Ask Me MD: Medical School for the real world

Charles Weaver, MD - Omni Health Media Non-Clinical Medicine

August 28, 2020 D.J. Verret, MD, FACS Season 1 Episode 4
Ask Me MD: Medical School for the real world
Charles Weaver, MD - Omni Health Media Non-Clinical Medicine
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Charles Weaver, CEO and founder, of Omni Health media joins the program to discuss non-clinic jobs. Omni Health Media empowers patients with chronic diseases through educational content and custom social communities to engage with each other and their healthcare providers to identify the best treatments and manage their condition from diagnosis through survivorship. Charles H Weaver MD is the CEO and Executive Editor of OMNI and its print and digital disease state programs which have a major focus in Cancer, Rheumatoid Arthritis, IBD and other GI Conditions and Woman’s Health.

Dr Weaver discusses his path through non-clinical medicine and offers some advice for physicians looking to work in the digital world.

If you have questions or ideas for a show, send us an email at [email protected]. Hear the latest podcast at http://askmemdpodcast.com or through your favorite podcast directory.

Announcer :

Ask Me MD, medical school for the real world with the MD Dr. D.J. Verret.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Thank you again for joining us for Ask Me MD, medical school for the real world. This week we are joined by Dr. Charles Weaver, Charles founded Omni health media which runs several websites including cancer connect the GI connection, the rheumatoid arthritis connection, the spine community and kin talk, which are patient engagement communities for individuals with cancer gi conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, spine conditions are hereditary cancers. After the break, we'll be joined by Dr. Weaver. Welcome to Ask Me, MD. I'm the MD Dr. DJ Verret. And joining me today is Dr. Charles Weaver of Omni health media. Dr. Weaver thanks for taking the call.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Happy to see you, DJ.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

I, I heard that you were one to shy away from podcasts. So I'm feeling extra special and definitely want to send an extra shout out for for taking the time to talk with us.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, I'm happy to be on your podcast, I just don't want to be the originator of the podcast.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Fair enough. Fair enough. So to to you and I obviously we've known each other for a couple of years now. But for all of our listeners who are joining us, if you could maybe give us a brief background of your educational history and where things kind of started and then we'll start talking about your, your multimedia platforms from there. So if you can kind of give us the background, that'd be great.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Yeah, so I'm a medical oncologist by training, University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania National Cancer Institute, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center at various times and phases over the years, I became most interested in interacting with patients using various forms of media, when I was at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, and my mentor asked me to help develop an outreach program. And this was prior to the internet. But I carry that interest and desire to figure out how to interact with patients in a positive way to help them engage their doctors and get better health care as a result of that early experience in Fred Hutchinson developing their outreach program.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

And so kind of fast forward for us where, at what point did you look at starting an online presence and an online platform?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, I was the Chief Medical Officer of one of the practice management companies in oncology that was acquired. And their interest in doing the digital platform really followed the acquisition of that company. When I was trying to decide what I wanted to do next with my life. I will say that when I was the chief medical officer and responsible for helping develop pathways, and integrated clinical trials program, across 50 states with over 1100 oncologists that my interest in figuring out how to engage patients directly, certainly didn't diminish but increased. And combined with my experience with Fred Hutchinson, those two things really conspired to convince me that I wanted to figure out how to interact with patients as a business going forward. And hence, I founded Omni health media and cancer connect back in 1997, really, with the purpose of reaching and engaging patients to empower them to have better access to innovative therapies and discussions with their doctors.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

So why don't you tell us a little bit about obviously, cancer connects been evolving over the last 23 years now? Where Where does it stand today? And then we can maybe go through the evolution and some of the pearls that you've you've come to realize in actually interacting with patients. So what what is cancer Connect today?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, cancer Connect today is a unique platform, in that it combines both a robust social media community with an in depth information platform in most digital platforms do one or the other. What also makes our platform unique, is our goal is to partner with cancer centers and community oncologists to help them bring patients to trials and appropriate therapies and support their patients in partnership versus the more traditional web business which is To sort of interact separately from the cancer care system.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

