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COVID-19 hinders women's access to healthcare; telehealth can help – Nurx CMO


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COVID-19 hinders women's access to healthcare; telehealth can help – Nurx CMO

SNL ImageJennifer Peña, Chief Medical Officer at Nurx
Source: Nurx Inc.

Nurx Inc. is a telehealth platform that also provides female healthcare products such as birth control pills, sexually transmitted infection tests and, recently, acne medication.

➤The San Francisco-based company's board includes author Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former President Bill Clinton, and former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.

➤CEO Varsha Rao previously served as chief operations officer at insurance technology company Clover Health Inc. and head of global operations at Airbnb Inc.

On March 1, Nurx announced that Jennifer Peña would be joining the company as chief medical officer. Peña previously served in the U.S. Army and completed an internal medicine residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She also served at the White House Medical Unit under the Obama and Trump administrations, including as physician to the vice president. Most recently, Peña served as medical director for virtual primary care at digital health insurer Oscar Health Inc.

Peña spoke to S&P Global Market Intelligence about her new role at Nurx and how the company is looking to solve access and affordability issues when it comes to female health concerns. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: How did your past experiences lead you to Nurx?

Jennifer Peña: My trajectory starting in the military and at the White House, and Oscar gave me a breadth of experience in telemedicine. I like to say I was doing telemedicine before it was actually telemedicine. Back in my time as a resident at Walter Reed, doing telehealth consultations with our providers downrange that were in combat situations and just literally sending emails back and forth to do consultations was my first experience [in telehealth]. And to see that progress, that transformation of telehealth and digital health in the last few years, at the White House, just being able to use it, as well as using remote diagnostics to provide that comprehensive care that we needed for our nation's leaders and then at Oscar ... was just an amazing experience.

Bringing all of that experience and having my passions align with the Nurx mission of improving access, breaking down those barriers to access high-quality care that might be normally out of range for folks for a myriad of reasons, especially after the COVID pandemic, is near and dear to my heart.

How is Nurx solving the issues of affordability and access to healthcare, and how are you planning to tackle these issues in your new position?

So in terms of access ... the COVID pandemic has disproportionately affected women. I call women the CEOs of the household. Many have had to jeopardize jobs to stay at home, care for families; a lot of women have lost insurance and/or the time and ability to seek attention for their healthcare needs.

All of that makes it difficult and challenging and creates issues with access to care, so the Nurx platform [is] an asynchronous platform that allows patients to take care of themselves at their convenience and ... really gives them the tools to shape what they want in terms of their healthcare. In terms of affordability, having the ability to use insurance, which sets [Nurx] apart from a lot of other services [and] is definitely a game-changer, and just across the board of making services available at a much lower cost than traditionally you would find in other services, all improve affordability and access.

What are some of your goals as you come into this position?

Coming in, what's going to be most important is scale and continuing to improve the services that we provide. And all of those services, by the way, [are] coming from patient demand. We've just launched acne [treatment] and that all came as a response to what our folks were saying. They were coming in, for example, for birth control and using birth control as a method to control acne, and that's where that idea originated from.

And then the other thing I would say, it's also redefining what telehealth has been for a long time, as more of an episodic type of [care]. People used to use it more as a quick fix to get a bridge to a particular issue. But the COVID pandemic has really redefined this. We now use a lot of these telehealth services for more ongoing care, longitudinal care.

What are some of the other health issues women are facing that you can envision Nurx expanding into?

There's definitely what I like to call the spectrum of the female healthcare journey. What's great about women, particularly, is that they do lend themselves to having more touchpoints with medical care throughout their lives, just because of the nature of [their] lives. I mean, we go from adolescence, where maybe more of the things that we're dealing with [are] like acne and birth control, and then we move towards things like migraines, which start to affect women with hormonal fluctuations a little bit later in life, [and] things that create stigma, all of those sensitive healthcare issues that we deal with sexually transmitted illnesses, etc.

And I think that we can continue to expand [Nurx] through the female healthcare journey to maybe cover and encompass other age brackets of women and other areas of women's healthcare that can be dealt with safely through telemedicine.

In the past, women's health issues have traditionally been sort of taboo, but it seems like there has been a shift; has this been your experience too, and if so, what do you think caused this shift?

Making an appointment to talk about something that's sensitive can be challenging for people, and so telehealth really bridges that barrier. ... This platform that Nurx provides really allows us to achieve public health outcomes that traditionally aren't feasible through the traditional healthcare system. We also can reach "contraceptive deserts" where other patients don't have adequate access, they might just not have clinics close to them, but they can access this through a telephone.

Once COVID-19 comes under greater control, do you think we will still see such a demand for telehealth?

People appreciate not being tethered to that traditional primary care, or some specialty care, brick-and-mortar experience. They want more convenience, they want more control, and that's what telehealth is doing for them.

Telehealth platforms like what we're doing at Nurx, we're really removing those barriers of cost [and offering] convenience. You don't have to wait months for that annual appointment that traditionally we think about. You can do it at your convenience and even have more touchpoints with the healthcare system than you might have traditionally done if you had to go into a brick-and-mortar setting.