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Truth Merchant

In Gemma Cunningham’s opinion, the biggest disruptor to the medical industry is the truth. With her company TruthMD and its business-to-business product MedFax, she’s doing all she can to get the truth out about the backgrounds of doctors and other medical professionals for insurance companies and health care organizations. “The idea of transparency and disclosure in medicine got me where we are today with MedFax,” she said. Cunningham was a journalism and political science major in college and her first job was in the White House Press Office during the Reagan years. She would later become a magazine journalist, and then took positions in the public relations and apparel industries. Eventually she returned to public relations and started her own firm specializing in the medical profession. That led her to co-found the Association of Medical Ethics, an organization with the mission of greater transparency between doctors and pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers. Cunningham spoke to the Business Journal in her Glendale office about her days at the White House, the impact a Trump administration may have on her business and her hobby of ballroom dancing. Titles: Founder and Chief Executive, TruthMD Born: New Brunswick, N.J., 1960 Education: Rutgers University Most Admired Person: Dr. Charles Rosen, the co-founder of the Association of Medical Ethics. ‘He enabled me to understand the medical world from a transparency and disclosure focus.’ Career Turning Point: Deciding to focus her marketing and public relations company on medical sector. Hobbies: Ballroom dancing, mixed martial arts Question: What does MedFax do? Answer: MedFax is a medical IT data company. We do extensive background research on M.D.s and D.O.s (doctors of osteopathic medicine). We will be adding nurses and other professionals by the second quarter of next year. We have a minimum of a 10-year history on every single M.D. and D.O. in the country at the touch of a button. Who are your customers? Originally, I wanted to do this as a consumer app. When I first built MedFax, I built it with doctors, drugs, devices and hospitals in mind. It was a simple little app that I put up on iTunes, and I raised money based on my little app. I did presentations and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew what drugs you were taking and whether any of these doctors were highly paid consultants for medical devices?” We raised close to $8 million. Who invested? I have three billionaires on my board who have a connection to health care. The majority of my other investors are successful doctors. What happened next? I realized quickly with my consumer app that I did not have the big war chest of money I would need to market a national product like this. So, I took it down and readjusted my business to a (business-to-business) solution for provider registries for big insurance companies as well as Medicare and Medicaid. We are an approved vendor in fighting fraud and abuse. We work with a lot of the big national insurance companies to clean up their data. People who give doctors their malpractice insurance also utilize us. We are building a business that way. Any interest in returning to the consumer market? I am going to come back to the consumer route in another year. That is still near and dear to my heart. What we have would be of interest right now to a consumer. A lot of people would value this if you were able to look up your doctor and see if he or she had multiple malpractices (claims) or any medical sanctions. Have you ever gotten any backlash from doctors? Surprisingly not. The bulk of my investors are doctors so they understand that in health care today the big problem is the data is all screwed up. Where do you get the information? There are more than 10,000 different sources that we aggregate information from. We developed an algorithm that goes out to multiple big data sources, brings that data into one place, aggregates it, assignments it and cleans it up. Why hasn’t anyone come up with this idea before? When I first thought about it five years ago, I kept telling myself that someone must have done this. This is too simple an idea. What I realized after getting into it is, that it may be a simple idea to take everything and bring it into one place with the touch of a button, but to do it is very complicated. Where did you get the idea for this company? I had a medical PR (public relations) and marketing company. It would always frustrate me because people would call me and say, “My mother is sick, I need this kind of doctor, where do I go?” All over the country people would do that, even from a media standpoint. Practically every major medical reporter in the country when something would happen, they would call me and say “We need an expert. Who would you recommend?” So, I just started gathering this kind of data. Did your journalism career help in the data collection? As a reporter, I would go in and I would look at background. I knew how to check state medical boards and would try to analyze them. That married with the PR and marketing, I can look at a website and go, “That guy is just a crook.” Most people just look at the pretty websites or they think my friend had a great experience with this doctor, so he must be good. That’s not the way it works. How does the platform reduce costs? In the medical malpractice arena, we are able to identify and categorize risk so that the insurance industry can better price their premiums. Good doctors get lower premiums; bad doctors will pay more. If the Trump administration dismantles the Affordable Care Act, how will it change how MedFax operates? Let’s say he dismantles all of it. What we have could be the national database or gold standard for Medicare and Medicaid. We could become popular in his administration that way. Could there be negative consequences? About 13 years ago I helped found the Association for Medical Ethics with an orthopedic surgeon in Orange County. The whole point of AME was to get medical device and pharmaceutical companies to say who they pay, how much and why. We were the grassroots organization that got something called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act passed. That was part of Obamacare. Not that we were ever against doctors making money within the industry, we just felt if you’re a patient you should know. That would be upsetting if Obamacare totally got off the table because the Physician Payments Sunshine Act would go away. What was your first job out of college? My first job out of school was at the White House. I was (Deputy Press Secretary) Larry Speakes’ editorial assistant. I was a journalism/political science major at Rutgers University and it was my last semester and the dean came to me and said, “There’s this fellowship at the White House; I think you should apply.” So, I applied and I won. So, I get to the