One day during my medical internship, I received a call that sent our family on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. My aunt Mary had just received the results of a mammogram. The results pointed to breast cancer with a high suspicion of malignancy. Mary's primary physician told her to schedule a follow-up with a breast surgeon immediately so Mary got an appointment, but not until two weeks later.
Trying to be helpful, I accompanied Mary to her first appointment. The surgeon seemed competent enough and confidently recommended an "excisional biopsy with needle localization." Mary followed his advice and scheduled the recommended procedure--set for another two weeks later.
Despite the surgeon's gray hair and confidence, I was not convinced. Something about his advice seemed wrong. I began researching other providers and after multiple calls and emails, I found "Dr. C," an actual breast surgeon and the head of breast surgery for a major academic medical center. In contrast, Mary's initial surgeon was a general surgeon who treated breast malignancies as only one part of a busy practice that also involved appendectomies, cholecystectomies and trauma patients.
Dr. C had a completely different approach in mind and recommended a total breast MRI to characterize all areas of breast tissue in preparation for a likely mastectomy. I called Mary's original surgeon to discuss Dr. C's recommendation but he angrily refused to follow this approach. I was astounded.
We began to search for another provider and after multiple calls to the insurance company, found a different surgeon who would be acceptable to the payer and who agreed to follow a different approach. He proceeded with a core biopsy of each region and, unfortunately, confirmed multi-focal cancer. He scheduled Mary for a total bilateral mastectomy.
Mary's surgery went well, and after chemotherapy, the biggest question was the appropriate follow-up. I decided to search for an oncologist who specialized in breast oncology, and if possible, triple-negative breast tumors.
This was no easy feat. After six months of poring through my network of physician contacts, calling multiple academic center oncologists and reaching out to breast cancer researchers, I nearly gave up. Finally, a medical school friend referred me to her research supervisor who recommended an expert in triple-negative breast cancer that she knew. This oncologist, "Dr. H," was widely published in breast cancer research and was located close to Mary.
After months of helping Mary navigate a complex world of cancer care, I reflected on the lessons I had learned. It was frightening to me as a physician how different Mary's care would have been if we had simply followed the advice of her initial surgeon for something as nuanced as triple negative breast cancer. As hard and inefficient as it was to find them, I felt lucky that we were able to find Drs. C and H.
A few months later, I was having coffee with a former colleague of mine, Graham Gardner, a cardiologist by training, and the co-founder and CEO of Kyruus. Graham believes that physicians are no different than any other person--they each have strengths and weaknesses, training and knowledge that enable them to better care for certain conditions compared to their peers. Doctors are not necessarily good or bad, they are just skilled in different areas in the same way a baseball pitcher has a different skill set than a center fielder.
I asked Graham if he could find a triple-negative breast cancer oncologist for Mary. He typed in Mary's zip code, insurance carrier and "triple negative breast cancer" into a Google-like search box. In less than six seconds, Graham identified what had taken us six months. Dr. H was at the top of the list.
I have since joined the company to help bring technology to improve the dizzying healthcare space. I went into medicine to make the world a better place. Having seen the journey that Mary endured, I wanted to help other patients avoid the agony of losing precious moments to lengthy wait times and misdirected referrals. It's exciting to know that technology can be used to improve the healthcare experience, improving patients' access to the right specialists and creating better health outcomes for patients just like my aunt Mary.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published for Hospital Impact, and can be viewed here.