Personalities

Web MD: Can Williamsburg’s Techie Doc Sell Health Consciousness to the Masses?

Jay Parkinson courts New York start-ups to become the next Michael Pollan.

jayparkinson headshot Web MD: Can Williamsburgs Techie Doc Sell Health Consciousness to the Masses?Jay Parkinson, the man Fast Company dubbed “The Doctor of the Future” in 2009, was lounging in his Williamsburg backyard, a few blocks from the Bedford stop on the L. It was a sleepy afternoon, interrupted only by the occasional sound of his Goldendoodle, Buddy, crunching on a bone, or his neighbors, on the other side of the fence, giving their pet pig what sounded like a bath.

The Bose radio in the kitchen piped soothing Dixieland standards past the verdant rose bushes. Dr. Parkinson went sockless in his loafers. He wore navy seersucker shorts and had his chambray shirt unbuttoned to somewhere around his fourth rib, revealing a tight, tanned torso. Life seemed swell.

“I was the doctor of the tech community,” the 35-year-old Dr. Parkinson recalled of his emergence on the scene several years ago. “It was just my first practice, but I got a ton of press and a lot of hits. So, like, anybody young and creative in New York would call me up to be their doctor.”

At the time, Dr. Jay, as he’s known around town, used tools like Google Calendar and Skype to redefine the conventional office visit for the web age. In lieu of humorless receptionists and cumbersome insurance claims, he offered to meet patients anywhere and accept PayPal. With lower overhead and no margins lost to the insurance companies, he could offer a concierge service to patients—house calls and hour-long appointments—and still pay off more than $200,000 in med school loans.

The slew of articles that followed focused on Dr. Parkinson’s start-up Hello Health (also based in Williamsburg), which attempted to formalize the system he’d hacked together into a streamlined social platform. Light-weight technology, meet the creaky old American health care system.

The idea was to build something that could scale nationally, enabling any small practice to join the digital revolution. But Hello Health quickly ran into problems when it tried to incorporate doctors who wanted to accept insurance and navigate the attendant maze of regulations and guidelines. Dr. Parkinson had given up his medical practice after just six months to become Hello Health’s chief concept officer in January, 2008, letting his license lapse after deciding he could not longer offer his patients the flexibility they deserved. A year and a half later, he left Hello Health  in the hands of his co-founder.

The peripatetic Dr. Parkinson has a new scheme, of course, and it’s even more ambitious than what came before. Through a new start-up, The Future Well, launched last year, and a collective that he started a few months ago called Doctors of the Future (a reference to his own magazine profile), Dr. Parkinson aims to position himself as the Michael Pollan or Jamie Oliver of “health consciousness,” he said, changing American priorities through his enlightened philosophies of lifestyle and design.

“I’d like to be one of those people,” Dr. Parkinson acknowledged. “Michael Pollan has to stay within food. I’d like to say—from a doctor’s perspective, from a health expert’s perspective—it’s food, movement, relationships, environment, work. It’s essentially just sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s fun, it’s enjoying sex—doctors never talk about that, but it makes the world go round. It’s a consciousness about these components of your life that you should be optimizing.

“If you enjoy your life better, I think you’ll be healthier,” he concluded, while adding quickly, “but I don’t know if there’s any proof of that.”

So what exactly is the Future Well? The website’s tagline reads, “We design, speak, and consult to inspire health,” which is a touch vague, to say the least. But if it’s hard to define just exactly what Future Well does, that hasn’t stopped blue-chip clients like the multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi, the National Institutes of Health and the Freelancers Union here in New York from requesting samples.

In each case, Dr. Parkinson’s treatment has been different. For Sanofi, he and his Future Well partner, Grant Harrison, created a Tumblr-inspired app that lets doctors “favorite” online resources about various health issues and then offer patients access to those curated lists. For the Freelancer’s Union, Future Well suggested strategies like creating a prize network of “mission-based” independent doctors and offering boutique services to the expensive outliers in the union’s insurance pool to keep them out of the hospital and taking their meds.

The flow of ideas seems to have increased now that Dr. Parkinson, like so many of New York’s growing contingent of entrepreneurs, has pivoted away from his original plan. “I’m trying, basically, to stay out of the medical world and focus more on health,” he explained. “I think the medical world is an intractable problem. I do not want to engage in any sort of system where I have to engage with the health insurance industry.”

In practical terms, that means he’s targeting those who are already either healthy enough or wealthy enough to sidestep some of the most trenchant problems in the health care system in favor of a boutique approach.

“Boomers are too far gone, diabetes is too far gone,” said Dr. Parkinson, who will deliver this message in upcoming speaking engagements at Google, Stanford and the Mayo Clinic. “All we can do is focus on people who are young, really well or relatively well and get them to be conscious of the fact that their behavior today influences their life 10 years from now. I like to talk about that. I like to talk about the standing desks.”

Dr. Parkinson was referring to research that shows that people who stand all day have a 65 percent lesser chance of cardiac events than those who sit at a desk. “That’s waaay better than what Lipitor would do and it’s a simple thing,” he said. “Plus I lose 300 calories a day from standing up and working. I mean, that’s like three glasses of wine.” Through his influential Tumblr, he’s already inspired a change in start-up offices around the city. Which is sort of the point. By seeding his ideas with the type of people who made up his short-lived practice, he hopes to watch the influence roll downhill.

