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Patient-Centered App Becomes Digital-First Front Door for ThedaCare Community

Analysis  |  By Scott Mace  
   May 12, 2021

In Q3, the Ripple app will gain a biometric facial recognition alternative to the login name and password.

In a break with tradition, a Wisconsin healthcare system is using cutting-edge digital technology to reach out to patients and non-patients alike during the pandemic.

The initiative is the first to incorporate identity based on facial recognition and other identity management services provided by Mastercard, the financial services company, in conjunction with the startup that built the digital-first app for ThedaCare, the Wisconsin health system, which serves a community of 600,000 residents in 18 counties.

The tech push helps ThedaCare move ahead while national efforts to identify patients remain stymied, says Jim Albin, chief information officer of ThedaCare.

"It's answering a broader question, which is, how do you identify a patient and individual across all the different venues of care," Albin says.

Mastercard and app designer b.well Connected Health, will activate the facial recognition feature by early in the third quarter of 2021 in Ripple, ThedaCare's "front door" app for Apple iOS devices, Android devices, desktops, or laptops, to patients and to the larger community. Ripple, built by b.well for ThedaCare, was introduced in June 2020.

Prior to the biometric sign-in, Ripple required a traditional login and password, which is still available if necessary. "To really have a handle on patient care being delivered to our communities, we have to transcend all the different organizations that that patient touches," Albin says.

Jim Albin, chief information officer, ThedaCare (Photo courtesy of ThedaCare)

ThedaCare and b.well's intent is to give patients, as well as non-patients in the community who are interested in keeping track of their health, the ability to log in with a glance, in a single place, incorporating all their disparate medical records.

"We've been dealing with health information exchanges for years, and they have always faltered because of this very same issue of patient identification," Albin says.

The underlying b.well technology utilizes healthcare industry standards to be easily integrated with the electronic health records in use by physicians, as well as specialists, in a way that previously would have required patients to maintain multiple logins and passwords in order to view their medical records, Albin says.

Albin describes ThedaCare as "a typical sort of Midwestern provider" with a payer mix of Medicare, Medicaid, commercial, and private insurance. ThedaCare also operates a nationally recognized accountable care organization (ACO) carrying risk-type agreements. Ripple represents another step for ThedaCare into managing population health, he adds.

"That will be the predominant model going forward, where patients interact with health systems, but also, health systems are charged with truly taking care of their communities, whether they're patients or not."

That's why Ripple was also designed for community members not part of the healthcare system. "You can be a Ripple participant and not be a patient of ThedaCare," Albin says. "We're looking at it as a tool for us to reach out to our communities and to make sure that they know we're there and we have their back."

ThedaCare has seven hospitals, two in urban environments, and the other five in rural locations. Ripple helps those in smaller rural communities, by giving them state-of-the-art information on healthcare, COVID-19, and other access points to care in their communities, Albin says. "We're proud of that, and our presence in the rural environment," he adds.

Independent physicians in the ThedaCare community can also utilize Ripple for their patients. "Currently, we are bringing information in from third-party insurance companies, from pharmacies, from a lot of different places," Albin says. "The momentum is building."

Last summer, while the COVID-19 pandemic raged, "we didn't know how bad it was going to be, but we did think that Ripple provides an open conduit with comprehensive information to patients," Albin says. "It's become indispensable now, as we're distributing information on the latest in COVID."

The innovation represented by Ripple indicates the changing role of information technology in healthcare, Albin says.

"Our job traditionally is to make sure the lights are on," he says. "We have good information being distributed, good tools for our providers, and there will be tools like Ripple that are out there moving in new directions, allowing us to jump out of our health system to the public in general."

b.well itself is a company founded by a former United HealthCare official whose daughter suffered a near-fatal event "because two electronic medical records couldn't communicate with one another," says founder and CEO Kristen Valdes.

"We are the off-the-shelf digital transformation platform," Valdes says. "We are particularly aligned to folks who have not build their own solutions, and who do not have agile development teams, where they can do this easily." The b.well app can be delivered with the brand of the customer, such as ThedaCare, she adds.

In part, the company exists because of the assumption that the first patient encounter with a physician practice may occur through telehealth, Valdes says.

The b.well app, in all its manifestations, assumes the patient has a mobile phone. The patient's mobile phone number, as well as the biometric token of a photo of their face easily taken by today's smart phones, provide healthcare with identifiers beyond traditional driver's license and insurance cards, Valdes adds.

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Mastercard had been an investor in b.well.

“That will be the predominant model going forward, where patients interact with health systems, but also, health systems are charged with truly taking care of their communities, whether they're patients or not.”

Scott Mace is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders.


Facial recognition and identity management services from Mastercard will power the biometric ID alternative in Ripple.

The app has served as a vital COVID-19 information pipeline to the Wisconsin community.

ThedaCare expands app use as part of its digital-first strategy.

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