Countless businesses are born from identifying a problem dreaming up a solution. And healthcare has no shortage of problems to solve.
For example, Ramon Lorenzi was employed as a social worker with the state Department of Children and Families in 2014, and kept running up against the same “pain point,” as he called it — connecting clients to mental-health services.
“My co-worker [Nicole Rodriguez] and I said, ‘there has to be a solution to all this through technology. I can plan a vacation on my cell phone, but I can’t get services. That’s kind of backwards,’” Lorenzi told HCN.
The solution they came up with is a Springfield-based startup company called Social Worker Connect. It’s a web application that organizes the referral process for the behavioral-health industry, allowing case managers and others making referrals to complete an intake form, 24 hours a day, from a PC or a tablet. Agencies can then receive referrals and manage their wait lists online.
“We wanted to connect case managers and social workers seeking services for clients with community organizations and agencies providing those services,” he explained. “Our solution was a gateway through an online platform.”
The goal, he said, is to improve the entire patient experience by helping mental-health agencies operate more efficiently. Social workers who have traditionally used phone and fax to refer clients may now log onto Social Worker Connect to quickly refer clients to one (or more) of five local agencies participating so far: Clinical & Support Options, River Valley Counseling Center, Sunrise Behavioral Health Clinic, Individual and Family Counseling Center, and Pathways by Molina.
To gauge the need for such a portal, Lorenzi said he talked to patients and social workers, who repeatedly told him they are tired of leaving voice mails and faxing referrals. His system, he noted, helps behavioral-health agencies operate more efficiently and, as a result, raise the level of care an entire community can receive. “If you can’t help a patient,” the website notes, “we make it easy to refer them to a handful of other agencies that can.”
At a time when healthcare delivery is rapidly changing, he told HCN, the landscape is fertile ground for people with ideas to improve efficiency at any level, and any change that makes one aspect of healthcare easier frees up resources to improve care in other areas.
“This gives them flexibility, where in the past, they’ve managed all referrals via paper,” he noted. “Now all referrals stored and organized in the system for them. It doesn’t attach to EHRs [electronic health records] yet; our first concern was how to connect in a better way, and now we’re working on how to make the overall system better. We’ve already connected over 400 clients with agencies, which is a pretty good number.”
Though the company is growing — right now, it’s a five-person operation, though only Lorenzi has quit his day job, so to speak — it was a winding path from idea to inception. In 2014, Social Worker Connect was a good idea scribbled on a napkin, but the first attempt to turn it into a working website failed.
That changed soon after when he and Rodriguez entered the Accelerator program at Valley Venture Mentors.
“VVM helped us out a lot,” he said. “They took our idea, this online platform, and helped us define it to a point where we had a business. We’re also lucky getting funding for three years from the Springfield Venture Fund. So we kicked off the project in Springfield in January.”
The case managers and agencies that have used the system appreciate the way it cleans up the referral system. “When things are done by phone or fax, it’s a people-driven process, and by nature people-driven processes are inefficient; things fall through the cracks. We’re able to provide some organization around that.”
The core product is free, but Lorenzi and his team are busy strategizing ways to broaden the model and provide fee-based services.
“We’re looking for ways to self-sustain the business,” he said. “And part of the self-sustaining process is expanding into other services, especially elder services. The population is aging, so there’s a big need to help the elder population transition into home health, for instance.”
After all, the Social Worker Connect model would work well in any number of fields, he noted. “The way we look at it, in the healthcare system, every time you look at a dysfunctional referral system, we have an opportunity to provide value there.”
There’s also plenty of room to grow in a geographic sense, continually bringing on more partners as the project gains recognition and a track record.
“So much is changing in healthcare,” Lorenzi said. “I feel healthcare doesn’t change because it wants to change, but because it has to — because of mandates, laws, and insurance reasons.”
Among those changes is the growing importance of transitional care and greater coordination between acute, outpatient, and residential care — and he feels like that shift provides a huge opportunity for startups like Social Worker Connect.
“The big push is going to be serving clients in the home, the way services today are structured. And that’s one place where we can provide a little value.”
Lorenzi is grateful not only to VVM and Springfield Venture Fund, but to the burgeoning startup climate in Western Mass. that makes it possible to grow ideas into successful enterprises.
“I feel like I’m part of that ecosystem,” he told HCN. “We’ve received a lot of support, and I’ve gotten know a lot of people making these entrepreneurial jumps, trying to make something better, solving problems. A lot of people in Springfield are doing it.
“Our community is not as large as Silicon Valley, and we’re not Boston, but it’s growing,” he went on. “In 2014, I had an idea, but no support system. Then we found VVM, and that community put it all together for us.”
That’s how initial frustration turned into a working business that helps social workers … well, overcome some frustration of their own.
“We’ve covered a lot of ground in the short period we’ve been around,” Lorenzi said. “We’ve touched 400 lives. I’m proud of that. As a social worker, yes, I could have impacted 400 lives, but how long would it take me to do that?”