DocDoc Co-Founder Grace Park is Curing the Pain of Shortchanging Patients

Co-Founder & President, DocDoc
Text by Angela Low; Photography by Yew Jia Jun
September 20, 2019
Become – Trendsetters

Going to the doctor’s is like meeting the pope. We’re willing to wait hours for a 10-minute audience with them. We confess our bodily failures, receive their blessings, drink their holy water, and hope for healing. Most of the time, it works. An ailing man receives a miracle. A dying child is granted life.

Except, doctors aren’t priests. They’re not godly beings with infinite wisdom and the mystical power to survive 24-hour, back-to-back surgeries without tiring. They’re human—something we, as patients, often forget. For the most part, doctors know better, but they certainly don’t always know best. That was what Grace Park was convicted of when her infant daughter, Rand, now 7, fell ill.

“Our daughter had a rare liver condition,” shares the erstwhile managing director of Medtronic ASEAN. “[The head surgeon said] we needed to admit her to the hospital immediately. They’ll do a procedure tomorrow, which will take about seven hours. He was really matter-of-fact about it... It came to us as such a shock because this was not what we expected. We asked the doctor, ‘How many times have you done a liver transplant? How are your other patients doing?’ But these answers weren’t answered. The response we got was, ‘I’m the head of my department. I’m good at my job.’”

With the lack of transparency in healthcare, patients (unlike traditional consumers) don’t often get a say in the services they receive, paying huge sums for a potentially less-than-qualified doctor to butcher their body. Striving to put the patient back in the front seat, Grace founded DocDoc in 2012 with her husband, Cole Sirucek. An AI-powered patient intelligence platform that allows patients to choose the right doctor with the right expertise to meet their specific needs, DocDoc has raised US$13 million in its latest funding round, gearing up for global expansion.

A former military leader and a fighter in more ways than one, the Korean American co-founder took a leap going from a Fortune 500 firm to a lean start-up in Singapore. Yet, through it all, she is guided by her unquestionable work ethic and her personal mission to be a “person of character”. In a way, even though she’s no longer serving her country directly, she’s still working to save lives. This is the story of how Grace is moving the needle in healthcare, the business of life and death.

ANGELA LOW: You’ve led quite an impressive life, a big part of which you spent in the military. What led you to the US Army?

GRACE PARK: I went to the United States Military Academy at West Point, the oldest military school in the US that opened in 1802. The first time I heard about it was through my parents. They were trying to convince my younger brother to go. They see the graduates of West Point as heroes because they were deemed as heroes from the Korean war. I called the school and asked for an admissions brochure. When I received it two weeks later, I was so shocked that no one in any of the photos looked like me, an Asian American female who was 5"4 and 120 pounds. Everyone looked like super athletic jocks.

Anyway, I ignored all the photos, really read through it, and I fell in love. I was so inspired by the mission statement. West Point is a place that develops leaders of character. There’s a five-year commitment to serve as a military officer upon graduating from West Point, which I saw as a guarantee for a job. That’s where West Point trained me and taught me how to be a platoon leader.

ANGELA: Have you always wanted to be in the military?

GRACE: If you were to ask me what I wanted to be growing up, I'd never say a military officer. My parents were the epitome of the American dream. They came to the US not knowing how to speak English at all. They got here because my great uncle came over on a seminary scholarship, and he could invite one family member over. He invited my father because he was the most diligent. My father had to earn money quickly, so he learnt how to be a barber and opened his own shop. It’s long hours on your feet, but he was a hard worker.

He taught me what it means to have a really good work ethic, to focus on something. For him, he focused on his children's education. I think it was very much the Asian story where if you focus on education, the world's your oyster. I was the middle child, and worked really hard throughout school. My mom was a nurse in Germany, but when she had us, she became a full-time mom. West Point was one of the top rank schools that many people don't consider because of the military aspect and requirements. I saw West Point as more than just about academics. They focus also on athletics and military skills. It's well rounded.

I agree with the philosophy that just because you do well in school doesn't mean you're going to be successful in life. It's really about building that well-rounded person of character. What do you do in a tough situation? Do you hurt other people along the way to get your goal, or do you work as a team and work hard on your own merits? That work ethos and culture was instilled in us from the military. I was at West Point from the age of 17 to 21, and then in the military from 21 to 26. Those are the formative years of building your foundation and values. That's where mine was built.

ANGELA: What was life like in the military?

GRACE: Every quarter, our cadets go through an Army Physical Fitness Test. It's a two-mile run, as many sit-ups as you can do in two minutes, and as many push-ups as you can do in two minutes. We were also required to take up a sport every term, so you'd go to class, go to sports, do your homework, and the light's out. It's very regimented.

