Upstart | Melissa Thompson, CEO, TalkSession

TalkSession's Melissa Thompson wants to make signing up for therapy feel like joining a gym.

“When I was first thinking about this,” TalkSession CEO Melissa Thompson said of her mental health startup, “I thought of how, when I saw a therapist every week or every other week, it was always 9 a.m. on a Monday. And when did I want to talk to someone? It was never at 9 a.m. on a Monday.”

This frankness about mental health services, along with a desire for more convenient therapy, are the hallmarks of Thompson's new business. TalkSession will operate as an online platform that pairs therapists with patients through matching algorithms, online scheduling and a teletherapy platform.

So far she has partnered with 50 New York City therapists with a range of specialties, and she will bring that number to 100 after completing a survey to anticipate user preferences. TalkSession was recently chosen by GE Ventures and Startup Health Academy to participate in their three-year accelerator program. They've gathered their first round of seed financing with funds from a variety of investors and are set to launch in beta version soon.

Thompson met me in a lower Manhattan bakery a few blocks away from TalkSession's office. She came with TalkSession's media and communications consultant Anaïs Borja. Belying her years on Wall Street and her Columbia University Business School education, Thompson appears casual in an unzipped hoodie and cotton tank top. She steers us around the business objectives between drinks from a diet soda bottle. Borja, dressed in an off-white sweater and carefully draped scarf, comes from the worlds of publishing and media consulting. She tailors her answers to issues of mental health policy while sipping her cappuccino.

Thompson first conceived of the idea for TalkSession in 2011 while finishing business school.

“The health care system is inefficient, and mental health care is even more inefficient,” she said. “It seemed like a good opportunity to make an impact on a field that's so important and so little has been done to change the paradigm. And there are so many stigmas around mental health care, both from the provider side and the consumer side.”

Borja clarified, “Teletherapy is not widely adopted nor widely practiced in a HIPAA-compliant way. There's a lot of skepticism among providers that you can develop a therapeutic alliance online, there are a lot of regulatory issues, reimbursement issues, which is why our competitors haven't necessarily been able to find a market. It's incredibly difficult to get those providers over that stigma.”

I asked Thompson what prompted her to leave her job at another startup to actually launch the business.

"I just," she paused and looked at me, "left. I had been thinking about it for a while. I really wanted to do work for myself. I think there's no perfect recipe for a job and if you want your ideal job you have to create it yourself."

Thompson admits that she's started a consumer healthcare IT company without having a background in either technology or health care. But that doesn't deter her.

"I think," she said of her business philosophy, "in running a startup, if you have the nerve to do it, if you have the strength to go out on your own and to take a big risk, you can find the resources you need. You can find experts in the health-care field. Experts in technology. As a startup founder, you don't have to be an expert in any particular area, you just have to be able to manage resources that the experts can provide."

Thompson hopes that by bringing therapy online, she can make it more accessible to a larger number of people, and also more socially acceptable.

“I think that this in some ways really is how to tell a better story about mental health,” Borja told me. “One in four people suffer from a mental illness, yet two-thirds never seek help. How do we make it acceptable, the way that forward-thinking gyms did with working out in the '90s? They made it cool --”

“It was a lifestyle brand,” Thompson added.

“They made it cool and important and a pro-active way to take care of yourself,” Borja continued. You go to the gym to stay fit not in a way --”

“Not because you're at risk of having a heart attack," Thompson finished the sentence.

Thompson wants to bring that pro-active zeitgeist to mental health care. And her timing points to dramatic possibilities. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental health profession, is currently undergoing a highly controversial re-write for its fifth edition.

“The DSM-5, and the rise of so-called patient-centered care, is forcing the mental health profession to do a lot of soul searching,” Borja said. Also, President Obama has recently championed telemedicine as an efficient way to distribute health care. But perhaps most importantly, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will soon give 30 million more Americans access to mental health coverage under federal parity protections.

“So potentially,” I offered, “if a bunch of people are about to get mental health coverage, you guys are in a pretty good position?”

They both nod with a subtle smile, acknowledging that I've caught on.

“The mental health care system is overtaxed,” Thompson said.

“Eighty million people live in an area with a shortage of mental-health professionals,” Borja added.

“Americans,” Thompson clarified. "So more people will have access to mental health benefits through insurance. And when the psychiatrists and psychologists have to respond to the ACA, they will also have to put their records on electronic medical records systems. So what we’re doing in advance of that is trying to streamline the technologies and the business of mental health care so therapists ultimately will have more time to do what they do best, which is therapy.”

TalkSession's mission will meet some fairly large obstacles. It will operate on a subscription system for providers, and Thompson sees winning the trust of Web-weary practitioners as her first hurdle.

“In phase one we are a provider-focused platform,” Thompson explained, “working to help providers by giving them resources to make therapy acceptable and bringing them online -– so giving them the ability to accept credit card payments online, giving the ability to book online, before we introduce the second side of the market.”

Thompson plans for the platform to become more patient-focused in later stages. She'll use an algorithm reminiscent of OK Cupid to connect users with providers that fit their needs and help people find therapy at hours convenient to them.

Coordinating mental health care online provides additional challenges. Practitioners can only treat patients within their own state lines, and teletherapy over traditional video chat platforms like Skype goes against HIPAA guidelines (Skype technically owns conversations over its server). TalkSession will have its own HIPAA-compliant server to host the remote video therapy sessions.

And while other health startups have failed to live up to the hype (Google Health, anyone?), Borja and Thompson feel confident about TalkSession's ability to produce a real impact.

“It requires patience,” Borja acknowledged, “and I think that may be one of the reasons why tech hasn't taken off in health care. Because I think the tech model just hasn't quite adapted to the timeline that it takes to affect change in health care.”

“But,” she added, “we are very patient.” The two colleagues exchange smiles. “It's an exciting time for us.”

Photo: Joanna O'Shea

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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