So when you say you partner with physicians, do you offer white label solutions, or they drive business to your website, some combo those?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Yes, so we've always wanted to partner with physicians. And that came out of my experience with the practice management industry. Recognizing that 90 plus percent of all cancer care is given in the community. And helping patients understand which therapies are best given in the community, and might not require traveling to a tertiary Center has always made a lot of sense. In the beginning, we actually managed close to 200 websites for community oncology practices with white label content. And as the community oncology practices have evolved, they ultimately over time migrated their websites from an information destination to a business platform that was more focused on scheduling, reimbursement, referrals, Patient Support, and tended to refer patients out to information and other credible sources as opposed to wanting to own their own ads that evolved over time, Facebook came into existence, and we picked up on the idea that social interaction was probably going to be the next relevant component of a digital strategy. So we developed a private or white label social platform that engages cancer patients and creates a shared and safe secure environment. Unlike Facebook, where they can interact with other patients across the country and share information support and learn about the best therapies, we actually licensed that software to places like Dana Farber, Beth Israel, Ohio State University of California, you know, NYU, etc, and which they use in a white label environment to support their patients. The cancer Connect public facing platform also includes that social community, and about 20,000 articles on cancer. The beauty of the white label social network, is that patients that access cancer connected directly from Iowa, or Nebraska or California or whatever, are interacting with patients that are also being treated at these world class cancer centers. So in essence, allows them to get information support from a variety of patients being seen really at some of the best places, in learn more about whether they're getting the right thing in their community, or whether a second opinion might be helpful, or, you know, getting support from people that have uncommon cancers and, and want to share their experiences.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

I'm hearing and this seems to be a common theme with entrepreneurs we talked to there's really been an evolution of your platform over time.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, that's the key thing, I think, with the with the Internet, and probably most businesses is it's not static, it does evolve. And you need to be kind of aware of what what's coming next, you know that we've definitely migrated from a combined physician patient platform to a patient only platform that was originally focused on patient information, and is now more focused on Patient Support referrals, and information. And you know, the next phase of this, you know, might include something like a podcast, which we can certainly do, or more audio visual content, which patients are increasingly interested in.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

So on that topic over that evolution cycle, and you mentioned your early interest in how to interact with patients and provide them with information, what are some of the things that you've learned are the best ways to provide information to patients that they'll retain, potentially interact with and act upon?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, I think the key thing people need to understand and one of the reasons we've stayed focused on sort of text based content is cancer patients need information on demand at a moment in time when it's relevant to their specific situation. So a lot of video content doesn't meet that need. The digital text content can be edited on an ongoing basis, as new information becomes available to to help maintain a incredibly robust current platform. So I think I think one of the key things is recognizing that information needs to be on demand. Um, I think that our experience has been that patients actually like reading material for that reason. And it's one of the reasons we haven't overly embraced more video content. I think the other thing that has been interesting in the platform is, in the social communities, the majority of patients are what we call lurkers, patients are still somewhat reticent to share personal information about themselves. But they're robust consumers of content from other people, as well as, you know, in a download format. So they're hungry for information, but I think they still have some some caution.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

So I, the takeaway I would have there is, even if the patients aren't responding to you, it doesn't mean that they aren't listening to you?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, that's correct. We know, for example, that for every hundred patients that joined the social community, about 15, to 20%, post, so 80% of them are actually just reading conversations. And then if you think about if you're a newly diagnosed colon cancer patient, and there's, you know, six different conversations about people that were newly diagnosed with colon cancer and how they went through the process, you're able to glean a lot of information just from reading the threads that these other people have posted. And then what happens is they may come in in the middle of a conversation halfway through therapy with a question, but you can tell I've been following all the conversations.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Interesting. I am now on the on the content side of things outside of the social area. How do you curate content? How do you come up with it? Who do you have writing it? What What does that process look like?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, all of our content is physician written physician edited in peer reviewed by outside sources. So basically, your reference, we're basically building a digital textbook for patients. That's what