“Everything good starts in Williamsburg, in New York City,” Dr. Parkinson said in soft-spoken, drawn-out cadence that sounded vaguely surfer-ish, until he told The Observer he’s from St. Louis. “A couple years later, it trickles down to the rest of America. A couple years later, it trickles down to the poor in America, you know? So to me, you always have to start with the innovators and the ones that have the means to adopt early. Look at what Michael Pollan has done to McDonald’s. Happy Meals replacing their fries with apples—you can’t say that’s Michael Pollan, but he’s part of the ecosystem that’s encouraging them to do that.”

He offered another example. “Whole Foods when we were kids was like something that a bunch of hippies in California did. Now it’s a whole industry,” Dr. Parkinson said. “Jamie Oliver didn’t exist. Rapha, which is really kickass bicycling gear in London, teamed up with Paul Smith to design clothes that you can wear to a business meeting. I think that’s absolutely amazing.”

AMONG NEW YORK’S CREATIVE SET, Dr. Parkinson already has a few followers and friends who think he can pull it off.

“When you talk about good design and what kind of audience you can find through that, in a certain sense, quality is elitist,” acknowledged Benjamin Palmer, CEO of the interactive agency Barbarian Group. “But Whole Foods or Starbucks, it was just a way to convince everyone that coffee should be pretty good, actually. In 2008, Facebook was an elitist hipster little thing and now everybody is doing it.” That said, he added, “I’m not sure how quickly anything Jay’s working on could achieve that.”

Mr. Palmer is a regular attendee at Dr. Parkinson’s popular backyard parties, which attract a number of prominent techies. “He’s got this eclectic, intellectual geekdom,” noted Aubrey Sabala, who heads up Facebook’s consumer marketing team in Palo Alto. In addition to the tech set, Ms. Sabala said, you’ll see folks like comedian Reggie Watts show up. “The conversations that are happening are not just nerdy coding stuff,” she added. “It’s the theory of technology and how it could be applied to—it sounds nerdy, but there’s wine.”

Friends and followers of Dr. Parkinson’s, who devotedly comment on and “heart” his daily Tumblr posts, buy the Michael Pollan vision, even if they’re not exactly sure how he will get there.

“I just see him as a household name,” Ms. Sabala said. “I’d love to see him on a White House Council for Health or influencing decisions in Congress.”

Others are hard-pressed to envision how a prescription for better health that fails to grapple with the poor or infirm could have any real effect on the problem. “I think it’s viable for those that can afford it, but there’s a large base of people who can’t—people who aren’t making $100,000 a year,” said Leslie Ziegler, creative director of Rock Health, an accelerator for health start-ups based in San Francisco. “We’ve seen the wealthy go out of pocket for a long time already.”

Dr. Parkinson shrugged off the criticism. “You can beat your head at trying to figure out solutions for, like you said, a creaky system,” he acknowledged, “or you could design things that people want like green coffee extract, and if they can afford it, they can afford it.”

As it happened, that was one of the challenges for Hello Health: while patients seemed willing to pay the subscription fees, doctors balked at the cost of a social platform that didn’t allow customers to pay with health insurance.

Having shuttered its incubators in Williamsburg and Manhattan in 2010 and largely stopped courting media attention, Hello Health’s software is now both HIPAA-compliant for insurers and designated as “meaningful use,” which means Medicare and the federal government will subsidize the cost of adoption. “The idea that Jay had sounds so simple, but health care is a land mine,” said Hello, Health CEO Nathanial Findlay, who counts BlueCross BlueShield as an institutional investor. “You have to be very, very careful about which toes you’re stepping on.”

That doesn’t seem like a big worry for Dr. Parkinson. He said he’d recently met with Tumblr about the possibility of creating a concierge medical service for the start-up’s staffers. “A doctor friend for their employees that they can call, email, text questions. We’ll set up appointments with our favorite groups of doctors in the city.” He described the plan as “a layer on top of insurance that would work within their insurance network.”

As for the physicians, Dr. Parkinson has been building a list via Tumblr, posting a call for “forward-thinking creative doctors” to join his tribe. (He said 1,500 signed up to be Doctors of the Future.) “As in everything there’s a technology-adoption curve,” he explained. “If you gather together all these really innovative, creative, young, earlier-adopter types, something interesting can happen.”

If the Tumblr arrangement gets approved, he imagines it will be duplicated by other start-ups around the city. If not, he’ll try something else.

Toward the end of the afternoon, The Observer migrated inside Dr. Parkinson’s railroad apartment for a tour. Next to a mini bedside filing cabinet, containing curios from his medical antiquities collection, stood a tall red industrial cart with an iMac monitor on top. “That’s one of the other things that I would like to do—start a company that makes handmade, beautiful standing desks,” he said. “They’re all geeky and gross, made in China. Or sort of do-it-yourself, bad looking things. I want to make a whole, like, really beautiful standing desk company.”

-ntiku@observer.com

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com

Comments

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