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The next time your ear aches or stomach hurts, you might not drive to the doctor’s office or head to the ER. Instead, you could just fire up the laptop or tablet computer. Or, better yet, have a physician visit you in the nearly forgotten medical practice of the house call.

That’s the promise of Carena Inc. The Seattle upstart — which provides health care 24 hours a day via phone, Web video or the traditional house call — just landed $14 million in fresh financing from Catholic Health Initiatives and others. An operator of 76 hospitals and 40 long-term care facilities in 19 states, Catholic Health Initiatives could provide a significant boost to Carena as it looks to expand its service to health care facilities across the country.

“With this investment, not only the money, but the partnership, we will be combining forces with a national hospital chain so it is really exciting for us,” said Carena CEO Ralph Derrickson, a former venture capitalist with Paul Allen’s Vulcan. Today, Carena’s service is available to about 500,000 members through various health insurance plans, and the cash infusion will be used to boost that number.

Ralph Derrickson

Offering service in Washington state and California, Carena has already been deployed at one Catholic Health division. Tacoma’s Franciscan Health System has been using the Carena service for more than a year for its own staff, helping employees of the hospital receive after-hours medical advice and treatment.

Franciscan Chief Operating Officer Cliff Robertson said that Catholic Health Initiatives is very interested in expanding Carena’s service nationwide, in part because it saves money by reducing the number of emergency room visits. Franciscan Anytime, as the service is known, has handled more than 400 encounters to date.

“What’s amazing from my perspective is that … half of those employees said they were planning on going to an emergency room,” said Robertson. “So, we’ve prevented an unnecessary emergency room visit in our own employee population with pretty dramatic results.”

And, of course, that saves health care organizations money. At Franciscan, the company pays for the benefit, with Robertson saying that the “math quickly works.”

“We can save an avoided emergency room visit, and that is a significant savings to the organization,” he said.

Carena employs physicians and nurses on staff who provide medical advice and treatment, an add-on benefit to insurance programs.

“A lot of times what we do is help the patient understand what their medical need is. Do I need to see a doctor, is a very hard question to get answered,” said Derrickson.

The company has developed sophisticated software to analyze the specific condition so that medical providers make the right decision. It also uses traditional Web cam technology so that doctors or nurses can make more informed decisions.

“When somebody calls in, it shouldn’t matter what provider they end up speaking to or how they really discuss that condition, it should result in the same decision,” he said. “Internally, we’ve developed software and systems to make sure that we get the right treatment to the right person under the same circumstances, and as you can imagine since we are offered to people as a way to reduce cost, they want to make sure they understand under what circumstances and how and why our care was provided.”

Carena faces competition from a number of players, including Boston’s American Well and Dallas, Texas-based Teladoc which raised $18.6 million from venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and others last fall.

A former venture capitalist himself, Derrickson said that he liks Carena’s positioning and strategic partnership with Catholic Health Initiatives. He also said that Carena combines technology with the medical practice in unique ways, noting that the best solutions utilize technology in close proximity with physicians.

“There is a general land rush to use technology to change medicine, and it is my point of view … that medicine is not something that you can simply throw technology at and redo the business model,” said Derrickson. “Jeff Bezos can use the Internet to sell books and he can do it everywhere. Medicine is something that needs to be done very carefully, and you need to consider the local rules and regulations regarding medicine to consider the local prevailing standard. It is our point of view that getting money from an organization like CHI, who has the experience of operating in so many different states and there are so many different circumstances, is way, way more important than getting somebody who is known for writing big fat checks.”

Carena employs 45 people, split about evenly between the medical staff and the rest of the company. Total funding stands at $24 million. Catholic Health Initiatives will not have a majority stake as a result of the financing.

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