I actually valued both the athletic and military parts. The military was brand new to me but I felt that when I excelled as an athlete, it helped me to become a better student. A lot of it is a mental game. Being in competitive sports allowed us to test our mental fortitude, our ability to go beyond, to continue to stay focused. I chose judo as my sport, not because I did judo before, but because I thought that if women were only 10% of the total class, I should pick something that would be useful for me. For me, it was a way of being able to defend myself if I needed to.

In the beginning, I was getting hazed. The whole idea was to break down the ego. They have a principle that says to become a good leader, you have to be a good follower first. While I was going through all that, I was going to judo, and I didn't realise the team was ultra-competitive. Anyway, it paid off because we were active in regional and national competitions. Once the upperclassmen saw that I was actually winning these competitions and bringing back the trophy for West Point, they started thinking, “We can’t beat her up.” [laughs]

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"I would classify myself as more of a servant leader. I'm trying to optimise everyone as a soldier by hearing them out, so they can do their best."

ANGELA: Do you apply what you've learnt in the military to the way you run your business now? 

GRACE: Yes, I do. It's interesting because in everything I do now, as a manager, a leader in charge of a team, I apply the same principles as when I was that 22-year-old platoon leader, second lieutenant leading my platoon. I think environments change and people change, but the principles never really change. I think it's important to set the example. You can’t tell people to do things that you don’t expect yourself to do. I would classify myself as more of a servant leader. I'm trying to optimise everyone as a soldier by hearing them out, so they can do their best. It's about really understanding each individual, what their goals are, what makes them tick, and enabling them to get to where they want to go.

Actually, back in the day, I was the first female ever to lead the platoon that my commander gave me. The commander said, “Grace, you go for it. I'm just going to give you a shot. Don't screw it up, but it's yours if you want it." [laughs] So what could I say? Yes, right? There were about 44 soldiers or so in my platoon, most of them were probably twice my age, had been in the military much longer than I had, and they've never had a female boss. 

ANGELA: Was there any uncertainty? Did you ever feel like you weren’t supposed to be there?

GRACE: If I'm real with myself, I would say those thoughts did come to mind, but I've always been in situations where I didn’t fit in. My parents moved from the west coast to the east coast, to a town called Andover, Massachusetts. I think 99.9% of the town was Caucasian. We're the only Asian family. When I went to West Point, being an Asian American female… I was one of two cadets who were selected for the inaugural military exchange with the French, and the French are less accepting of females in the military. They only had two women in their entire class. It was very easy to tell myself I didn’t belong there.

I could have chosen to be a victim, or say, “No, I'm not going to go in with that mindset.” My purpose there was to represent West Point as a cadet, and I will do it and fulfill the obligation. It was an important role, and I felt I needed to convey as the first cadet that this is a friendship, a partnership that can be sustainable and continue on for the next year. I heard that they've done it every year since the inaugural year, which is fantastic. I trained myself to believe the negative thoughts were just noise. Thinking of the bigger picture and the bigger purpose also helps to minimise that negative self-talk.

ANGELA: After the military, what led you to healthcare? 

GRACE: I served for five years, and I was fortunate to have been stationed at The Pentagon. It's rare that a captain is stationed there. I was there on a special task force mission, to reengineer army intelligence for the next century. It was a very fascinating project, and I had the opportunity to mingle with senior officers and see what my life would be like if I were to stay 15 to 20 years in the military.

It was tough because I really aimed to be the first Asian American female general officer, but a senior officer told me, “There are so many ways you could be of service to our country. It doesn't have to be in this green uniform. Go out, see the world, explore, study and 30 years later, just come back and bring everything that you've learnt to us, so we can benefit from it.”

It was liberating. When I went out after my five-year commitment of service, I looked into the private sector and the one company I felt like I belonged was at Bristol-Myers. It was a pharmaceutical company and the CEO was a former naval officer. He was specifically recruiting junior military officers and captains to come in at the mid-level of management to be change agents. I love that he was able to translate what I did for five years into a private sector role, and healthcare resonated with me.

Coming from a sector that has such a meaningful purpose, being in the military, to serve and defend your country, I could feel proud that I'm waking up in the morning and doing something meaningful for other people. That's very important to me. I didn't really want to wake up and sell toilet bowl brushes, you know? [laughs

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ANGELA: Can you tell me more about how DocDoc works and how it uses AI?

GRACE: This company came about when my daughter, who was born healthy, went for her three-month regular check-up, and the pediatrician said she looked jaundiced and yellow. Something’s a bit off. We thought it was something small and we’ll just get a jab, but when we went to the hospital, she was put on one blood test after another, scans, MRIs. Finally, we were ushered into a room. The head surgeon was a liver specialist. He said our daughter had a rare liver condition, and we needed to admit her to the hospital immediately.