White House, and Larry Speakes is there and they’re giving the one-on-one of what your job is. They said, “Do you have any questions?” I said, “Just one. Why me? There were 300 applicants. I’m an undergrad, why did you pick me?” They said, “We picked you because you we were the only one who called us every single day to say did you get the job.” At the end of my three months as a fellow, a staff position opened up and they asked me to stay. Any interesting stories from your White House days? We used to have to ride at midnight to the Washington Post. They didn’t like that I was female, because the Washington Post back then was in a bad part of town. They used to let me take the president’s car and driver. We’d pull up in this limo and I’d hop out with my quarter. I get a copy of the paper, and then I’d drive back. That’s how we would find out what was on the front page of the Washington Post. What did you do after leaving the White House? After I left, I went back into journalism for a short time. I worked as a magazine editor. And then I drove cross country in February with a friend, and we got out here, and it was like “How long has this been going on?” So I called in and quit my job, and I started being a stringer for the Associated Press. What year was this? `1988. And then (AP) wanted to offer me a big job downtown for a ridiculously little amount of money. Then someone was like, “Maybe you should do PR.” I was aghast. How dare you. I come from a family of writers and journalists; I can’t go into PR. But then I figured it was either the job downtown with AP or that. I got a job, and started working PR. Was the transition to PR a hard one? I liked it. From there, one of my clients hired me to run marketing. That was O’Neil Sportswear, so I was in the clothing business for a while. I left after five years or so, and I started my own clothing line. I made lots of money in the clothing business. So, this isn’t my first startup. What made you get out of the apparel industry? I got tired of arguing nickels with the Chinese, and running back and forth to China. That’s really all the clothing business is. It’s down to nickels and what you buy fabric for and sell it for. And then what? After I got out of that, I decided I didn’t want to do clothing anymore. I liked PR. I started to be a troubleshooter for the big agencies, and I would go down and solve their media problems. For some reason, they did not know how to talk to the media when there was a big crisis. What’s an example of a problem that you helped solve? This reporter, I think it was an AP reporter, had the wrong slant and chasing after something that didn’t really exist. It was bad information that this reporter had, and no one could get this reporter off of it. It was a matter of calling the reporter, giving him the actual data and putting it in front of him and showing him all the sources. It was silly things like that. I did that for a couple of years. I didn’t want to work for the big agencies anymore. I just didn’t like working for people I didn’t like. And that led you to starting your own PR firm? So, 20 some years ago, I said I’m gonna start with where I wanted to be, which was in a beach house in Laguna. I wanted to work out of there, only work with people that I liked and wanted to create a virtual staff. Why take that approach? It felt right to me. When you have a client you should build your team around the client rather than fit the client into your team. I decided that I really liked medical and that I was only going to do medical. The lovely thing about medical is once you get a reputation, all the really good doctors know all the other good doctors. I never had to market, I never had a website. I had a very big business. I worked with UCLA Medical Center; I worked with Harvard; I worked with UCI (University of California – Irvine). I worked with all types of orthopedists, anesthesiologists, urologists and neurosurgeons. My staff would laugh and call me the death and dismemberment publicist. Why? Because if anyone died, like when Michael Jackson died, I got calls from ABC World News and everybody, saying, “We need a sleep doctor.” I said, “No, you need an anesthesiologist.” I helped AP put their story together, I helped World News Tonight put theirs together. They would call me if they needed an expert. When Natasha Richardson died, Liam Neeson’s wife, I was on the phone night and day guiding everybody to what exactly did she die from, why you need a neurosurgeon to talk about it, and a neurologist is not the right person and what the difference is between the two. Do you still get those kinds of calls? Oh, yeah. I still have the PR firm. We still represent UCLA and we do some work at UCI. So how did you make the leap from medical PR to MedFax? To me, it was a natural transition from knowing so much about medical. How does your personality fit with this kind of work? I have a unique perspective because of my understanding of how medicine works from a marketing standpoint, knowing so many top-level physicians in a lot of different specialties, having innate curiosity and wanting to fix something. And I’m incredibly persistent. Any challenges when starting MedFax? I think in the very beginning it was difficult to get people to understand why collecting readily available public data and aggregating it was an actual business. I can’t tell you how many big investment firms in New York would go, “I don’t understand. If I can just look it up on the internet, why would I pay you to look it up?” They’re not going to look up 10,000 sources, and aggregate 10,000 sources. They are not going to look everywhere I am going to look. They didn’t quite get it. What was your career turning point? Meeting Dr. Charles Rosen, an orthopedic surgeon, who wanted to change something in medicine (with the Association of Medical Ethics). Up until that point in time, I was just marketing medicine. I didn’t step back to think about the possibility of changing medicine. This whole idea of transparency and disclosure had not gotten a stronghold in the everyday language of medicine. That focused me on we could do this; we could make a difference. What are your interests outside of the workplace? Mixed martial arts and ballroom dancing. I like to spar. How did you get involved in these hobbies? Ballroom dancing I’ve loved to do for a long time. Mixed martial arts I’ve been doing for two and a half years. My trainer was like, “I think you’d like to put on some boxing gloves.” And I was like, “Nah.” He put them on and he showed me how to punch, and I was like, “Ah, I could have been doing this for a long time.” I love it. To me it is more intellectually interesting than ballroom dancing yet it’s sort of the same. Do you perform competitive ballroom dancing? No, I don’t have the time. One day, if I find the right partner, I will.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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