Highland Health Advocates2Startup, MD

Highland Hospital Resident Pilots App to Connect Patients with Resources

Patients present in the emergency room at Oakland, California’s Highland Hospital with a number of chronic needs that can’t be treated by a physician – joblessness, food insecurity, and eviction from their homes, to name a few. To address these social and environmental barriers, Highland emergency medicine residents, led by Dr. Dennis Hsieh, created the Highland Health Advocates (HHA) Help Desk. Staffed by volunteers, the help desk assesses patients’ needs and makes emergency legal referrals when needed.

Now, the Highland Health Advocates are harnessing the talent and resources of Silicon Valley by developing a “Yelp for Social Services,” in partnership with a nonprofit startup company called One Degree (www.1deg.org).

“With the Highland Health Advocates, we have a lot of people who are very tech savvy who want to help patients, but we don’t have the resources out there,” said Dr. Hsieh. “So how can we effectively download all this knowledge that people keep on little sheets of paper, or on little notes on their cubicle walls?”

Dr. Hsieh and his colleagues initially worked with a woman who was doing her sub-internship at Highland on an app to aggregate the information provided at the help desk. They realized there was still a need for an updated directory with reviews, so Highland Health A could feel confident that the programs they referred patients to were reliable.

The residents took their prototype to Alameda County officials and came across a number of different nonprofits doing this work, but most of them charge a fee for the data.

“We wanted a platform that was open not only for the Highland Health Advocates, but for our patients. There’s no reason to charge fees for this information,” Dr. Hsieh said.

Then they came across One Degree, a non-profit working with mothers ages 18 to 40 who need social services resources. The Highland Health Advocates felt that One Degree’s mission was aligned with theirs, and One Degree founders felt the same, so they agreed to expand from San Francisco across the Bay to Alameda County and partner with HHA.

“Highland and the HHA have been with us from very close to the beginning,” said Rey Faustino, CEO and founder of the startup. “We’re still very young, and even from that early time we knew we had to work with a forward-thinking organization and forward-thinking people who could tolerate imperfection. When you’re running a startup, not everything is going to be perfect.”

In the early days, the team at Highland gave feedback on how to improve the platform, leading to curated lists, making the search function better, and even making One Degree 100 percent HIPAA compliant, said Mr. Faustino.  

Input from Highland volunteers has led to additional innovations that One Degree didn’t anticipate.

“One of the health advocates from HHA told us that one of the highest needs from their patients was affordable housing, so they used these paper lists showing available affordable housing, and they asked us to post it on One Degree,” Mr. Faustino said. Since the lists have to be updated and printed out each month, he realized there was a more elegant solution and asked the nonprofit that provides the housing listings to collaborate on a parallel website called One Home (www.onehomebayarea.org). One Home enables tenants to search for affordable housing using different criteria and download applications with one click.

In just three weeks since the launch of One Home, more than 750 housing applications had been downloaded. Down the road, Mr. Faustino sees a lot of potential in analyzing data on supply and demand for housing and the other services they refer people to, and arming advocates and policymakers with that data.
Dr. Hsieh has worked with colleagues at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, Stanford, and San Francisco General Hospital to implement One Degree as a tool to refer patients to the best available resources. He hopes to expand the use of the tool and secure funding from Highland Hospital  or other sources to continue to develop it.