rand, was hospitalised after a routine check-up. “The doctor said that she had jaundice and that she needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately,” says Park in an interview with Options.
At first, the couple thought it was a small matter, perhaps one that could be solved with a jab. At the hospital, however, doctors conducted multiple blood tests, scans and even magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a medical imaging technique used in radiology to form pictures of the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body.
Finally, they were brought into a room, where doctors broke the news. At barely a year old, their daughter had a rare liver condition. “Her liver was failing and she needed a liver transplant,” says Park.
The head surgeon at the hospital insisted that the operation be performed immediately, but the couple had their doubts. Park continues: “We asked the head surgeon, who’s a liver specialist, ‘How many times have you done this? How much is it going to cost? How are your other patients doing, are they thriving? The doctor just crossed his arms and said ‘I’m good at my job. I’m head of department.’”
Unimpressed but also worried, the parents embarked on a global search for a doctor who could offer them greater peace of mind, and found a pioneer of liver transplants — a surgeon based in Japan. “We found out that he had done thousands and thousands of such surgeries, whereas the initial team had only done a handful. We also realised that our surgeon [charged] 60% less in terms of cost,” says Park.
“We couldn’t get straight, consumer-friendly answers from the medical community that would empower us to make one of the most important decisions we were ever going to make in our lives,” says Sirucek, who eventually donated a piece of his liver in a complex, 15-hour surgery performed here.
The operation was successful, making Rand one of the youngest to undergo such a procedure in the world. As Sirucek was recovering in the intensive care unit, he turned to Park and said, “Grace, I know what we have to do.”
The ordeal inspired the couple to start DocDoc, a platform that connects patients to the best doctor for their specific needs. As Sirucek was recovering in the ICU, it became clear to the couple what their venture needed to be, says Park. “This was the real pain point in which we need to empower patients, and to make data-informed decisions in their doctor discovery process.”
Today, the Singapore-based healthtech start-up DocDoc has grown to include more than 23,000 doctors in its network. Sirucek says DocDoc’s knowledge architecture covers 95% of medicine, by volume and value, across 66 different subspecialties.
The hospital is full of people having unique experiences, adds Sirucek. “Everybody we talked to, either they or their daughters, sons, or their mom or dad; we all went through that unique experience. And ergo, that is the problem… It’s [about] creating a tool that can be relevant to everybody at that moment. That’s really hard to do in healthcare.”
The company works with insurance companies and corporate clients. Patients will first have a consultation with one of DocDoc’s in-house doctors, and a custom report will be generated using DocDoc’s AI-powered platform, along with three recommended doctors that are most relevant to their needs.
“When we look at what patient needs are, they’re very unique and different, whether it be religious preferences, what kind of medical technology, perhaps gender or language,” explains Park. DocDoc’s knowledge model may have taken three and a half years to develop, but in his words, Sirucek summarises the spirit of the platform as such: DocDoc started to help patients find the right doctor.
“If we simplify this, we’re creating traffic lights. We’re routing patients to the right type of doctor at a condition and procedure level for their unique needs,” he says.
SEE:Doctor discovery platform DocDoc raises US$13 mil in capital
Park hopes DocDoc can replace the anecdotal evidence that most patients rely on. “I hear too many stories of how patients choose doctors who have lots of gray hair or [based on] the title the doctor has, or because the hospital lobby is very fancy, the marble floors are very expensive, and so it must be a very well-run place. So these are assumptions in the absence of data.”
Park also highlights that the need to meet the gap between patient and doctor has never been more urgent. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, there are six times more millennials in Asia than in the US and Europe combined. As true digital natives born between 1980 and 1994, the generation is currently the most underinsured age group. “While this generation expects instant, personalised services, industry data suggests that they are not receiving this from their insurers,” writes Park in a recent Medium post.
Sirucek thinks the entire system is “right out of the polyester suits and big Cadillac era of the 1970’s”. “We find millennials get really annoyed with the typical insurance workflow. I got to meet this person, then this person’s got to talk to me, and I don’t want to talk to them. Then they hand me a bunch of papers; I don’t like paper. Where do I even find a fax machine? They don’t take a PDF.”
Sirucek likens DocDoc to a “genie out of the bottle”, a way to digitise a paper-bound field. “Once you get a process in place, then everybody else has a place to hook onto. Once you have a data model that’s storing data intelligently, then people have access to data.”
Building DocDoc from the ground up was no easy task, however. While the couple are no stranger to leading large teams, being in a start-up environment is quite different. Prior to DocDoc, Sirucek spent seven years in the direct investment team of Temasek Holdings and also held executive positions in Hawaii’s State Government.
In addition to being the co-founder and chief executive officer of DocDoc, Sirucek is also a managing director of Founders Equity Partners, a direct secondary investment firm, and an entrepreneur in residence at the Rudolf and Valeria Maag INSEAD Centre for Entrepreneurship. On the other hand, Park’s background lies in the military and healthcare. Before DocDoc, she was the managing director of medical device company Medtronic’s Asean operations.
Originally an army officer, Park graduated with honours from the elite US Military Academy at West Point. She later completed her stint at the Pentagon — the US Department of Defense headquarters located in Arlington, Virginia — leaving the armed forces with the rank of Captain.
But throwing themselves into building a start-up was more work than either of them had expected. “I didn’t say this before but God bless the entrepreneur. The amount of stuff that we had to go through to get to this stage is way harder than I ever imagined, this is way more taxing,” says Sirucek.
“When you work in these big companies or governments, you very quickly forget how many people’s excellent efforts allow you to do the things you do,” he adds. “When you get into your own startup, you realise that if you don’t buy toilet paper, there’s no toilet paper. If you don’t call the water person, there’s no water showing up. You have to do everything.”
Similarly, Park’s move from big corporate to the start-up arena required a paradigm shift. “When you start your own venture, the nature of something that is just being started [is that] it wants to go into a natural state of entropy or chaos… You have to shift yourself into building something new versus running something that’s already there. I think a huge part for me was just that mindset shift that had to occur. It took me a year, basically, just to fully shift over.”
Today, DocDoc currently employs more than 80 employees in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Manilla, Ho Chi Minh City, San Francisco and New York. As for expansion plans, Sirucek says the Middle East is showing “a lot of promise”, along with the UK and Australia.
But he says he is not too concerned, however, as he thinks DocDoc grows in a “viral” fashion.
“The insurers that we’re working with, they all have global ambitions, they all have global enterprises. They’re going to say, ‘We want you in these five countries.’ That might take us into markets like Buenos Aires or somewhere we weren’t thinking about but that’s the best way to grow a business like this.”
Last August, DocDoc closed a funding round of US$13 million led by Adamas Finance Asia Limited (ADAM), a London-listed investment company. To date, the company has raised close to US$25 million ($33.54 million).
Now entering their ninth year, the couple looks back at how DocDoc has grown alongside their young family. “I think that it’s remarkably humbling to build a company from scratch,” says Sirucek.
“You have to build a system that allows these things to start getting done, just a phase of growth, like a little baby growing into an organisation.”