They’ll do a procedure tomorrow, which will take about seven hours. He was really matter-of-fact about it. They were going to slice her liver, reattach it to her intestines and get her bile juices flowing because it wasn’t flowing. She’ll also need a liver transplant. It came to us as such a shock because this was not what we expected. We asked the doctor, “How many times have you done a liver transplant? How are your other patients doing?” But these answers weren’t answered. The response we got was, “I’m the head of my department. I’m good at my job.”

Thankfully at that same hospital, we had a close personal friend, a pediatric cardiac surgeon. A few years prior, my husband Cole Sirucek and I did a 250km Gobi desert race, raising money for children who needed heart surgery in Vietnam and China. This was the surgeon I called to do those medical missions. He's like family. We called him out, he came to us in that room and had a few words with the other doctors. He took us out of the room and said, “Let's go on an international search. We need to find the right team for you. This team was not the right team. They just don't see these kinds of cases as frequently as you would be comfortable with. It's a very complex case.”

We eventually found a doctor, who was a pioneer of liver transplants. He’s done over 2,000 surgeries and stopped counting by the year 2000 because he loved the symmetry of it. His prices, all in, were also 60% lower. You'd think a doctor, who’s actually an expert, would be so much more expensive, but because there's such a lack of transparency in healthcare, the average patient has no idea about these things.

Cole donated his liver for the transplant, and as he was recovering in the ICU, he said, “Grace, this is what DocDoc needs to be. We need to help the everyday patient. We need to help people with the whole doctor discovery process.” We need to help patients be able to structure their thinking, and make them aware of how to choose and decide, to be empowered.

"When you blaze your own trail and do something that has no model, there’s no blueprint. We have to create it from scratch, which makes things interesting."

ANGELA: At this point, DocDoc was already a company?

GRACE: Yes. I was pregnant when we incorporated the company in 2012. We were going through the setting up phase and soft launches, but when this incident occurred, we really went through the pain point. It's not about finding the nearest doctor, but about who's the right doctor for you for a given procedure or condition. People believe that getting information is impossible, that people make up proxies or what they think should be proxies for deciding who is the appropriate doctor for them.

You'll hear things like, “That's how the doctor looks.” How would that determine how the doctor is in the operating room? It's all based on hearsay because we either go to insurance directories or Google, but you’re just getting the doctor's photo, name, specialty, and address. Someone, who had recently gone through surgery, said that the grey hairs of the doctor was what made him choose that doctor. The grey hairs must mean he's an expert! [laughs] I would not be able to do that with my daughter.

Prices are also going up. Medical inflation is escalating. If the patient were to see the right doctor, would the patient then have to go redo operations or rehab, and continue to escalate the cost? Not if you're with the right match. We’ve built our AI platform, called HOPE (Heuristic for Outcome, Price and Experience). Outcome refers to the expertise of the specialist or doctor. Experience refers to bedside manners. When you curate and validate actual patients going to see the doctor for a specific procedure, that's valuable to other patients who, down the line, have to undergo the same procedure. It's not like going through a random webpage, with a bunch of people making comments. Are they real patients? Are they the doctor's spouse, or the competitor to that doctor? Who knows, right?

We’ve collected and put in the database hundreds of data points on a “per doctor” basis. We allow the algorithms to run, such that when the patients have a particular procedure they're looking for, we're able to match it up with the doctor at that very granular level. On top of that, we also have a discovery centre of doctors. It's not just machines. It’s the human touch, which I think is critical, especially in healthcare. You guide the patient throughout the entire continuative care, so they're your trusted friend throughout that whole process. 

ANGELA: Is the platform open for public use?

GRACE: We're not open to the general public. We're free to patients and doctors. We work with insurance companies and enterprises, corporate clients who want to pass that value to their employees and policyholders. We integrate within that workflow of the insurance and corporate companies, so when a patient has a need, it actually defaults to DocDoc.

The patient will have a consultation with our in-house doctor first. That's when we consent to have information and understand what they need, so the doctors are able to generate a report from what's been pulled out of the algorithm through the platform. The patient will get a private, customised report of DocDoc and the three recommended doctors that are most suitable for them. Not all patients are the same. For me, I didn’t care if that head surgeon was low on EQ and offended me socially. I just wanted him to be a Master Jedi in that operating room with my daughter. Other patients may weigh it out differently, and we’re able to customise it for them.

ANGELA: How long does it take to get a match?

GRACE: After a consult, the discussion between DocDoc's discovery doctors and the patient will probably take 10 to 15 minutes. Within half an hour, a report will be sent to the patient, who can then contact the DocDoc doctor to go through the entire report. A huge part of what we do is also to educate the patient, build an awareness of how to structure their thinking, and shift their mindset to what’s possible in going through the whole doctor discovery process. That's why we've created this category called Patient Intelligence. It's been really challenging to build our own knowledge model—where the data sits, how it’s all structured, how they’re connected, how's the analysis happening. That's really where we spend a lot of our time, energy and resources.

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ANGELA: How do you onboard doctors and expand your network?

GRACE: I have a sales team, and we go door to door. Prior to DocDoc, I was a managing director at Medtronic. I was managing the full P&L for Medtronic for 10 countries, and in essence, managing large sales teams. I’m leveraging on my past experience of developing a sales team that will connect with the doctors. We also have a list of criteria for potential doctors with about 10 points to it. The main point is clearly not to have black marks like suspensions. We go through that verification and validation before targeting them.

ANGELA: Speaking of Medtronic, what's the difference between being a leader at a Fortune 500 company and now being the CEO of a start-up?

GRACE: Oh my goodness, that's a pretty long list. [laughs] I think it took about a year for me to transition from “big company thinking” to entrepreneurial thinking. It's completely different, complete opposites. At a big company, I could just turn around and say, “HR!”, “Legal!”, “Finance!” The headquarters was also in the US, so the brand plan was already well oiled. People are focused on very deep areas. Not so wide, but quite deep. You had a whole army of people, everyone had their role.

As an entrepreneur, you have to roll up your sleeves and just do it from day 0! You don't have an army, the hierarchy, or the layers of people that would be able to support you in various areas. It's a whole new learning experience, being more comfortable with volatility and ambiguity as well. Also, at Medtronic, we’re one of seven to 10 companies fighting for market shares. We’re looking across the board to see what our competitor is doing, and saying we’ve got to one-up that. You have a blueprint for what success should look like.

When you blaze your own trail and do something that has no model, there’s no blueprint. We have to create it from scratch, which makes things interesting. Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” is my favourite quote. It doesn’t matter who’s on the sidelines or what they’re saying. We’re in the arena, and we’re going to get hit. There’s going to be dust and sweat, but we’re going to fight for it till the end.

ANGELA: Did you start DocDoc with your own savings, or with external investors?

GRACE: We had angel investors. Personal ones as well. Koh Boon Hwee, the former chairman of DBS, Singtel and Singapore Airlines, was our lead angel investor. I also had my former CEO from Medtronic come onboard. We also had Bob McDonald, the former chairman of Procter and Gamble. He actually, after retiring from P&G, was appointed by Obama to be the secretary of veteran affairs. That’s arguably the largest health system in the world, and he managed the veterans in getting their healthcare in the US.

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"There's no advocacy group that voices out the concerns of the patients. Patients are actually just running around, trying to get their voices heard."

ANGELA: Why do you think there's a lack of transparency in healthcare? Is it because it's profit-driven?

GRACE: As a consumer, you have a voice. You're empowered to ask questions, demand answers, and make decisions. But in healthcare, as patients... When I gave birth to my daughter, technically I didn't have to see the bill. My insurance covered it. Hospitals talk to insurance agencies and their payment goes out, or the government does that part. We're not there to be a strong stakeholder. There's no advocacy group that voices out the concerns of the patients. Patients are actually just running around, trying to get their voices heard. They have to work through what's established in healthcare, which are all of these other insurance and stakeholder groups—the service providers, the doctors.

ANGELA: Why are we so quick to trust doctors even though they may not know what's best?

GRACE: It's probably cultural. That's just how it's been set up. Healthcare being so traditional and conservative, changes don't happen very quickly. Before the Internet, the doctor was the one who went to medical school. It’s hard for the average layperson to research about medical conditions, so we trusted them. Today, we have the opportunity to get more information.

ANGELA: How old is your daughter?

GRACE: She's 6 going 7.

ANGELA: How's she doing now?

GRACE: She's doing well, thanks! If you line her up in a classroom, you would never imagine she spent a good part of her infant life in the hospital, unless you actually ask her to show you her scars. It covers her whole midsection. But it's what brings our whole family together. I have a C-section scar, and Cole being the donor, he's got a scar. It's embarrassing when in public, she says, “Mummy, show me your scar!” But scars are beautiful. It's nothing we should be ashamed of, but something that has a story behind it. 

ANGELA: What are you working on right now to improve DocDoc?

GRACE: We’re continuing to build up partnerships. We're talking to insurance groups, enterprises, and governments, which is the next tier. My vision is that DocDoc will transform the status quo, everyday patients. It will be the new norm that patients will have data to decide on which doctor they should see.