According to a report published by the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging last year, more than 130 million Americans are living without dental insurance. That means more Americans have smartphones than dental coverage. (And they say the UK has bad teeth!) Yes, while robotics takes quantum leaps, millions of Americans forgo dentist visits each day because they don’t have insurance, or they can’t afford care.
On the other side of the chair, dentists themselves struggle to fill open or cancelled appointements, which, if left unfilled, can come with a heavy cost both in terms of productivity and revenue. After a trip abroad took him through the bustling Souks of Morocco, Neilesh Patel, a dentist and programmer by trade, was inspired to create a marketplace of his own to help address these problems. Seeing how the open-air, Morrocan marketplaces allowed customers to negotiate better prices if they went to vendors when they weren’t busy, while allowing vendors to avoid spending money on marketing (as the Souks naturally brought their customers to them), Patel was eager to apply these observations to a digital marketplace.
So, in May of last year, Patel teamed up with long-time friend Neal Reiter to launch HealthSouk in beta — an online marketplace that allows patients to shop for services and review provider ratings, and gives dentists the opportunity to advertise their service, skills and available appointments.
On the surfacee, HealthSouk might sound a bit like ZocDoc, which also patients to search for nearby doctors and dentists and book appointments — and is probably the most well-known marketplace of its ilk. However, in describing the startup’s mission, Reiter tells us that the goal of HealthSouk isn’t to be ZocDoc, but to “be ZocDoc for the 130 million people who don’t have dental insurance.”
And that’s where HealthSouk wants to focus (and have an impact) — for those without dental insurance or those who have exceeded the cap of their dental insurance or their “discount-only” plans. Even though the Affordable Care Act will change how many providers and brokers operate, it’s not going to have any effect on those who are looking for dental care, Reiter says.
What’s more, as an industry, dentistry represents a $110 billion market in the U.S. each year, over half of which is people paying cash, he continues. So, while the founders feel that there’s plenty of opportunity to help small employers and startups — where startups like Zenefits and SimplyInsured are focused, for example — and HealthSouk will likely expand its scope in the future, today, it’s primarily targeting individuals.
The problem, the founders tell us, is that the majority of Americans are either paying full-price because they don’t have insurance or are covered but by discount-only plans, which charge a monthly fee in exchange for a discount on dental services. In response, HealthSouk wants to provide an alternative to these options by requiring every dentist in its network to provide a price for the services they offer. The idea, Patel explains, is that this price transparency motivates dentists to keep their prices low and offer discounts, which in turn saves patients from having to pay a monthly fee to take advantage of discounts as they would with their current plans.
Since launch, HealthSouk has focused exclusively on California, where it has credentialed and onboarded over 540 dentists to date. And today, the startup is announcing that it has received a grant from the California Healthcare Foundation’s Innovations for the Underserved program — which “focuses on reducing barriers to efficient, affordable health care for the underserved by encouraging, testing, and promoting lower cost models of care” — and will allow it to expand the number of providers and patients it serves in Southern California.
Today, anyone in California can use HealthSouk’s online marketplace to find a dentist regardless of their location, and the startup currently has 90 providers in Northern California who are accepting appointments. Down the road, the startup plans to expand its reach outside of California but, first, the founder says, “our goal is to dominate in Southern and Northern California,” and the new grant money is a step in that direction.
On top of that, HealthSouk is also announcing today that it has raised a total of $507,500 in seed financing since launching, which comes in part from its grant from the California Healthcare Foundation, as well as from venture investments from The Twilio Fund, SV Angel and 500 Startups. In addition to providing seed funding, 500 Startups has also accepted HealthSouk into its accelerator program.
Of course, while HealthSouk is beginning to make inroads in California, it’s hardly the only startup that wants to help bring affordable dental care to the masses. HealthSouk has to contend with veterans like the well-funded Brighter, as well as long-time providers like Careington and First Dental Health. The HealthSouk founders believe that they can provide a better alternative to these services, however, by eliminating the monthly and/or annual fees one finds on many of these services, along with updating its prices every minute rather than every month or year, and by eliminating costs for employers.
In regard to HealthSouk’s approach to pricing as compared to others in the space, Patel put a button on the issue, saying “requiring users to pay monthly fees is as ridiculous as paying for email. This is a service that should be free.”
For more on HealthSouk, find it at home here.