When COVID-19 hit China and began spreading to Europe, many students and experts in public health knew that a pandemic was eminent. By March, social distancing and stay at home orders took effect throughout the United States. Leslie Asanga (PharmD, MBA, MPH), a pharmacist and recent graduate of the Yale School of Public Health, saw the consequences of this firsthand while working at a large pharmacy earlier this year. “I was perplexed in the beginning when I was still seeing elderly and immunocompromised people coming into crowded pharmacies to get their prescriptions, despite the risk and the fact that they were more vulnerable to the disease,” says Asanga. “There was also an increase in prescription abandonment – a lot of people were not picking up the prescriptions from the pharmacy.”
Identifying a need for prescription delivery services for vulnerable populations, Asanga thought of the idea for Pills2Me, a service to “recruit young and healthy volunteers who are less likely to suffer devastating effects from COVID-19… to pick up prescriptions for those who were vulnerable.” Asanga and his small team of public health students, software developers, designers, and outreach people launched a website serving as a two-sided marketplace for volunteers to sign up and elderly and immunocompromised people to request their medications. With mentorship from Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood and support from Dr. Linda Niccolai, who was already running a contact tracing volunteer network, Pills2Me recruited 50 volunteers of mainly Yale students and faculty within three days of spreading word of the initiative.
Asanga also connected with Dr. Margaret Cartiera, who he met through Tsai CITY’s mentorship program. As the Innovation Director at Yale’s Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology (CBIT), Cartiera is helping Asanga grow Pills2Me and connect with new people. Asanga wanted to collaborate with the Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH) to connect with patients who were recently discharged and needed to pick up prescriptions. Cartiera has advised Asanga on building partnerships and is also helping foster the collaboration between Pills2Me and YNHH. CBIT is also helping Asanga grow his own team. “A project which ends up becoming a company requires a lot of different skillsets,” says Asanga. “[W]orking in an interdisciplinary team is essential.” In line with CBIT’s emphasis on cross-sector innovation and collaborations, Cartiera is supporting Pills2Me in its search for interns in marketing and business development.
As Pills2Me grows its network, its technology and userbase is expanding, too. Already, the initiative has developed a mobile app (now available in the App Store and Google Playstore) that moves requests away from manual orders towards more automated, Grubhub-like deliveries. Additionally, many young and healthy adults drawn by the convenience of Pills2Me have expressed interest in using the app for its convenience: Asanga is exploring the potential for monetization of this population to help keep the service free for vulnerable patients. Pills2Me has completed a successful months’ long pilot for paid services and recently launched in Las Vegas with plans to expand to other cities.
With growth comes new challenges, especially in ensuring that Pills2Me has consistent, reliable drivers. Although volunteers were extremely helpful in launching the initiative, Pills2Me is moving to hiring paid drivers to guarantee delivery availability, even as its userbase expands. The startup has also implemented HIPAA training for onboarding drivers to safeguard the privacy and security of their users’ medications.
Identifying problems and devising new solutions is the cornerstone of an entrepreneurial mindset. This mindset, and Asanga’s desire to help others, is what inspired him to create Pills2Me. “When you identify a problem, you recognize how many people… really care about [it]. If you find an efficient way of solving a problem, it doesn’t matter what the problem is… you’re going to succeed. You can create the impact that you want to.”
Asanga hopes that Pills2Me becomes a household name as it continues to grow its userbase as well as its capabilities. The initiative is looking to eventually add functionality to its app that will allow patients to use it to purchase over-the-counter medications, chat with a pharmacist, and ask for recommendations, instead of traveling to a physical pharmacy themselves. “Medicine has advanced five years since March and people talk to their doctors virtually, but at the end of the day when they send a prescription to the pharmacy you still have to go and pick it up. We’re looking to be able to close that gap.”
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- Molly Bucklin