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Giving Thanks for Opportunities and Growth at Verana Health

Author: David W. Parke II, MD
November 2022
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It’s that time of year again…  to reflect and give thanks. This year, we look back at the past four years since Verana Health’s founding and give thanks for the growth we have experienced and the impact we have had on healthcare. 

To help us reflect upon our journey, we sat down with one of our founders, David Parke II, MD, Executive Chairman of the Verana Health Board and former CEO of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, to share the company’s beginnings and its vision for the future. Not only is Dr. Parke a respected leader in ophthalmic research and retinal ophthalmology practice, he’s also one of the original advocates of Verana Health.

Verana Health: We don’t have a traditional startup story. Can you share how it all began?

Dr. David Parke: Let’s go back to the equivalent of the corporate Big Bang, if you will, to 1995, which predates the start of Verana Health. The American Academy of Ophthalmology (Academy) had decided it needed a tool to help ophthalmologists improve quality of care by knowing the outcomes of care. So, the Academy started what I believe was one of the first digital registries in medicine. 

We used a Palm Pilot, one of the first handheld digital input devices. After an ophthalmologist saw a patient, you were supposed to pull out your Palm Pilot and input all sorts of stuff. Then, you went back to your computer to sync it and try to upload the data to a central database. The Academy invested significant resources in this project, but the process was a substantial burden to the physicians and was not successful.

The Academy, therefore, had a long-term interest in finding a tool that was going to help physicians know how they were doing, and therefore improve quality.

The next big leap was around 2011 with the debut of software that enabled data to be retrieved from electronic health records (EHRs). So, the Academy formed a task force to look at a clinical data registry model that pulled data from EHRs.  We launched the American Academy of Ophthalmology IRIS Registry (Intelligent Research in Sight) in 2014. One year later, the Academy had 6,000 members and more than 18 million visits on the IRIS Registry. There are roughly 18,000 practicing ophthalmologists in the country, so in one year we had a third of the ophthalmologists on board. 

 We launched the American Academy of Ophthalmology IRIS Registry (Intelligent Research in Sight) in 2014. One year later, the Academy had 6,000 members and more than 18 million visits on the IRIS Registry. There are roughly 18,000 practicing ophthalmologists in the country, so in one year we had a third of the ophthalmologists on board. 

Recognizing the urgent need for quality medical registries and accurate data on medical practice patterns and outcomes, the Academy realized it could aggregate and de-identify real-world data and make it available to life sciences companies to help accelerate important and sight-saving therapeutic research. Unfortunately, testing this hypothesis required that (in addition to being the Academy’s CEO) I become the IRIS Registry de facto chief commercial officer, chief data officer, chief sales officer, and chief marketing officer. Since I’m not capable of doing all of those jobs, we needed a partner (We considered building an entire new company, which was way outside of our comfort zone). The Academy settled on a small yet innovative Silicon Valley company, called DigiSight, that was involved in telemedicine and ophthalmology. The company had staff and investors with deep knowledge of the space and a vision for the future. That’s how things began. We started our first conversations in early 2017.

Verana Health: Who are some of the key people in the formation and evolution of Verana Health?

Dr. David Parke: There were two notable ophthalmologists involved in launching DigiSight: Dr. Mark Blumenkranz, chairman of ophthalmology of the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Dr. Steven Schwartz, who is director of the UCLA Diabetic Eye Disease and Retinal Vascular Center and a faculty member at the university’s medical school. 

There were also key people on the staff of DigiSight. But from the beginning, a secret sauce was the significant investors – and they still are Verana Health’s key investors. I’m speaking about Brook Byers, who has made significant impacts in the venture capital world and a founding partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Krishna Yeshwant, general partner for GV (formerly Google Ventures); and Julie Sunderland from Biomatics Capital Partners in Seattle. Julie came from the Gates Foundation and is an incredibly capable investor. 

Verana Health: What were some of the early milestones achieved by Verana Health as we were becoming a full-fledged company?

Dr. David Parke: An essential first milestone is putting the right people together in the right places. We had the Board in place, and Verana Health started to assemble the leadership group, and then recruit the key team members to execute on the plan. We also were fortunate to subsequently attract additional investors, because we were doing something ground-breaking that potentially could transform healthcare. In fact, now we have the likes of Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JJDC, Inc., Novo Growth, Merck Global Health Innovation Fund, Casdin Capital, Breyer Capital, and more that have invested more than $280M in Verana Health.

Another key element was acquiring and growing the trust of the physicians that supply the data via their EHRs. The Academy’s relationship with the physicians was essential in gaining that trust. Since then, we’ve also established partnerships with the American Academy of Neurology and American Urological Association. Verana Health has evolved our platform to dramatically enhance our capability in key operational steps including data ingestion, data curation, and data analytics. Those are some of our major milestones.

Verana Health: What are some moments where you were surprised? You had an expectation of how things might flow. Was it a little harder or a little easier than you might have anticipated?

Dr. David Parke: There have been many little surprises. For example, I’m delighted that the Food and Drug Administration has supported real-world evidence programs. I am especially encouraged by their Advancing Real-world Evidence Program, which should be a catalyst to drive real-world evidence-based research forward.  

Another unexpected surprise is that a lot of what we do in real-world data and real-world evidence has to do with population health. Now, that may seem sort of an obvious statement, but when you think about it, a lot of physicians are primarily focused on the person sitting on an exam table or in the chair in their office. It’s about one-on-one patient care and it’s always been that way – and it should be. You want your physician to just be focused on you. Thinking about health at a community or society level is less ‘top of mind.’

What Verana Health is doing to support population health initiatives is coming at exactly the right time.

What Verana Health is doing to support population health initiatives is coming at exactly the right time. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of population health. When you think about it, COVID-19 science has been all about epidemiology, public health, and population data–in addition to vaccine and drug development. That’s been a real national scientific focus since February 2020. At the same time, we’re lasering in on health equity and the ability to better understand and correct care deficiencies based on factors such as race, co-morbidities,  or socioeconomic status.

For that you need real-world evidence. You need to know what’s the outcome of care in population A versus population B. So, what Verana Health is doing is not only commercially very important, it has a real role in supporting health policy and in helping to advance science. None of us obviously knew when we started Verana Health that a pandemic was coming. What we’re learning is showing the value of what we can deliver as a company. 

Verana Health: In your role as Executive Chairman of the Verana Health Board, how do you see the near future playing out for you personally?

Dr. David Parke: When the Board asked me to take this position, to be honest with you, I wasn’t really entirely sure what an executive chairman does. I knew what a ‘board chair’ was; I’ve held that position a number of times at different entities. As it turns out, my role is to bring my different experience set to Verana Health’s leadership to foster a sort of synergy. I’m a physician, I’ve been in practice, I’ve done clinical research and clinical trials, I’ve run an academic institution, and I’ve led the Academy. This allows me to potentially reflect the interests and concerns of not only individual physicians, but of a community of physicians and scientists. I intend to continue using my skills, experience, and perspective to help Verana Health continue to fulfill its mission of supporting research that advances the quality of care and life for patients.  

My vision for the future of Verana Health is an uninterrupted inflow of data, 50,000+ contributing providers, and 1+ billion patient visits across different care settings and different medical specialties. We’re not far off! Today, we have a robust population health data engine, VeraQ, integrating and curating data at scale from 70+ electronic health record (EHR) systems, 20,000+ contributing providers across 9 years of longitudinal data and 500+ million patient visits. 

Ultimately, the goal is to be an essential collaborator to researchers and clinicians, helping deliver quality insights that advance therapeutic innovations and improve patient outcomes.