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

I was about to say it sounds like you're kind of an online journal aimed at patients using medical information.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Yeah. But it's it's wonderful, though, you know, so for example, I was I was reviewing renal cancer content this morning before our call, and some new immunotherapy data had come out, that is more promising than the older tkip therapies. And you simply open up the document, add two lines, add a reference. And well, ah, you have current content.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Yeah, that I, it's a very interesting point you bring up because that definitely would be a downside to either video or audio content, because editing that requires you to, to basically start from scratch and do it again.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Yeah, audio and visual content. ie,you know, when you're taping somebody is, well, unless it's general content is almost irrelevant 60 to 90 days. And when you think about the fact about how fast medicine is evolving, and that patients need information on demand, at the moment that they need it, it speaks to why the sort of the text platform is just a better way to maintain current credible information in a very cost effective manner.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Now, can you talk a little bit about just outside of the platform itself, the how your business itself has evolved? In other words, how you've, you've brought on additional resources, you may have hired different people. If you've been virtual, just to give our listeners an idea of what it took to actually start the business and get it off the ground.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Yeah, we evolved like, like many businesses, I mean, in the beginning, we raised money, and went out and build a very traditional business with an office and recruited people to work within that business. Over time, we realized that that was incredibly inefficient use of resources. And that if you really want to access content experts, it's far, far easier and more affordable to rent them versus own them. Likewise, as the technology platforms evolved, it's a lot easier to continue to hire people to build your technology background as opposed to trying to own them in house. Yeah, that may be different if you're scaling up like a Web MD, but for smaller startup, you know, it wasn't gonna make sense. So we started out with a traditional brick and mortar model and basically evolved to 100% virtual model. And it was really the Affordable Care Act that caused us to go 100% virtually. And so the company today, you know, really consists of we were way ahead of COVID of three full time employees and 50 experts around the country that we interact with, virtually.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

And can you talk you kind of mentioned that The platform, but I know Omni health media also, in addition to cancer Connect has several other sites that have sprouted up over the years. Can you talk a little bit about the platform development, that in when you kind of started focusing on a technology platform that would allow you that kind of evolution into other applications, and how that's kind of evolved?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Yeah, so you in the beginning, we built our own platform, and I think we spent close to six or $700,000. And within three years, that technology was completely antiquated. And so we spent an additional sum of money to build out the platform. And long story short is most of the things we use today are an essence off the shelf products, because the technology has improved so much. We actually formed a partnership with an entity in Seattle called the Maven, which is an aggregator of quality sites, they have hundreds of sites that are on the Maven platform today, including a sports illustrated in the street. And mavens vision is to be the platform company that digital publishers need to stay current. And we can move our content to their platform, in exchange for a percentage of the revenues that are taken in from the platform. So today, you know, cancer connect and our other properties, a woman's health calm the Arthritis connection, the spine community, all reside on the Maven platform, which is managed solely by Maven, and we no longer even have it responsibilities. So we've gone from basically spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and dealing with IT professionals, which is very difficult to outsource in the entire thing to a company that is dedicated on maintaining, you know, the most current digital platform.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

And and from a little bit higher perspective, it also speaks to the evolution of your business plan, right where you started, specifically in cancer. But you've realized that the business model you created there was actually applicable across multiple applications. And the technology, though, wasn't something you necessarily needed to focus on that

Charles Weaver, MD :

correct. It's, it's more about the content, right? So, you know, we didn't start out with a vision to be in other platforms, but it's evolved in the marketplace. So for example, David Bornstein, who's the past chair of the American College of Rheumatology, and one of the world's leading back pain experts approached me in a medical meeting four years ago, and said, You know, he says, I want to do what you do in cancer and rheumatology? How do we do this? So, you know, his vision was wanting to have something to do as he wound his practice down. And we basically built out the spine community, which is this incredibly robust platform where people with back pain can access the same source of information that we provide on cancer. And he serves as the editor, Maven serves as the software platform. And our writers and experts work with him to digitally populate it with quality content and run the social network.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

You know that that actually brings up an interesting idea that I think a lot of physicians Miss, is if you have a good idea for something, you don't necessarily have to create it from scratch, you could go out and partner with somebody.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, absolutely. And that was David's idea. He had been following us for a while. And he basically said, Well, I don't need to reinvent the wheel here. You know. And if you think about it, the core competency that you have to have in the digital marketplace is content expertise, right. So you know, everything else is is accessible now in a variety of ways. That doesn't mean you can effectively market it and reach the audience, because that's a massive barrier to starting any of these entities. But at the end of the day, you'd have to start with quality content.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

