Digital health startups like Ro and Zocdoc want in on the US vaccination effort. They're wading into a complex vaccine distribution puzzle.

  • Digital health startup Ro said Wednesday that it was offering in-home COVID-19 vaccinations to currently eligible residents of Yonkers, New York.
  • The effort is fully funded by donations and corporate sponsorships.
  • Other startups like Zocdoc have similarly expressed interest in helping local governments roll out vaccination efforts to patients that are otherwise hard to reach.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Residents of Yonkers, New York, can now book an in-home COVID-19 vaccination appointment through a company that got its start treating erectile dysfunction and hair loss.

Ro, a digital health startup that offers telehealth visits in addition to mail-order medications, said Wednesday that it partnered with the New York State Department of Public Health and the city of Yonkers to offer free Pfizer vaccinations to home-bound residents who are currently eligible under the state’s vaccine priority protocols.

Residents or their caregivers can book an appointment through a standalone website, and Ro will send a clinician to the patients’ home for a vaccine at no cost to the patient. While there, the clinician will also automatically schedule a second dose for the patient and observe the patient for any side effects before leaving. The initiative is funded by corporate sponsors and individual donors

While the vaccine rollout in the US was initially bumpy, many states and local governments have since streamlined the process with assistance from corporations like CVS Health and Walgreens in addition to the federal government. To date, more than 80 million doses have been administered, according to NPR’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker.

Still, reaching home-bound or otherwise high-risk patients remains a challenge in the current process in many places, which relies heavily on mass vaccination sites or in-person appointments at the local pharmacy. Ro’s chief product officer Saman Rahmanian said there are 2.1 million such patients in New York alone.

It’s been hotly contested that startups have a role to play in the high-stakes vaccine distribution process and other aspects of the US pandemic response. Menlo Ventures partner Greg Yap told Insider in November that he didn’t see a place for Silicon Valley companies to help.

“Is that going to be the work of a startup? No way,” Yap told Insider in November.

Some were concerned with startups’ reputation to “move fast and break things” and the impacts that could have on logistics in addition to eroding public trust in an already delicate environment. Others saw upstarts like primary care company One Medical allegedly relaxing vaccine requirements for their members as an effort to jump the line.

Now, however, it appears that hesitancy is starting to fade. In addition to Ro, digital health companies like Zocdoc have helped develop scheduling software or search functions to help Americans get vaccine appointments.

“We wanted to complement the existing efforts of our country,” Ro cofounder and CEO Zachariah Reitano told Insider. “We are just sitting here happy to contribute.”

Big tech companies have also sought out ways to help, and big software companies like Qualtrics have helped state and local governments develop websites and track the progress of the vaccination effort. When Insider reached out to Yap for this story, he said his November prediction had largely come to pass, but the big healthcare companies’ lack of easy-to-use technology was worse than he had imagined a few months back. That’s where he sees room now for digital health startups and technology companies to make a difference.

“Some of the bigger gaps that have emerged have been in workflow and software to manage large rollouts, and some digital health startups are filling that gap with software and services to providers,” Yap told Insider via email. “The rollout has challenged even the largest providers more than I had hoped.”

Vaccines create a good-faith effort for startups

Ro and others have offered their services pro bono in an effort to win the trust of politicians and healthcare experts that may have been skeptical of the startups’ motivations. Ro’s initiative, for example, is entirely funded by corporate donors like Uber and private donations from some of its top investors.

“We are not making money off this,” Rahmanian said.

Ro is using its network of on-demand healthcare professionals from Workpath, a startup it acquired in December.

Nurses, phlebotomists, and other clinicians that are contracted through Workpath arrive at a vaccine distribution hub each morning, pick up the correct amount of vaccine doses, and then Ro’s technology creates an efficient schedule of appointments for the day based on time and location. Each clinician stays on-site with the patient after they’ve received the dose to monitor for side effects, and Ro’s software will automatically schedule the second dose.

Ro contacted the New York State Department of Public Health to get access to the vaccine, Rahmanian said. The company already had access to healthcare workers willing and able to administer the vaccines and it had already secured funding, he said.

Ro wants to create a successful track record

Where digital startups like Ro can help the most is in developing the technology and using existing networks to create tools, processes, and initiatives for state and local governments that don’t have those same resources readily available and are too cash-strapped to develop them themselves.

Ro’s technology, for example, is developed for both patients and their caretakers in case the patient has limited internet access or experience and may have trouble booking an appointment online by themselves. The startup also worked with the city’s government and senior citizen programs in addition to local building management companies to ensure all eligible patients were aware and able to sign up, regardless of whether they had a caretaker or relative nearby.

In the end, the goal is increasing access to a potentially life-saving vaccine, Rahmanian said. He started working on the initiative internally in January and starting booking appointments in a matter of weeks. 

So far, the team has vaccinated a 107-year-old patient and a 92-year-old grandmother, he said, and has been fielding calls from other cities and states about expanding the program beyond Yonkers. Workpath currently operates nationwide, and said it has conducted over 100,000 at-home visits to date for non-vaccine appointments since it was founded in 2015.

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