Before the pandemic hit, telemedicine was nothing more than a blip on the healthcare spectrum and the challenges of virtual care were daunting, to say the least. Recruiting licensed professionals, lack of technological infrastructure, and keeping up with regulations across all 50 states were just some of the stumbling blocks health startups ran up against as they tried to move healthcare online.
Those obstacles didn’t intimidate Wheel CEO Michelle Davey — they motivated her. Armed with an extensive background in talent recruitment at notable companies like Google, as well as experience in the healthcare and biomedical device industry, Davey was uniquely equipped to take on some of telehealth’s biggest problems. In fact, Davey says it was her experience in the field, along with her own personal medical journey, that pushed her to reimagine virtual care and start Wheel in 2018, well before anyone said the words COVID-19.
“I actually started Wheel because of something I failed at with another company — building a clinician network, keeping them engaged, and making sure that we had the adequate, high-quality clinicians to deliver care virtually,” Davey explains.
This obvious gap in healthcare was deeply personal to Davey. “When I found telehealth in 2016, it was really both my personal and professional worlds coming together and colliding,” she says. “I grew up in a rural part of Texas. I went undiagnosed with an autoimmune condition for over 15 years because my town lacked access to quality medical care … The promises of geographic access and socioeconomic access was something I couldn’t ignore.”
Reinventing the Healthcare Wheel
Inspired to make an impact, Davey teamed up with lawyer and entrepreneur Griffin Mulcahey to develop the industry’s first model for delivering high-quality virtual care at scale. Wheel’s approach is unique in that it provides both the technological infrastructure healthcare companies need to provide virtual services, as well as the licensed clinician network.
“Wheel is built as a horizontal layer,” Davey explains. “One of the problems that we saw was that every single company was building their own in-house technology and clinician network and re-fragmenting the healthcare ecosystem because it was just vertical stacks across these companies. And really, that was just bringing the broken system online.”
By building horizontally, Davey says Wheel is able to help patients throughout their care journey so that all of their data flows with them. Wheel also gives clinicians all of the data for those patients, so they can make informed and accurate treatment plans for those patients during their different touch points within the healthcare ecosystem.
Little did Davey know just how vital her company model would become just two years after developing it. As healthcare companies scrambled to figure out how to offer virtual services in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, Wheel had all of the tools the industry needed to get up and running.
“We had been building for two years, which put us in an interesting position to react to a pandemic that kind of happened overnight,” Davey says. “In a matter of months, we were scaling — working with everyone from large retailers that were trying to serve their members virtually, to digital health companies, to hospital systems. All these players were racing toward the same destination to serve patients virtually. Wheel was really the backbone to enable that.”
Since the pandemic, Wheel has continued to quickly scale. In 2021 alone, Wheel’s platform and clinicians served 1.3 million patient visits. The company plans to triple that number by the end of 2022.
The Value of Empowerment
Although improving patient access and outcomes are goals at Wheel, the company’s main focus is empowering clinicians.
“We have a saying here at Wheel that ‘happy clinicians make healthy patients,’ and I fundamentally believe that,” she says.
And addressing burnout is a big focus point. “Over 50 percent of clinicians pre-pandemic were burned out,” she continues. “Three years into a pandemic, you can imagine how burned out these clinicians really are, and we’re seeing that through the great resignation of healthcare as well. When they come online to Wheel, we want it to be a great experience for them. We want them to feel like they have the support of the Wheel team to do what they do best, which is practice patient care.”
Davey takes this approach with her own employees as well. As her years in recruitment taught her, finding good talent is key, but engaging and retaining employees is just as important. “We put a lot of emphasis on the talent and the culture inside of Wheel,” she says. “We really try to make it not only a fun place to work, but also a rewarding career.”
When she’s not leading her team at Wheel, Davey spends her time mentoring other female leaders who are starting their own companies. This was something she had a difficult time finding in her early years as a female executive, and her goal is to ensure that future women leaders have that type of support.
“First and foremost, I just think of myself as a CEO (not as a female CEO). When I founded Wheel and stepped into healthcare, it was really hard to find other women CEOs, to find mentors, and to really find people that looked like me from untraditional backgrounds,” she says. “I purposely sought out women investors and women advisors who could help and understand from my side what it was like to be underrepresented in the industry and bring their own experiences and practical advice to that.”
Davey spends a lot of her time teaching leaders how to stay focused, but her biggest piece of advice is one that she has lived out in her own career. “I would just tell more women — if you’re looking at something, if you see a problem, and you know you’re capable of solving it, take the leap,” she says. “I think there’s a lot that women can do, and I’m excited to see more women both in healthcare but also as leaders across the board.”
A New Vision for Healthcare
Davey has already made huge strides in redefining the healthcare industry, but she is only getting started. She believes that digital tools and technology provided by companies like Wheel are not only going to change telemedicine, but also the way the world practices medicine.
“Right now, we’re talking about virtual care and in-person care and hybrid care,” Davey says. “I’m hopeful that in the next five years, we’ll just call it care. Whether that care is happening virtually online, at your home, or in the clinic, what’s important is that you’re getting the advocate and high-quality care as a patient that you need.”