In his first year as a practicing dermatologist, David Lortscher saw a 22-year-old patient who had been suffering from acne since her early teens. She had treated it only with over-the-counter products. Prescription treatment quickly cleared up her skin, but during a follow-up visit, Lortscher says she was nearly in tears. Growing up, she told him, she had thought dermatological care was only “for rich people.”
Not everyone in the U.S. has equal access to a dermatologist. There are only about 10,000 practicing nationwide, and in some parts of the country, seeing one requires a long drive or time on a waiting list. And visits aren’t cheap. Recognizing this, Lortscher had also begun volunteering with the nonprofit AccessDerm, run by the American Academy of Dermatology, in New Mexico and Arizona. The program allows primary care physicians in rural areas to remotely consult with dermatologists by sharing photos of their patients’ skin.
This telemedicine approach to dermatology only addressed one aspect of the accessibility problem, as illustrated by that 22-year-old patient’s “rich people” comment. So Lortscher teamed up with his dermatologist mother and technologist brother to found a teledermatology company, Curology, which today has patients in 37 states.
The company produces individualized all-in-one acne treatment formulas for patients based on diagnoses from photos. These customized prescriptions are less expensive for most patients than traditional pharmaceuticals. They are also more accessible to patients in the sense that they don’t involve a multi-step regimen. Plus, they’re shipped right to a patient’s door.
Curology has to manage and master the roles of technology company, medical practice and laboratory. Here’s what Lortscher says he’s learned since its launch in 2014.
This conversation has been edited.
What have you learned about growth while doing good?
So just the theoretical work of finding out how to formulate these things was a big challenge, and then the practical of, ‘How do you do this in an efficient and scalable way?’ Fortunately, we were able to put it together, and now producing the medications is truly the easiest thing we do. We spend more of our time now thinking about, ‘How do we communicate with patients?’ ‘How do we anticipate problems that patients might have before they have them?’ and ‘How do we encourage patients to reach out to their providers at the correct time?’ so that it’s not so much so as to put us underwater as far as our providers being too busy, but enough so that our patients have all of their questions answered about what they should be doing with their skincare regimen and maybe what they should be expecting and how other people are doing at a similar course in our treatment. So right now, the pharmaceutical operation is one of the easiest things we do, and what we can focus on is patient satisfaction and growth.
What have you learned about culture while doing good?
It sort of appears from the outside that our medical providers have a one-on-one relationship with each of their patients. And that’s true, but on top of that, it’s a surprisingly collaborative process on our end. So even though all of our nurse practitioners and dermatologists have the option of working from home, we all come into the office every single day. We’ve found that it’s helpful to be in a collaborative environment where we can discuss difficult cases with each other and learn from each other.
What advice do you have for other businesses looking to do good?
It’s important to remember that there’s no one right way for a company to be. Curology is a technology startup, but right now, one-third of our full-time team are medical professionals. We have this technology that is multi-layered. One layer is sort of an ecommerce platform, the second layer is an electronic medical record and the third layer is a patient support platform to remind people to use their medication and give them a sense of community. All three of those layers of technology, we built from the ground up just with our four engineers. So I’d advise people to follow their own instincts and not necessarily try to fit their business into any pre-established mold.