Digital Health Firm Livongo’s Secret Sauce? Employees Who Are Actually Patients

August 1, 2019, 8:35 PM UTC

In mid-July, Livongo president Jennifer Schneider was on the road—and confused.

Schneider had been on a cross-country tour leading up to the digital chronic disease management firm’s initial public offering exactly one week ago. And she was struggling.

“So, I’d been on a roadshow. I had one day when we were in three cities. I wasn’t quite sure where I was, what was up, what was down,” Schneider told Fortune in an on-camera interview at the Nasdaq shortly after the company’s public debut on July 25. “And I landed in bed that night, I slept for a few hours, and I woke up completely confused. And I was confused because my blood glucose was low.”

Schneider’s blood sugar level was at 36. For context: The “normal” range usually lies between 80 and 120. At such a low level, thinking straight is nearly impossible.

And so Schneider did what a sizable portion of Livongo’s employees—nearly half of whom actually have a chronic condition such as diabetes or hypertension, according to the company—do. She took her blood glucose reading with a Livongo device and, via Livongo’s connected platform, was immediately contacted by a certified diabetes educator who instructed her how to get her blood sugar level back up. (In this case, the health coach told her to raid the hotel mini-bar and snack up on some jelly beans.)

This isn’t a one-off kind of story for Livongo employees. The large swath of chronic disease patients who make up its workforce plays a major role in the company’s vision and strategy for its “members” (the term Livongo uses for its customers), who receive real time advice and recommendations on managing everything from diabetes to hypertension to behavioral health issues through the digital platform.

“What it comes down to is the day to day— how it feels to walk in the shoes of the members,” said Chris Mack, a former Deloitte consultant and type 1 diabetes patient since age 10 who is now a client strategy manager at Livongo, in a telephone interview. “If someone is running into an issue or needs clarification, you know that people [at Livongo] understand what they’re dealing with on a personal level, and that they’re going to be responsive to their needs.”

“The beauty of what we’re doing is we’re giving these personable, actionable messages right at the time that they’re needed,” said Schneider.

So, outside of gentle suggestions to forage for jelly beans, how does this intimate association with chronic diseases sway the corporate strategy? “We take feedback from our members and our employees continuously,” said Schneider.

For instance, she said, Livongo once hired designers to create a new model of a blood glucose meter and a blood glucose kit. The end product included a case that had about 100 little “lancets” (the things diabetes patients actually stick into their fingers in order to get their readings). Technically, you’re supposed to change the lancet out every single time you take a blood sugar reading.

That came as a surprise to Schneider and other Livongo staffers who have diabetes. A discussion among them revealed they usually changed out the lancets, maybe, once every three weeks.

“There’s a difference between what happens in real life and meeting people where they are and how they actually live their life, and kind of coming up on top on telling people what to do and how to do it,” said Schneider.

One Livongo member, Shawn DeCosta, a 52-year-old executive assistant at Texas’ Harris Health System, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2002 and hypertension a few years later. DeCosta says the company’s services have helped cut back on the amount of medication she has to take in order to control her condition.

“I feel like I have someone holding my hand, I feel like I’m not alone. If I have low blood sugar, a health coach might ask if you’ve had dinner, maybe drink a glass of orange juice,” she told Fortune in an interview. DeCosta added that the automatic logs Livongo keeps of her blood glucose levels and other biometrics, which can be shared with both her physician and family members, has made life as a diabetes patient far more convenient.

On the day of Livongo’s IPO, its stock popped by about 36%, bringing it to a valuation of well over $4 billion.

So what’s next?

“Our clients are primarily the largest of the large. This [IPO] is also a branding event for us,” Livongo CEO Zane Burke, a 20-plus year veteran of Cerner, told Fortune at the Nasdaq. “We have nearly 200,000 members today, but we have 31.4 million Americans with diabetes to go serve.”

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