When Ezra T. Ernst took over as the new Chief Executive Officer of HyperPointe in the beginning of June he hit the ground running. Not only did he announce an agency relaunch, but he also signed a new client and helped them refocus their business in order to better serve people during this global pandemic. XpresSpa was known for their airport spas, but with business shut down due to COVID-19, they formed a new subsidiary, XpresCheck, with a new business model—COVID-19 testing and screening centers. And HyperPointe was there every step of the way to help with this conversion.
PM360 spoke with Ernst, who previously served as CEO of Physician’s Weekly and General Manager of Medscape/WebMD about his plans for HyperPointe, the challenges of converting spas into COVID testing centers, how else his agency might be able to help during COVID, and much more.
PM360: When you were announced as the new CEO, you said in the press release, “we’re going to focus our energies on doing what we can to improve things in our society at large.” What does that statement actually mean in terms of your plan for the agency and how the agency will approach the work it does?
Ezra Ernst: It’s not too much of a change for the agency but more getting them back to core principles. For example, one of the agency’s core products is a diabetes patient services program they did with Novo Nordisk called Cornerstones4Care, which they launched about 10 years ago. The reason I bring it up is it’s aptly named because it’s a cornerstone of our strategy, which is I’m a big believer in providing patient services. This goes back to my experience at UnitedHealth Group, WebMD, and Medscape. Essentially, a brand getting someone to fulfill a prescription is the bare minimum that a brand can do for that patient. It really is about what else happens to that patient along their journey from affordability to side effect mitigation, to education, to working with the caregivers and their support services. I want to build on that and start doing more work around patient support services and patients. Of course, we will do work around physicians as well, but ultimately we want to do stuff that is more in depth than just sharing the information about a specific brand.
How does that apply to the first client you brought on board since becoming CEO, XpresCheck?
I had been CEO for a very short period of time. In fact, I was CEO in our office for about nine days before we shut down because of COVID. So, really, COVID was my introduction to HyperPointe, and then very shortly after that through relationships we had with the board of XpresSpa, we started working with them as their agency of record (AOR).
Theirs is a great story about turning around a company that was really negatively impacted by COVID, and making it into a positive. Turning their airport spas into these COVID testing and screening centers is the ultimate expression of trying to do good for many. Airports are one of the largest hubs for travel both domestically and internationally, providing infectious disease screening to this massive population is of tremendous value to our society as a whole.
In the announcement about your work with XpresCheck, it was mentioned that your agency is doing stuff beyond the traditional duties of an AOR. What does that mean, and what can you share about the type of stuff you have done for them?
XpresSpa came to us with an idea. At that point, they were not an essential service so all of their locations in airports were shut down. But they wanted to take their locations within airports and try to do something new that was related to COVID, which is what lead them to form XpresCheck. We came onboard and really helped them flesh out from a strategic perspective what it would mean to become COVID-19 testing centers.
So that involved a lot of strategy work, which is certainly AOR work, but then we started getting very tactical in a technology way. We helped picked out an EMR system and then created a seamless integration where a patient could log on to a website, access the EMR, set up an appointment, go to the facility, check in, answer all of the HIPAA privacy survey forms on their phone, go get a test, and finally get the results back.
Additionally, as a testing center there are approximately 36 major data points that we need to report to the CDC on a daily basis, so we needed to pull all that together. Plus, this will eventually be a wonderful surveillance tool to find out what’s happening in our nation’s airports in terms of COVID or other infectious diseases, so we needed to set up the EMR in the way that we could do that.
How does the whole process behind XpresCheck work? Can anyone set up an appointment to get screened there? Or is it only for airport employees and people travelling that day?
The original conception was to focus on the airport and testing airport personnel only in order to try to get our nation’s airports up and running. But it quickly dawned on us that there would be other traffic, including walk-ins, who would be interested in these tests as well, so before we even launched, we made the adjustment to be able to serve anyone who comes to the airport. However, at this point, Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport is the first to open and we just want to make sure that it’s up and running and everything is correct, and then we plan to expand to passengers and other interested individuals who want to get a COVID test.
What were the biggest challenges to your agency in helping get this first XpresCheck up and running?
Doug Satzman, CEO of XpresSpa, comes from Starbucks, so he had a good sense of what the consumer needs are in the airports, but the challenge for them was understanding the very complex world from a regulatory perspective in healthcare. So our biggest challenge was thinking of every single possibility that we needed to cover involving physicians and physician assistants, medical devices, EMR, and much more. And then not only to get that done, but to explain all the nuance of the regulatory issues to people who haven’t worked in healthcare before and might not be aware of the sensitivity of HIPAA or the incredible data security that is needed.
The other thing is COVID is rapidly changing day to day. So it was a challenge to stay on top on what is the most efficient test, what are the better labs to use, what are the best social distancing techniques, etc. But we found a great medical officer in Marcelo Venegas, MD, and he has been a great partner in getting us to do this successfully.
You mentioned earlier that your goal as the head of the agency is to now focus on more patient support programs, which are becoming especially important during COVID. Are you currently working on any other COVID-related programs other than XpresCheck?
I can’t mention specific names, but we are talking with a number of clients who are working different angles during this pandemic, including those developing treatments, vaccines, and testing kits. We have also been talking to medical device companies, because once you have a vaccine, then we need a way to administer it to the largest number of patients in a rapid way. We’ve also been talking with patient advocacy groups to make sure that in a time of difficult financial struggles that the onus of the cost for this doesn’t just sit on the patient. So, we’re talking to our shared industry about how we can use the expertise that we’ve established helping XpresCheck to get other products out there.
Looking more long term, what plans or goals do you have for the agency further down the road?
It sounds trite, but the folks at HyperPointe have been in the pharma world for a long time, as have I, and the satisfaction we get is from doing good and interesting work. We are very interested in helping patients and physicians, but also forming long-term partnerships with brand teams where it’s not about being the shiny object but providing substance. The other thing that’s different for us is we’re not owned by a large holding group. We’re a small boutique agency, and one of the things I enjoy most is working with other smaller partners, almost in a network of agencies that can rival some of the bigger, all-purpose agencies.
That’s enjoyable for us because it gives us a lot of different projects to choose from. We don’t go after everything, we’re pretty selective in going after brands that we think we can make a difference with. For us, it’s all about doing meaningful work.