Stanford alums loop DNA testing into mental healthcare with $99-per-month Prairie Health

Jan. 19, 2021, 8:54 p.m.

Founded by four Stanford graduates, Prairie Health aims to improve the accessibility and affordability of mental healthcare by relying on telemedicine and cutting out other stakeholders in the industry. There’s DNA testing, too.

Inspired by their own personal struggles with mental health, Maurice Chiang M.S. ’20, Aaron Kappe MBA. ’20, Benson Kung ’20 and Jin Woo Yu ’20 built their own system centered around patients.

“The U.S. healthcare system is not built for patients,” Maurice Chiang said. “The U.S. healthcare system is built for insurance companies, it’s built for payers, it’s built for hospital systems and that’s where most of the money goes.”

Chiang said Prairie Health works to prioritize patients rather than profit.

“We don’t take insurance; we’re completely patient self-pay because we believe that when you cut out all the waste in the system and focus on what’s most important, which is the patient and driving better outcomes for patients, you can actually significantly reduce costs,” he added. 

Due to its emphasis on accessibility and elimination of other stakeholders, Prairie Health may charge significantly less for services: according to its website, Prairie Health’s care costs only $99 a month while traditional psychiatric care can cost over $800 per month. 

“People think healthcare needs to be expensive, but it doesn’t,” Chiang said. “Healthcare can be much more accessible and affordable to everyone if we optimize for what’s most important, which is the patients rather than payers or health systems.”

The company’s patient-centric focus also extends to their treatment methods, according to Chiang. Prairie Health offers each patient a genetic test to evaluate the efficacy and potential side effects of medication, allowing psychiatrists to make more informed decisions on what to prescribe. 

Stanford bioengineering lecturer Ross Venook, an informal advisor to the Prairie Health team, told The Daily that the variety of different psychiatric medications can create challenges for doctors and patients. Often, it is difficult for psychiatrists to determine the medication and dosage level that will be most effective for a certain patient, according to Venook. 

“Because the guidelines in clinical care are lacking, the patient will get a prescription to try out and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t, and maybe there are side effects that they don’t like so they don’t take the medication, and nobody really knows whether the medication would work,” he said.

Chiang believes genetic information may help. He told The Daily that he hopes the future of healthcare will involve greater consideration of circumstances that are unique to every patient — whether it be genetics, phenotypic factors or other variables — to make more informed clinical decisions. 

“The one-size-fits-all approach that we take today will no longer exist in 10 years, and we want to be the company that’s leading the charge to really improve the quality of care,” he said.

Some research has shown that social-distancing measures enacted due to the pandemic have taken a toll on mental health within the general population. Within the Stanford community, students say the disruption and uncertainty has created significant mental-health challenges as they adapted to isolation and remote instruction.

COVID-19 has also greatly increased the use of telemedicine, which Prairie Health relies on. Due to the wide-scale shift, virtual appointments may also become more prevalent within the healthcare industry in upcoming years.

Genetics professor Mike Snyder, who is not affiliated with Prairie Health, believes this is a step in the right direction, telling The Daily that “there’s no reason to go to a doctor where you’ll mostly get sick. For healthy checkups, it makes more sense to do it by telehealth. For many things you do in a physician’s office, a lot of it can be measured at home.”

In its quest to change mental health care, Prairie Health has also seen challenges.

“Medicine is a very conservative field where change moves very slowly,” Snyder told The Daily. “The doctor’s office of 2020, prior to COVID, was identical to the doctor’s office of 30 years before that.” 

Venook voiced a similar sentiment, saying that Prairie Health doesn’t quite fit within the traditional mold of the healthcare system.

“Healthcare is ripe for disruption and resistant to disruption,” he said. 

Contact Katie Li at katie_li ‘at’

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