In you mentioned, you bring up a good point, there are barriers to entry. Can you kind of help some of our want to be physician entrepreneurs, understand barriers to entry and how they can potentially evaluate it, particularly in the technology space for potential businesses they're looking at?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, if you're if you're if you're thinking about building a physician or consumer facing digital platform, you're competing with large established companies Web MD medscape, in the Facebook and Google search algorithms, which you need to drive traffic. And so you have to be able to figure out how you can build a platform that you can monetize and not go bankrupt. Trying To reach your audience, most people that start out with building digital platforms fail, because they don't understand how long it takes, what it takes, and what it cost to build your brand online when you're competing with these Bemis.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

And so to that point, what kind of resources have you seen? Or what suggestions would you give to physicians to actually do that research?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, I don't think you need to do a lot of research, I just think you need to understand that it's a difficult task. And you have to think about how are you going to drive traffic to your site? Google just isn't going to discover you. So you have to have a search strategy. And you have to have a non search strategy. So you know, what are the other avenues that you can work through to reach patients? Is it? Is it direct mail? Is it Matt, is it other forms of advertising? Is it partnering with doctors offices? I mean, you have to figure out how you're going to generate traffic. And I think that's where most people fail, because it's a very time consuming, arduous process that you can't just solve with money. I mean, for example, you know, we were, we've been doing this for 20 years, okay. And it wasn't until a few years ago that the American society of clinical oncology actually linked to us on their website. You know, people aren't going to just drive traffic, you know, everybody's trying to build traffic, right. So nobody's eager to send their traffic away from their site.

Unknown Speaker :

You met when we were talking? Before we started the podcast, you mentioned that COVID produced some rather interesting results. Could you share those again? Yeah, yeah. So I think I think the way I phrased it was that COVID did more to drive traffic to cancer connecting our other web properties than anything we could have purchased online. So the number of new cancer patients that have come to cancer connect in the last three months, for example, is up about 350 to 400%. And that's purely a function of cancer patients having their traditional access to information blocked through the closing of the cancer centers, the inability to research nurses, and so forth, and then being frankly, more motivated to look for digital solutions. It's interesting to me, because it seems like a lot of times in business part of success is just being in the right place at the right time.

Charles Weaver, MD :

I think that's a lot of business. Unfortunately, you know, the joke I told you earlier is the Connecticut real estate market has been suffering horribly for the last 10 years for a variety of reasons, in the COVID pandemic, fixed, connected real estate market, in ways that nobody else ever could have. Just, you know, get back to the old, you know, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Right. Right, exactly. Let's talk a little bit about you know, briefly because we're, we're running up against our half hour here pretty soon. Let's talk a little bit briefly about your other your other platform. So you mentioned the one where you were kind of approached out of the blue to use your your ideas and your technology to create a new platform. How did the other How did the other two come about?

Unknown Speaker :

Well, so we asked ourselves where the best opportunities were on in the digital space. And we believe that women's health and chronic health conditions are the best places to build a platform that combines social media and information. And I say that because as we talked about earlier, the acquisition cost of users is not insignificant. So if you can monetize the acquisition cost over 10 years versus over a single event, it's a far better use of your capital expenditure. So women's health is something that women are interested in over their lifetimes. So working hard to build a brand in that space made a lot of sense for us. And we actually built that platform out directly. It was easy for us to do because we have previously published a Women's Health magazine. And so we had significant content and significant content expertise in the space to do that. On the rheumatology front. We just picked it out of thin air because rheumatoid Conditions are chronic. And same thing. rheumatoid arthritis patients, you know, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis are all chronic conditions. And you're, you're trying to build a platform that you can engage patients with over time. Obviously, other chronic diseases like, you know, all sort of colitis would be a good example, diabetes would be a good example. We elected to stay out of diabetes, because there's so many patients, I mean, so many businesses that are going after that space. And a lot of them are focused more on working with insurance industries, we never really wanted to be in the space of partnering with the insurance industry, because we wanted to be patient advocates. And we've walked away from a lot of money over the years, that that we could have made by working with the insurance industry or those that want to control care. But it didn't really fit with our core mission of being an advocate. And by an advocate. I mean, we want people to understand what the best available therapies are, that could help them with their situation and where to get them.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

That that is admirable in it. And it speaks to kind of keeping your company on track as well, because, like you said, you could have easily taken a bunch of money, but potentially gone in a direction that that wouldn't have given you I'm assuming the same satisfaction that you're getting from the content that you're providing now?

