Syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes and HIV: diseases transmitted predominately through the exchange of fluids during sexual contact. While statistics show that nearly half of all sexually active adults in the United States will acquire a sexually transmitted disease (STD), there remains a stigma concerning conversations on sexual health.
Ramin Bastani is not afraid to talk about STDs. Branded “The Safest Man To Have Sex With In America” by Forbes recently, Bastani is the founder and CEO of Hula, a next-generation personal health record that makes decisions around STD testing and sexual health easier. DW interviewed Bastani on the inspiration for the company, the success of his app, the importance of patient access to their health records, and most importantly on how he helps people get laid safely.
How were you inspired to start your company?
I had just gotten out of a multi-year relationship. I went out to a bar one night and met a girl. A few hours later we were walking to my bedroom when I asked if she’d been “tested.” She slapped me across the face and walked out! Welcome back to single-life, I thought, and there has to be a better way for that conversation to happen.
Since 2010, I’ve been working on solving the problem I had that night. However, it didn’t take long to realize the problem was much bigger than my one experience. Approximately 20 million people get a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the US each year and it costs our health care system about $17 billion. These numbers haven’t changed much in recent memory and the status quo just isn’t working.
How does Hula work?
We make STD testing and sexual health decisions easier by solving multiple problems:
Where does someone get tested? Having been tested about 50 times, I know that figuring out where to go is not as easy as you would think. There is a lot of inaccurate information online about testing locations and basic information such as hours of operation, cost, tests offered and which community they focus (e.g. LGBTQ, youth, women). This last aspect is important because, for people to choose to be tested for an STD, they have to trust where they’re going for the test.
More troubling, often when tested, centers simply state that if you do not hear anything from us, then that is great news and you don’t have an STD. Simply stated, “No news is good news.” Hearing that line after being tested is cruel. You are forced to anxiously wait about 10 days to see if you get a phone call. Or even worse, the test center might make you come back to get your results in person – even if you’re negative.
Discussing STD status or sexual health is often uncomfortable. How do you eliminate the stigma around discussing STD testing status amongst partner?
This always-uncomfortable conversation doesn’t happen very often, which furthers the stigmatization around HIV and STDs. And even if you have this conversation, how do you know the person is telling the truth about what they were tested for, when they were tested and what the results were?
Here was a problem without a useful, easy, and streamlined solution. We developed Hula (previously named Qpid.me) to make STD testing suck less while helping you make better sexual health decisions. We are solving problems that no one has before, and we’re doing it in a non-public-health-type-way.
Think of us like Yelp, except with a focus on STD testing locations. We’ve curated the best places to go while verifying every location’s relevant information to help people make better decisions.
We empower you get your results online so you don’t have to wait for a phone call or go to the clinic to get your results in person. We understand HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and a patient’s right to their records better than almost anyone and enable you to request yours in a few seconds on your phone.
We make this conversation easier by allowing you to play a modern, flirtatious version of, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” All you do is “unzip” your profile and it will show your results delivered directly from your health care provider.
What are some examples of Hula changing the face of public health?
Currently we have a community partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District. In this district, an estimated 20% of all 8th graders are already sexually active. Through this partnership, the teachers have the resources to tell their students, not teach, about Hula. The feedback has been positive: the students appreciate access to the app. And it is not just the students that enjoy access to the app, parents have provided positive feedback as well. One example, was a father of a daughter about to go to college: he told us how the app gave him a way to talk to his daughter about sexual health concerns she would face while away. Ironically, he also admitted using the app during in his online dating!
We think of ourselves as health care that doesn’t look like health care. Most of our users will never think of our iPhone app as health care. They will not think of this as a personal health record, patient empowerment, behavior change or that it could help them make a better data-driven health decision.
They will likely think that this will help them become more attractive and help them live their lives. And that’s what SEXual health should be about – helping people do what they want in the smartest and safest way possible. As Dr. Roni Zeiger, CEO of SmartPatients and former Chief Strategy Officer for Google Health described Hula, “This is public health for the 21st century!”
What has been some of the biggest challenges that you have faced?
Patients have the right to their data, their health information, and specifically their medical test results. One of the more challenging aspects has been navigating through HIPAA.
Many individuals, mainly those in the medical field, think HIPAA is exclusively about protecting the patient’s privacy and as such make access to medial records unnecessarily difficult. This view is misleading: HIPAA is about the patient’s right to their data and the data being transportable. All patients have a right to their record and to share the information in the manner they best see fit. They have a right to the information in the record and for it to be sent in the manner in which they requested. This is the law.
We have had providers disagree with the function of the app, and as such, refused to provide records to the patient, or were under the belief that patients could not be trusted with the knowledge of the medical record and therefore would not release it. As a response to this, we have developed the Yelp-type rating portion to the site where patients are able to rate their experiences with health care providers.
What is on the horizon for Hula?
Our mission is to liberate health information and to help people make better health decisions. Soon we will expand outside of sexual health into different parts of health care.
What I am most excited about is that we are making an impact every single day. At the end of the day, we are helping people change behavior, create health care transparency, empowering patients to get their records, and allowing people to make data driven health decision to live healthier lives.