Physician referrals can be a brutal and lengthy process. This telehealth startup wants to help you avoid them altogether

Patients can wait weeks for a physician referral. This telehealth startup is reducing that process to a matter of hours.

portrait photo of Kelsey Mellard

Kelsey Mellard is CEO of Sitka, a telehealth startup reinventing specialist referrals. Courtesy of Sitka

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! House Democrats choose Nancy Pelosi’s successor; Apollo cofounder Leon Black faces rape allegations; and a female-founded health tech startup is transforming physician referrals.

26 days That’s how long it takes patients in major U.S. cities to get an appointment with a specialist physician. In some rural states, that delay is even longer. In Vermont, the wait for a specialist can take up to 61 days.

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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! House Democrats choose Nancy Pelosi’s successor; Apollo cofounder Leon Black faces rape allegations; and a female-founded health tech startup is transforming physician referrals.

26 days That’s how long it takes patients in major U.S. cities to get an appointment with a specialist physician. In some rural states, that delay is even longer. In Vermont, the wait for a specialist can take up to 61 days.

Kelsey Mellard, founder and CEO of telehealth startup Sitka, thinks she has a solution. The platform connects primary care physicians (PCPs) with specialists. Patients experiencing an issue their PCP isn’t equipped to address can receive treatment from a specialist in a matter of hours instead of waiting weeks to see the same provider.

Mellard, the child of a pediatric occupational therapist in rural Kansas, built an extensive track record in health care before founding Sitka in 2018. She worked on the founding team of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation before joining UnitedHealth Group as vice president of health services policy. She eventually moved to the startup space, working on the executive teams of post–acute-care management services company NaviHealth and home-care tech company Honor.

While advising a company at one point, Mellard was met with a peculiar request: “Kelsey, come fix our clinic.” Specialty physicians were getting unnecessary patient referrals from PCPs, leading to poor survey results and low Yelp reviews.

“The expectation from the patient is so high, and rightfully so,” Mellard says. Nearly 20 million “clinically inappropriate” physician referrals occur each year, wasting the time of the patient and specialist and potentially leading to worse patient health outcomes.

Thus, Sitka was born. The startup has raised over $22 million from investors like Venrock, First Round Capital, and Optum Ventures. 

Sitka’s services are especially crucial in rural areas, where access to specialists is limited, or mobility issues prevent patients from seeking care. While telehealth is rising—more than 76% of hospitals have implemented such services—patients in rural areas and tribal lands have limited access to broadband internet. Plus, rural communities represent the vast majority of primary care shortages in the U.S., despite accounting for less than 20% of the U.S. population.

Eighty-five percent of consultations on Sitka’s platform help PCPs avoid having to make a referral altogether, Mellard says, which is a cost-save for low-income patients. “These providers are desperate for a way to access specialty knowledge without exposing the patient to a co-pay, a gas tank, and the duration of getting that insight.”

Sitka has built a physician network that covers 20 specialties, including cardiology, gynecology, and rheumatology. It’s also partnered with several nationwide at-risk provider groups across the care delivery system, including Medicare Advantage plans, Institutional Special Needs Plans, seniors-focused primary care provider ChenMed, and UnitedHealth-owned primary care provider Optum. Today, Sitka announced a new partnership with Elation Health, an electronic medical records system used by over 24,000 clinicians. The partnership will allow practitioners on Elation’s system to access Sitka.

As Mellard looks to the next five years, she says she’s excited to see the market grow to understand the value of specialty insights at the primary care level. Three years ago, the brand was struggling to gain market traction, “but a shift has occurred,” Mellard says. “When you’re early stage, you don’t have data to support, and now we have incredible amounts of data to prove the value we’re producing every day on the front lines for primary care providers.”

Paige McGlauflin
paige.mcglauflin@fortune.com
@paidion

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