Managing a chronic illness is challenging, whether it is your own or a loved one’s. Starting and running a business also poses unique challenges. If you struggle with a chronic illness, have started a business, or want to start a business, this blog series can help guide you. “Inside the Patient Entrepreneur’s Mind” offers key insights into chronic disease and mission-driven entrepreneurship by some of the most innovative patient entrepreneurs in the world.
Sangeeta Agarawal RN, MS is the Founder & CEO of Helpsy Health.
As a patient entrepreneur, can you describe your personal connection to cancer and how this experience drove you to innovate the space?
My specific cancer connection includes multiple close family members and my best friend while I was going through undergrad. A lot of the women in my family had cancer and due to the stigma, it was never shared. A lot of the women in my family were also beaten and did not receive proper support. They also didn’t know that survivorship comes with side effects and lingering issues so that suffering was never addressed. Similarly, my best friend also had lingering side effects and felt that she could never really fully live her life. Working as a cancer nurse, I saw really bad things happen in terms of families breaking up, couples cheating, just because they didn’t have the right support to understand the cancer journey.
My background is in engineering. I’ve been a computer scientist and engineer working in this field for many years at some of the top organizations like IBM and Motorola. After that, I started having a lot of personal health issues, in part from being a victim of a violent crime. I almost lost my life, becoming an acute patient overnight, followed by multiple chronic health problems. I became an e-patient to apply the same rigor of scientific research and analysis to my own plan and I strengthened my passion for connecting people and sharing the truth.
I started cloning my brain as a cancer nurse to make the support available to everyone, online.
For over a decade, I’ve now worked in healthcare. I am trained as an Ayurvedic doctor at a Masters level focusing on behaviour change, diet change and whole health living. I ran my own clinic for 8-10 years and alongside I pursued western medicine and became an oncology nurse. With Helpsy, I combined eastern, western, and tech to try and address underlying root causes of physical/emotional health in order to provide solutions at scale.
What makes Helpsy unique and how does it meet an unmet need of the cancer community?
We are doing lot of work when it comes to helping people with finding cancer cures, but the unmet need today of our cancer community involves outpatient and follow-up care. As more and more care is moving outpatient, we need to support people through these different health issues and help share the responsibility put on the patient and family. Those aspects of care are not sufficiently addressed when 90% of their care happens when they are at home. There are a lot of gaps in that aspect of care because they may not remember what to do or have emotional issues that are not supported. They may need to know how to take time from work, rehab, transportation, peer-to-peer connection, etc. and we need to support those needs because it affects their lives in a very detrimental way. 90% of cancer patients have short and long-term side effects, but most of them are not aware that they will have these issues. Additionally, almost 40% of cancer patients will go bankrupt in two years. We are able to provide these services at scale, at low cost to everyone. Not everyone has a special, full care team and we’ve made that possible by cloning the brain and knowledge from all the key experts in the industry from an oncologist to a nurse to a dietician and yoga teacher.
Helpsy is an artificial intelligence system that has the brain of so many different modalities and provides the knowledge and expertise to the person for the issue they are having. It is customized to honor culture, language, socioeconomic status and is truly a personalized solution. Additionally, it is a true combination of technology and human expertise. There is a place where technology can do things and add value to humans as well as where clinical experts need to provide knowledge and clinical support. Helpsy can help balance that tradeoff, which is very important in today’s world.
Are there any other unmet needs of the cancer community that you think take priority in working to address? How are patient entrepreneurs well-suited to meet these needs?
The one big unmet need is to support the caregiver, family, loved ones and clinical care team. If you look from a caregiver’s perspective, given that almost all of us have different health issues, almost everyone is a caregiver multiple times in their lives. If you become a cancer caregiver, there are a multitude of issues you face compounded with your own personal issues. The caregiver gets spread really thin because they need to become the breadwinner, do the logistical work, and take care of their own needs. There are not enough resources and support to provide for them. At Helpsy, we are trying to do more and more for them. Patient advocates are best suited as entrepreneurs because of the shared lived experience. We have been through that challenge or that problem. We know what the journey is like and we know the dark days versus the good days. We can build solutions that help people like us at a much closer level than what is theoretically the ‘best’ solution for somebody. It is important that a lot of patient entrepreneurs are also advocates, in order to tie together the collective wisdom and suffering of larger groups, instead of addressing those challenges with just their individual experience.
Where do you draw your inspiration and motivation from to keep forging ahead as an entrepreneur in the healthcare industry? Is there a particular healthcare innovation that inspires you?
A few role models from growing up still inspire me. Before I knew I would be a nurse, I was always drawn to Mother Theresa because she worked in India helping people. I come from a humble background growing up on the streets in India. I was always the black sheep in my family trying to do something big and bold that didn’t fit into the norms. I looked to Mother Theresa because she had the ability to initiate large-scale change but also help others and support people. Reading about her, I was also inspired by Florence Nightingale, who was in an even more difficult situation hundreds of years ago. Now, looking back, I guess I was meant to be a nurse. On the technology side, I’m inspired by Adele Lovelace because she gave birth to the field of computer algorithms, pioneering some of the early algorithms sold. Working in tech, there are not a lot of women so sometimes we feel out of place and are mistaken for HR instead of an engineer. Lastly, my life is a collection of gifts and resources that people have given me, because I didn’t grow up with them. They have inspired me to help other people because that little help could mean everything to that person.
Lastly, what do you do for fun to manage the stress of running a business as both a person connected to cancer and an entrepreneur? Do you have any similar advice on work-life disease management balance to others out there thinking of starting a business to meet an unmet need of a chronic disease patient community?
Absolutely. I think I learned from experience because, when I first started Helpsy, it was pure passion of wanting to change the world. In the process, I would burn myself out as well as everyone around me. I made some mistakes and learned being an entrepreneur is a marathon and not a sprint. You have to keep pushing through it. There is a lot to do each day but it is important to pace yourself and the people around you so you can continue to deliver. I learned to celebrate small wins and to recognize the community effort.
I’m a servant of the company and there is an entire community of people working in this together.
Keeping that in mind and bringing everybody into the fold is important. It is also important to pick where to focus your energy and being able to make that calculated risk about big decisions. At the end of the day, I close every night with a gratitude practice for everything that happens and wake up grateful for the day ahead of me. Lastly, meditation helps, exercise helps, and everyday taking the time to learn from my mistakes and how I handle stress.