One afternoon, at 1:30 pm on the dot, a notification popped up on my iPhone, alerting me a video call was coming in. It was Rebecca Callahan, a nurse practitioner who works with Maven, the first digital health clinic for women. We were just connecting for an interview through the app, but the moment I clicked "answer," I was immediately struck by the enormous potential of this service.
Normally, if I had a question about birth control between now and my next checkup, I would have to call my gynecologist, set up an appointment probably weeks down the line, go in, pay a heavy co-pay, wait 45 minutes, and then spend five minutes with a hurried nurse practitioner for a bit of information that they probably could have told me over the phone.
Instead, I was sitting comfortably at home, starting a 10 minute session with a women's health nurse practitioner in New York. I had her full attention. It was quiet. And if it were a real appointment, it would have only costed me $18. She wouldn't even have to know my name.
Maven was founded by Kate Ryder, who previously worked in investing and startups. Through her career and life in her late 20s, she realized the amount of specialized healthcare women need throughout their lives, and the little access so many of them had to it.
The platform is mostly for women in their childbearing years who either want to prevent a pregnancy, are pregnant and have questions for dulas about birth, or want to know more about certain aspects of postpartum care — like understanding difference between "baby blues" and postpartum depression, or lactation consulting. In five states, nurse practitioners can write prescriptions for women.
"There are some really serious issues that can go on in between the time she gives birth and when she goes to her provider for the six-week checkup," Callahan said. "We want to fill in the gaps for women when they're not seeing a regular provider for their care."
Maven is one of the first portfolio companies of Female Founders Fund, a new VC firm for women founders launched by Anu Duggal earlier this year, and just launched a public beta. Ryder plans to improve the product once they get feedback from the spectrum of women who are starting to use it.
"At the core, what we're about is access and communication," Ryder said.
Already, not even a month after launch, a Maven provider has written a prescription for birth control for a 24-year-old. A 59-year-old told the company she loved her personal nurse.
Another classic use case, Callahan said, is getting a UTI on a weekend and not wanting to visit an urgent care center. "There's so many issues that are small and you can quickly solve them by talking to a professional," she said.
Once a woman downloads the app, she's asked why she's using the service — for her or her child. Then, she's asked if she wants to remain anonymous or not. If she wants to be seen as herself, the providers can see her health records and access her information, and write a prescription if she's in one of the five states that is allowed.
But if she chooses anonymous, she can still use it. For instance, there's no OBGYN here in Kentucky, but I can schedule an appointment with one in New York for a second opinion and get access that way. It's considered education, rather than a medical appointment, since the nurse practitioner wouldn't know my name. A lot of women wanted to remain anonymous because there's so much women go through — from puberty, to body image issues, to fertility issues, to body change issues. We don't necessarily need to go to a doctor every time, but want to talk to a medical professional about it instead of Googling it.
Maven has another app for providers called M Practice, a software product they use for billing, scheduling, and prescribing. Prescribers can hook up to the network, and set their availability based off of their offline practice, or take new patients online. Many providers are tweeting out their personal codes to bring on their own patients.
One of things that's been a pleasant surprise over the past few months, Ryder said, has been finding a way to use a safe, secure platform for digital health. Lately, she's found that so many providers are using Skype, video calling, and and text messaging in an unsecure environment to talk to patients. With Maven, that privacy and security problem is eliminated.
Callahan, who also works clinically in an office in New York, has three young kids under four years old. She's an adviser and nurse practitioner for the company part-time and loves it because when she's at home, she can set her availability for appointments between activities when her kids are sleeping. The providers, like Callahan, keep the majority of what the appointment costs, and Maven takes a percentage.
But there are several big challenges for Maven as a pioneering digital health platform, and one is licensure, Ryder said.
For example, being in Kentucky, I can't see an OBGYN in New York unless I remain anonymous — so I couldn't get a prescription if I needed one. That makes it difficult for Maven to scale. There are ways around that, like having certain providers get licensed in multiple states, but it's an important conversation that will continue to evolve with the advance of telemedicine.
The other challenge — and opportunity, Ryder added — is that nurse practitioners can only practice autonomously in 20 states. Her ultimate goal for Maven is to provide women with a 360 degree digital clinic, with an OBGYN, nutritionist, nurse practitioner, and therapist all under one roof, but that can't happen until nurse practitioners are allowed to work without doctor supervision.
There are many people fighting for it because there's a shortage of primary care physicians in the next few years, and the industry knows it, Ryder said, so a way to mitigate that is to let nurse practitioners practice to the full extent of their abilities.
A core part of Maven's model is working with nurse practitioners. The company has recruited almost 1,000 but have launched with just over 300. They vet them all, do case studies, reference checks, and interviews.
In New York, nurses don't have to practice under a doctor — they can practice independently, which is the reason those particular states were chosen. So if a woman there has a UTI, she can download Maven, book an appointment with an nurse practitioner and pick up a prescription at a pharmacy within the hour.
"Our providers are really patient and really mission-driven to make women's health better. And so since we're the first platform to really tackle women's health with telemedicine, we're just working with a lot of wonderful people who have never worked with telemedicine before but are just so excited to try it."
Maven also has a forum, where anyone can pose a question and have it answered by a provider. That's especially useful if they don't need an answer immediately, or just want browse the content and discussions to learn more about a topic. And different types of providers answer the questions, so you may have a OBGYN, nurse practitioner, and lactation consultant giving various perspectives.
"It's becoming a great educational tool and a way to connect with our community for things even smaller than a video appointment," Ryder said.
Just a week before this story was written, a friend of mine and I had a conversation about the fear of birth control side effects. We had no idea how to find out more about them, and turned to the internet. It wasn't the first time we had each spent hours searching through Google, terrified by rumors on Yahoo forums from 2005. Even though I can't use it to its full capacity yet, seeing the Maven app when I swipe through my iPhone is comforting because in an era when it seems like the noose is tightening on women's reproductive rights, Maven offers a sense of security. It provides a feeling that yes, we are progressing, and more women will get access to the care and information they need.
Ryder summed it up in simpler terms: "So many women have so many questions."
The beauty of technology, of telemedicine and digital health — and the power of a company like Maven — is that we can get answers.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.