The Doctor Is In (Well, Logged In)

From March 19, 2013 Article in the New York Times

Surfing the Web in his all-white Dumbo loft, Dr. Jay Parkinson, 37, looks like any other young tech visionary. He has a trim beard and thick-framed glasses. He wears slim-fitting black outfits and jaunty scarves. He speaks with a measured, “This American Life”-like cadence. And he’s a firm believer in the utopian promise of the Internet.

But Dr. Parkinson’s start-up isn’t a new app or social network. He is a founder of Sherpaa, a Web site that operates like a virtual doctor’s office, examining patients by e-mail and text message.

“We’re using the Internet to reinvent health care,” Dr. Parkinson said proudly, seated next to a Ping-Pong table and a shaggy goldendoodle.

Have a mysterious rash? Send a photo of it to Sherpaa, reply to a few e-mails (Are you sure it’s not a bruise? Do you have bed bugs?), and proceed to the nearest Duane Reade to pick up your prescription.

This may seem like health care for the “OMG, I’m sick” generation, but clients include high-tech players in New York like Tumblr, Skillshare, General Assembly and Hard Candy Shell. “We’re tech-savvy doctors,” he said, “for tech-savvy patients.”

In fact, Dr. Parkinson is perhaps the most prominent of the city’s 2.0 doctors, who are rethinking the health care model along 21st-century lines.

In 2007, after graduating from Penn State College of Medicine, and completing a residency in pediatrics at St. Vincent’s Manhattan Hospital in Greenwich Village, and another in preventive medicine at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, he did what every young roustabout did at the time: he moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Dr. Parkinson rented a ground-floor apartment on North Ninth Street, and spent his nights at Hotel Delmano and the Brooklyn Ale House and his days caffeinating at Atlas Cafe. He was adrift.

“I knew I didn’t want to join a private practice,” he said. “I’d be the low man on the totem poll, get paid poorly and not be in control of my hours.”

Instead, he started a self-titled blog on which he wrote about health issues relevant to the L train crowd, like the dangers of cocaine and the wonder of Thom Yorke’s left eye ptosis. He also started a Tumblr page, which included a flattering photo of himself standing underneath the Williamsburg Bridge with a stethoscope.

Rather than set up a standard practice — an office with, say, back issues of Vice magazine and a surly tattooed receptionist to schedule appointments — he invited patients to contact him directly through instant message and e-mail. “We can figure out if I need to come to your work, your home or meet somewhere else in the city,” he wrote on the site. “We can even meet in the park or a coffee shop.”

The concept seemed so trendy that Gawker mocked Dr. Parkinson in a post entitled, “Williamsburg’s Hipster Doctor Will Diagnose You Via IM.” The article went viral. “When I read that,” he recalled, “I thought my career was over. But after it came out, I had seven million visitors on my site that month. I was offered both a book deal and a movie deal. ‘The Tyra Banks Show’ called. They wanted me as their Dr. Oz.”

(Full disclosure: I was an editor at Gawker at the time but did not write the post in question.)

Dr. Parkinson turned down the various offers, but he rode the wave of popularity. He started a design consultancy called the Future Well. He also stopped seeing patients and let his license to practice medicine lapse. “Seeing patients is stressful for me,” Dr. Parkinson said. Instead, he networked.

He held parties, cocktail mixers and backyard barbecues that attracted Web luminaries like David Karp, founder of Tumblr; Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook and current publisher of The New Republic; and Jakob Lodwick, a founder of Vimeo. “The Internet crowd really latched on to my practice,” Dr. Parkinson said.

Instead of making house calls to ailing freelancers, Dr. Parkinson was now hobnobbing with their bosses. His new start-up, he decided, would work exclusively with companies.

Started in 2012, Sherpaa now has eight employees, including two primary-care physicians, and counts 500 customers from 30 companies. Sherpaa’s network includes 100 specialists to whom it refers clients.

More than offering 24/7 service, Sherpaa’s main selling point to employers is cost. By moving away from a reliance on traditional primary-care physicians and emergency room visits, Sherpaa claims that it can save companies up to $4,000 a year for each employee. (It charges $50 a month for each employee.)

Dr. Parkinson still holds mixers for hepcat medical professionals. At a recent barbecue, he served sausages from the Meat Hook and whisky cheese from the Bedford Cheese Shop at the apartment he now shares with his girlfriend, Paige Ferrari, 30, a producer for “Doomsday Preppers.” The décor is classic Bedford Avenue contemporary: a pair of suspenders hang from a lamp; a stuffed javelina is mounted above the bed.

Sitting under a vintage World War II Red Cross flag, guests discussed the health issues of the day like the “quarter-life crisis” among 20-somethings and “hipster belly,” a result of too much pulled pork and too few pull-ups.

“Part of being a 20-year-old is doing stupid things,” said Dr. Parkinson, spearing a bratwurst. “And part of being a 30-year-old is realizing you can’t have this sexy body doing the same thing forever.”