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James Currier is a technology entrepreneur. As an early proponent of user-generated media and viral marketing, he founded Tickle in 1999, which he sold to Monster in 2004. In 2007,[…]

How an expensive trip to the emergency room convinced a tech entrepreneur that there is something seriously wrong with medical care in America.

Question: What got you personally interested in improving health care?

James Currier:  It's because of two experiences I had. One was that I have four boys. My wife and I had four boys in 36 months. One of them was having troubling breathing one night. He fell back asleep at about 2:00 in the morning, so I didn't take him to the emergency room right away but I was wondering if I should. So I got online to see what I could learn about babies not breathing well, you know, they don't give licenses to parents.

So I didn't actually have to go through any training to be a parent. And I got online and I ended up on Web MD and I said, "You've got to be kidding me. This is what people experience around medicine? All these Botox ads and, you know, a magazine article that goes for six pages and at the end just say go see your physician." I was like, "Wow, there's not a lot of value here." So that was the first experience. The second experience I had was when one of my boys got cut over the eye and we went to the emergency room because there was blood everywhere and I don't know you just go to the emergency room.

We got a bill for $7,300 and they didn't do anything but put a band-aid on it and he's fine but there was three or four people conferencing to decide what to do about it. They put a Band-Aid on it and it's $7,300. You know, I paid, I don't know, $700 out of pocket for that and I had never heard of an urgent care clinic. I'm pretty educated and I had never heard. So our lack our knowledge around how to actually interface with the medical care system is profound. So those two experiences led me to want to start something that used the principles that I've learned over the last 15 years about how the Internet works about distributed information management to actually improve the situation.

So I went to Mitch Kapor who founded Lotus and he and I were on the board of Second Life, one of these emerging systems. And he - I said, "Shouldn't we do something about this? Shouldn't we," and, you know, he's one the Wikimedia foundation board and very involved with Open Source software and he said, "Yeah I've been thinking about this for several years and I just haven't had a chance to do it. So why don't you go do it." So I went and went back and started talking to people in the field. I started my last company with some Harvard professors and so I went back to Harvard and ended up talking to the medical people, the guys running the Harvard Medical School.

And they said, "This is a great idea. This is going to happen. We don't know what it looks like but you're probably the guy to figure it out. Let's do this." So that's how it all got going and as I've gotten more into it, I've really understood the sort of difficulties of medical service design, if you will. The design of the experience of getting your healthcare. So you can call a doctor and you have to go through six different, you know, buttons to try to navigate to where you're supposed to be. That's kind of dangerous, frankly, the way it's working today, or you have to go to the doctors office and wait and by the afternoon, you know, she's two hours behind and you have to kind of wait. And then everyone in the office is sick and so you're catching things from them.

Over 100,000 people a year die from mistakes in hospitals and whatnot in the United States and many more hundreds of thousands get infected with, you know, bugs and viruses that exist only in hospitals, that are very virulent forms of things. My father almost died two years ago because of this. He went in for a knee operation and got an infection with a particular type of virus that only exists in hospitals now and it almost killed him. It literally almost killed him and they had to open up his neck - I mean, it was crazy. So the healthcare system as it exists today has a lot of challenges and the people who are working on it are incredibly dedicated. They are incredibly talented. They are working so many hours and so hard, and they're incredibly well trained, and it's still not getting better all that much faster.

And so the application of what is I think our generation's greatest tool, which is the Internet, and coming now smartphones, that sort of mobile equivalent. Look a smartphone today is more powerful than the typical computer of 2001. Facebook today is bigger than the whole Internet in 2002. Like things are really changing in terms of information technology. This is an enormous hammer that we can use. An enormous tool we can use to help improve things for what is a life or death issue for people around medicine. So I think we can go from a place where service is poor not because people don't want service to be good, because they're trying their best but the methodologies and the tools  that we use today are just inferior to what almost every other industry is using.

And so we can move us from there, from one place to the next over the next four or five years and really make a difference.

Recorded May 27, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont