Why you should care

Because it doesn’t take whiz-bang technology to make your doctor’s visit a better experience.

You’re a college sophomore, minding your own business as you and a friend prepare a magazine story on digital advertising. You hear something about ads running atop New York City taxis. And you get this idea to run advertisements in …. educational videos at doctor’s offices.

Huh?

Meet Shradha Agarwal, who by age 29 has built a sizable company on this notion that people in waiting rooms for, say, an eczema checkup, are a captive audience for watching videos on health-related education, and particularly advertisements. And it’s no small notion: Her Chicago-based ContextMedia works with some 25,000 doctors nationwide. And advertisers are still discovering this gold mine — Ernst & Young projects that Agarwal’s industry, known as telehealth, will balloon to $1.9 billion in the U.S. in three years.

A cynic, of course, might ask the question: Is there no safe place left to avoid advertisers selling you stuff? (Ads can be found in the ballpark, on planes and yes, taxis.) And for the hypochondriacs among us, well, don’t we have enough bombardment from WebMD and “Try this new medicine!” ads? Indeed, ContextMedia has to walk a fine line between educating patients and giving them a sales pitch. And it touts its success in influencing patients’ health purchases. But commercials are clearly marked, and doctors can nix the ads they don’t want to air in their offices. As long as she stays on the right side of ethics, Agarwal may enjoy the distinction of being one of the first companies to push pharma’s relationship with the medical world; doctors traditionally get pitched by pharma reps at conferences and in one-to-one meetings, and industry journals are full of ads. What’s new here is that advertising is going straight to patients and health consumers, and not just via infomercials asterisked with side effects. They’re facing you down in your doctor’s office.

“If everything was covered in Buffalo sauce, I would eat it,” confesses a burly red-haired man in one such video. The guy has diabetes, and we see him as a little kid, chowing down on a birthday cake; we see him as a man posing under a “CHEESE” restaurant sign. In another, a man with a shaved head and pierced ear wearing leather and a chunky chain hops onto his motorcycle … and drives over to a multiple sclerosis research lab. It’s a simple shoutout from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The informational videos have a day-in-the-life, character-driven documentary look; most are produced by ContextMedia’s content partners, like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

In all, ContextMedia’s videos reach 10 million patients a month. According to a study commissioned by the company, more than half of patients discuss the videos they see with their doctors afterward, and 94 percent of them visit pharmacies or grocery stores to make recommended purchases immediately after their doctor’s visit. Bhagwan Moorjani, a neurologist in La Quinta, California, says he has noticed a difference in his patients since his practice signed up last year. People arrive with concrete questions, whereas they once waited for doctors to inform them, passively. “They felt they had a better understanding,” he told OZY over email. For Agarwal, whose grandparents died from easily preventable diabetes-related complications, that’s the bleeding-heart version of the rationale for her company: low-tech, basic education.

The former broadcast journalism major is a rarity in a field of bio-geeks. Her first “startup,” in fact, was the decidedly nontechnological campus business journal she started with Rishi Shah, ContextMedia’s co-founder. Despite that lack of apparent bona fides, Agarwal possesses a killer sales instinct, says Dave Sheehan, a member of the company’s board. She credits her media background with her knack for wooing advertisers. “It taught me the importance of storytelling,” she says. Indeed, she enjoys spinning a yarn. She peppers the conversation with stories from childhood — like the time she learned to swim by being pushed into a pool — that prepared her for entrepreneurship’s trials by fire.

Namely, for ContextMedia, it’s tackling a highly fragmented market, which has proven tricky for many of the company’s predecessors. “It’s difficult to survive unless you’re very well-funded,” says Dave Haynes, a Burlington, Ontario-based consultant to digital signage companies, who covers the industry. Which is why Agarwal’s feat is all the more impressive. ContextMedia is bootstrapped — no venture capital funding. When its advertisers pulled out after the 2008 financial crisis, the company ran out of money. Agarwal and Shah used their personal credit cards to stay afloat until they managed to secure a Small Business Administration loan — which they likely wouldn’t have gotten without a sales record — and Agarwal took over sales. Although they’ve since gotten over that hump, ContextMedia continues to fight other companies to sign up doctors and advertisers. Its largest competitor, AccentHealth, is a pace ahead, according to Haynes; an AccentHealth spokeswoman says it claims a network of more than 70,000 doctors on board.

Scrappy days lie ahead for Agarwal. Revenue has doubled in the past year, which, according to 2013 figures published by Inc. magazine, puts it at some $30 million. (Agarwal wouldn’t disclose an exact figure.) In the U.S., 2 out of 3 endocrinologists use ContextMedia’s services, she says. The company plans to hire 600 new employees over the next two years, which she and Shah recently celebrated in a press conference with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Oh, and what else? She’s doing that thing you do once you’ve become a real entrepreneur: giving her money away, to bet on new startups. Hello, angel investing.

Photography by Michelle Nolan for OZY.

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