Charles Weaver, MD :

No, absolutely. I mean, we could have made literally a fortune partnering with insurance industries, as we understood exactly what they want to control, and how they want pathway medicine to evolve. Coming out of the field of oncology, where all care, in essence is developmental in nature. And outcomes are clearly imperfect. I didn't go into oncology to, to help contribute to a resting in the evolution of cancer care. And I didn't go into oncology to not want to be an advocate for patients. Your one thing that patients don't understand are all the barriers that exist to them access in the most current therapies. And that's one of the things that's come out of the social communities has been most fascinating is, and I don't want people to take this the wrong way. But patients don't understand that their oncologist often isn't and often can't be their best advocate. Part of that's a function of time constraints. Part of that's a function of insurance reimbursement and knowing what will be approved and not be improved. Um, and patients don't really understand that they may need to get engaged, if they really want to access a clinical trial for their late stage cancer, and it's in their doctor may not be the best person to help them do that. And that goes back to my, my experience with Fred Hutchinson, where I started, you know, I mean, we knew we could cure recurrent lymphomas at five times the rate of standard chemotherapy when I was at Fred Hutchinson 25 years ago, okay? But patients didn't come to Fred Hutchinson's because their doctors didn't refer them, their doctors either thought that therapy might be too toxic. Or the patients didn't want to make the trip. And there was no way to access and let patients know that there was an alternative to getting salvage chemotherapy. Okay. So you know, my interest in in wanting to access or help patients access cutting information really goes back to my days at four Hutchinson and it really hasn't changed.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Well, and I think, at least from my perspective, actively seeing patients, if they come in, part of part of it to me would be just physicians, maybe not even knowing about the options, especially in clinical trials with them changing so rapidly. Maybe not knowing the options and but when a pit, but the flip side is when a patient comes in with that kind of opportunity, then I'm willing to work with him to help him to help him get there if they need to.

Charles Weaver, MD :

Yeah, well, I would say that in oncology in particular, you know, based on NGS testing, and our ability to look for biomarkers. The number of precision cancer medicines that had been developed over the last five to six years is just extraordinary. And that is going to continue into the future. And I honestly don't know how a community oncologists can even come close to keeping current with everything that's in development. Okay,

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

I've actually got cancer driving mutations. No, I agree with you. I've actually said that even before the personalized medicine came out, I totally respected oncologists, because keeping up with the different medications, and the different indications is, I don't know how they do it.

Charles Weaver, MD :

So you know, so what we want to do is we want to be the patient advocate, recognizing that it's hard for the oncologist to necessarily know everything or or having the support and infrastructure to fight the battles with the insurance. company. I think that if patients want to fight battles with insurance companies, they should be encouraged and allowed to do so. And we should give them the tools to do it. And patients need to understand that their doctor's office may not be equipped to do that for them all the time they need to get engaged.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

I would agree with that. So we're backing up against the half hour here. And I really appreciate your time. When when we when we close out one of the things I often ask our guest is leave us with the top three things you would tell an entrepreneur who was looking to enter your space? What advice would you give them?

Charles Weaver, MD :

Well, if you think about MySpace, being the patient engagement space, and technology and technology, I mean, with digital technologies. I think the the key things to understand are that to start with, it's a crowded space, and you need to find a niche where there's not too much competition, so you have time to grow. I think the second thing to understand is that the platform's evolve continuously, and you're really making a commitment to a mission, understanding that the platforms you use are going to change over time. And the third thing I would say is, you know, don't underestimate the challenge of building traffic in the digital world. It's time consuming, and it's it's expensive.

D.J. Verret, MD, FACS :

Charles, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it. You've been listening to ask me MD with Dr. DJ Verret. Make it a great week and we'll see you next time.

Announcer :

Thank you for joining us for another episode of Ask Me MD, medical school for the real world with Dr. DJ Verret. If you have a question or an idea for a show. Send us an email at questions at ask me Md podcast.com