From Grief To An Idea

Widower Starts Software Firm To Deliver Medical Care More Efficiently

July 31, 2009|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Will Hicklen stood by his wife, Sandy's, side for three years as she battled a rare form of gastrointestinal cancer. Scores of friends and family united around the Hicklens to help, keeping Sandy company while she rested at home, taking their adolescent girls to lacrosse practices and delivering pre-cooked meals.

Hicklen, 43, even launched a blog - StayStrongSandy.blogspot.com - where he chronicled his wife's battle. During long periods of treatment, and chemotherapy, Sandy - a vivacious stay-at-home mother - often found herself confined to her house in Towson's Stoneleigh neighborhood, waiting for nurses, drugs and equipment.

"She would say, 'I'm just so sick of being a patient, standing around waiting for someone to do something for me, when I should be out enjoying my life,' " Hicklen said.

For Hicklen, a software entrepreneur, his wife's plight crystallized into a business problem, not just a health care frustration. "We talked about it," he said. "It wasn't a long conversation. She looked at me a couple times and said, 'I hope somebody can find a way to make this better for patients.' I always found it interesting she never asked for a cure for cancer. She wanted to make life better for patients."

With his background , Hicklen wondered if he could design software to help home medical companies deliver care more quickly and efficiently. He told Sandy about his idea.

"She said, 'If you could make this work, it would mean so much to me,' " Hicklen said, choking up during a recent interview.

Sandy Hicklen died July 1 last year at 42 years of age at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson, leaving behind a husband of 17 years and daughters Hannah, 14, and Haley, 12. In a devastating coincidence, Hicklen lost his mother in Michigan to lung cancer on that same day, after her own prolonged fight.

Last week, Hicklen launched Ankota Inc., a Towson-based company that purports to give home health care providers a suite of software applications that help them better coordinate delivery of care.

He brought on board his close friend, Dr. Hunter Young, a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital who helped guide the family with Sandy's care, as chief medical officer, and recruited a chief technology officer, chief financial officer and a few sales representatives.

It's been a project that has breathed new purpose into life for Hicklen, who has experience working with big computer companies and start-ups in Silicon Valley, but none in the health care field - besides the personal experience.

"The last thing patients want to do is be patient," Hicklen said. "They want to live their lives."

It is not uncommon for people dealing with grief to launch themselves into a positive new direction in life as a way to move beyond the pain of loss, according to Martin B. Koretzky, a clinical psychologist in Baltimore County.

Hicklen relied on his experience working in the technology industry all his life to build his new company after his wife died. He equates the software to the kind of computerized logistical systems that UPS and FedEx use to track their drivers and the packages they deliver. He said in pilot studies and simulations Ankota has run, a home health care provider can save 25 percent to 35 percent in fuel costs, while increasing the number of patients they can serve by up to 30 percent.

As health care costs continue to skyrocket with an aging baby boomer population, the home health care sector is expected to grow from around 1.5 million workers in 2006 to 2.3 million workers by 2016, according to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. "We know about changes coming down the road with our health care system," said Young, Ankota's chief medical officer. "Because of that, more care is going to be delivered to patients in their homes. We have to be able to deliver this care more efficiently. Software like Ankota's is the first step toward making that possible."

Jim Steele, a board leader with the Maryland National Capital Home Association, which represents more than 100 home health care service and equipment providers, said he is skeptical of a software solution to the complicated tasks of scheduling and coordinating care because there are a lot of "sudden variables" and quick-response scenarios that can defy automation.

Steele, who is chief operating officer for Respira Medical Inc., a clinical respiratory home-service provider based in Linthicum, said his company developed its own software and has its own dispatcher to route employees to patients' homes.

"We solve that problem more by manpower than by scheduling software," Steele said.

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