July 26, 2022 • By Keith Giles
Dr. Kurt Tamaru is using technology to transform the way virtual healthcare providers meet the needs of seniors. Using the power of data analytics, his company aims to dramatically improve outcomes for patients. Now he’s bringing his expertise back to UCI as a member of the Dean’s Leadership Circle.
Dr. Tamaru earned his undergraduate degree in pre-med biology at UCI before completing his education at Loyola in Chicago. “I took a scholarship with the Navy to pay for medical school and attended UC Davis for my internship in general surgery,” says Tamaru. “After that, I was sent to the fleet to serve as a Navy flight surgeon.”
After paying back his four years to the Navy, Tamaru completed his residency training in family medicine at USC in Whittier, California. “Once I entered my practice, I was stunned,” he says. “Back then, healthcare access was a nine-to-five thing. So, this was drastically different than my Navy experience where we provided around-the-clock care.”
As he worked in his medical group, Tamaru got more involved in the business side of medicine. “We had what’s called an IPA, which meant doctors were taking risks on patient care with insurers. This got me thinking that I needed to know more about business in medicine, so I went back to The UCI Paul Merage School of Business for my MBA.”
After graduating with his master’s in 2006, Dr. Tamaru got recruited to work for a competing medical group, CareMore Health. “They had looked at some of the things I had put out there around mobile healthcare and providing home care services, and they wanted my help.”
CareMore’s mission involved a home visitation program for older adults and seniors. “Just like the old days when doctors used to make house calls,” Tamaru says. “This was unique at the time, and we did very well in that space. Eventually, they were bought by a private equity firm, which was sold to Anthem awhile later.”
Coming from CareMore led to an opportunity for Tamaru to serve as senior medical officer for the Insurance company Blue Cross of California/Anthem. “That’s where I truly learned the Insurance side of the healthcare world,” he says. “As the Senior Medical Officer there, I learned how every department worked; from how you build insurance products, work with employer groups, health networks, benefit design, contracts, medical management and everything else. Then, I took all of this new knowledge and tried to see how we could improve healthcare across larger populations.”
As the Affordable Care Act came into play, Tamaru decided to return to the healthcare services side. “I moved back into healthcare because I believe that’s where a lot of change will occur,” he says. “As a physician, I think I have a lot I can contribute to that innovation.”
That’s when United Health Group recruited him. They were interested in creating a new division called Optum. “They planned to own and operate medical groups across the country,” he remembers. “They needed someone to serve in an executive position who understood health insurance and provider groups. So, I had the perfect background they needed at the time to build what they now call Optum Care.”
After serving at Optum Health for five years, Tamaru left to pursue more entrepreneurial activities. “I have a strong interest in how we can improve healthcare outside of the brick-and-mortar model,” he says. “I started to envision the convergence of technology and healthcare services, which was extremely exciting.”
This eventually led him to work briefly with a new startup providing virtual care in oncology. But unfortunately, that venture folded after two years due to a lack of funding.
When Tamaru’s virtual oncology tenure ended, he started his own company called Guardiant Health, which emphasizes Continuous virtual care for older adults.
“We’re a digital healthcare service company,” he explains. “We care for older adults with chronic illnesses who need additional support and assistance. These patients already have a network of doctors but need more interaction with a healthcare provider beyond the occasional office visit. Because, let’s face it, going to your doctor once every few months may not be enough and access to consistent care is important.”
The real inspiration for this new company comes from Tamaru’s concerns for his mother. “She’s in her nineties, lives alone and wants to stay independent,” he says. “I’m a doctor but geographically distanced from her. So, at her age and with her medical issues, when she ends up in the ER, I can’t be there to care for her myself. The distance made me realize that if I had more visibility of her condition and had a team wrapped around her—analyzing her prescriptions, examining behavioral health issues and engaging with her regularly—I could provide the quality of care she needs. Then, we could have avoided emergent issues that resulted in her being hospitalized on numerous occasions.”
Guardiant Health uses technology to deploy what Tamaru calls a continuous interactive care model, which provides proactive engagement and remote care at home referred to as PERCH. “I developed this model based on my years of experience in this space, using technology to support and facilitate health and care,” he says. “We use biometric sensors, accelerometers, blood pressure cuffs, digital scales, sleep trackers, tablets and other smart devices to monitor the patient and gather continuous data about their condition. We also employ clinical teams to analyze this data and engage with the patient, their families and caregivers 24/7, 365 days a year.”
The average connection and touchpoint between Tamaru’s team and their patients are every 48 hours, whether that’s a data point, digital communication, zoom call or phone conversation. “Our model is based on the idea that our patients need frequent engagement and constant contact with healthcare professionals,” he says. “It also allows us to address the needs of seniors living in care deserts, rural areas where the quality of healthcare availability is greatly reduced. This democratizes healthcare across all boundaries.”
And the Guardiant Health care model is working. Their services have been live for the last year, and so far, it’s advancing the quality of healthcare for seniors in significant ways. “This new model has allowed us to gather some fascinating data points that we’ve never looked at in medicine before,” says Tamaru. “I can see patients’ sleep patterns, how often they’re eating, and what their diet looks like. In addition, I can see how many days a week they feel well versus how many they don’t and track how often symptoms flare up. We have biometric data that includes weight, blood pressure, heart rate, EKG and other data points. We’re starting to analyze all the data, and we’re realizing that there’s a huge behavioral and social lifestyle component that impacts patient health. As a physician, I never had that level of information to help me care for my patients.”
Historically, healthcare has been reactive science, but Dr. Tamaru wants to change that. “Healthcare data is dynamic,” he says. “It changes over time—it’s not static. Patients may be healthy today, but when one variable changes, they could end up on a different trajectory. How can we learn from that data and develop the ability to predict that change in the future? That’s my goal, to understand how to become more predictive and proactive. Healthcare today is a very reactive system. I think what we’re doing at Guardiant Health allows us to become more proactive in the future, and that changes the game completely.”
The shift towards proactivity is one reason Tamaru and Guardian collaborate with UCI’s new Institute for Future Health. This partnership explores improving outcomes for older patients with multiple chronic health issues like heart failure, lung problems, cancer recovery, kidney dialysis and other complex conditions that the healthcare system chooses to ignore.
The beautiful thing about Guardiant Health’s virtual approach is that they can practice in any state they’re licensed in and provide care in any home with a cell signal, phone line or Wi-Fi. “Right now, we have contracts providing care for patients across California,” he says, “with pending contracts for Pennsylvania and other states around the country.”
Tamaru’s journey began at UCI, and now it’s coming around full circle. “No matter what I do, I seem to keep returning to my roots at UCI,” he says. “A lot of what I’ve been doing is directly influenced by my education and experience at UCI. That’s why I want to give back to the University any way I can because UCI has always given back to me. It’s like a continuous loop of mutual advantage in so many ways.”
Dr. Tamaru is ecstatic to join UCI’s Dean’s Leadership Circle. “This is a great way for me to give back to the University for all they’ve given to me,” he says. “Whether it’s in healthcare or business, I’m excited to help in any way I can.”