The Joule Innovation grant program offered funding, professional support and mentorship to physicians and medical learners making a difference in health care. This is part of a series of stories about the 2020 recipients and their innovations.
Since graduating from the University of Calgary in 2019, I’ve been working as a locum physician – someone who replaces other physicians when they take time away from work. I love the flexibility of being able to book clinics around the rest of the activities in my life.
When the pandemic hit suddenly in the spring of 2020, all the locum positions I had lined up were cancelled. It was already difficult enough booking consecutive locums, but the pandemic greatly amplified this problem. With nothing to do, I literally spent an entire month building miniature wooden picnic tables for squirrels to keep myself busy. I felt like an imposter, as friends and family assumed I was busy on the front lines, battling COVID in my hazmat suit.
'Mr. Nibbles' feasts at a custom-made picnic table
As the weeks passed, I was able to find sporadic work again. It was however, a frustrating and time-consuming exercise as the opportunities were scattered and often shared through word of mouth or social media posts. This made no sense to me, as the most common complaint in clinics is how difficult it was to find locums.
Why was it so hard to find work if every clinic was constantly on the prowl for locums? — Dr. Jordan Vollrath, Cherry Health co-founder
The further I researched, I realized most Canadian provinces don’t have an effective system for assigning locum physicians to the clinics that need them. It’s no wonder physicians have such high rates of burnout — this disconnect made it incredibly difficult to arrange time off. There’s no such thing as a healthy work-life balance if you’re constantly faced with the decision to either:
- Cancel all your patients and feel like you've abandoned them;
- Burden an already overworked colleague with squeezing in your patients; or
- Cancel your vacation (yet again) or just show up to work sick, tired, burned out etc.
Bringing clinics and locums together
There had to be a better way, which is why, in May 2020, I gave up crafting artisanal rodent furniture to team up with the incredibly talented Maximilian Kerz to solve this locum-clinic matching problem. With his PhD in AI/machine learning and previous experience developing medical software, Maximilian and I set out to create a centralized physician opportunity network.
Knowing there were already a thousand different point solutions out there, our goal was to unify Canada’s locums rather than create yet another channel to further dilute an already heavily fragmented problem. We decided to take a unique approach — build a locum-matching platform that’s easier to use and free of charge.
Cherry Health co-founders, Maximilian Kerz and Dr. Jordan Vollrath
Cherry Health is a smartphone app that functions as a centralized network linking physicians with clinics across the country — like a dating app for doctors. The clinic completes a profile with photos and details about the facility. Locum doctors have a detailed user profile that contains their practice permits, medical insurance documents, letters of reference and familiarity with various electronic medical record softwares. A search function helps narrow down available locum opportunities on the basis of location, pay and type of work and a system of ratings and reviews helps highlight the best experiences. Once a match is agreed upon, clinic contracts and paperwork are automatically forwarded to the locum physician. Placements — especially at short notice, for instance for sick coverage — can take place faster than previously possible.
Helping physicians find work-life balance
Thanks to the Canadian Medical Association and its $100,000 Joule Innovation grant, we’ve been able to make tremendous advancements to the software while also expanding the service across Canada. The initial pilot app launched in Alberta has now been utilized by more than 12% of the province’s family physicians, including more than 400 clinics. The Cherry Health team has since grown from two to six people and continues to increase in size as we actively hire more software developers. In the coming months, we are expanding the app’s functionality to help physicians and clinics recruit doctors for permanent jobs in addition to locum positions.
There’s still a long way to go, but we’ve already received dozens of thank you messages — some from physicians who hadn’t found a locum in ages. Creating Cherry Health has been a rewarding journey and we look forward to hearing more of these stories in the coming years. We’re incredibly grateful to Joule for this opportunity and for their focus on physician health and well-being. The mentorship, guidance and direction provided have been instrumental in enabling us to help bring balance to the lives of Canadian physicians.
The 2020 Joule Innovation grant program provided $500,000 to support physician-led innovations in the areas of sustainable health care, physician health and wellness, health care solutions and access to care.
Read about the other innovations funded through the program: