Why a Portland Start-Up Thinks It Just Reinvented American Health Care

The drop-in clinic's ambitious expansion is aimed at patients who want to buy health, not medical procedures.

By Zach Dundas August 24, 2015 Published in the September 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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Starting in 2006, Portlanders afflicted by low-grade ailments, cuts in need of stitches, and tight schedules embraced Zoomcare, the locally based chain of efficient clinics offering same-day scheduling via phone, web, or mobile app. “We grew up wanting to be doctors,” says Dave Sanders of himself and his cofounder Albert di Piero, “and then, when we came out of school, found ourselves saying, ‘Can the system really be this dysfunctional?’”

Now, rebranded simply as Zoom, the company aims to become much more than a way to see a doctor fast: soon 28 Zoom outlets, scattered across the Portland area, will offer everything from one-hour dental appointments to brain training. In August, a Zoom “Super” clinic opened near the Oregon Convention Center with emergency-room-style service. Some new Zooms—like a fitness-oriented Pearl District “performance lab,” and primary care locations with a holistic bent—will resemble yoga studios, test kitchens, or creative offices rather than clinics.

“People don’t want to buy medical procedures,” Sanders says. “They want to buy health.”

It’s a big vision, backed by big money. In 2014, Zoom landed an undisclosed investment from Portland venture firm Endeavour Capital, which typically backs companies with anywhere from $25 million to $100 million. The company then spent more than a year (“an all-out sprint,” Sanders says) creating its own insurance plan—an effort that pitted a team of actuaries and other experts against an obstacle course of state regulations, with former Kaiser Permanente executive Michael Katcher playing a key role.

The Zoom plan can be purchased by private buyers or employers (New Seasons was the first), and will go on the state’s health insurance marketplace this fall, just like any qualified insurance program. But Zoom envisions something more like a membership to a health club with locations all over town, including 24-hour consultations via the company’s spruced-up mobile app. (In June, Zoom recruited David Kohel, a former Nike exec, to lead its digital efforts.) The company is especially bullish on its cognitive performance and physical fitness offerings.

A particularly deluxe HMO? Or an all-encompassing, industry-disrupting, Apple-esque brand experience? Zoom creative director Steve McCallion, formerly of industrial design powerhouse Ziba, clearly aspires to the latter: “If you don’t control the little aspects, you can’t deliver top-quality care. So we basically have to create a health care system.”

If the model works, it’s clearly built to scale up. “This is the first real test,” Sanders says. “We’ve worked to make Portland the blueprint for a system that could be rolled out elsewhere.”

A bold prescription, indeed. Will it help cure what ails us?

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