'Doctorpreneurs' Are Taking Cancer Care Personally

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For Clete Walker (CEO of Virtuo Health), the idea to bring together physicians focused on elevating treatment of prostate cancer is personal.

Years ago, when Walker's father faced the disease, Walker was shocked to find the lack of treatment options available to men with prostate cancer in the U.S. When he discovered high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), an outpatient procedure used to treat prostate cancer that had a dramatically reduced side effect profile, he knew he found the alternative for which he had been searching. The question remained, though, how do we bring this treatment to patients in the U.S.? The answer: doctorpreneurs.

Dubbed the "latest trend in healthcare startup funding," doctorpreneurs are physicians who are investing their own capital into new companies or technologies that are working to evolve and improve the delivery of healthcare.

One area of particular interest among these doctorpreneurs is cancer. In 2016 alone, it is estimated that there will be more than 1.6 million newly diagnosed cancer cases and nearly 600,000 cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Vituro Health, a Birmingham, Ala.-based startup funded by a national network of physician partners and practices, has embraced the doctorpreneur concept and is looking to bring the latest in prostate cancer care to the 1 in 7 men in the U.S. who will face the disease.

"We have a partnership of doctors who are invested in a company that provides a better way to manage a disease -- prostate cancer," Walker explained. "When the doctors are invested, their resources and intent are aligned, so they give their time, consideration and efforts to continue seeking ways to make prostate treatment better for patients."

And it's not always about the paycheck, Walker said. At the end of the day, these doctorpreneurs want to make a lasting impact on cancer care. "It is really about how to make healthcare delivery easier, the patients' experiences better and effective treatment options more accessible," Walker says. "Some people might wait on longitudinal data to choose to try out new treatments, but doctorpreneurs who are invested in cutting-edge treatments, I have found, make informed, educated decisions and see anecdotally how their patients react positively to those treatments."

In researching HIFU, Walker was introduced to Stephen Scionti, M.D., a physician who long ago decided to pursue HIFU and perform HIFU procedures outside the U.S. for a decade (HIFU was not cleared by the FDA until October 2015).

"HIFU is a great example of a treatment made better by doctorpreneurs. It never would have evolved without physicians seeing the benefit and taking personal risk to improve patient outcomes. As a result of doctors working side-by-side with industry leaders, tremendous advances in technical refinements have been achieved, improving treatment platforms and software applications, and advancing techniques to minimize side effects," Scionti, now medical director of Vituro Health, explained. "This procedure is where it is today, and now FDA cleared, because of efforts by private physicians. I believe that much of the progress and many of the revolutions in medicine over generations have come out of the private side of healthcare."

Interventional oncologist Gerald Grubbs, M.D., a Vituro Health board member, also pursues the latest advancements that can help make an impact on cancer.

"I really invest in technology," Grubbs says. "There are so many players out there in differing realms, but I choose to invest in the technologies that I think will keep costs down and give patients the best outcomes."

Getting the best treatments and care for cancer patients comes from physicians partnering with people and companies offering state-of-the-art technologies, Grubbs says.

"The whole premise of patient care -- whether treating cancer or kidney stones -- is quality, which has to drive all decision-making processes," explains Mark DeGuenther, M.D., president of Urology Centers of Alabama and a Vituro Health partner physician. "Quality is difficult to control when you are outsourcing a lot of the care components -- that's true in any industry, and certainly is true in medicine."

DeGuenther's practice has found that, by making the investment and bringing cancer care in-house, it can provide a stronger quality product to and better outcomes for patients.

"Talking specifically about cancer care, it becomes even more important because cancer patients often are seeing several doctors, which can result in the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and some steps can get skipped or duplicated -- all leading to harmful effects on the patient," DeGuenther says. "For that reason, investing in an integrated system and having everything under one roof is important for the patient."

"We invest in our practice and we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on cutting-edge technology," DeGuenther added. "The reason we do this is because, if we are going to provide top quality care, we are obligated as practicioners to invest, even if the ROI isn't immediately there."

"It is easier for business guys like me to partner with doctors who are looking at the healthcare environment as a much broader picture than just their practice, and are willing to take a risk, try new things and experiment -- much like a true entrepreneur," Walker said. "When you look at doctors who have the drive to take it upon themselves to try to make things better and continuously improve patients' experiences, they will have a definite impact on cancer."

The common thread with this new breed of entrepreneur is not just a medical degree, but a willingness to embrace change, new products and new technologies -- all with the hopes of providing patients better outcomes. As a result, physicians are playing a greater -- and more appropriate role -- in improving the standard of care.

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